Every man wishes to pursue his occupation and to enjoy the fruits of his labours and the produce of his property in peace and safety, and with the least possible expense. When these things are accomplished, all the objects for which government ought to be established are answered. — Thomas Jefferson
A good government remains the greatest of all human blessings, and no nation has ever enjoyed it. — Dean William R. Inge
Too bad that all the people who know how to run the country are busy driving taxicabs and cutting hair. — George Burns
Recent issues of Weld have pointed out through surveys, studies and commentary various ways that government sometimes leaves citizens wanting.
Last week, the paper took note of a WalletHub survey showing that Alabama scored the second lowest among the 50 states for taxpayer return on investment. In late March Weld reported on a survey by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama (PARCA), which showed that while large numbers of Alabamians across the political divide say they want the same things, government policy often does not match their expectations.
Moreover, the PARCA study indicates that large numbers of Alabamians doubt that the state government will be responsive to the will of the people.
That said, PARCA found that people in the state have somewhat more trust for local government in some areas than they do in state and federal government. The study asked specifically about “how much you trust each level of government to handle school funds properly?”
Respondents ranked their trust levels on a scale of one to 10 with 10 being the high number. While the federal government was ranked at 4.4, and the state government at 5, local government was ranked highest at 5.7.
“The results,” said the PARCA Quarterly, “demonstrate that Alabamians’ trust in government increases as the level of government becomes more local. … While differences are statistically significant, none of the average ratings are particularly high. There is room for improvement for every level of government.”
So, what about expectations of local government at the city and county level? Weld decided to take a nonscientific look, by just asking residents a couple of related questions: What you think local government — city or county or both — should do for you? What do citizens have a right to expect?
Below, consider a sampling of what the people want from their local governments. Some of the responses may come from recognizable names — Black Warrior Riverkeeper Nelson Brooke or businessman and blogger David Sher, for example, while others will come from perhaps lesser-known people who are passionate in their own concerns about how government ought to operate.
Except where otherwise noted, the responses all come from the Birmingham area.
I think city and county governments should be at all times making decisions for the betterment of ALL residents within their jurisdictions. Too often, pandering by party line, to acquaintances, and to political contributors gets in the way of true public service. We need true leaders, leaders who know how to make decisions that benefit all of us, not just the few, the connected and the wealthy.
We need leaders who will stand up to the region’s power-mongering status quo that has overlooked the lower income, less-served portions of Birmingham for far too long. Such leadership can bring to all of us what we desperately need to take the Birmingham region forward, meaningfully.
We need leaders who will champion progressive and equitable transportation and public transit options, and now. We need leaders who will work to clean up our pervasive air pollution problems, in the name of public health. We need leaders who will embrace the very real threats to our region’s drinking water sources, and engage in headlong efforts to protect them for future generations.
Without access for all to what our region has to offer we lack vital connection as a community, and without vision for a future with clean air and water, our current leaders are overlooking key elements to true progress in Birmingham.
People should expect a common vision and effort for our region. The mayor of Birmingham represents only 19 percent of the population of our metro; there are 35 plus municipalities in Jefferson County; and our five county commissioners are elected by district. There’s not a single politician who is elected county-wide except the sheriff. So while we bicker amongst ourselves, cities like Nashville and Charlotte, who have a county-city government, are whipping our butts. Our region is not growing population or jobs and we’re losing our children and grandchildren for greater opportunities elsewhere.
Jan Cavell, Dothan
My local government should provide me and my family safe, good-quality schools, roads, utilities, protection, medical facilities, parks…..in other words —Things that my tax dollars should help pay for.
I expect my local government to provide fair representation of issues, fair interpretation of the laws of the nation and state that leave decisions to the local governing board, responsible decision making for local tax dollars…
I expect each governing official to represent their constituents’ needs, then wants, and not represent their own desires or the desires of big business or political parties. The government was made of, by and for the PEOPLE…. not for politics or business.
The best thing city governments can do for all of us is unincorporate. It would make government more efficient from downsizing. We would not have to pay a tenth of these foul [expletive]s.
Kathy Gray Sheehan, Spanish Fort, Ala.
My local government should protect me and keep me safe. I am paying them for safe roads, safe buildings, safe businesses and to spend my money wisely — quality, timeliness and getting the best buy. I would like for teachers to be paid for what they are worth and to give schools what they need to prepare students for their future — whether that be college or career.
An effective local government is one that provides necessary public goods such as roads and fire protection in exchange for tax money. A strong local government also provides vision for the betterment of a community and leadership during times of hardship.
Citizens should expect their government to be faithful and thrifty stewards of their tax dollars. Citizens should see taxes as an investment in their community and should expect their local government to provide the greatest possible return on that investment.
Local government should do for all citizens: Be caregivers of this city and its citizens. Put the needs of the people ahead of own “personal” needs. Pave the damn streets! UAB is a nationally recognized Medical Center, and you cannot even get to it without falling in a hole.
I feel like our local government (in Birmingham) should focus more on more realistic means of allowing our city to flourish. There’s been numerous times when I feel like our city council has utterly failed, through spending money on ridiculous trips/endeavors or like when Kim Rafferty blocked Uber X for her own personal agenda.
Since the football fiasco at UAB, thus eliminating a … ton of scholarships to many underprivileged young men in our community (thanks Ray Watts!). I think the local government should focus a lot more on programs that will help those same young men (and women!) receive a college degree.
Anthony Edwards, Auburn
Local government should be responsible for the organization and funding of local events, park/recreation planning, local services such as police/fire/funeral homes, local amenities (water, power grid infrastructure, etc.), road paving and lighting, zoning for commercial, residential and industrial parks, and many more things. A healthily funded local government with an emphasis on the above is important.
Citizens have the right to expect civility, open counsel, board privileges, and should be in the know about where local taxpayer money is being funneled. It is very important to allow the average citizen to also be a part of the city planning process, if he or she shows interest. A thriving city needs a good dialogue between the government and population.
Local governments basically have three core responsibilities. They need to deliver high quality public education to their residents. This area falls outside of the jurisdiction of many towns and cities but it is of critical importance to county and metropolitan governments. They need to provide for public safety in a manner that is fair and just.
Now, more than ever, local governments are failing to adequately protect, and in some cases, are actively persecuting key segments of our communities through police enforcement. This kind of behavior is unacceptable. It leads to a collapse of trust between the community and the government and, in its worst cases, will lead to the extreme violence we saw in Ferguson.
Finally, local governments have to promote local economic development. This can be done through a variety of measures, including infrastructure projects and the loosening of certain economic and zoning policies.
Citizens have a right to expect a local government that is responsive to their concerns, that complies to the will of the majority of its voting population, that is free from corruption, and that enforces the law in a fair and just manner. When any government fails to fulfill these expectations, and local governments are especially susceptible to failure because there is less scrutiny, it leads to a collapse in that government’s legitimacy.
It’s important to point out that this is not simply a one-sided affair. Residents of these local municipalities have responsibilities too. When they don’t show sufficient interest in the activities of their local governments, and when they do not apply sufficient scrutiny to public officials, they should not be surprised when their local government fails to live up to these most basic expectations.
At this point, the bar has been set so low, I’d settle for just getting some of our most potholed roads repaved and call it a mighty victory. But they can’t even do that right. Someone, anyone, drive the roads in a one-mile radius around the intersection of Industrial Drive and Montevallo Road SW and tell me our local governments are accomplishing their most basic of functions. Those are roads driven every day by trucks delivering goods from local wholesale companies to local retailers, and they look like something out of the third world. Insane.
It almost sounds hokey, but I believe that a local government should invest in and empower its citizens. It should focus on developing the infrastructure in its own city before seeking the international spotlight. One of its highest priorities should be allocating funds, and providing resources and guidance to help its citizens start their own business, as well as help build and market current small business.
The economic well being of ALL it’s citizens, not just of a few in certain neighborhoods, is a serious commitment if it is to be realized, and only after such a success are celebrations in order.
Representing constituents is a tremendous responsibility, and elected officials should be totally integrated into the community, working non-stop to ensure that their friends and neighbors have the best possible environment to live in. Citizens have the right to demand transparency, and an active role in the democratic process that leads to positive change.
Citizens shouldn’t have to put up with incompetence or mediocrity. Elected government officials should be those with the highest moral standards, and they should be visionary leaders with a real love for their community. And they should certainly expect city council members to attend their own meetings!
I believe my local government should look out for our local interests, not just local beliefs. I believe they should promote a sense of community as a whole and to challenge our perceptions of what community means.
I want to be able to trust them to have our voices heard, not only in the local arena, but the national stage as well. I want to be able to trust my local politicians.
Joseph Casper Baker III
Our local government needs to be in the business of trying to ensure citizens are enabled to improve themselves. Access to education, reliable transportation, and fostering a supportive environment for entrepreneurship are critical to building a high quality of life for our community.
If we are to expect people to pull themselves up by the bootstraps then local government should be in the business of boot making.
And people need to take more ownership of their local government structures. We get the level of government we participate in.
I’ll go on to say that Birmingham should be exploring ways to create affordable housing on the Land Bank properties throughout the city. And we should absolutely be exploring how to use technology to improve service levels without significantly burdening the budget. In fact we should see what tech can lower costs.
The answers to Weld’s short unscientific survey are not statistically weighted, but those who responded often touched on similar concerns, for education, economic development, and responsiveness to citizen concerns. One clear commonality among many who responded is that people want to be able to trust local governments and those who run them, as reflected in comments about moral standards, transparency, corruption, and fairness.
In that respect, local sentiment seems to echo that of John F. Kennedy, who said, “The basis of effective government is public confidence.” Or, as put by a local resident — a Hueytown woman who only identified herself as “Caryl” — “Citizens have the rights to expect officials to be honest, of good morals and good stewards of the citizens’ money…. We hear so often about officials cheating, lying and stealing that it would be a breath of fresh air if we knew leaders possessed these qualities and stood by them.”