Fragmented and Ignored Constituencies

Weighing in on the current state of municipal governments in the United States

Published over 1 year ago in North America and Opinion

municipal governments politics

City hall

Will local governments push back against meddling? (Source: South Carolina Policy Council)

At the start of my summer break this year, I had the chance to meet up with my cousin, who had recently graduated from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN. In between our catching up, I learned that the mayor of her city had been forced out due to a sexual affair with a bodyguard. At first, I thought that this event was just an exception. A few months later, I found out that my own local government in Atlanta had been under federal investigation for some time, under charges of bribery and corruption. What shocked me the most, however, was that even though I lived in the area, I only found out about the investigation in August of this year, although it actually started in January of 2017. 

Indeed, as the media focuses its coverage on the state and federal levels of government, local government news is often publicly neglected. Accusations levied at politicians in Washington garner all the spotlight, while the wrongdoings of local elected officials can largely go  unnoticed. This should not be case, as local government can directly influence the lives of ordinary citizens, more so than either the state or federal government.

Certainly, these kinds of problems are not unique to local governments, and the commonly proposed solutions of paying more attention to the news and going out to vote on elections are helpful. However, at the local level, these proposed solutions are not sufficient. There are key institutional characteristics about local government that differ from state and federal government. The rules of the game are different, and thus, the game must be played differently. 

Legal Foundations

In everyday language,  the words “city” and “town” are used interchangeably in conversation. However, at the legal level, they denote very different meanings. The classification of a local government—be it a city, a town, a village, etc.—has significant ramifications on what powers the local government holds and what rights the local residents have. Furthermore, just as the federal government is ruled by the Constitution, local governments are based upon their own legal foundations. Once again, these can take on various forms. This heterogeneity in legal foundation makes it very difficult for ordinary residents to make organized political impact, as strategies that work in one municipality may be illegal in others. 

Most municipalities have mechanisms within their charters that provide the opportunity for the populace to impact local politics. Unfortunately, many of these charters also have rules to make those powers ineffective. In particular, the right of initiative is a good example. The right of initiative gives any citizen of a municipality the right to craft his or her own legislation and have it placed on the ballot for a popular vote. The International City/County Management Association (ICMA) estimates that over half of the municipalities in the United States grant initiative power to its residents. However, many of these municipalities make this power non-binding. In essence, a resident can come up with a bill that receives widespread approval from voters, but the city leaders are under no obligation to turn that bill into law. 

Structures of Local Government

At the state and federal levels, if voters are not pleased with the work of their elected official, they can simply elect someone during the next election who would better represent them. At the local level, this option is often unavailable because in many municipalities, the leader of the city is not elected at all. More and more cities are moving away from the traditional model of an elected mayor and towards a council-manager model. Under this model, the voters elect a city council who in turn hires a third-party manager to run the operations of the locality. While this usually means that the person in charge is someone with professional experience, it also opens the avenue towards corruption and prevents voters from directly having a voice in their local affairs. 

Even in municipalities that still use the traditional form of government with an elected mayor, there are still institutional characteristics that prevent voters from making a change in leadership. Most notably, roughly 90 percent of municipalities in the data collected by ICMA do not have any term limits for being mayor. The advantages that incumbents have in electoral races have been well-documented, and there have been several cases of career politicians chaining several victories in a row. For example, Richard M. Daley was the mayor of Chicago from 1989 until 2011, even though his tenure was plagued with corruption charges, terrible budgeting practices, and widespread police brutality. 

Partisan Elections

When talking to my peers and scrolling through news articles about the current political climate, I get the impression that many, especially those of younger generations, believe that politics have become too partisan. They believe that party lines have become too strict and the separation between Democrats and Republicans has become unsurmountable. They yearn for the ideal world described by President Obama all those years ago: not a liberal America nor a conservative America, but an United States of America. While I am certainly concerned by the increasing divide between the parties and the lack of bipartisan collaboration, I believe the thinking of my peers is misconstrued, especially at the local level. 

Nonpartisan elections are a prominent feature of many local governments. The ICMA indicates that approximately 80 percent of local elections are nonpartisan, meaning that candidates run without an associated party label. However, recent academic literature in political science have actually touted the downsides of nonpartisan elections in local elections. The idea is that most voters are poorly informed and only mildly interested in local politics. Hence, without partisan affiliation, this can lead to more misinformed voting and lower voter turnout. By allowing candidates to sport party labels, voters are able to gain quick and easy access to ideological information. For those voters who are poorly informed or who do not find it worthwhile to scavenge for candidate information, knowing party affiliation is a good enough instrument to generally push them to vote along ideological lines. Indeed, nonpartisan local races tend to suffer from terrible turnout and incredibly high rates of incumbent victory.

Moving forward

Activists constantly offer the same solution to create change: to go out and vote for someone that would better represent your views, imbuing the sense that electing a better candidate would solve your problems. While this is certainly an important step, it’s not enough. The core issue with municipal politics is that there are too many institutional barriers and bureaucratic structures in place to prevent consequential change. In many areas of the country, there are legal restrictions that prevent voters from making a difference in the local political scene, even if 100 percent of the residents are on board. In this case, simply cycling through different elected officials whenever one does something terrible only fixes the superficial problems without resolving the root causes. Instead, legal action needs to occur to remove these protections. Changing the players of a game means the game can be replayed over and over. To fix local politics, the rules of the game need to be revised. 

Thankfully, there is a mechanism in place to incite these changes. The relationship between state governments and the federal government can be strained at times. Even though the federal government is of a higher order, it can be difficult for it regulate state laws. The same cannot be said regarding the relationship between local governments and state governments. A plurality of local charters are established in conjunction with the state, and many contain provisions that make them especially amenable to state-level influences. In one extreme case, the state of Florida threatened to completely revoke the charter of one of its towns, meaning it would immediately cease to exist. 

If you grew up with a sibling, you remember the conflict surrounding many interactions with them, whether it be negotiating toys or deciding on a movie to watch. The best solution was always  to complain to your parents. Perhaps, this same strategy can be applied to fix municipal governments. Try as they might, ultimately residents lack the power to directly influence local politics as there exist too many institutional barriers in the way. Instead, they need to lobby the state legislature to motivate change.