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    Op-Ed: Local Politicians are Not Kings of Their Kingdom

    By William Haupt III, The Center Square contributor

    “Whatever sovereignty a local government believes that they have, is subject to and defined and therefore limited to alteration under their state and federal constitutional laws.” – Dick Thornburgh

    With the fall of the Roman Empire, an epoch of metamorphosis within the Mediterranean region spread though neighboring countries and consumed much of Europe. Incompetent rulers fell prey to failing economies, internal struggles for power, wars and lawlessness, which eventually led to the rise of feudalism. The stretch of time between the 5th and 12th centuries is called the Dark Ages.

    With no central unity and the lack of refined social, economic and political conditions in western Europe, kingdoms emerged as the only unit of government. These postage stamp size societies were governed by warlords who were medieval dictators. They ruled by fiat instead of law and not a person in their kingdom dared to criticize them. Anyone who didn’t patronize them lost their head.

    The late “Tip” O’Neill, Jr., former speaker of the House, once announced that, “All politics is local.” This has been proven again and again so many times that one would think it ought to be stitched on a sampler and hung over the mantel in every American home. Yet the most important civics lesson is the one most easily forgotten since it takes time and knowledge and discipline in local government.

    Local aldermen, county and city commissioners are the lowest rung of government and most of the time run unopposed. They win their elections in the primaries by default since they are the only one to vote for in a district. If opposed, enough of their friends show up to put them in office. There are no qualifications for office and few candidates have knowledge of prevailing state or federal laws.

    With the best intentions, once elected they walk the walk and talk the talk as public servants. But it is their lack of knowledge and experience that prevails since they have little civic or legal education to execute their duties in public service. Those that succeed are those who are willing to learn from those educated in public service and those who will listen to people who know more than they do.

    Since our Constitution established all governments in the nation must be representative, no entity from the smallest township to the largest state can eliminate the voice of the people. Yet local elected officials too often forget this. By legal fiat, the citizens have the final voice in what all guests in their governing chambers do and don’t do. But in many local governments, those voices are easily silenced by special interests who pay government to do work for them rather than for the people.

    As states, townships and counties developed governments, their authority as the gatekeepers of local democracy prevailed. While the country was embryonic, this system worked effectively in maintaining representation in local government. Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. The idea of local representative leadership somehow fell through the cracks of democracy.

    “All governments degenerate when trusted to the rulers of the people alone.” – Thomas Jefferson

    With the refinement of lobbying techniques and campaign pay-back promises, the representative governments as once envisioned are mere tokens of appeasement. Many local governments are now “kingdoms” ruled by elected kings. Governing behind the chamber doors, they sidestep the voices of the people.

    “It is error only, and not truth, that shrinks from inquiry.” – Thomas Paine

    With more powers being bestowed upon the local governments from social welfare to commercial licensing, health and education, local governments are playing a greater role designing policies and delivering key public services. The award of business contracts for gain, nepotism or political favors by local communities without the people’s voice is the new benchmark for local government.

    Once these special interests have invaded our municipal chambers, it is impossible to weed them out. Venality, from the venal to the vast, has become ingrained in the local government’s political landscape. Local politicians conveniently hide this from the citizens in most communities.

    “If there’s anything a public servant hates to do it’s something in front of the public to view.” – Ken Hobson

    One would think since local government is the sphere of democracy closest to the people, they would have the greatest degree of representation there. Unfortunately through the years, this has become less fact and more fiction. Since so many services are delivered by them, the opportunity for those closest to the politicians to influence those decisions is far greater than the electorate.

    Since local government has the ability to set policies and make laws usurping the rights of citizens, this is where we need trustworthy representation most. The power to legislate can be the power to destroy if that privilege is put in the wrong hands. Those who benefit from many decisions made by local government are not the people. This is most evident when spending or new development is involved.

    “In the absence of justice, what is sovereignty but organized robbery?” – Saint Augustine

    In many local governments it is almost impossible to find the end of the paper trail that leads to the core of a problem that concerned citizens are trying to correct. Although there are open record laws in all states to check the actions of elected officials, local governments make a person jump through more hoops than a chimpanzee in training for a circus act to get them when they are needed most.

    Most local governments are now charging a fee to look at these records and make voters pay for copying them. Yet they belong to the people? There are endless delays, and countless obstacles if you want to get access to public documents that “you own.”. Those on the inside looking out for the government hold the keys to the file cabinets and won’t open the drawers unless you go after them.

    It is local government where citizens and the public sector interact regularly and directly concerning immediate issues affecting their lives. When there is corruption or little transparency within the local level of government, it impacts local citizens the most. and it’s the hard to correct once it happens.

    Oliver Wendell Holmes told us, “Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.” There are few people who deny the necessity of paying a fair and equitable price for services they receive. But when local governments decide to give tax dollars to businesses who demand money to relocate there, or arbitrary budget increases are approved without input from voters, this is representative government: at its worst.

    “If government were a product, selling it would be illegal.” – P. O’Rourke

    Once a citizen becomes a local rep they must be reminded that they are not kings of their feudal kingdoms. They work for you, not for the good ol’ boys or special interests. If you don’t, they will bow to peer pressure and go along to get along and treat you like subjects instead of citizens.

    “We have such hope for the bureaucracy in local government. Yet it is generally there where we are the most frustrated. Simply, it just doesn’t work the way we feel it should work.”- Jennifer Piada



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