Democracy in cities By Shea Howell

Thinking for ourselves

Democracy in cities

By Shea Howell

December 16, 2014

shea25The recent move by the lame duck legislature in Lansing to pass a bill outlawing Community Benefits Agreements and local minimum wage requirements should be a concern for every one who cares about democracy. This is a direct assault on the power of people in cities everywhere to determine what is in the best interests of all of their people.

This legislative effort is about more than community benefits or minimum wages. It is about the growing recognition that cities are the progressive, experimental, and innovate sites of social policies that are protecting people and the environment. Based on values that stress local engagement, creative problem solving, and ecological sensitivity, cities are what the Mayor of Pittsburgh, Bill Peduto, calls “the perfect urban laboratory.” He says, “We are small enough to be able to do things and large enough for people to take notice.”

This notice is encouraging progressives and terrifying the folks in Lansing.

The kinds of policies Pittsburgh is developing sends chills through conservative state legislatures. For example, Pittsburgh has a responsible banking law that directs government funds to banks that invest in neighborhoods and away from those that don’t, they have pushed development with environmental sensitivity, and pursued universal pre-K education.

A recent article in the American Prospect explained the growing progressive character of US cities, saying, “In one major city after another, newly elected officials are planning to raise the minimum wage or enact ordinances boosting wages in developments that have received city assistance. They are drafting legislation to require inner-city hiring on major projects and foster unionization in hotels, stores, and trucking. They are seeking the funds to establish universal pre-K and other programs for infants and toddlers. They are sketching the layout of new transit lines that will bring jobs and denser development to neighborhoods both poor and middle-class and reduce traffic and pollution in the bargain. They are—if they haven’t done so already—forbidding their police from cooperating with federal immigration authorities in the deportation of undocumented immigrants not convicted of felonies and requiring their police to have video or audio records of their encounters with the public. They are, in short, enacting at the municipal level many of the major policy changes that progressives have found themselves unable to enact at the federal and state levels.”

The Detroit City Council and the delegation in Lansing wisely acted quickly to help defeat this effort to outlaw municipal innovation sponsored by a small group of right wing republicans.

But it will be back. Forces dedicated to protecting corporate profits  are leading this attack on Democracy. Among them are the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation. Both have a long history of opposing any ideas that would protect people or the earth while pursuing development.

Time and again they have been on the wrong side of progress. They told us the economy would collapse if we didn’t listen to them. They opposed everything from the effort to redeem bottles to policies requiring environmental protection. They have backed every tax break they can find. Now, as billions of dollars are being poured into a narrow strip of downtown, they refuse to look seriously at policies that would widen the economic and social impact of this development. The Chamber and the DEGC are as wrong as they are short sighted. They are fostering an atmosphere of division.

The Community Benefit Agreement being considered in the city is sound public policy. They have been used successfully in Atlanta, Los Angeles and Pittsburg. In each case they have stressed local hiring mandates, job training, affordable housing and green environmental practices.

Democracy on the federal and state level has eroded beyond recognition, twisted by money and a kind of madness born in the fear of a loss of empire.

But responsible citizen decision making, born of compassion for one another and care for the earth is emerging all around us. This new democratic ethic, rooted in the life of cities, is our best hope for a future.