Franke: The Travails of Local Government

January 25, 2023

By Mark Franke

“I don’t do this for the money. I do it for the late-night phone calls.” — a Monroeville councilman

Nearly everyone I know is disgusted with the current state of our national government. Many also feel the same way about our Indiana state government, but then I tend to associate with others of like mind so this is hardly a representative sample for statistical purposes. Still, it is what I hear often enough to think there really is fire behind the smoke.

I hear this less about local government. Is it the people? I have friends who are involved in local government as councilmen or school board members or first responders. They are all, without exception, dedicated public servants who do it for other than pecuniary reasons.

So perhaps my cynicism about government should be qualified. I simply have given up on government run by people who don’t live close by. I am not the only one. Recently I have read numerous journal articles and op-ed newspaper columns from conservative/libertarian writers who advance the proposition that we can only take back our government if we begin at the local level.

Thomas Jefferson wrote that “the government closest to the people serves the people best.” He was on to something. At least that level of government should be the most responsive. Try calling the White House and asking to speak to the President. Good luck. Even calling your local Congressman will get you shuffled among aides depending on which staffer is assigned your point of interest.

It’s not that these staffers are automatons. I know several of them in the local congressional office and they care deeply about assisting constituents. But I also learned years ago how Congressmen gauge local opinion on legislative topics: They count letters and email messages but with a sophisticated heuristic for determining which are form letters produced by an organized campaign and which are individually written. The latter receive more attention.

Not so with the local officeholder who doesn’t have a sophisticated staff at hand. Let’s take my city councilman for example. If I call his published number, my call will be answered by him or one of his family members. He really can’t avoid me and even may recognize my name on caller ID. This is hypothetical in my case because I have never called any local politician. However, it is very real for these public servants. See the quote above.

My friend whom I quoted is a town councilman in Monroeville, located in southeast Allen County. He assured me my understanding of this is a true one. Put aside the fact that I am descended from several large German immigrant families which settled near his town. The fact that maybe a third of his constituents are distant cousins of mine is not something he holds against me personally. At least I hope not.

I don’t live there but enough other people do to keep his phone ringing. More than a few of them have a low threshold for barking dogs, especially after dark. Or for loud exhaust systems on passing cars. Or for fireworks…and what is the deal with people setting these things off at the slightest provocation? My modest proposal is that fireworks should only be sold to people who can recite at least one sentence of the Declaration of Independence and who know what single day of the year we celebrate it.

Annoying fireworks aside, my friend does empathize with his fellow citizens. It is the other agencies of government which irritate him most. To validate Jefferson’s theory mentioned above, this town councilman much prefers to request help from township or county officials than from state or federal. It’s not that the state people are unhelpful; it just takes more calls to get to the right person.

My friend responds to every call he receives no matter the pettiness. In his words, he “checks it out.” He understands his role, one he voluntarily assumed for the benefit of his town and the two and a half streets of residents he represents.

The same holds true for school board members, homeowner association board members and officers at every church or charitable organization. Why these people do this is beyond my comprehension. But I am very grateful they do, and with very little in the way of financial remuneration or ego-stroking civic acclaim.

If our democracy is to survive, it will be due to these local officeholders who answer their phones well after dark and patiently listen to whatever has set off that constituent. One need not look to Washington or Indianapolis for solutions to our current state of affairs. Look closer to home, perhaps to the next street over.

Just resist the urge to call after 10 p.m.

Mark Franke, M.B.A., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review and its book reviewer, is formerly an associate vice-chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.


Leave a Reply