Last winter, Trenton's planning board approved a series of recommendations to address the issue of flood control for the city's building projects and redevelopment.
Business as usual? Not quite. The resolution the board passed was based largely on work done by representatives of the Civic Trust Initiative, an innovative project of the nonprofit advocacy group known as the Citizens Campaign.
The organizers chose Trenton as the first municipality in New Jersey to introduce the initiative, followed by Perth Amboy and Newark. The rollout was so successful, they say, that the pilot programs are now going statewide.
The concept is simple and elegant: bring citizens to the table to tackle issues plaguing their cities, equip them with training and insights into how government works, and encourage them to research practical, budget-friendly solutions.
Each civic trustee signs a vow: "I pledge that I will not raise a problem without committing myself to develop a solution."
It's that commitment, the program's founders believe, that separates the whiners from the doers at municipal meetings.
"If you come into a room, get up for five minutes and say everything that wrong, you think you've done something," says Trenton activist and civic trustee Darren "Freedom" Green. In reality, he adds, "You've just pointed out what's wrong. You haven't done anything."
The Citizens Campaign, the engine driving the Civic Trustee program, was founded in 1998 to nurture a spirit of public service and foster a new generation of leaders on the municipal, county and state levels.
At its core is education – teaching thousands of Garden State residents, through live events and online classes, how to navigate the highways and byways of government.
Partly as a result of these efforts, New Jersey now has one of the strongest pay-to-play reform laws in the country, and more than 100 communities have enacted local measures creating similar guidelines.
An advocate for open government, the nonpartisan Citizens Campaign has had a hand in crafting municipal laws on such topics as conflict of interest, accountability and cost-cutting.
In Trenton, the 30 trustees have been working with Police Director Ernest Parry, Jr., on creating an auxiliary police force that would enlist volunteers to serve as a link between police and community.
Harry Pozycki, chair of the Citizens Campaign, says the group meets monthly to identify important issues and research solutions that have proven effective elsewhere.
There is so much negativity attached to government today, and with good cause. But it's not true that educated individuals can't make a difference. The Civic Trustee model proves they can.