Lessons in Democracy from Local Government by Caleb Logan
On Tuesday, February 12, I attended the Maplewood City Council meeting. The City Council meets on the second and fourth Tuesday of each month in the Maplewood City Hall in Maplewood, Missouri. The crowd in attendance included the Mayor, 6 councilmen and councilwomen, the City Attorney, City Manager, and approximately 15 members of the public. This governmental body did not quarrel over border walls, healthcare mandates, or military interventions in distant nations. Instead, their business included street parking, permits, and purchasing two portable Motorola radios for the Police Department. Despite the small scale of this meeting, there were several positive takeaways that are applicable to our democracy on a larger scale. The Maplewood City Council meeting exhibited responsiveness to citizens, healthy deliberation between elected officials, and efficacy in government.
One vital aspect of democratic processes is the government’s responses to the public. Schumpeter’s (1943) view of democracy entails simply electing a government to make political decisions for the people. This would be an understandable model for local government as the majority of citizens may be apathetic to the far-less-sensationalized issues of local government. However, in the case of Maplewood, the citizens were informed and present. Several individuals from the public attended the public meeting and voiced their concerns. More applicably, Dahl’s (1972) view of democracy judges democracy by its responsiveness to the people. Dahl states that citizens must have “unimpaired opportunities to formulate their preferences, signify their preferences, and have their preferences weighed equally in the conduct of government” (2). At the February 12th meeting, a homeowner, as well as a business owner spoke in regards to the city’s plan to change the parking on a particular street. The council deliberated over the opinions of the individuals, and while discerning the best possible outcome, even entertained the approval of an individual from the public when considering an alternative plan. In the end, the proposed bill amending the street parking was tabled, largely due to the discontent of the people at the meeting. This type of responsiveness to the public and equal weighing of the opinions of individuals exemplifies important aspects of Dahl’s view of legitimate and healthy democracy. The meeting exemplified important facets of democracy not only in the discussions between the public and the council, but between the council’s members as well.
Another salient feature of a well-functioning democracy is healthy deliberation between elected officials. McCoy (2018) describes the difficulties governments face in achieving compromise, consensus, and interaction in a polarized atmosphere. Moreover, she describes the democratic backsliding that can occur as a result of these difficulties. Although there are presumably less reasons to be polarized when representing a relatively small geographical area, the councilmen and councilwomen exemplified compromise, consensus, and interaction. In the meeting, the thirteenth item on the agenda was the revision of an ordinance that provided four valet parking spaces for a restaurant in the city. The same ordinance revision proposed the creation of a loading zone for a diner and donut shop in order to alleviate a traffic safety issue. The discussion of this revision took up almost half of the forty-five minute meeting. In contrast to the political posturing and procedural squabbling often seen in state and national governments, the discussions between the councilmen and councilwomen were comparatively collaborative and courteous. The council discussed various factors such as safety, the possible effect on people who live on the street, and the possible effects of the ordinance on the businesses located on the street. They interacted extensively with each other and actively worked to form a consensus. Moreover, throughout the entire meeting, there was never a non-unanimous vote. While larger government bodies cannot be expected to produce unanimous votes, the ability to reach compromises and consensuses through communication is undoubtedly salient for any representative democracy.
One result of responsiveness to the public and healthy deliberation between elected officials is efficacy. Linz (1978) describes efficacy as the “capacity of a regime to find solutions to the basic problems facing any political system” (20). In Linz’s view, efficacy and effectiveness are vital for government legitimacy, a central facet in upholding democracy. During the forty-five minute meeting of the Maplewood City Council, the council formed a board, issued housing permits, and approved the purchase of radios for their police department. While these tasks seem simple, they offer an insight into the efficacy of the council. Finding solutions to problems is a central role of government, and Maplewood exemplifies this important aspect of protecting the legitimacy of a democratic regime.
Overall, the Maplewood City Council meeting demonstrated several salient elements of democracy. First, the elected councilmen and councilwomen were responsive to the voices of their constituents. Furthermore, they deliberated in order to reach a compromise or consensus on the issues presented to them. They also achieved a lot in a short amount of time, demonstrating efficacy and efficiency in government. As corruption, polarization, and populism exacerbate the issues in our national government, perhaps our most prominent elected officials should take notes from Maplewood.
Photo by Ymani Wince of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch