Column: A new leaf for Rye

careyMany years ago in Sweden, an experiment was begun that has proven helpful there and might ease some tensions in Rye.

The Swedish crown created the official position of ombudsman. This was to be a means to mediate disputes between citizens and their government. An individual was appointed to the position, to conduct private talks whenever a citizen felt aggrieved by official action or inaction.

Recently, ombudspersons have been named in some companies for a similar purpose. And even the United Nations now has an ombudsperson, a former Canadian judge named Kimberly Prost. I made a DVD of her impressive presentation of the operations of her office. She deals with cases where individuals or companies are accused of being connected with al Qaeda or the Taliban.

What could happen in Rye would be residents who feel their complaints are being ignored could address the Rye ombudsperson privately and anonymously, if so desired. That official would then privately contact the city department concerned to discuss the problem. All this would be done without publicity, and any attempt on either side to go public could prove detrimental to that side’s position. Hopefully, the outcome would be an amicable settlement.

At present, citizens who address the City Council at public meetings often seem to encounter a frosty reception; every word spoken is aired on TV and can never be taken back or even qualified. Truly kind words, let alone apologies, are few and far between. Often anger seems to be addressed at those at the podium, which, being elevated, conveys an impression that those atop it feel superior to those below.

Not a good atmosphere.

One time in the 1970s, an experiment seated the council members on the floor at the same level as the public. There were those on the council who did not like that arrangement and it was not repeated. But an important decision was effectively reached that evening, no longer to grant to any one private company a monopoly on trash and garbage collection in Rye. I believe that for the council members to look the public directly in the eye on the same level rather than looking down on the public provided a healthy symbolism. It is more difficult to talk down to someone when your eyes are on the same level.

And so it could be with an ombudsperson. That official would not look down at an angry citizen, rather they would see each other eye-to-eye. They could meet at City Hall, or at a coffee shop, or in a private home, or on a walk in the park, or simply hold initial talks by phone, text or email.

It could of course be that, even at present, the mayor or some other official fulfilled this kind of function. That would be ideal. But at the same time, it would be well for the function to be formalized with one person responsible, so that everyone would understand that effective access to local government is an ongoing prerogative in the City of Rye.