The trustee meeting I attended Tuesday actually began over hundred years ago. In 1910 Ohio voters approved the calling of a constitutional convention, and in 1912 a whole series of amendments were adopted. The Ohio History Central link goes to a short but very good summary, and it’s definitely worth taking a minute to read it. The amendments that failed foreshadowed many of the civic battles that followed. In addition, the protection of workers’ rights and exclusion of African American rights prefigured the “devil’s bargain coalition” that made the New Deal possible – then blew the Democratic party apart thirty years later.
One of the amendments that passed was home rule, which essentially said that any power not explicitly granted to the state was reserved for cities. Lawrence F. Keller and Maxine Goodman Levin described (PDF) the conditions that prompted the need for it:
The national and state governments were quite small at the time and the demands for public regulation and services were focused in the burgeoning cities. To provide these services efficiently, cities needed independence from the often corrupt state politics and reform of their own corrupt political machines. The reformers at the time thus focused on cleaning up local politics and creating a legal status for cities that protected them from state politics.
(Considering some of the conditions in our current politics, it may be time for another constitutional convention.)
Home rule is really only meaningful for contentious issues, though. In the same way that only unpopular speech needs defending, home rule only matters when it goes up against some powerful interest. If you can’t have it then, don’t bother having it at all. No one needs home rule to declare Motherhood Appreciation Day.
The measure of free speech is the degree to which unpopular speech is protected; similarly the measure of home rule is the degree to which municipalities can act contrary to the wishes of the state. And in the same way that someone who does not believe in protecting unpopular speech doesn’t really believe in free speech, a government that will not allow home rule to flourish in the midst of sharp disagreement doesn’t really believe in it.
Tom Suddes wrote earlier this year about how Ohio embraced Potemkin home rule in 2004 when it stripped communities of the ability to regulate fracking. Suddes also noted that “the legislature has forbidden cities and towns to regulate predatory lending (2002); to regulate guns (2006); to require residency of municipal employees (2006); or, in effect, to regulate cable TV companies (2007).” In other words, home rule as long as the state approves.
In a way that’s a good thing. Democracies do not run on autopilot. You can set up a governing document with all the high minded claptrap you want, you can have a theoretically empowered court issue decisions of ostensibly great consequence, but at the end of the day what matters is the enforcement mechanism. Or: moneyed and powerful interests continually look for ways to rig the system against citizens, and the citizenry must fight to hold their gains. If they do not, the gains will erode until they exist only on paper.
A group of citizens concerned about fracking spent the summer drumming up support for more local control. This was an effort of grassroots activists who weren’t paid a dime and who gathered signatures on their own time. We went door to door in the time that was left over after work, family and other obligations were taken care of. We ended up with hundreds of signatures.
Earlier this month we took the signatures to the trustees, along with a nonbinding resolution expressing our concerns about fracking and our disapproval of Columbus for usurping the sovereignty of local communities. The key word is “nonbinding.” It was a purely symbolic resolution, and it was presented as such. Nothing in it required any action, conflicted with the state or put the trustees in legal jeopardy with the oil and gas industry. We emphasized that this was about being representatives: literally representing the views of many of their constituents, even if they themselves disagreed with the sentiments.
One of their refrains over the past few months has been that they would love to help, but their hands are tied. This nonbinding resolution gave them the chance to do something with their hands untied, even if it was just a purely symbolic gesture. Here is how it went (partial transcript here):
So it appears it will take more than the legitimate honoring of home rule to fully restore democracy at the local level.