Ten Random Thoughts on Local Politics 

November 9, 2022

This week, far too few of us will go and and cast our votes for politicians far and wide. So naturally, politics are on my mind right now. I am not going to use this space to weigh in on national politics, that would do little good and only exacerbate what is already such a huge problem. Which is that we have allowed national politics to play such an outsized role in local government. I will repeat here what I say at the beginning of nearly all of my in-person talks, there is nothing political about wanting to improve your community, if you would like to make it political, please see your way to the door. 

10 random thoughts about local politics. 

  1. 95% or people running for local office are doing it for the right reason. They care about their community and want to see it improve. They are getting involved, which is admirable. It is not the most lucrative field and at times can be very frustrating work so when someone deicides to give their valuable time to their community, have the grace to be appreciative of their commitment. We are lucky to have them. 
  1. Then there is the other 5% who have decided to run because they hate government. Ddear nihilist, if you do not like government, it would be super if you stayed away from it. We actually need local governments to function, to run our cities and improve our lives. Pretty much every person in your town depends on a functioning government so maybe find something else to ruin. 
  1. I hate that I have to say this, but we absolutely must have functioning local government. This is the structure and the system that allows us to live together in communities. When people decided to stop foraging for food and settle down in proximity to one another, it quickly became apparent that some rules would need to be laid out. The fact has not changed in 7000 years. We still need structure in place to effectively hold society together and provide some ground rules. If you are the rare few who wants no laws and no structure, have at it, there is mountainside in Alaska calling you home. You are not required to live in society if you don’t believe in it, but please stop wrecking it for the rest of us. 
  1. To hold society together we must have rules, regulations, standards and a mechanism for enforcement. We might debate on said rules, standards, regulations and enforcement strategies, but there is no debating the need for them. If things are not going well in your town, that does not mean that it is time to throw out the mechanisms by which we use to manage it, it simply means there is something with the way it is being managed. Stop arguing about getting rid of government and start working to make the government you have as effective is possible. If the current system isn’t working, change it. 
  1. Reducing or doing away with standards is no way to improve, it is actually the opposite. Getting rid of regulations as a way to improve the local economy is like getting rid of laws as a way to reduce local crime. Laws and regulations are the means we use to shape the behavior we want, the system in which we utilize the tools to foster the outcomes we prefer and those that make our lives better and make our places healthier. Understand that regulations are the same thing as laws, but how we shape business behavior versus public behavior. When applied effectively, these foster positive outcomes, when ignored, they only facilitate bad behavior. 
  1. For every issue, the important thing is to get the balance right. None of the issues that fall before local government are an all-or-nothing proposition, but a chance to find an answer that works best for the community. I don’t think a struggling rust belt town should adopt Savannah’s design guidelines because it would be too onerous on the real estate community, but it would be a tragedy for Savannah to do away with design guidelines. In every town it is a matter of understanding local conditions and context, then deciding what is appropriate. The driving idea should be consistent improvement. Use legislation and enforcement to improve the community constantly in all ways. 
  1. Everyone wants to live in a better place, every resident deserves to live in a better place and local elected officials have the power to make this happen through policy. Policy is the most effective means to improve a community. We elect people to help decide what is and isn’t acceptable, where those boundaries fall and how we go about enforcing them to achieve the results we desire. Don’t like stabbings? Make them illegal and arrest people that stab. Don’t like vacant buildings downtown? Make them illegal and fine people that own them. Don’t like the pathetic loud motorcycles that disturb everyone for miles around because their owner is compensating? Create a decibel limit and fine people that violate it. A community has agency and must use the tools available to it to set a standard and enforce that standard. 
  1. Just because you don’t know what is going on at city hall does not mean it’s nefarious, it just means you don’t know. Don’t always assume the worst, instead realize you are not aware of what is taking place and if you want to be more informed, that is up to you. I see this all too often where people that are uninformed about local government decide everyone is out to get them. They aren’t and they honestly have better things to do. If you want to know what is happening, then ask. Find out. Do your part to learn how your officials operate. You will be surprised by the hard work they put in and the difficult circumstances in which they operate. 
  1. On the other hand, city officials, if no one knows what you are up to and everyone seems suspicious of your actions, you are doing a poor job of communicating. Pull back the curtain and show people what is going on. Let the public know what it is you do and how your government operates. Have some fun, let people in, start a conversation. Don’t make local government a mystery, give people a glimpse of the important work taking place so that might have the opportunity to know what takes place. 
  1. And finally, local elected officials don’t necessary know everything and that is okay. They probably ran for office because they care about their community, but that does not make them an expert in job creation or city planning, it just makes them a good person. So have some patience, act with some grace, provide them with additional information. When I visit a community I always hear residents tell me council doest listen and the very same council members tell me that locals don’t care. Both can’t be true! People need to have conversations with their council members. If a council member doesn’t know something, provide them the information, in a kind manner of course. Inform council of the things they need to know, help them do better, if you handle it well, they will appreciate it. 

Try and remember, government is necessary and the healthiest communist have the highest functioning government. We need good people in those positions and we need to support them because the health of our communities depend on it. When it comes to shaping the built environment and essentially deciding the conditions of the places we live, no one has more power than local government officials. This is done though zoning, buildings codes, committees, various policies and enforcement. It is imperative that the use the levers of government to create beneficial outcomes and start shaping communities that make residents lives better. 

When we tear down local government we only succeed in making our towns worse and in turn, our lives worse as well. So find a way to support the people that run your town, figure out how you can help them, or better yet, throw your own hat in the ring. Everyone is trying to achieve the same thing, which is a town that makes residents happy, healthy and proud, and in working together, that becomes achievable. And please vote!

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