When Protest Is Not Enough

Citizens’ group aims to cultivate a culture of service.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

As a self-proclaimed child of the ’60s, Harry Pozycki knows a few things about protest. For one thing, he says, when you want to drive change, “protesting is not enough.

“Participation is the answer,” says Pozycki, chairman of the Citizens’ Campaign (jointhecampaign.com), a statewide organization aimed at cultivating constructive citizen action and developing a new generation of leaders. “I am talking about creating a culture of service by people stepping into the appointed policy boards, everything from the local planning board, to the Port Authority, to the state pension board. These are positions that people can populate and take real power.”

With the governor’s race behind us, these are strong words to ponder. Certainly, New Jersey’s governor for the next four years has huge issues to deal with, including our $8 billion deficit.

Simply put, our governor, together with the legislature, and, more importantly, the people of our state, must face some cold, hard facts. Among other things, we’ve been paying for pension and health care benefits for public employees but haven’t been able to afford those benefits for well over a decade. Nor can we afford to placate citizens who demand a level of services we cannot afford.

A serious discussion of New Jersey’s future must also include abolishing our property-tax rebate program, which is a cheap and cheesy way for politicians to score points with voters. At the same time, we have to get serious about investing more fully in both pre-K and higher education. We have been disinvesting in our public higher education system for the past decade. As a result, tuition is out of control and too many New Jersey kids are priced out of the market.

Our elected leaders must decide how to address these and other big-ticket items. Citizens can play a role too. We can scream and yell at town meetings and declare that “government is the problem” (as the Tea Party movement has done), or we can get more actively involved in the decision-making and governing processes. Sitting on the sidelines is not acceptable—and getting involved is not as difficult as some might think.

“We just passed two laws that help citizens get involved,” says Pozycki. “One is the Citizen Service Act, which for the first time will [require] every appointed position on government policy boards with vacancies [to be] listed online. You can find a place to serve and apply and be a citizen leader. We also passed the Party Democracy Act, which gives citizens at the grassroots level the power to control party endorsements for every office from mayor to governor.”

In addition to working for such legislation, the Citizens’ Campaign has training programs with names like “Path to Appointed Office Service” and “Path to Citizen Legislator Service.”

Pozycki, a lawyer and Perth Amboy resident who has served in numerous political and government positions, sees another benefit of getting citizens more involved in government.

“One citizen serving on a planning board who knows what they are doing, who is honest and committed to do the right thing, can disclose a fishy development deal to the media,” he says. “They can ask the kind of probing questions that will protect us against corruption. But if there isn’t a citizen doing that there, you can throw the bums out and then put new ones in, and you will never break the cycle of corruption.”

Pozycki’s words should remind us that democracy is not a spectator sport.

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