Local government controls everyday life

Anthony Sanders

An often overlooked aspect of the American political system is the power of local government. While under the radar of most citizens, even in today’s climate of a near omnipresent federal government, local councils and boards wield extensive control over our lives. Everything, including how you can refurbish your home, where you may buy your groceries and how much you pay for your water, are all often under the thumb of a variety of local governing bodies. An example of such a body is the Twin Cities’ very own Ramsey County Board.

For all of you residing in St. Paul and its suburbs, the government of Ramsey County, headed by county commissioners, directly affects your life in a variety of ways. Primarily, the county commission deals with social issues. It is in charge of administering and partially funding county services such as welfare and health care benefits. It oversees law enforcement and emergency services. It works on transportation issues and will play a large role in planning any future light rail transit development. In short, work done at the county and city levels, while not the most glamorous work for a politician, has the most direct impact on people’s daily lives.

Many activists on the right and the left argue for more local control over governmental decision-making. They argue that if political bodies stay small, the people remain closer to the activities of government, and our elected representatives become more responsive and more accountable to voters. This is all true, but only if voters actually pay attention to what their local governments do. In this way, our presidents, governors and senators are, strangely enough, closer to the people. Most voters know who they are and can make informed decisions when voting for their offices. In contrast, ask average voters – heck, ask yourself – who their county commissioners are or who represents them on the local planning board. They won’t have a clue.

Because they don’t have a clue, outside of party insiders and political junkies, voters pay no attention to offices like the Ramsey county commissioner. This is in spite of the fact that the amount of funding your local hospital receives, the efficiency of your neighborhood police squad and the safety of your roadways depend on that position. For the amount of influence local governments have over peoples’ lives, voters spend far less time deliberating about their voting choices than they do on larger offices of marginally more importance.

Often the choice of who to vote for is made in the voting booth. At that point most people choose the incumbent, as they instinctively feel that he or she at least has experience in their current job. This reinforces the often egregious and irresponsible choices that local government representatives make.

There often is a reason to replace the incumbent. An example this year is St. Paul City Councilman Jerry Blakey. He’s running for Ramsey County commissioner in the 4th District.

Blakey’s been in the City Council since 1994 and has perhaps its strongest record of fiscal discipline. While St. Paul’s mayors racked up corporate welfare at the behest of the moneyed interests downtown, Jerry has stood for budgetary constraints and accountability. Blakey seeks to transfer this discipline to the county level. He also believes that Ramsey County can more efficiently administer its services by reducing regulations.

In contrast to Blakey’s record as a fiscal watchdog on the council, the Ramsey County Board has engaged in shameless fiscal irresponsibility. Lately the board has acquired a reputation for giving themselves double-digit raises while imposing tax hikes. This activity becomes possible because of the insulation their offices give them. At least when Congress busts spending caps wide open and neglects the country’s needs, the people sometimes know enough to throw the bums out. People get angry and the politicians either leave or change their ways. This doesn’t happen in every election, but the possibility remains.

Throwing the bums out at the local level only occurs in the Bizzaro World. Year after year local governments zone our communities into sprawl, kowtow to the teachers unions while our local public schools fall to the ground and line special interest pockets with our tax dollars. Sometimes accountability does raise its head, but usually only at the executive level, such as in the Minneapolis mayoral race last year.

If you live in the western neighborhoods of St. Paul you have a chance to change this trend. You can help Blakey improve your county government by electing him as your county commissioner. Alternatively, you can mindlessly vote for the incumbent and let local accountability pass you by once again.


Anthony Sander’s biweekly column appears alternate Thursdays. He welcomes comments at [email protected]. Send letters to the editor to [email protected]