By now, virtually everyone knows about the corruption in Bell, California, a small city of 40,000 residents where the median household income is $40,000, and the city manager made more than $800,000 a year and the part-time city councillors around $100,000 a year, while raising property taxes and overcharging their residents for sewage services. The reason that Bell officials were exempt from state salary limits was that they had adopted an ordinance turning Bell into a “charter city,” which enjoys a measure of home rule that other localities lack, including autonomy over setting the salaries of public officials.
More generally, local governments are often corrupt. Several Connecticut mayors have gone to jail, and cities like New Orleans and Chicago have made the news for the wrong reasons plenty of times. In Democracy in America, Tocqueville observed that Americans generally thought of local government as least corrupt and the federal government as most corrupt. If perceptions matched reality, why did that reality change?
Over at Front Porch Republic, Pete Peterson fingers Bell’s citizens’ disengagement from the process as the culprit. Fewer than 400 people voted in the special election that made Bell a charter city, and they overwhelmingly approved the measure, 336-54, which made no mention of the salary issue. The political class generally advocates consolidation as the solution.
As a political scientist, I don’t see much to gain from blaming Bell’s citizens for their disengagement. That’s a choice they’ve made, and I don’t think it differs much from the norm across most of America’s cities and towns. How many people vote in those school board and budget elections? Local elections tend to be dominated by people with conflicts of interest (public employees). The real question is: Why are citizens so disengaged from their local governments?
Part of the problem is the lack of local control. Apart from exceptional moments like the revelations about the corruption in Bell, local government seems low-salience to most people. Why bother to get out and vote when the issues don’t get anyone excited? If local governments had more control over setting policy rather than merely administrating, more people would be interested in having say in how the local governments govern.
Another problem is that local elections seem designed to be low-turnout affairs. They’re often held in odd-numbered years in months like March. Who’s thinking about voting then? And who has the time on a busy work day?
Here’s a package of electoral & institutional reforms I would like to see state & local governments embrace:
1) Move all state and local elections to the same day, the first Tuesday after the first Monday of November – every odd-numbered year. Since state and local governments are symbiotic, it makes sense to elect all these candidates together. Furthermore, state autonomy is enhanced when state elections are de-linked from federal elections. One of the failings of today’s American federalism is the fact that people vote in state elections based on what they want to happen at the federal level. This November, many good Democrats at the state level will be swept out of office because people are mad at Democrats in the U.S. Congress. In 2006 and 2008, it happened to Republicans.
2) State elections should be partisan, and local elections should be non-partisan. Local elections should not be about ideology, and partisan labels in local elections probably cause more confusion about candidates’ positions than they dispel. At the state level, it should not be easy to vote a party line.
3) Every voter in state/local elections should receive a ballot-by-mail several weeks before election day. (S)he can return this ballot up to a week before election day, and the vote will be counted, or can vote on election day instead. This reform raises turnout but also makes voters think of themselves more as stockholders with a right and duty to participate in the governance of their community.
4) Allow the formation of functional overlapping competing jurisdictions (FOCJs) through neighborhood participation. These are special-purpose administrations responsible for managing service delivery over a particular geographic area. There is no reason why water & sewer and garbage pickup have to be handled by the same entity. Allow neighborhood precincts to fluidly opt in and out of different service-providing jurisdictions. Those that provide the best service at lowest cost will tend to attract the most neighborhoods. Again, this is a process that should be citizen-driven, with all of the above electoral reforms in place.
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