OAKWOOD HILLS – Those who filled the first few rows of the standing-room-only crowds at recent Oakwood Hills public hearings account for the total amount of people who cast a ballot at the last election.
Like many municipalities throughout the country, numbers show Oakwood Hills residents have been much more reactive than proactive in civic participation. At the last election in April 2013, 11.4 percent of registered voters turned out to vote for village president and two trustee positions, only one of which had a candidate running.
In that election, 183 voters of 1,602 registered cast a vote for trustee Paul Smith while all of those but one voted for the uncontested Melanie Funk as village president. It has been a consistent decline in the last decade for Oakwood Hills, where 36.7 percent of registered voters cast ballots in 2005, which featured a contested village presidential race and five people running for four trustee positions.
Mike Riley, a resident of 35 years and an active protester of the proposed power plant that has stirred recent activism, said the declining interest and awareness in local government had been noticeable.
“Shame on us as residents and shame on me for being so complacent,” Riley said. “Complacency is a killer ... and we’re reaping the results of our attitudes.”
Riley said the residential unrest and call for change in leadership is similar to 2005 when a group called Concerned Citizens of Oakwood Hills came together and produced candidates to fight against annexing land west of Valley View Road and constructing a sewer plant on the same parcel of land now targeted for the proposed power plant.
The group successfully placed a new president and three new trustees, including future village president John Theiss.
Riley, who was active in that opposition group as well, said residents talked about staying active and vigilant but once the proposals were defeated everyone fell back into normal routines. He said he fears the same could happen once a resolution is reached in the power plant issue.
“The same sentiments were stated the last time around but once things quieted down after we put a new slate [of leaders] in we all got complacent,” Riley said. “It will quiet down again, but personally I want to keep being at all the meetings.”
Martin Gierut, who still serves on the village zoning board after being appointed by Theiss, said it is refreshing to see people involved again but wishes it would be more consistent.
Gierut has been involved in numerous committees and boards for decades in Oakwood Hills, including serving as a trustee from 2007 to 2011. He was elected with 245 votes.
“There is an old saying that those that show up, govern,” Gierut said. “If people don’t get involved, it’s just not a good process. What I think is going to happen is some representatives from the [opposition] group will get elected in and things will calm down and unfortunately revert back to apathy.”
Residents have gained a better understanding of the process, Gierut said, noting many now realize the zoning board is legally required to hear the power plant’s request and can only give a recommendation that has no legal power.
While both Gierut and Riley are skeptical the power plant proposal will ignite long-term change in local civic activity, they are hopeful. Gierut said there is an opening on the zoning board and Oakwood Hills Village Board still available for interested residents.
Riley, who turned down an opportunity to run in 2005, said he would accept an appointment to a board this time around if the olive branch was extended.