Tougaw: Local governments will continue with mediocre policies and results as long as we are uninvolved

Taylor Tougaw

Elected officials are in place to provide for the people who elect them. This is the primary role of the government. Yet, local governments seem to have lost sight of this. Mismanaged cities seem to pop up all over the news, and the ramifications of this can even be felt here in Fort Collins. Local government is no longer accountable to the people because very few people take interest in local government.

Flint, Michigan has made headlines recently as their water supply has been infiltrated with iron and toxic lead. The reason behind this? Inept local government. The city, which is suffering from severe poverty, hired an emergency financial adviser to make budget cuts. This meant moving the water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River, which is notoriously polluted. When symptoms of lead poisoning started showing up, officials ignored the people’s pleas and refused to acknowledge the issue before it had affected over 100 people. 

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After months, the evidence mounted against the local government. After multiple independent studies found that lead levels, especially in infants, had doubled, the government was forced to acknowledge that they had made a huge mistake. One mistake was that they were required to put an anti-corrosive agent in the water, which they did not. Still, nobody has been able to answer why that was never done.

How many times have you heard someone say “my vote doesn’t matter; it’s one vote among millions. I would never vote for the president.” While this is a damaging and frustrating statement in its own right, it’s even worse when you consider how much lower political involvement is for local governments. This is surprising when you consider how influential local government is! Federal government is there to tackle things like national defense, social security and interstate crimes (crimes that do not stay confined to one state). The rest is totally up to state and local laws. Everything from murder to zoning and rental laws all fall under state jurisdiction. The vast majority of laws, policies and other governmental decisions fall into state and local law.

Yet still, nobody has any interest in local elections. Who knows Colorado better than someone from Colorado? Who has more of a vested interest in your life – a national politician, or a politician that represents Fort Collins?

 In an interview with me, Fort Collins district 2 city councilman and former mayor of Fort Collins Ray Martinez expressed disdain for the political apathy with which voters view local elections. “Local government officials are under even more scrutiny than national ones because their decisions hit so close to home” he said. “These laws and decisions matter much more than the broad, non-specific national legislation everyone gets so heated over.” This political apathy is what leads to inept, useless laws and policies. Policies like U + 2.

Anyone who has attended CSU for more than 60 seconds knows how unfair and unsubstantiated U + 2 is. Resistance is fiercely growing to the law which was implemented in the 1960’s to curb immigration in the beet farming sector. However, it has not been repealed in over 50 years. A six bedroom is only allowed to house three people – a decision that not only hurts students, but also the property owner.

 Students, who are now paying on average over $1,200 a month in rent are being seriously hurt by this decision. Martinez says that this law is discrimination toward students, and we need to steer clear of anything that smells like discrimination. 

Flint, Michigan is a large, national example of what happens when local government fails. But these little failures happen all over the country, in every state. The U + 2 law is hardly a national concern, but if it draws this much attention here, imagine how many other localities are dealing with the same kind of thing.

I used to work at a public park that was bought and maintained by the city government, which on its own is a complete and total misuse of state funds. Even worse, that park is no longer solvent and is losing the county money every year! Yet they still keep it open. Things like this pop up all over the country, all the time.

Oklahoma had a scandal in which county appraisers depreciated property values by appraising homes incorrectly, leading to defunding of the whole state’s school system.

West Virginia just spent $24 million on computer routers large enough to supplement thousands of internet users and then put them in buildings with a couple hundred people, if even that.

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A town in Alaska spent over $75 million dollars of taxpayer money to build a harbor and airport that is completely and utterly unused, has no roads connected to it, and is not serviced by any commercial airlines.

The list of utterly incomprehensible failures goes on and on, but the point is that most people, likely the very large majority of the citizens that are affected by these decisions, have no idea these things are happening, and likely didn’t vote for the person responsible. According to the New York Times, national voter turnout for the 2014 midterm elections was only 36.3 percent — the lowest it’s been in 72 years. 

The fact is, local governments are not ‘for the people’ anymore. They are beholden to other concerns which simply do not reflect the will of the people. It took months for Flint, Michigan to even address the fact that hundreds of people were getting hospitalized from the water. Oklahoma has still not solved its auditing failure, and it’s taken Fort Collins over 50 years to really address U + 2. This is what happens when local officials are not held up to the same scrutiny that national politicians are: little things fly under the radar and before you know it, we have big-time problems.

The simple solution to this is to actively take part in knowing who your local representatives are, and deciding who they will be in the future. I know from experience that they are extremely accessible, as are their policies, concerns, and plans. These policies and plans will affect you more than any national policies ever will.

Stupid laws and decisions that hardly benefit anyone and waste taxpayer dollars will continue to be the norm unless people finally start seeking to understand and get involved in local politics.
I’m not saying that refusing to vote will turn your water poisonous and get you evicted, but I’m not not saying that it won’t, either.

Collegian Columnist Taylor Tougaw can be reached at letters@collegian.com, or on Twitter @ttougaw.