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home : opinions : opinions August 18, 2017

4/20/2017 7:29:00 AM
Democracy in Action

This past week, with a few exceptions, citizens in more than 1,200 towns marched to community centers and town halls to take part in a Wisconsin political tradition, the annual town electors meeting.

Many times these meetings are sparsely attended - things may be just fine in the town, so why bother to go - but often enough they attract large crowds, even when there are no pressing issues. That was true this year as well.

It is easy enough to dismiss these meetings as quaint and anachronistic holdovers from a bygone era. Really, we are told, we live in an age of globalism and instant technology, and tiny local governments just don't matter much anymore.

Except they do.

Since the 1960s, there have been persistent attempts from both ends of the political spectrum to abolish as many local units of government as possible in the name of effectiveness. Regional government and top-down planning, we are told, allow more efficient use of resources, the consolidated delivery of services, and ensure the application of sound science.

In the '70s and early '80s, it seemed that this movement would prevail. Regional government was the order of the day, and comprehensive planning its battle slogan. Town halls were a relic of the past.

But the movement has fizzled, and town halls and town meetings are as robust as ever. It seems those who believed local government was dead miscalculated on multiple levels. For one thing, they failed to understand that the shared delivery of services does not necessarily require the abdication of local decision-making about those services.

They also failed to understand that top-down science is often wrong science, and sound evidence-based approaches often percolate from the bottom up. Finally, and perhaps most important, the enemies of local government failed to see just how strongly individualistic Americans are, and that means they like to look their officials in the eye.

When people have a problem, they don't want to travel one or two hours to appear before an impersonal council of so-called experts who have probably never set foot in their towns. They want to drive down the street to the town hall and talk it out.

Then, too, local governments in Wisconsin and in other states are vested with important powers.

Electors at a town meeting can purchase land, they can approve road and culvert projects, they can exercise certain zoning authority, they can dispose of property and engage in watershed protection, and soil and water conservation.

That's not all. The town meeting can authorize a town board to appropriate money for various projects, including conservation of natural resources, various civic functions, such as attracting industry and even authorizing neighborhood watch programs, and they can even undertake cemetery improvements.

Again, it's easy to dismiss out of hand these kinds of issues when hot-button topics like immigration and health care and entitlement reform dominate the national news. But if those issues are critical to our survival and social order, so too are the decisions made in those town halls about housing and policing, about highways and natural resources and industrial parks.

For if roads crumble, if local environmental stewardship falters, if local efforts to develop jobs and industry fail, the towns shrivel and their people suffer no matter what the political barons at the top of the food chain tell us.

The local town meeting is not only democracy at its finest, but it can and does determine our standard of living.

All across Wisconsin and the Northwoods this past week, local town electors by the thousands participated in this impressive demonstration of democracy, and they engaged in many of those activities.

In Boulder Junction, to cite just one example, electors encouraged the town chairman to continue to pursue a part-time police officer to enhance public safety for the town; they debated the most efficient organization of their town structure; they voted to purchase 10 acres of land behind the community center to protect it from logging and other potential developmental activities; and they heard about road improvement options as a first step toward a decision they will make at a later date - a decision that will determine the quality of access and mobility in that town for decades to come.

It was quite a sight to see more than 50 residents turn out on a rainy night in Boulder Junction and debate those issues for four hours, civically and peacefully. These debates and public meetings will do as much or more to determine the prosperity of Boulder Junction over the next half century than anything Donald Trump or congressional Democrats and Republicans will do. And the same goes for other towns.

All of this should send a powerful message, namely, that the town meeting and related civic projects are where citizens get engaged and take the real actions that keep communities vital and functional and that ensure decent daily lives for their citizens, despite what gridlock or special-interest poisons there may be on the state and federal levels.

The town meetings, and the town governments they represent, empower people and tell us that we can and do still control our lives and destinies, as annual town meetings across the state this week again demonstrated. Political control is just a town hall away.

As long as our local governments remain strong, as long as town meetings remain vibrant and robust and bursting with citizen debate and action, as they are today, we need not fear for our democracy.

The towns, long live the towns. That's where Wisconsin citizens this week called the shots, and put those who would take control of their lives away firmly in their place.

Editor's note: Look for annual meeting reports in upcoming editions of the River News.

Reader Comments

Posted: Monday, April 24, 2017
Article comment by: JOHN MCCONNELL

It is ironic to see the editorial team for this paper endorse town hall democracy. They have stood solidly behind Gov. Walker and a Republican legislature that has done more to eliminate local control than any administration/legislature in history. The shore land zoning law is just one of many examples. Now, after cutting billions from the school budgets, the legislature is proposing limiting how and how often school districts can vote on funding. It apparently galls GOP senators like Dewey Struebel that their best efforts to strangle public schools has been thwarted by voters who recognize the need for schools and for maintain the facilities. So, their solution? Don't allow voters to decide.
But, Mr. Moore will continue to praise local control and at the same time continue his unabashed praise for the very folks who are working hard to eliminate local control over everything from zoning to schools.

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