43. Local matters

Tom Brokaw, commenting in the New York Times, is skeptical of being local "? specifically of the American habit of multiplying units of local government.

I've shared his skepticism. In 2000 in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, I imagined California as a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle with more than 5,000 government pieces. "They include the familiar outlines of cities (482), counties (58) and school districts (more than 1,000), and a bewildering variety of special districts (3,800)."

My target in 2000 was "phantom government" "? the thousands of single-purpose districts so specialized that the voters who elect their boards barely know of the board's existence. Brokaw aimed much more widely in his criticism, suggesting that county governments in lightly settled states should consolidate, that systems of higher education could be amalgamated across state lines, and that, as a general rule, the merely local ought to give way before the efficiency of the regional.

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So, would local government be better if it were less local?

It's been tried. In Australia and New Zeeland, federally-mandated consolidation of local governments began in the late 1980s. Small towns disappeared into large cities, and city councils turned into regional assemblies. Post-amalgamation Auckland, for example, has a mayor and 19 "city councillors" governing a population of just 404,000.

Not to go philosophic on you, but my opinions in these pieces are grounded on an understanding (admittedly incomplete) of subsidiarity "? the conviction that public matters are best managed at a level which is closest to them and which also has the capacity to deal with them. Local is my default setting. Even when institutions that are less local are the ones that are more able, the "moral imagination" of the institution's leaders should turn again and again to the local.

So, I think the city's system of Neighborhood Councils is a good idea. I think the system of Area Planning Commissions could be made into a better one. (Both were key elements in the "reform charter" of 1999.) I like them because they restore a needed element of localism (or subsidiarity) in a city notorious for the opacity of its civic institutions.

Brokaw thinks there are too many counties "? with their attendant government institutions "? in Iowa. I don't know if California has too many governments "? only that California has too many that thrive because of their carefully managed distance from the local.

The image on this page was taken by Flickr user Buz Carter. It was used under a Creative Commons license.

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