Council hits streets to hear about budget, and that's good

The TV show "Parks & Rec" likes to send up the absurdity that can be community meetings, portraying them as long, boring and punctuated by unhinged residents shouting about UFOs and national security.

Here in the Cradle of Liberty, we know better. Maybe because we've been at it for so long, the city's residents are known for being informed, and more importantly, showing up to fight for their beliefs. The latest proof of this: Wednesday night's budget hearing at the St. John's AME Church in Southwest Philly.

More than 70 people crowded into the church's basement. The majority of folks who sounded off on the city's budget — including block captains, union members, civic leaders and developers — were smart and passionate.

Council President Darrell Clarke deserves credit for staging the event. But the fact that the meeting went so well shows that events like this should be the rule, rather than the exception. Currently, Council holds community hearings like this infrequently, and often only after being pressured by the public.

We hope Council recognizes just how valuable they are — not just for citizens, but for Council members. For example:

• Council gets to hear from City Hall outsiders. Wednesday's meeting began at 6 p.m. in a city neighborhood, and the passionate points that people made reflected that. For instance, residents argued that Southwest Philly has too few rec centers and clean parks, so the residents don't get as much bang for their tax bucks as those living in Center City. It's good for Council to hear beliefs like these. Indeed, the residents implored Council to come out to the neighborhoods more. They felt neglected.

• Council gets to experience the city's diversity. Any time that Council members get out of their City Hall chambers — where there's enough pomp and circumstance to make the queen of England blush — it's a good thing. Of course, some Council members already attend lots of neighborhood meetings on their own turf. But few go to events outside their own districts. Doing so might help Council members see beyond their own fiefdoms, and craft more legislation with the whole city in mind.

• Council gets challenged. Its job is to ask questions, especially during budget season. But the structure of most public hearings don't allow for back-and-forth between citizens and lawmakers. Wednesday night was no exception. Members sometimes asked residents questions, but residents couldn't really quiz them back.

Given the large number of newly elected members, Council and its new president shouldn't be afraid of building in a little more give-and-take between themselves and citizens — especially when it comes to questions about their own budget.

This It's Our Money editorial also appeared in today's Daily News.