Councilor Denise Derkacs: Engaging With Constituents

Los Alamos County Councilor

At the County Council meeting on December 7, in which the Cannabis Retail Ordinance was considered, a few members of the public provided closing comments chastising Councilors who stated that they had reached out to constituents across the county for their opinions on the proposed ordinance. 

One attendee suggested that Councilors could be “unduly influenced by these constituents.” Another attendee referred to “phantom constituents” as a “sketchy way of justifying a vote” and suggested that Council should “pay close attention [only] to those who are willing to come to meetings and make public comment or send emails.”

The suggestion that Council should listen only to constituents who actively participate in county government and should not reach out for input from the broader community is fundamentally undemocratic. Indeed, the opinions of those in the broader community are equally important to the democratic process.

One attendee stated that there was a “large public outpouring of support” for cannabis retail sales. So I looked further into the comments on the cannabis ordinance that Council received through all venues: at the December 7 Council meeting, at the November 8 Town Hall, and by email. By my count, Council heard from 30 individual residents who opposed restrictions on retail sales (some residents spoke at both public sessions and also sent emails). That’s 30 out of 15,078 registered voters, or, less than 0.2 percent of registered voters in the county. 

Research on public participation in local government indicates that participation is generally low throughout the country. A study by the National Research Center in more than 200 communities found that only 19 percent of Americans surveyed had contacted their local elected officials over a 12-month period and only about 25 percent had attended a public meeting. The 2014 study, which was reported on the website, Governing: The Future of States and Localities, also found that “residents often aren’t compelled to weigh in on an issue unless it negatively affects them.” 

Recognizing that public participation is generally low, I will continue to reach out to constituents throughout the county to gather broader input on contentious issues. I will continue to talk to neighbors, to engage individuals at restaurants and grocery stores and other establishments, and to contact friends and former coworkers. The more contentious the issue, the more constituents I will seek to engage. 

I strongly believe that, as an elected county official, this is what I am expected to do to make representative government work for all constituents.