Local Government as an Outpost of Freedom?

07/05/2011 01:13 pm ET | Updated Sep 04, 2011
  • William E. Jackson Jr. Columnist, foreign policy expert, former U.S. Senate staffer and State Department/ACDA official

I do not know how many small college towns -- or just small towns -- in America warrant a critique similar to mine of local government in Davidson, North Carolina. Perhaps this essay will spur a national dialogue on the evolution and meaning of local self-government today. 

Now and then, we need to remember just how radical a document was the Declaration of Independence. Consider this paraphrase and adaptation of its opening lines:

A decent respect to the opinions of mankind in our local communities merits a reminder that government was instituted among men, deriving its just powers from the consent of the governed. And that, when any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it -- and to institute a new government.

Prudence has shown that governments long established should not be changed for transient causes. Experience has shown that men and women are prone to suffer the status quo than to right themselves by abolishing the form of government -- or getting rid of incumbents -- to which they are accustomed.


BUT when a long train of abuses and usurpations occurs, it is the right of citizens, and their duty, to throw off such government; and to provide for new guaranties. Such has been the patient sufferance of the town of Davidson electorate -- where my alma mater, Davidson College, is located -- and such is now the necessity which constrains them to consider altering their arrangements -- people and institutions -- for governing.

Grievances from 1776 that have a familiar ring today include: imposing taxes -- or fees -- upon citizens without their consent; calling together legislative bodies at places unusual; inventing extra-constitutional offices and committees that distort the normal processes of local government; and--in some cases-- demonstrating unfitness to be the representatives of a free people. (Quote from Declaration of Independence.)

Under the circumstances of a local election year, voters have the not-automatic-in-execution opportunity to hold the elected Mayor and five incumbent Commissioners (known as the Town Board) accountable for:


1. Imposing upon the citizens of Davidson -- without a referendum -- an extraordinary large debt of tens of millions of dollars when purchasing in late 2007 (jointly with the nearby, larger town of Mooresville) a private cable tv system, the debt servicing of which now threatens to undermine the future viability of local government to meet the ordinary needs of the town. Paying off the principal is out of the question.

2. Attempting to unilaterally lengthen the terms of office from two to four years, without a referendum, that would have resulted in devaluing the voting franchise; and changing the rhythm of representative government with staggered terms--while attributing the incumbent-protection idea to an appointed,


study group. This scheme, before it was dropped due to a public outcry, would have instituted longer terms in office than those enjoyed by both houses of the N.C. legislature and the U.S. House of Representatives, not to mention every municipal jurisdiction in Mecklenburg County with Charlotte as the largest city! 3. Creating a less than transparent decision-making process that has included closing to the public portions of regular town board meetings -- or informal meetings of members behind closed doors -- shielded by an at-times impenetrable government bureaucracy. Open meetings requirements under law are skirted by the use of a variety of ruses, as in the case of a recent board decision to purchase some private houses.   IV Let it be resolved, therefore, that the citizens of Davidson reserve the right to replace all -- or a majority -- of the incumbent officeholders, and to elect a new set of representatives, who may then choose to critically review the dated comprehensive plan for the development of Davidson -- a mantra at Town Hall -- and to re-examine the council-manager form of government that, as practiced, has permitted the devolution of too much power to bureaucrats. Bearing in mind the importance of recruiting able candidates to replace the incumbents during the filing period, July 1-15, it is up to the citizenry to act and -- on November 8 -- throw out of office those who have usurped power and failed in their public responsibilities. Davidson can fire a shot heard in every town in the land: that government that is supposed to be closest to the people can be returned to the people's control. [In the interest of full disclosure, I was an unsuccessful candidate for Mayor of Davidson in 2007, running on a platform to slow down commercial and residential development; against the purchase of the cable system; and for local ordinances openly arrived at through legislative debate and not via a contrived "consensus" of the mayor and five commissioners. I am not a candidate in 2011.] This post has been revised for clarity.