Win political office with low turnout in municipal elections

Even large cities have problems with voter turnout in municipal elections:

Voter turnout in local elections has always been low, and it’s gotten worse in recent decades, studies of voting behavior in municipal elections have shown. In most of the biggest U.S. cities, fewer than one-third of eligible voters turned out in the most recent municipal elections. And according to data culled by researchers at Portland State University, those who do cast ballots in major cities tend to be significantly older than the general population, a factor that might weigh against women and candidates from diverse backgrounds.

My impression of elected officials in suburbs is that a good number get into local elections because they care deeply about an issue. With low turnout, relatively small communities, and a lack of formal political parties (many smaller municipal elections are supposedly non-partisan), it does not take a lot of resources to run for local office.

Of course, some of these variables are different at the big city level: often dominated by partisan politics, a larger need for significant sums of money, and a need to woo tens of thousands of voters. Still, it is notable that the leaders of some of the most important cities in the world can be voted in with votes from a relatively small number of citizens. These local leaders may not be able to easily move into national positions yet their decisions affect residents on a daily basis in a way that more abstract and further removed national politics cannot.

Naperville at buildout to try to avoid complacency

What does a large wealthy suburb do with little available land to expand? The mayor of Naperville put forward some ideas:

As he gave his third State of the City address Monday before a Naperville Area Chamber of Commerce crowd of 580, Chirico talked about the decisions he thinks will create a successful future with balanced finances, a strong economy and a well-run city.

“Great communities just don’t happen by accident,” he said during a lunch at the Embassy Suites hotel. “Careful planning and thoughtful decisions made Naperville the city it is today.”…

Chirico also emphasized the idea of consistent optimization toward goals of providing financial stability, economic development, public safety and a high-performing government.

“We must fight complacency — and the status quo — all day every day,” he said. “Naperville is a leader. We always have been, and we always will be. It’s simply who we are.”

These are not necessarily easy tasks for multiple reasons:

  1. Population growth is often associated with vitality and success. With little open space, population growth will have to come through infill and higher densities. Are these desirable in a sprawling suburb?
  2. Economic activity is necessary. This requires more new businesses and jobs. Properties can be redeveloped – several are highlighted in this article – but is there net economic growth over time? Additionally, Naperville has to compete with new up-and-coming places.
  3. Infrastructure and existing services cost could increase as the community ages.
  4. Having a sense of community can be difficult in any larger community. Are there common events, experiences, and spaces that bring people together and spur acts of civic activity?
  5. Naperville is a leader in the sense that it grew quickly and developed into a wealthy community with a high quality of life. Will it always be a model because of its earlier experiences or can it be a leader as a suburban innovator as many American suburbs encounter new challenges?

I will be interested to see how this all turns out in a few decades.

Ongoing Illinois debates about abolishing townships

Illinois is known as the state with the most taxing bodies and one way to reduce that figure would be to eliminate townships:

It’s prompted dueling Republican proposals for new state laws, one to make it easier to get rid of townships, the other to require a study to show financial savings before any township unit could be dissolved.

Illinois has 1,428 townships, helping to account for more units of government than any other state. It’s a layer of bureaucracy formed primarily to serve rural communities, but most states do without them…

“The real issue, and the reason property taxes are so high in Illinois, is because we have 7,000 units of government,” said state Rep. David McSweeney, a Barrington Hills Republican who’s sponsoring the bill to make it easier to mount township abolition campaigns in McHenry County. “The only way we’re going to reduce property taxes is to consolidate local governments. Townships are just a start.”…

Townships have three basic functions: maintaining roads that aren’t handled by other units of government, assessing property for real estate taxes, and helping the poor through food banks and emergency aid. Townships also often provide transportation for people with disabilities, as well as programs for senior citizens and youths….

Advocates of townships argue that they provide the most local, responsive service for the lowest price. In addition, several studies have found that expected expense reductions from government consolidation never materialized. A Rutgers University study concluded that “cost savings are not assured,” and that “most consolidations fail.”

Americans tend to prefer lower levels of government that they feel is more responsive to their daily needs. Taking the duties that townships do and pushing them up to a larger and more abstract county or state government can feel like ceding control to officials who do not know local conditions.

The article also makes it sound as if the research findings do not support claims that fewer bodies of local government would lead to cost savings. If that is not guaranteed, could a successful effort to abolish townships provide hope to some that government can be rolled back or reduced to some degree?

All said, efforts in Illinois in recent years to eliminate or consolidate units of government has been slow. The state legislature banned the formation of new government bodies and DuPage County slowly is reducing the number.

Could governments ever stick to “nonaggression pacts” involving companies?

As companies like Amazon look for good deals from local communities, one economist suggests non-aggression pacts:

It’s hard to draw conclusions about how much local economies gain from fulfillment centers and whether incentives are warranted from the experience of individual towns or counties, said Tim Bartik, senior economist at the Michigan-based W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.

Fulfillment centers likely do benefit the surrounding community, but the gains may be modest compared with other types of economic development projects that could generate more business for local companies, Bartik said. The jobs have modest wages, limiting the amount workers would potentially spend at local retailers, and warehouses generally don’t patronize local suppliers, he said…

He advocates states form “nonaggression pacts” to contain costs of incentives that simply shift jobs from one part of the country to another, though he acknowledges those pledges are unlikely to stick.

“The next company comes along, and they decide it’s an exception,” Bartik said. “We haven’t seen one that’s really survived.”

Here are at least four arguments I could imagine people making against such pacts:

  1. Competition is central to the American economic system. Why shouldn’t local communities be able to offer whatever they want to attract a company or development? Having and sticking to such pacts is collusion by communities.
  2. If companies cannot get good deals from communities, they will leave the country. This would not make much sense to me as the American market is a pretty lucrative one but it could apply more for certain companies or industries.
  3. Local officials need to be able to show local results, not that they are cooperating with other places. They want to be able to say that they brought specific jobs or benefits to their community, not that the whole region is benefiting (though this may be true).
  4. What is good for companies is good for communities and America. This is a tricky argument all around: thriving companies are important yet it is much harder to figure out whether firms are helping communities in the ways they should. (This is an open question these days involving Walmart, Amazon, and tech companies.)

Perhaps the best argument that could be made for such pacts is that the general public – in the abstract – wins if companies are unable to obtain massive tax breaks or incentives for certain actions.

For better or worse, the decision Amazon makes about where to locate its second headquarter will keep this issue in the spotlight for a long time.

Why suburban governments should consider merging

While Lisle, Naperville, Warrenville, and Woodridge appeared to have little interest in merging, the long saga does raise a possibility: should more suburban governments consider merging?

The primary reason not to is that many suburbs and their local officials want to maintain control over what happens in their community and near their homes. Larger communities may make decisions for the good of the larger community that do not necessarily benefit certain members of the community. A smaller government provides closer oversight as the individual votes of residents count more.

A second reason for not merging is that suburbs often see themselves as distinct communities. Even though an outsider might see it all as one amorphous blob of suburbanism, many suburbs have long histories and distinct characters. In this particular case, these suburbs may define themselves partly as not Naperville: we are still a small community with a distinct feel.

On the other side, there may be multiple reasons to merge: financial economies of scale through combining particular city services (for example, having one police department rather than four), increased visibility and status with a larger size (controlling more land as well as having a larger population), broadening a tax base, and some communities may have mutual interests due to similar demographics, locations, or like-minded leaders. Imagine an even larger Naperville that controls a lot of land along major highways (I-88 and I-355), has a diverse tax base (particularly due to a lot of office jobs), thas efficient city services over a broad area, and is clearly the largest suburb of Chicago (Aurora currently holds that distinction). In the long run, is it feasible to keep so many suburban governments going when budgets are ever tighter? Is it worth protecting local control and distinct characters at a higher cost?

The only way I could see suburbs seriously consider merging would involve difficult financial times looming on the horizon. Even then, many suburbs may not want to take on the communities that have a weaker financial standing or a lower status.

The unclear plot to merge Lisle, Naperville, Warrenville, and Woodridge

The Daily Herald reveals details behind an odd 2017 suburban annexation push but there are still numerous unanswered questions:

Court records released this week in Will County show Dave Nelson, a former candidate for Lisle village clerk who ran on a slate with the current mayor and two trustees, was the key proponent of a plan to place referendum questions concerning the proposed mergers on spring 2017 ballots.

Court records show Nelson was working on behalf of his minor child.

The revelation is sparking questions about whether Nelson’s political allies were involved in the merger push, which long was shrouded in mystery. Some village board members also are raising questions about why some of Nelson’s allies who were elected to village posts are considering replacing the village’s legal counsel, suggesting it may be retribution for the firm’s work in uncovering Nelson’s secret…

The courts rejected the petitions in Warrenville and Woodridge because they didn’t have enough signatures and the petitions in Lisle because of procedural problems.

While we now know who started the efforts to annex these communities, there are still more questions:

  1. The article says “Nelson was working on behalf of his minor child.” Was this a school project? Something the minor child really wanted to see happen? Does it have anything to do at all with school districts?
  2. There are some issues with the Lisle local elections and the particular slate of candidates known as “Prosperity for Lisle.” In this article, they deny knowledge of what one of their candidates – Nelson – was doing. Did anyone in Lisle know what was going on?
  3. Was there any additional interaction with the other communities beyond Lisle? Nelson had earlier admitted to talking to the Naperville mayor. Was anyone else in on this?

There is more to uncover.

Tomorrow, I will discuss why suburban governments should consider merging and the reasons why it does not often happen, let alone even reach the stage of a public discussion.

Don’t forget that American residents can collectively help decide what houses mean for Americans

Kate Wagner of McMansion Hell ends a commentary piece several months ago by arguing Americans need to redefine the meaning of the home:

We need a cultural re-examination of what a home should do for us. Are we building our homes to cater to the communal needs of a family or to accommodate items or signifiers that will impress others? Will a home inspire its inhabitants to spend time with one another or isolate themselves in myriad rooms? Are we building a home to live in, or are we preoccupied with the idea of selling it even before the first brick is laid? Do we want to remodel or redecorate, or do we feel we have to because we’re constantly flooded with content that makes us feel inadequate if we don’t?

It’s time we as space-inhabiters break this unsustainable, unnecessary, and wasteful cultural cycle of consumption and reclaim our homes as our proverbial rocks, the spaces that make us feel safe and content. Who gave industry-funded media like HGTV or Houzz the right to dictate the proper and best ways to inhabit our spaces, to ridicule or diagnose as wrong those of us who lack the desire or the means to constantly consume in precisely way they want us to? A home isn’t an investment vehicle where cash goes in and more cash comes out, or the “After” segment of a television show. A home is, above all, an intimate, personal place; a haven where our intricate lives as human beings unfold. Grey paint be damned.

This names several actors who are defining what Americans want in homes. This includes:

-Media like HGTV.

-The housing industry.

Both certainly have power and influence. The housing industry through the National Association of Home Builders has a powerful lobbying presence. Just see their actions in the latest debates over the mortgage interest deduction. For decades, various media outlets have pushed the image of single-family homes filled with consumer goods; they needs advertisers after all. HGTV has a limited audience but their viewers may be the same upper-middle class Americans that feel like they are not doing well and are very vocal about this.

But these are not the only actors influencing what Americans think of homes. This list should also include:

-The government.

-American residents.

Histories of how the American suburbs developed in addition to overviews of federal housing policy (see this recent example) suggest that federal government in the last century or so is set up to help people obtain homes in the suburbs.

Often missing in these analyses is the role of American residents themselves. What kinds of homes do they truly want? More Marxist analyses suggest Americans have been duped or led into wanting large homes in a capitalist system. Thus, we should help Americans find homes that truly fit their needs rather than mindlessly giving in to what the housing industry and government want them to have. (Wagner’s paragraphs above sound very similar to Sarah Susanka arguments in The Not-So-Big House.) “Re-claim our homes” could involve fighting back against the capitalist system that insists our homes are true markers of who we are (and distracts us from the real issues at hand). In contrast, historian Jon Teaford suggests these sorts of homes are what Americans do truly want because they highly value freedom and individualism. Others like Joel Kotkin have made similar arguments: Americans keep moving to the suburbs because they like them, not because they are forced into them or are not smart enough to fight the system.

Regardless of where these ideas about homes came from (and it includes a mix of institutions as well as ideologies), American residents still have the ability to reject the typical narratives about single-family homes. They do often have options available to them. What kind of home they chose is a very consequential decision. And, perhaps even better, this does not have to be an individual effort or solely about personal empowerment: Americans could collectively vote for candidates and parties that would have a different image of housing. But, oddly enough, housing rarely comes up in national politics and local politics seems full of zoning and housing disputes but few large-scale efforts to provide alternatives. If Americans want housing options to change, they do not have to just turn off HGTV; at both the federal and local level, they should vote accordingly and/or insist that political candidates talk about these issues.

Ideologies and behaviors regarding housing do not just happen: they develop over time and involve a multitude of actors. To have a new vision of housing in America will likely take decades of sustained effort within multiple structures and institutions. These are not new issues; those opposed to McMansions today are related to those opposed to the mass suburbs of the 1950s and to the social reformers of the early decades of the 1900s who promoted public housing. The efforts can be top-down – changes need to be made at the highest levels – but could be more effective if they start at the bottom – with average voters – who demand change of businesses and governments.