Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Flint and the Right of Local Self-Government

Nelson Tebbe

[I'm posting this for Rich Schragger, who ran into technical difficulty putting it up. - NT] 

Rich Schragger

Over at Slate, I point out what should be obvious: that replacing elected city officials with appointed city mangers unaccountable to the local electorate is not just undemocratic, it is also bad policy. This is contrary to those who believe that these emergency mangers can be “dictators for democracy,” as Clay Gillette has recently argued.  I think this is a significant mistake, though one made repeatedly by state officials and other elites dissatisfied with the exercise of city power. The history of local government law in the states shows how, after fiscal crises, reformers take power away from cities, but find that states and their agents can do no better—and often much worse. In the Progressive era, for example, reformers concerned about the manipulability of white ethnic "mobs" by urban machines shifted power to the state or to expert administrative bodies. But state legislatures were often just as corrupt as local ones—and reformers found themselves dissatisfied with the new distribution of power.   

The impulse to limit local electoral democracy assumes that local political failure is at the heart of local fiscal failure. But that is mistaken. The idea that less democracy will fix what ails any city—and particularly declining post-industrial cities—is a dangerous fantasy. The tragedy in Flint is just the most recent example. The fact that mostly poor and black cities continue to struggle is a political failure—one of the most tragic and unaddressed in American history—but it is not going to be solved by putting cities into receivership, managing them in and out of bankruptcy, or appointing city managers who will make “hard” decisions about what basic services to cut next. 

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