Bellingham City Council

Singing a Song of Democracy

Hello my fellow patriots:

Back at the time of he U.S. Bicentennial Celebration I was a member of the Bellingham City Council. Late one night just before the City Council meeting adjourned I raised my hand and when recognized by the Council President said that I was disturbed by local Bicentennial celebrations. We had a carnival come to town. We had fireworks, We had a parade. We had all kinds of recreational activities but we had nothing that celebrated the fact that the Revolutionary War was about local governance. I proposed that the City Council hold a celebration honoring local government. “Good idea,” said the Council President. “I appoint you a committee of one to organize such a ceremony. Any more business?” Before he banged the gavel closing the meeting I said “I need a budget.” “$300”, he responded and, banging the gavel said “Meeting adjourned.”

What I did was to plan a ceremony to be held in the old City Council chamber in what had become the ‘rotunda room’ of the city museum. We invited every living former elected official in city government. As I recall we had seven former city Mayors and over 35 former City Councilmen attend the meeting. They came from southern California, Hawaii and Florida and places between. A fancy certificate was printed honoring them for service to the City of Bellingham. I wrote to the President of the United States and to the Governor of the State of Washington asking for a message to be read at the ceremony. President Ford and Governor Dan Evans both responded with statements to be read on their behalf. We had a local brass band play some Revolutionary War music and had members of the local Theater Guild read statements from patriotic documents of the time of the Revolutionary War. I invited a 94 year-old poet to read the message from the U.S. President – but first she read one of her own poems on community service.

As Master of Ceremonies I took the opportunity to give a speech for the occasion. It is as follows:

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SINGING A SONG OF DEMOCRACY

by George F. Drake, City Councilman, 4th Ward
Given on 5 December 1976 in the old Bellingham City Hall Chambers

Walt Whitman, one of America’s great writers, begins his famous poem about America with the line “One’s self I sing, a simple separate person, yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Mass.”

Were Walt Whitman alive tonight he would surely appreciate this evening’s ceremony. He might write again, as he once did, “I hear America singing” because tonight we sing a song of ourselves, a song of citizens in a small town in America celebrating the occasion of their country’s 200 birthday. With our prayers, unabashedly and with pride, we give thanks for all the riches we share as a community, the spiritual riches as well as the material. We sing with the words of our president and our governor as they address our meeting tonight. We sing with the voice of the oldest among us as she reads her poetry that touches the heart strings in all of us who share this evening together in this chamber.

We sing a song of ourselves as our pulse beats to the music of the revolution and as the words of our founding fathers are read to commemorate the great ideals on which this nation was founded. We sing a song of ourselves as we recognize that democracy has survived through two centuries by virtue of acts of citizens like those in this room who accepted the civic challenge and dedicated a portion of their lives to the well-being of their community.

We can sing with pride because the system of governance we have in America has worked so well. At the same time we must recognize that we have not fully achieved the ideals of a democratic society. The reality of democracy in America is that it is a process that continually needs to be attended to or we regress. The process we speak of is that of defining our common problems and allocating public resources to address those problems. Problems change, as do answers to those problems, and the dynamics of the ever changing nature of our collective concerns places a continual pressure on those who serve in government to be sensitive to those changes.

A hundred years ago Whitman was singing about the throbbing pulse of America, about its vitality. America is no less dynamic today but it is surely much more complex. Not only has the population grown in number but also in life span. Even more dramatic, though, has been the growth in technology and new knowledge. Old problems are no longer the same because new knowledge forces a redefinition either of the nature of the problem itself or of the answers he have open to us as alternatives for action. In addition we have thrust upon us a new array of concerns which local communities have not had to consider before. The new language used indicates the changes: CETA, Title XX, CSA, LEAA, AAA, Revenue Sharing, Block Grants.

Many of these federal programs or laws call for an increase in local initiative and autonomy in allocating federal dollars in general areas of concern. The old way was to send dollars for streets, sewers, parks, computers. In other words, the priorities were established in Washington, D.C. But now local communities have to establish their own sense of priorities about those things they wish to spend the federal dollars on.

The new federal laws have laid out strict guidelines for involving citizens in the decision-making process, not only during December when public hearings are held on the budget but at the very beginning of the process when problems are defined and also later when they are prioritized and adjusted to meet the resources available. The New Federalism process is, in effect, forcing local elected officials to invite the ordinary citizen into a broader partnership of collective problem solving efforts. What is happening at the federal level is also happening at the state level. Only yesterday we received copies of three new bills being studied by committees of the state legislature. Each of them called for a process of citizen involvement to establish the particular program goals and objectives at the local level.

In the third century, U.S.A., I predict we shall see a much greater involvement of citizens in governmental decision-making. We know full well we lack the resources to solve our every problem but as we come to recognize that perhaps the greatest resource of a community is the talent and good will of its citizens the elected officials will seek ways to develop that civic partnership wherein together, the elected official and the people, will strive to address those concerns of greatest priority. The elected official will not have less to do but as all citizens join together to face the problems of the future we know we will succeed to a higher degree because of the increasing strength of our democracy.