Local Control? Or, To the People…

This week’s Courier Herald column:

Much of what is done and not done in government has a common root or theme.  It’s difficult to educate the public and keep a couple hundred citizen legislators on message on every technical matter considered for law or policy.  Slogans are easier to remember than white papers.

One of the major themes used every year is that of “local control”.  Application of the phrase is not new, as it’s been used in many of the education reform and accountability battles for years. 

The concept is simple as a test of government.  Decisions should be made as close to the people as possible, with the smallest and/or as little government as possible guiding decisions and limiting the freedoms of individuals.

The mantra has been adopted and internalized by so many on the right side of the aisle that one could be forgiven for searching a concordance to see which chapter of the Bible lays out this commandment.  The Constitution has a fairly significant directive for those who need to see it in black and white.

“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

That’s the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution.  It specifically limits the powers of the Federal Government to those provided within the document.  The remaining are reserved to the states, or, to the people.

It doesn’t assign responsibility to local school boards.  Mayors and County Commissioners are not mentioned.  The U.S. Constitution relegates powers to the states, or to the people.

That’s not to say there isn’t a role for any other government structures below that of the state level.  Georgia’s Constitution makes clear there are roles of counties, cities, school boards, and other entities.  These powers are express grants of the state.

The point too often lost from those who rest their case on the “local control” argument isn’t that a county commission or city council are closer to the citizens they represent than the state.  They are.

The appropriate question that needs to be asked when “local control” in invoked is whether or not the government should be usurping the decision making ability of individuals at all.

“to the states…OR, to the people”

One of the more recent waves in asserting the local control argument is in that of “local design standards”.  It’s an issue that deserves its own column, on both the merits and the consequences, intended and unintended.  We’ll use it here briefly to highlight the limits of the local control argument. 

The state of Georgia adopts and maintains a statewide building code, to ensure that structures are sound and construction methods result in buildings are that are safe when inhabited.  Local governments generally have some leeway in interpreting the code as they are the ones that manage the construction inspection process.

Recently, counties and cities have begun to implement “local design standards” that add to the cost of a home’s construction beyond code requirements.  Some examples include prohibiting slab foundations, mandating four-sided brick exterior facades, and other similar components. 

Supporters say the measures are needed to protect property values.  Opponents say they add unnecessary costs to new homes in a market that already can’t supply sufficient entry level housing.

Proponents of limited government need to remember the phrase, “Or to the people”.

The county commission nor city council will be making mortgage payments on these homes for the next thirty years. It is the people that are buying the houses.  It is the government that is limiting their choices and driving up their prices.

Implementation of local design standards is just one example where government, even at a local level, is reaching beyond the minimum amount needed into a person’s ability to make decisions for themselves. 

It’s a fairly bright line illustrating that sometimes the government closest to the people is actively making decisions that should be reserved and left to the people. 

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