Tuesday, August 2, 2011

In Our Backyards

There was a particularly telling interchange during the debate between the candidates for the ward 3 city council seat in Northampton. One candidate expansively described his notion that the large swath of open space in the ward known as the Meadows should be made more available for public recreational use. When his opponent countered that this was in fact private property owned by some of the few remaining city farmers, the first candidate scoffed at the idea of respecting private ownership and dismissed this aspect as a nuisance to be overcome in the realization of his quest for the greater public good. If I was a home owner in the ward, I would seriously wonder what help I would get from this counselor if the city were to come after my property under the guise of eminent domain. This resonates with one of the most egregious of Supreme Court decisions of this era. In Kelo vs. the City of New London, the court allowed for an expanded assault on private property rights. An issue of national importance appeared in a city ward debate.

In my years on the Northampton school committee and board of health, issues that were truly national in scope would appear translated into our local discussions. Most notable was the encroachment of government on the liberties of citizens. The controversy around the establishment of a hookah smoking bar came before the board of health and a public forum several years ago. I believed that the board was responsible for public health, not personal behavior. If a citizen of age who is informed about the dangers of smoking wanted to engage in poorly considered behavior for themselves, then it was not the city’s right to limit that behavior. The board of health’s job was to make sure the people who did not want to be exposed to the smoke were adequately protected. The public hearing broke down into competing positions. The thirty and under participants made the argument that if they were old enough to go to war, vote, and pay taxes, then had the right to make their own decisions. The over 50 crowd made the argument that smoking is bad, they knew better, and that smoking should be banned.

The same issue appeared years earlier in the school committee discussions on school choice. I believed that parents should have as many choices as possible for their families, and that the school choice program offered families without economic means some options as had families that could afford private schools. The school administration and city government felt that these children were public property, a communal livestock that needed to stay in the public pen for the good of the farm. Here was government limiting choice, rather than enlarging the scope of freedoms.

Issues around fiscal responsibility of government are easily evident locally. In discussions at the committee, board, or city council level about spending, there seemed to be no recognition that we were talking about real money, taxpayer dollars harvested from property taxes or state income taxes that came from the pockets of our fellow citizens and neighbors. We were spending play money picked from trees, disconnected from its true origins. Local officials used the same camouflage as the federal government, referring to the need for revenue enhancement instead of raising taxes.

The struggle around citizen entitlement appeared on the docket during my time in city politics. The school committee was always desperately short of money. I scoured the budget to find funds that could be redirected to the books we needed, and for supplies that teachers were buying with their own funds. There was $20,000 that was used to subsidize food services so that school lunch prices were kept artificially low; not for needy parents who had free lunch subsidies, but for all of the other parents who could pay. Some members of the committee felt that parents were entitled to these low cost lunches. I felt that the children were entitled to new books, and teachers should keep their salaries.

We do not have to go to the Supreme Court or Congress to engage with the most profound political struggles of our time. They are manifested locally, and are more immediate and intimate in our communities. Local politics is not insignificant. Who we elect and how they behave is deeply important. If you are only watching the national news, you are missing the battlefront in your backyard