When the public disengages from local politics, what does it mean for planners and other professionals in city government?
In the story of Detroit, one of the newer chapters will be about what effect the return to a district-based council—after an absence of nearly a century—will have on the interaction between citizens and their government. The chapter has a curious beginning. One could have expected that the promise of representation at a smaller scale (though by no means a neighborhood scale) combined with fair weather and persistent media coverage would drive massive voter turnout in November 2013, but when only a quarter of eligible voters showed up it was consistent with what one would expect for local elections in the United States. Indeed, relative to rates in suburban cities and towns in the metropolitan area, 25 percent seemed like a triumph.
We have long been in an era in which voter turnout is persistently lowest in local elections, even when a high profile mayoral race gets top billing. Stories of new barriers to transparency and surface each year—from who is on a ballot to how public meetings are conducted. The rise of e-government seems promising, but we lack clear evidence that the benefit is substantive or equitable. And in the most distressed cities—the largest and most notorious example being Detroit—the appointment of emergency managers has diluted the role of local elected government.
Despite these trends and anecdotal accounts, the public’s trust in local government remains higher than for any other level of government. This paradox raises two questions: Is the public’s appraisal of local government less about procedural means and more about substantive ends? And are non-elected public actors now more central to the underlying ambition of representative democracy as a means for realizing the public will? Indeed, much of our quality of life is about the successful delivery of services and the successful maintenance of the lifestyle in our communities. These matters are certainly not outside the purview of local elected officials, but they are increasingly delivered by people whose names never appear on a ballot, including planners and those like them.
In local governments where elected officials are insulated from the public or regarded with disinterest or distrust, those who plan the city’s present and future seem to have two competing opportunities. On one hand they can step into the gap and become the public servants for their residents, gaining trust that can translate into policy leverage. On the other hand, they could rely on apathy to afford them the discretion to advocate more forcefully for policy that benefits the greater good, even where that might be in tension with the local good. Planners occupy a space in which they are able to function as both political animals and as objective experts, and how the public chooses to engage with local political processes shapes that space.
Thomas Skuzinski is a doctoral candidate in urban and regional planning at the University of Michigan. His research focuses on local and regional politics and governance in metropolitan areas in the United States.