Civic Engagement is Crucial to the Health and Growth of County

As Charlotte Newton says in her recent commentary (published both in the Fort Myers News-Press and Naples Daily News , “Civic engagement is alive and well in Lee County–not because of our elected officials but in spite of them.” 

Lee Future is one of several citizen groups that have sprung up in response to the way the current Board of County Commissioners is running the County. Charlotte’s commentary introduces another one of these groups–Women for a Better Lee. Both Lee Future and Women for a Better Lee agree that “we want a livable community, we want growth that is smartly managed and respectful of the environment, and we want a BoCC that seeks out our opinions, considers our concerns, and supports our participation.”

Originally Published in the
Fort Myers News-Press and the Naples Daily News on Sept. 22, 2019
Written by Charlotte Newton, Women for a Better Lee

Civic engagement is alive and well in Lee County – not because of our elected officials, but in spite of them.  In our democracy, discouraging citizen participation is usually the best way to stir things up.  And stirred up we are.  Today, an unprecedented number of citizens groups have sprung up in response to the high-handed tactics of the current Board of County Commissioners (BoCC). 

One of these groups is Women For a Better Lee (WFBL), a network of women who have coalesced around shared concerns that our quality of life is deteriorating and that four of our five county commissioners – all males – are focused more on smoothing the way for development than its impact on our daily lives.  WFBL thinks it is time for the County Commission to reflect the reality that women comprise more than half the county’s population and that having a voice on the Commission is important.

Civic activism isn’t necessarily structured.  For example, WFBL has no bylaws or board of directors.  We are self-funded and do not solicit donations.  To avoid conflicts, we do not accept contributions from corporations or PACs.  Using social media such as Facebook and encouraging word-of-mouth has been successful in attracting supporters, now numbering in the hundreds.  In fact, our only expense is renting venues to accommodate the large(ish) meetings we are now sponsoring.  Putting out a donation cup usually raises a good portion of the needed amount.

A small steering committee makes day-to-day decisions.  A larger group of influential and dedicated women meet to advise on strategy, outreach and much more.  Each of these women are leaders in their own right and bring with them insight, experience, and commitment.  And while we are led by women, we welcome the support of men who share our goal of electing new commissioners.

Being nonpartisan, we don’t all agree on every nuance of every issue every time and usually come at things from different political perspectives.  But we do agree on this:  we want a livable community, we want growth that is smartly managed and respectful of the environment, and we want a BoCC that seeks out our opinions, considers our concerns and supports our participation.  We believe electing women to the Board will make it more visionary, more family-oriented, and more caring for both people and the environment.

An important part of being a livable community is offering residents opportunities to participate in setting policy and to contribute ideas.  It is most discouraging when citizens testify for five hours only to have the commissioners not even discuss the comments offered before voting to move forward, as recently occurred with the mining issue.  Or when a commissioner’s office warns an individual that legal action will be taken if she continues to communicate on a zoning issue since we are the only Florida county to criminalize contact between residents and elected officials on such issues.  Or when a commissioner routinely labels citizens’ testimony as “fake news.”  As voters, we should not – indeed, must not – tolerate such behavior.

Civic engagement takes many forms – from contacting your commissioner to attending hearings to writing to the News-Press to joining a group such as ours – or even forming one of your own.  We encourage residents to organize and hope that WFBL can serve as a model to others who want to express their views to our politicians.  We welcome the opportunity to share our experience and insights (email: WFBL2020@gmail.com).  

In our democracy, we celebrate what is right and change what is wrong.  It’s time to change what is wrong in Lee County.

Charlotte Newton is a member of the steering committee for Women For a Better Lee.


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