“The real key” to making government work properly, says John Marion, the executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, is for “people to take advantage of the right to participate.”
Speaking to about 15 Summit residents Wednesday evening at the second in SNA’s lecture series, Marion said, “We can build institutions, but who is going to take advantage of them?” His topic was “How do we hold power accountable?” and was followed by a question-and-answer period.
He said citizens must become “active visitors” at meetings of governmental bodies and “have to file complaints” to make laws effective and figure out how to enforce them. He cited the history of Common Cause, which was formed nationally in the 1970s as a “people’s lobby” and worked in Rhode Island during the 1980s on the separation of powers in state government.
Marion, who lives on the East Side “near the observatory,” said citizens hold legislators accountable at election time but also must monitor “how they hold the public trust between elections.” Unfortunately, he noted, the district has been represented by people who abused that trust.
He urged voters to support the proposals on the November ballot to modernize elections in the state. “One of the broken institutions in Rhode Island is the Board of Elections,” Marion said, that “wants to run elections the way they always have.” He pointed out that there is state ethics commission, but that the R.I. Supreme Court ruled that the commission doesn’t have jurisdiction over legislators. He said Common Cause was working to get that power back to the panel and urged his listeners to support that effort.
In answer to a question, Marion said that a constitutional convention is not necessary to revise election laws, but can be accomplished by ballot questions.
He closed by pointing out that in such a small state, “government is readily accessible and citizens can take advantage of that.”
Marion joined Common Cause in 2008, and is its chief lobbyist and spokesperson in Rhode Island. Before that, he was a graduate student in political science at Indiana University and taught and wrote extensively on American politics and public policy. He received a bachelor’s degree in political science and history from Binghamton University where he met his wife, Karen Ng. They have twin daughters and are “very much members of the community for the long term.”