by Tim O'Brien
October 27, 2000
"Why should I swap one tyrant 3,000 miles away," asked Benjamin Martin, the fictional (and archetypically reluctant) American hero in the recent movie The Patriot, "for 3,000 tyrants one mile away?"
While Mel Gibson's character's concerns about the potential dangers of mobocracy are well advised and would be shared by those who designed our constitutionally limited republic, the proximity of the governors to the governed is, nevertheless, not an inconsequential question.
Indeed, it is one that remains with us more than two centuries later as Michigan voters consider amending our constitution to require that any impositions by the state legislature upon smaller units of government require two-thirds concurrence in both houses.
Opponents of the measure, designated Proposal 2 on the November 7 ballot, have endlessly repeated the refrain that this amendment would permit "minority rule."
This is not merely false. It is disingenuous, scare-mongering propaganda. Proposal 2 will convey no authority of less than half the legislature to impose anything on the majority. Quite the reverse. It empowers one-third plus one to block any impositions by the state legislature on more local jurisdictions.
And that is an outstanding idea. Lansing is too far removed from our daily lives to permit most of us any input whatever in the decision-making done there.
I have met my state senator once, my state rep twice, and Governor Engler twice. Each of those encounters was exceedingly brief. It is safe to say that none of the three would know me from Benjamin Martin (though, in truth I am only occasionally confused with Mel Gibson).
On the other hand I am on a first name basis with my mayor and all six of the members of my city council. And it's easy to see why this is so. My hometown of Allen Park has a total population of just over 30,000 within an area of only seven square miles. City council meetings are every second and fourth Tuesday of the month at a city hall that's barely two miles from my front door. I can -- and do -- attend and even address most of them.
And in six years since I have worked on successful efforts that have amended our city charter to put term limits on local officials, stopped a $20 million recreation center bond proposal as well as two straight-up tax increases, and unceremoniously dumped an incumbent mayor and most of the city council.
Of course, I also came up short in a petition drive to recall another mayor. But, you can't win 'em all.
And making waves in a small pond can have ripple effects that spread farther than one might guess.
More than three years ago I was the lone voice at my city council meetings demanding to know when the all but abandoned 38 acre VA hospital complex at the north end of town would be wrested from federal control and put to productive purpose. I was at first regarded as some kind of not-too-tightly-wrapped Don Quixote since everyone knows that no one budges the federal government. But, eventually, other citizens began complaining -- which the local press began reporting.
Soon some city council members began observing that this was not an unreasonable question. Then came a Task Force by some downriver state reps. Of course, it was photo-op grandstanding on their part. But it, in turn, drew the attention of Congressman Dingell. By this time the mayor and the entire city council had fully joined the cause. And just a few days ago the news was announced that a bill has been passed in congress authorizing $14 million to raze the 22 buildings of the old, VA medical complex in Allen Park, Michigan. President Clinton's signature is expected shortly, so the project may commence as early as next year.
I doubt very much that we would be where we are today in this whole process if it had to begin with an average citizen knocking on the front door of the White House. Or wandering the halls of the capitol in Lansing.
With all due respect to our Patriot hero, there is in fact tremendous advantage in keeping political decision-making as close to home as possible. I have had some notable successes affecting the local laws and regulations that govern my life and property. I do not care to have all of my work undone at the whim of a bare majority of legislators 100 miles away representing the collective wishes of the entire state.
And if I am unable to persuade my neighbors to make local conditions to my own liking, Lincoln Park is right next door. Escaping intolerable state-wide dictates would be far more disruptive and inconvenient. Not to mention the fact that I can't even imagine becoming a Buckeye fan.
That's why I will be casting an enthusiastic "Yes!" vote for Proposal 2.
And this could be just the beginning. State Representative Robert Gosselin, R-Troy, recently introduced a bill (HB 6043) that would require a two-thirds vote of a city council to adopt any ordinance that "intervenes in the affairs of individuals, families, businesses or taxpayers."
What an outstanding idea! Before you know it people might actually be back in charge of their own lives.
Tim O'Brien is the Executive Director of the Libertarian Party of Michigan.