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Grace Ross: Local Control Matters

Wednesday, February 06, 2013


The concept of regionalization has been all the rage in government circles for a while now. The concept being that if services are merged and run at a regional level as opposed to a local level, they will be more efficient and we will get more for our money.

Recently, for instance, the Governor proposed the regionalization of local Housing Authorities. Housing Authorities already serve more than just the provision of public housing and administering subsidized housing certificates, but you would never know that from the conversation that goes on. Housing challenges vary from community to community and, more than that, different housing authorities have actual different legal powers and many of them have elected leadership – but the conversation never seems to include why a housing authority should have accountability to local voters even though that is a clear aspect of many of their charters.

At some level, it seems that some elected leaders think that the very purpose of government is to be efficient – efficient at getting nothing done perhaps, but at least efficient.

So often these days, for instance, cutting jobs is stated as an accomplishment of government as opposed to government being the vehicle by which the shared goals of the collective will of the people are accomplished. In fact, the moving of government services to more and more centrally-run agencies has no inherent proof of providing better services for less money.

The first political act of this Governor when he was elected was to try to move our development policies to the state level, literally invalidating all local environmental rules and regulations. However, the environment, like housing needs and other needs, is not only specific to the location which they are supposed to serve, but there’s a deeper issue here. Not only do we need to provide sufficient funding to actually get a job done by the government (as opposed to providing less and less funding even if it eviscerates government action), but when Housing Authorities and environmental policies are no longer allowed to be decided by those who know the environment best and have the local investment in it, we lose another fundamental value in government.

Not only does government need to serve certain functions and secondarily do those as efficiently as possible, but we actually are supposed to believe in the concept of a democracy. For a meaningful democracy you need local control. You need regular people being able to impact decisions that are going to affect their regular lives, especially in those areas that are specific to the areas they live.

I was very proud Monday evening to be at the hearing for the Public Health Subcommittee of our city government here in Worcester. Finally the issue of how contracts for services of many different kinds serving our local people was getting discussed.

The Henry Willis Center that has been a fixture in our city for 20 years. It has played a unique role as an African American-led agency. It has had a strong cultural and ethnic perspective, roots and educational functions beyond the simple direct service functions that it also played.

It has been summarily defunded by our state government. This was done suddenly, and rather than being a transparent action, we hear vague issues that, while important, could have easily been handled with assistance or receivership. Surely, the whisper around town that no one must challenge this state decision is inappropriate to our democracy and our community’s commitment to the strength of our full diversity.

The state then took those services and passed many of them to a mega-agency serving a huge region of our state – not other locally-controlled agencies. Thirty years ago, SMOC was serving primarily Framingham and Marlboro, but now its reach goes far beyond Metro West and past Worcester out into the western parts of the state. It certainly doesn’t have any roots in Worcester culture; the idea it could somehow fulfill the needs that a culturally powerful agency such as the Willis Center, well it’s just mind-boggling.

Hopefully this redistribution of resources that have been local and to some extent controlled in a way reflective our community’s diversity is not a done deal!

I am struck by how much of what has become popular at the higher levels of government is the very disregard of local control, local cultures, community and ethnic roots and all of the things that make a local democracy thrive. I have plenty of friends who I refer to as “old guard Massachusetts republicans,” true republicans in our state whose values include the really critical concept of local control of government.

Today this building block of democracy is something that is disappearing at the higher party levels among both Democrats and Republicans. When the day comes that it is acceptable for our state government to summarily de-fund locally-controlled and -driven agencies serving critical functions throughout our community and especially for particular ethnic groups, then we know that the days of our democracy may be numbered.  


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