DEMOCRACY: ALIVE AND WELL!
A CASE STUDY OF LOCAL ADVISORY BOARDS
Martin P. Sellers Ph.D
Paper given at the 2005 SPSA Conference
There are numerous ways that non-elected residents in a community can participate in
governing themselves. At the local level, the terms special districts, authorities, commissions,
and advisory boards come to mind. In this paper, I will identify what these special governments
are, and then focus on advisory boards, an entity unique from the others. Sometimes advisory
boards are created because of state law requirements, but often local legislators create them
because they want to ensure that some measure of community involvement is part of the policy
making process. Many citizens from all walks of life are investing time on advisory boards.
This suggests that democracy is not only alive, but healthy and thriving.
In this study, I found that in Harnett County, North Carolina, a rural county of 96,000
residents wedged between the state’s two largest metropolitan areas, advisory boards have been
created for a wide range of purposes to ensure citizen input in the policy making process.
Advisory board members, however, are not fully representative of the general population of the
county, though they do serve as a vehicle for participation in governance. Does non-
representativeness affect our notion of democracy? This is what I set out to determine.
DISCUSSION AND THEORY
What is democracy? The textbook definition has to do with the Greek words, demos and
kratia, which stand for the “rule of the people”. Westbrook states that “John Dewey thought
democracy was an ethical government, one that ensured the fullest possible self-realization of all
citizens” (1991, pg 77).
Purdy characterizes democracy as inclusive of the self-organization of the general public,
which includes universal suffrage, solid working class influence, freedom to assemble and
freedom of speech. He quotes Alexander DeTocqueville as having said, “Democ