Union Democrat staff

Normally, the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors is an easy ticket.

On any given Tuesday, there are almost always plenty of seats available in the Administration Center board room. Even in the front row and even when there are important decisions to be made or when controversial issues arise.

Such are results of growing public apathy, some mourn.

But there is hope that we citizens, in fact, do care about our county and its future: The first two of five supervisors' meetings on a proposed five-year strategic plan drew healthy crowds.

On Jan. 26, more than 50 packed the Willow Springs Clubhouse for the premiere meeting in the county's fourth supervisorial district. The District 1 meeting, in the Administration Center board room last week, drew about 100 and filled every seat.

The District 3 meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. tonight at the Telele Lodge (formerly Black Oak School), at 18996 Twain Harte Drive in Twain Harte. Future 6:30 p.m. sessions will be held in Groveland (community hall, Feb. 16) and Columbia (Church of the 49ers, Feb. 23).

If the first two sessions are any indication, the county better set up plenty of chairs.

The board called these meetings and, believe it or not, people have come. And talked, shared their ideas and spoke up for their priorities.

Which is as unusual as it is gratifying.

Normally, the more distant and far-reaching an agenda item is, the less likely it is to draw a crowd. Items that pose more immediate threats - dumps, mines, subdivisions or big-box stores proposed right next door - are a far better bet to pack them in.

That's changed, probably in large part due to the economy and the precarious state of government financing. Anyone who even casually follows the news knows that Tuolumne County had already cut its budget significantly and that programs and employees remain at risk.

There was a time when threatened county funding cuts were viewed as idle bluster, and that - when the budget dust settled - funding would fall magically into place.

No longer: This year's budget was cut by $8.5 million and, with the state still raiding local coffers with abandon, worse is yet to come.

What County Administrator Craig Pedro calls "the new normal" has come home to roost. Even those living in the county's far-flung extremities realize that what they've always counted on from the county will not be forthcoming in the years to come.

Priorities must be set and, if you want your favorite county program to survive or the most expendable to vanish, it's time to speak up. Law enforcement, fire protection and, to some extent, roads, will probably persist in some form, but everything else is on the butcher's block.

The county - by scheduling what amounts to a traveling road show - has made speaking up easier yet by convening meetings in communities and neighborhoods far from the county seat. Supervisors are reaching out, and their constituents appreciate it.

Others are voicing their opinions by keyboard, filing more than 550 online surveys.

The refrains are in full voice: Save the libraries, slash red tape, open the swimming pools, bring in new businesses and jobs, support the arts, keep the transit buses running and more.

This is how democracy is suppose to work.

After the five plan meetings, the strategic plan will be back in the board's court. And thanks to the public's remarkable response, supervisors and the county staff will have plenty to work with.