The crisis of local government - Tucson Local Media: Editorials

The crisis of local government

And how difficult it might be to fix it

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Posted: Tuesday, May 20, 2008 11:00 pm

Three current conflicts involving local governments illustrate the crisis of representative government, and the failure of those we elect to perform the roles they no longer seem to believe they have.

Pima County Supervisor Ray Carroll’s request for information from department heads concerning budget matters was denied him by County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry, who ordered them not to supply it. Larry Lopez, heading the police union in Tucson, is in a funding dispute with City Manager Mike Hein. The Amphitheater School District is being hauled into court for failure to supply public records to The Arizona Daily Star. Queries by the media and others made to board members and the superintendent are referred to the district’s attorney, Todd Jaeger, who apparently made the decision to withhold the information.

Huckelberry has at least attempted to cover his decision to override Carroll’s requests with a passing nod to those theoretically in charge. He states that a majority of the other board members have no interest in seeking the information, so the staff shouldn’t have to bother assembling it for the minority who do. Lopez’s engagement with Hein allows Hein to be the buffer between the cops, letting the mayor and council skate around the problem. And the Amphi School Board has always allowed Jaeger a policy role beyond that given staff attorneys.

It was Jaeger who contributed to the recall of the Amphi Board 10 years ago by stonewalling press requests, back when the media cared more about such items. Ironically, the new board kept him around and without the ethics problems their predecessors had has survived his often arbitrary decisions. Local governments are plagued not only by the bizarre opinions of judges, but worse the opinions of their own attorneys, who recommend policy choices based on their own bizarre opinions concerning what a judge could even remotely imagine.

This epidemic of nonfeasance is prevalent throughout local governments everywhere. The real question is why do so many of those we elect act like potted plants and boards of onlookers?

Elected officials mirror their constituencies. Local elections draw the lowest turnouts because most voters are totally clueless about how they work. Part of this is an educational system which places low priority on what we once called “civics.” This spills over into the media reporting on them. Voters and reporters duck stuff they know little about.

National issues are much easier to follow because everybody’s chasing them. There’s a wide ranging menu to draw from, and hosts of groups from left to right can fill you in. Any reasonably bright person with a core value system and belief in a coherent agenda can quickly become a decent member of Congress. To a lesser extent the same is true at the state level, and political parties and other entities are available as support groups. By the time we’re down to city councils and school boards, we have only a few single issue groups and a general lack of knowledge about how these systems work.

When governments were smaller and citizens better educated about their roles, you could ask your neighbor to serve and — more importantly — decide policies. Now massive amounts of information are held by the staff and few agendas exist beyond theirs. Most media members are equally ignorant. That neighbor quickly becomes disoriented.

How to start fixing this requires another column. Simply recognizing that too many local jurisdictions are now run by folks who resemble student governments more than real ones is a beginning.

• Listen to Emil Franzi and Tom Danehy on Inside Track, Saturdays 1-4 p.m., on KVOI 690 AM.

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