Restore Democracy Locally

Last Tuesday was a very bad day for progressives nationally, but it wasn't so bad locally. No, I don't mean gun control bills or approval of recreational marijuana use. I was cheered by something that happened in Northampton, Massachusetts–the City Council approved step one of Mayor David Narkewicz's plan to reorganize city government. The mayor's first target was the much-despised Department of Public Works, a body viewed by many locals as an arrogant, unregulated fiefdom.

Northampton strikes back!
Before November 6, the DPW got a budget from the city that, in turn, had very little say in how the money was spent. The DPW took its marching orders from the Board of Public Works, which had the power to set local water rates, sign contracts with private firms, set DPW policy, and determine which projects it would take on and the scope of those projects. Got that? An unelected body headed by an unelected director took orders from an unelected advisory board. I cast no aspersions at any current official, but let's just say that there's high potential for abuses within such a non-democratic, idiosyncratic structure. Mayor Narkewicz put DPW under direct city control and one only hopes that all city boards will be similarly stripped of independence.

It's important to know how boards across America attained such autonomy in the first place. It's not the fault of any living person–unless there's a retired city official of about 120 years of age somewhere. Autonomous bodies were the brainchild of Progressive Era (roughly 1901-17) reformers. Lots of useful regulations were passed in the Progressive Era, the first of three major government-directed reform periods in American history. (The other two are the New Deal in the 1930s and the Great Society in the 1960s.) Progressives had numerous blind spots, though; among them a worshipful trust in experts and an abiding fear of socialism.

Progressives wanted to streamline government and make it more "efficient." Efficiency is a good thing, right? Well, not always; efficiency is most quickly achieved autocratically. Let's face it, democracy takes time and that's inefficient. Moreover, The People–a group elected officials tend to distrust mightily even as they wax poetic about them–often have different ideas about how things should work. Sparked partly by wishing to counter the corruption that permeated late 19th century city government and partly by blind trust, many Progressive Era municipal reformers turned to what is known as commission-style government. That's what most places have these days–a mayor and a small board or city council that acts as a small Congress for the municipality. So far, so good. But what happened next wasn't so good. Progressives trusted "experts" so much that they allowed them to reorganize major parts of city government into independent and semi-autonomous boards. After all, wouldn't you want a civil engineer to run your water works? No–you wouldn't! You want that person's expertise, but you do not want him or her assuming political power.

Commission governments often become shadow governments inside of the elected bodies; in some cases, they are the real government in terms of wielding actual decision-making power. Elected officials often like this. After all, if the "experts" make the hard decisions and the electorate is angry about those actions, elected officials are insulated from voter wrath. (That's why, by the way, Congress set up an 'independent' commission to determine military base closings. They never have to go on the record and vote on them!) Fine, but we don't elect city councilors and mayors to pass the proverbial and literal buck. If your town has a passel of independent boards, it means you as a citizen have little input into their decisions. In many ways, it hardly matters who is on the town council as their only real power is to vote upon the budget of boards such as DPW. 

Nor was commission government entirely about efficiency. Between 1912 and 1991, 340 American cities elected socialist mayors, councilors, and other officials. In many cases, these socialists spearheaded the municipalization of city services such as water, sewer, electricity, power, transportation, and landfills. That is, they went from being private enterprises to being city-owned. Imagine a world in which the city regulated the power rates, not a group of investors. That happened and is still around in many places. Most of the time rates are lower in city-owned enterprises. Forget efficiency, you sure can get better rates when you remove profit from the equation. That's why so many cities are now looking into things such as their own Internet and cable services. (I dream of the day I can say sayonara to Comcast!)

I could cite numerous ways in which social democracy is superior to for-profit enterprises, but let me emphasize the democracy side of things. It's simply undemocratic to allow boards serving the public to act autonomously from that public. Moreover, it's an abrogation of duty for councils and mayors to allow this. It is, if I may be so blunt, their job to tell city boards what to do, not vice versa. Kudos to Mayor Narkewicz.

I'd also like to suggest that those of you who live elsewhere should put the heat to local government to follow Northampton's lead. Do it for democracy's sake. Maybe we can restore some sanity to America one town at a time!  

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