Chris Rogers Headshot

Changing national politics and big systems can seem impossible. The powers that be are so large and ingrained, so separated from the people they’re supposed to serve that it takes massive movements and years of persistence to budge them.

But at the local level, change is attainable. I’ve seen it time and time again in the last decade. Landowners’ backlash against Winona County zoning restrictions in 2010 led to the creation of the rural heritage district that exempted longtime farmsteads. Hundreds of citizens pushed for Winona County to ban frac sand mining in 2016. It worked. Local Republicans’ calls — voiced at public comment periods — for citizen election judges to be involved in absentee balloting resulted in a unanimous, bipartisan agreement to do so. After years of residents petitioning and speaking out against commercial dog breeders, the County Board now seems poised to temporarily, if not permanently, ban new kennels. If you get involved and connect with like-minded neighbors, you have a real chance of swaying our local leaders.

It’s not easy, and there is often a tug of war between one citizen group and another (take the animal unit cap or the Broadway road diet). At a fundamental level, people want different things. But if your idea makes common sense to enough people, it can succeed. In short, at the local level, democracy really can work.

Last month, the Winona City Council finally voted to allow public comment as a regular part of its meetings. Next Monday will be the first meeting with the new comment period. To sign up, visit www.cityofwinona.com/719/Open-Public-Comment-Session.

The Winona County Board and Winona Area Public Schools Board have allowed public comments at their meetings for years. Citizens (including myself) and some council members have been pushing for the City Council to join the club for over a year. While it’s a modest step, the success of these efforts is another example of how change is possible in local democracy, but only if you work for it.

I want to thank the City Council for approving this policy. In the long run, it will help the city make better decisions. It will aid citizens in raising issues the city isn’t paying attention to. The fact that it gives citizens a public platform will, I think, encourage the City Council to act on or publicly respond to some of their concerns or suggestions. At a minimum, that will give us all a better sense of whom we’re voting for. In general, the more opportunities for the public to have a voice in government, the better.

To do the right thing, local government needs to be spurred along. The City Council wasn’t going to allow public comment on its own. Calls, emails, and letters to the editor from regular citizens like you helped push this forward. Let’s keep telling our leaders what we need. Let’s keep discussing our disagreements and searching for solutions. Local democracy works — if we work for it.