- Brad Austin
We live in an exciting metropolitan area—home to professional sports teams, premier symphony, opera and ballet offerings, world-class ski resorts, fantastic restaurants and nightlife and a major international airport. Yet, politically speaking, in many ways, we are a small town.
Members of the Legislature, mayors and city council have their personal phone numbers and e-mail addresses posted on the Internet. We make it easy for the public to reach out, share ideas and vent criticism. Most of the time, you’ll get personal responses directly from the individuals you contact. They won’t always agree with you, but you’d be surprised at how often your elected representatives—Republican and Democrat—listen with an open mind and willingness to consider different viewpoints.
During the 2012 legislative session, I was contacted by a group of high school students who wanted to do something about our poor air quality. Working with Breathe Utah, these students brought me a proposal. They knew that much of our air pollution comes from cars and that reducing vehicle idling could improve our air. Their idea was to include in the driver-education curriculum information about forming responsible driving habits and reducing idling. Together, we drafted language, I sponsored a resolution that was adopted unanimously and the curriculum changes were implemented.
Prior to my election to public office, I found myself in a similar role petitioning for change I wanted to see in my community. Imagine this. What brought me, a Democratic representative, to the point that I found myself sitting in a living room in the home of right-wing conservative and former Sen. Chris Buttars? Or meeting with Gayle Ruzicka and other members of the conservative Utah Eagle Forum? It is my belief that you go to whatever lengths necessary to stand for what you believe in. And if that means forging partnerships with unlikely individuals, you do it. From these meetings came Buttars’ bipartisan commitment to support Salt Lake City’s protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in housing and employment, as well as the agreement from Ruzicka not to fight to overturn these protections.
Today, 16 cities throughout Utah have adopted these protections. In many cases, the impetus for adopting these historic protections started with a resident of the city calling or e-mailing a member of the city council. The individual stories of Logan, Ogden, Taylorsville, West Valley City and the 12 other localities that adopted these legal rights are inspiring. At the center of each success is a mother, brother or friend of someone who has been the victim of discrimination. An individual took the time to e-mail a member of the city council or meet with his or her elected representative to explain why they wanted to live in a community where every resident was treated with respect and dignity.
A casual consumer of political news during the annual legislative session can become cynical in the face of absurd legislative proposals or unseemly strong-arm tactics. I’ve been there. Some conclude that the system is broken, that being engaged is a waste of time and the die is cast against sensible outcomes. I encourage you not to put down the book without reading the final chapter. While there are certainly disappointments, you might be surprised to learn that it is still illegal to shoot a feral cat in Utah, that government records are still available for public viewing and our kids can still receive sex education in school. These are examples where the checks and balances of our system delivered what many consider sensible results.
There are many examples that prove our system works. The adoption of nondiscrimination protections by Utah cities is leading to the eventual adoption of a statewide ban on discrimination. Sensible measures exist to protect our foothills from development and preserve pristine mountain watershed areas for future generations. Teachers in our neighborhood schools defy the odds and provide our children with a good education despite limited resources.
However, these and many other priorities hang in a delicate balance. The state of Utah as a whole has not yet adopted a ban on discrimination, despite overwhelming support from the voters. Proposals for development of sensitive lands are numerous. The strains on our school system increase each year, while funding falls further and further behind. We need the state to provide more resources for our students and neighborhood schools. Salt Lake County’s air quality is frequently abysmal. Our population continues to grow, justifying the need for additional mass transit.
The engagement of individuals in our community has tipped the scale toward outcomes that shape our future for the better. Reaching out to elected decision-makers is easy and important. Most of the time, they listen and welcome discussions about issues on our horizon. You can have an impact, and your engagement is critical.
We live in a fantastic place. Without a doubt, there’s much to be done to improve our community and maintain the things we love about Utah. Yet, with all our natural beauty and unparalleled recreational opportunities, our greatest asset is our people. Our community is overflowing with creative, friendly, caring, engaged and sometimes eclectic people who make this a great place to call home. Let’s all work to keep it a great place to live.