Is It None of Our Business?
Should cities and counties be addressing national issues? During a conference this month hosted by the National Academy of Public Administration, our panel was asked about the effects of the “nationalization” of local government matters, and, on balance, we felt that it’s a positive phenomenon. While local policy-making may sometimes reflect the conflicts seen at the national level, at least locals are getting to solutions.
We often dealt with this question while I was on Denver’s City Council, beginning in 2003. Whenever someone would bring a resolution pertaining to national or even global issues, other members would inevitably say that the particular issue “is none of our business.” Now, however, hundreds of cities have taken action on issues like climate change, treatment of immigration, equity, and other matters that some feel should be addressed at the national level.
The problem is that our national government is often dysfunctional and lacks the people’s trust for addressing key issues. As a result, local governments and their partners—nonprofits, faith institutions and others—are stepping up to the plate. On climate change, for example, 10,000 cities around the world have joined the Global Covenant of Mayors, over 100 major cities have committed to cutting greenhouse gases in half by 2030, and many dozens of U.S. cities have established resilience officers and climate goals.
Racial equity is another matter on which cities and counties have taken action, with most major cities having either an equity officer, equity plan or both. In 2020 alone, 168 confederate symbols were removed from locations across the U.S., with 94 of those symbols being monuments, and since the George Floyd killing dozens of cities have adopted police reforms.
It’s natural, of course, for communities to face controversy when addressing issues like climate change, equity and immigration, all of which surely draw more emotion and attention than many traditional municipal functions. Yet at the same time, communities have been remarkably successful in negotiating solutions, at least compared to federal policymakers.
While part of this success in local policymaking is due to the natural evolution of communities to become either mostly conservative or mostly liberal, it’s also due to the nonpartisan makeup of most local councils and the good work of communities doing effective civic engagement, with listening sessions, online surveys, deliberative dialogue, “living room conversations” and all the other tools advanced by our sister organizations in the nonprofit and academic worlds.
Consider the All-America City of Decatur, GA, for example, which even before the George Floyd killing, held a citywide conversation on race entitled Better Together, which resulted in numerous goals and strategies for the whole community to live in greater harmony with regard to racial differences. Perhaps because of these conversations, the City was later able to resolve a conflict over a local confederate statue despite attempted interference from the state and a few protestors. Yes, the City of Decatur, like other cities and counties, fixes potholes and picks up trash, but it also tackles tough national issues, because, after all, that's their business too.