‘Evolution’ is sapping authority of local officials

Published 12:00 am Monday, May 4, 2009

Is Haley Barbour the boss of Laurence Leyens?

Several years ago — when Mississippi had a different governor and Vicksburg had a different mayor — it was my job to teach a course on the American system of government.

I must not have done a very good job because several people gave the wrong answer to the same question, but with the then current names, on the final exam.

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In the United States, mayors don’t work for governors and governors don’t work for the president. They are elected separately, have separate duties and don’t answer to each other, at least not in an employer-employee context.

From the start, the idea of America’s colonists was to endow certain levels of government with certain powers, with limited overlap.

Local governments would do local things — streets, parks, water systems, schools, local transportation systems, lighting, fire and police protection. At the top of the ladder was the federal system. Its role was pretty much to provide services all the states needed as a unit. An army and a navy are prime examples. Coordination of national defense would be something of a challenge if each city or county or even each state had its own military force.

Tuesday, Vicksburg residents who have registered to vote are invited to go to their assigned polling places and cast a ballot, if they wish, to select a Democratic nominee for mayor.

Many are expecting a low turnout, perhaps a record low turnout. Reasons include (1) there are no real hot-button issues on which the party candidates are at extreme odds, and (2) there are no contests for alderman in the North Ward or the South Ward. Michael Mayfield will get a second four-year term and Sid Beauman will get a third starting in July.

It’s no reflection on any of the candidates or the incumbents, but interest should be higher.

The colonists did as they did, thinking local governments would have the best knowledge and the readiest responses to the health, education and welfare needs of communities. And not only would local governments know where sidewalks and parks would be best and when the people could afford a new school or fire truck, local governments would be the most responsive in providing the services.

All the layers of government “upstream” would have bigger fish to fry — highways, prisons, regulating commerce between states and such.

Many democracies than emerged after the United States did not follow this model, finding it inefficient and confusing.

In most other nations — France, Mexico, India — the design for governance starts at the top and the central government is continually divided into smaller and smaller divisions, called districts or provinces and sometimes are even known as states. The lower levels have little to no autonomy. For instance, three city officials in Vicksburg can vote to replace a four-way stop with a traffic light. In France, that topic would flow up a chain of ministries to the national level before a decision was made and filtered back down.

Over time, it’s no secret, America has moved more toward centralized authority or strong national governance. From 1789 until 1980, no member of Congress ever had a single decision to make about a public school. Today, the U.S. Department of Education issues hundreds of directives to local schools nationwide each year and is expecting a one-year $400 billion increase in funding to become even more deeply engaged.

There are merits to the top-down hierarchy and to the bottom-up hierarchy.

The main gripe against the former is that it creates a “one-size-fits-all” model for local officials to carry out. It does away with the notion that local folks know best. It diminishes the responsibility of local officials — and, perhaps, interest in who serves in local leadership.

On paper, Haley Barbour is still not the boss of Laurence Leyens and Barack Obama is not the boss of Haley Barbour.

But we’re getting there.