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A new kid on the block: meet Small Town Civics education website

COLDEN — There’s a new government-focused website in town, but this one takes a different tack than other websites residents may be used to checking for the latest political gossip. Colden resident Ron Fraser launched www.smalltowncivics.com in an effort to educate local residents, students and government officials on the proper way to conduct government action, in hopes to start a dialogue about how small-town Southtowns civics is conducted.

“When I moved to Colden, I found that a lot of the goings-on of the local goverment were kind of unsophisticated,” said Fraser, who holds two master’s degrees and a doctorate in land use, regional planning and public administration fields.

“The lack of public administration know-how is very common in schools and both large and small towns. Folks are well-meaning, but these are part-time officials who often take an untrained or amateurish approach to problems.”

Fraser, who has spent four years on the environmental board in Colden and headed up the hydrofracking committee in that same town said that, after he wrote up and presented a report on the subject, got “dismal attention,” at board meetings, after that report was presented.

“I thought, ‘There’s got to be a better way to manage public affairs in the Southtowns,’” said Fraser, who counted his experience in local government and that particular incident as inciting his interest in starting the site.

The website includes sections on key public issues, an overview on why town governments exist and how they function, a list of the towns Fraser hopes to cover and a bookshelf where he will post articles, books, studies and other resources to help residents, officials and students learn more about government and how it works, or should work.

In an effort to forward that education, Fraser visited social studies teachers at Holland and Springville-Griffith Institute school districts, to speak to them about how those institutions are teaching American govenrment structures. He obtained copies of their textbooks and said he hopes students will look at the difference between what the books say and what happens in local towns, and realize there’s a gap.

“Bringing students into it is the hook,” he said. “We’re hoping to make local government function a little better. I want to cause people to say, ‘Are we doing the best we can, for our local government?’”

Fraser has been researching New York state laws and government and said that residents “wouldn’t believe how often state laws are ignored.

“Take the rule of law, for example,” he explained. “In a democracy, the executive branch follows the legislative branch ... In town government, there’s a weak executive branch. The board is both the executive and legislative branch, so there’s two balances. If they can ignore the law, that’s a fundamental problem.”

One of the resources Fraser lists on his site is a Department of State publication that is available to town governments for training and education, a document that many local municipalities do not utilize, currently.

“In Colden at least, [elected officials] are not doing the training available from the DOS. When the education on planning, zoning and public administration is not used, that’s a mistake.”

Fraser hopes that providing that type of literature, as well as articles on what is going on locally, will “bring towns into the dialogue and cause constructive learning and positive change.

“I’m a citizen of Colden, a citizen of Erie County, and we have a tradition of speaking up and speaking out,” Fraser said. “I’m not out to name people; I’m out to point out things that can be managed better, in a positive way.”

Small Town Civics will address issues that are occurring in local town governments throughout the Southtowns, through critical articles about the way those governments are operating. Fraser said that he hopes to examine local coverage of those issues as well, to create an ongoing conversation that is educational and positive.

He said that he realizes that there will be resistance, but that he hopes to keep the dialogue positive and civil, through a “soapbox rules” section on the site.

That section says, in part, “Our purpose is to constructively identify ways to improve our towns’ governing process for the betterment of our home towns. Yes, if we find that a town official, in the conduct of his or her public duties, has made a poor decision, or failed to take action, let’s not hammer the official personally. Let’s carefully identify where things went wrong, why and how to improve future administrative and procedural events.

“Let’s not have a site that badgers people,” Fraser concluded. “It doesn’t matter who said what. It’s the ideas that matter.”

Small Town Civics can be found at www.smalltowncivics.com.
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