Yes, It's Broke
Private development interests have always been hard-wired into the workings of local government. Their representatives volunteer their personal time to join Planning Boards. They have the money to hire lawyers and consultants to lobby Councils and Planning Boards. They recruit the local Chamber of Commerce, which they usually control, to lobby on their behalf. They bankroll the campaigns for candidates to public office; and many become city and county Council Members or Supervisors who, in turn, steer the entire local government. Whatever these elected leaders want, government employees and staff will deliver! Growth also results in larger gross tax receipts which the politicians-in-power use to benefit their supporters. Given the state-of-affairs in local government, it is no surprise that when a developer submits a site plan for approval, it's likely already a done deal. Bottom line: government often represents the interests of developers over the interests of existing residents and taxpayers
How to Fix It
The only way to counteract the insidious influence that the Growth Machine holds over your community is by actively participating in your government. This means you need to:
In the meantime, act as though you were already appointed or elected. Attend public meetings of your Planning Board. Attend public meetings of the Council or Board of Supervisors at which growth or development issues are on the agenda. Ask for and analyze documents that the members receive. Ask for clarification of incomplete information and for explanations of inconsistencies. Become familiar with the growth and development issues in your community. Continue to nurture and use your network of friends. Most importantly, educate board members, council members, government employees, the media, and the public about alternatives to growth. Get your network of activists to share the workload (this is where such friends make a real difference). Even though you may not be elected to office or are not appointed to the Planning Board, your strong commitment and hard work will put a huge dent in the Growth Machine's ability to derail your community's future.
Another way for citizens to gain more control over growth plans in their community is by securing direct voter approval of development projects. If your State or County permits ballot initiatives, you may be able to mandate such requirements. Some municipalities, counties and states provide voters with the ability to submit referendums that would allow voters to reverse decisions already made by their elected officials. Annexations is a process commonly used by developers and municipal governments to enable growth. The website of "Oregon Communities for a Voice in Annexations" (www.ocva.org) has useful information such as counterarguments to annexation. The Initiative & Referendum Institutite (www.iandrinstitute.org/states/index.htmwww.iandrinstitute.org) lists which states provide citizens with recourse through ballot initiatives or referendums. One organization, Florida Hometown Democracy, is working hard for a ballot initiative that would require voter approval of any changes in comprehensive land-use plans within Florida (www.floridahometowndemocracy.com).
There are other government reforms that can help growth-control activists gain control over land use decisions affecting their community. For instance, government deliberations on growth-related issues should be open to the public. Citizens should be able to ask questions or make statements at such hearings. The hearings should be broadcasted on local cable TV, and videotaped records must be made available through the local library. Citizens should have easy access to documents associated with government decisions & recommendations regarding new development; and citizens should have reasonable options to petition for turning such decisions over to voters.
The Root of All Evil
Local governments need campaign finance reform as much or more than our federal government. All campaign contributions and campaign-related expenditures must be fully disclosed and easily accessible to the public (i.e., via the city or county's website). Elected officials should disclose their financial assets and tax returns. And, to end the voting by 'dollars' (over people) in your elections, your community should provide public funds to the campaigns of serious candidates (as does Portland, OR). Many state chapters of Common Cause are active in campaign finance reform at both the state and county level (www.commoncause.org). An organization called Public Campaign helps citizens implement public financing initiatives for local government. For more information, contact the Public Campaign coordinator for your state (www.publiccampaign.org).
Even More Fundamental Changes
Since the American Revolution in 1776, aristocratic elements in our society, along with their allies in our political and judicial systems, have eroded the ability of communities to protect themselves against exploitation by those, such as corporate entities, soley interested in accumulating great wealth. This weakening of our democratic systems provides the Growth Machine with tremendous power relative to the communities they exploit.
Consequently, citizens must also work for fundamental legal and political reforms that provide citizens with tools to effectively protect themselves and to have more say over growth and development in their communities. Organizations that will help communities achieve these critical reforms include:
The book Delusional Democracy by Joel Hirschhorn outlines important electorial reforms that governments need to implement (see p. 144 for a list of these reforms). And Friends of the Article V Convention focuses on amending the U.S. Constitution.
Finally, the bias of the news media to 'sell' growth also needs to be countered. You can facilitate open, public debate (and unbiased reporting) by supporting non-profit newspapers in your community. Offer to write news articles (on a volunteer basis) covering local growth issues. If your community doesn't have a non-profit newspaper, start an e-mail newsletter focused on local growth issues so that you can provide factual and unbiased reports of Planning Board's and Council/Supervisors' meetings.