Local governments face increasingly weighty challenges that affect their constituents. Addressing those problems will require residents to become more engaged, starting with this year’s Nov. 5 general election.
When I went to work for a newspaper after college, I started covering local governments – hardly my dream beat. I’d long been a devotee of state and national politics. Sitting through a three-hour meeting about a wastewater treatment plant didn’t hold much allure.
Covering weekly school board and city council meetings altered my opinion. I wrote about governing bodies making agonizing choices, such as closing a neighborhood school. When I moved up the ladder to state and national politics, I loved reporting about the “big” issues. But I missed the candor and accessibility of the locals. Moving to a bigger stage came with trade-offs.
These days, though, local government serves as a plenty large theater for the daunting issues affecting Kansans. In this edition of The Journal, we examine several of them – affordable housing, child care, student poverty, food deserts, economic revitalization and even restoring public trust – and seek out the insights of the candidates who might do something about them.
Few of these issues were on the plate of local government in my cub reporter days. But now they are everywhere. Why?
One reason is partisan gridlock pushes action to the local environment, where pragmatic solutions trump the ideological. Meanwhile, quality of life issues now represent the fault line by which communities prosper or falter. Residents want more than a job, and businesses want to be where the workers want to live. That puts pressure on communities to do more than fix potholes to compete.
The rise of large corporations as suppliers of more goods and services is a factor, too. Efficient and innovative, large companies also make decisions based on their interests rather than the community’s. For every Tyson, which agreed to pay workers during rebuilding after a fire burned through its Holcomb plant this year, there is a Dillons that shuts down its St. John grocery over lackluster sales or a Mercy Health that closes hospitals in Independence and Fort Scott. As efficient, large organizations became dominant, they shrank the pool of egalitarian small-business owners and managers serving as civic pillars. Local government often gets asked to fill the void.
Finally, services and amenities that were once easy to take for granted now face stress. Towns used to having hospitals, grocery stores and schools now face the prospect of dying without them. Rising costs in housing, child care, health care and higher education outstrip the income gains of the families whose taxes also support basic government services. Local governments find themselves being asked to address problems they are, at best, partially equipped to address but can’t ignore.
Despite these dynamics, local government involvement in more weighty civic issues carries troublesome implications. If you already believe that government engages in too much activity, too expensively and too inefficiently, you won’t want to expand its portfolio.
The Kansas Legislature has recently agreed with this viewpoint, passing statutes that preclude local governments from restricting junk food sales, regulating firearms and performing routine inspections inside rental houses and apartments. Lawmakers also capped how much cities and counties can raise taxes without a public vote, a source of cross-government friction.
If there’s a connecting interest here, it’s that the problems facing communities aren’t disappearing soon. Government might respond to many of them, but that doesn’t mean that local government has to take the largest or even a leading role.
However, for that to be the case, businesses, nonprofits, the faith sector and residents are going to have to be more engaged and proactive in shaping community solutions with government.
If you’re looking to start small at advancing solutions, though, there’s no better way than casting your ballot Nov. 5 and electing the best candidates, the ones who know the community and the local issues, and are willing to consider doing something about them.
A version of this article appears in the Fall 2019 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store. For a subscription to the printed edition of The Journal, visit https://kansasleadershipcenter.org/store/one-year-subscription-to-the-journal-4-upcoming-issues/.