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Define the Business of Local Government — And Mind It.

Define the Business of Local Government — And Mind It.

This past summer, the National Civic League published an article entitled “Is It None of Our Business?” The purpose of the article was to evaluate whether local government agencies should be undertaking national issues, which the League characterizes as “the ‘nationalization’ of local government matters.” The League concludes that such nationalization constitutes a “positive phenomenon.”

The article notes the growing trend among cities to take on national, even global, issues such as climate change, immigration, equity, and other matters that one might expect to be addressed at the national government level (if by government at all). Citing national government dysfunction and the relative advantages that local governments have in decision-making (e.g., a more homogeneous constituency and less partisan politics), the League submits that local government organizations are well-suited to take on national issues. The League presents one city’s actions to remove a Confederate monument, and to review its policies and practices with members of the community as part of “a citywide conversation on race,” as empirical support for its positive stance on the nationalization of municipal matters.

Some municipal officials may be inspired by the League’s evaluation, but residents and local businesses should be concerned. Cities have already taken on more than they can handle, as evidenced by their reliance on serial tax increases, deferred infrastructure maintenance, and reduced service levels to balance their budgets. With each newly adopted budget, we are reminded that most cities operate under a paradigm of scarcity. Vague municipal missions open the door to a wide variety of local governmental activities that add to the organization’s scope once a majority of council members decide that such activities benefit the community. 

Meanwhile, environmental initiatives have already expanded the community to include wildlife and inanimate nature, subordinating the interests of residents and business owners to goals that assume any impact on the environment is bad, without regard for the impact of such policy on residents. To further expand a city’s mission to include national and global issues is to paralyze a city council’s ability to define and delimit the appropriate scope of activity for the city organization in relationship to the residents and business owners. Delimitation of scope is critical to the effective operations of any organization; municipalities are not an exception.

Past decisions regarding the structure of our government are not good simply because they prevailed; nevertheless, there are solid grounds for maintaining distinct national and regional levels of government. Achieving a meaningful impact on national issues requires a coordinated, unified approach. While local solutions may appear attractive for widespread issues, a fragmented policy landscape across cities and counties results in ineffective and conflicting local actions. Local agencies, lacking the broader national perspective, are thus more likely to exacerbate problems than solve them. Municipal officials cannot resolve dysfunction at the national level through their exercise of local powers.

For example, what is accomplished if half of the US cities establish environmental policies after concluding that the benefits of fossil fuels outweigh the negative effects while the other half act on a different evaluation? What is accomplished if half of the border cities and towns implement a relaxed border and immigration policy while the other half implement strict policies? And we know what happened when some states implemented blatantly racist laws while others (perhaps not perfectly) abstained from such practices. 

But what about the city that undertook the removal of a Confederate landmark and the engagement of its residents in improving (among other things) the relationship between the police department and those residents who are “often underrepresented?” Are this city’s actions examples of taking on national issues? Here we need to be precise. A local issue taken on simultaneously by many municipalities can, in aggregate, manifest in a national trend of great importance; but such a phenomenon does not transform such issues from local to national. 

The existence of a monument on city or county property is a local issue. And setting aside an evaluation of the outcomes of the “goals and strategies” that emerged from the city’s outreach to address community issues such as race and “equity,” such outreach is purely local. The city’s positive local actions – i.e., removal of Confederate symbols and review of policing policies – were just that – local actions. Such actions do not legitimize the fantasy that municipal leaders can do justice to their local charge and divert municipal resources to undertake bonafide national issues.

Local governments should reaffirm their fundamental roles and responsibilities by defining their business and minding it. At the national level, mission creep has spurred rent seeking, cronyism, and pressure group politics, thus hindering effective government. The National Civic League’s endorsement of the “nationalization” of local government matters invites similar dysfunctional elements to the local level, overwhelming city councils and compromising municipal operations. Maintaining distinct national and regional levels of government is crucial to a coordinated and unified approach to undertaking national issues. 

The “’nationalization’ of local government matters” amounts to the municipalization of national matters, whereby municipal officials create the illusion that their agencies are effectively responding to wide-ranging issues. These officials should limit the exercise of their agency’s powers to the fulfillment of their local mission and stay clear of unbounded scopes that sabotage the objectives vital to residents and business owners.

Mark Moses is a senior fellow with California Policy Center. He has thirty years of experience in local government administration and finance. His recent book, The Municipal Financial Crisis – A Framework for Understanding and Fixing Government Budgeting, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in January 2022 and is available from major online booksellers.     Twitter: @MuniFinanceGuy

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