Candidates for village government may have foibles and personality quirks, but are they behaving in a rational manner?
I recently listened to a lecture series titled “Must History Repeat the Great Conflicts of This Century” by Joseph S. Nye, Jr. (produced by The Teaching Company). Nye made the point that there are three levels of explanation for foreign policy decisions. The most preferred explanation is one that makes sense for any rational actor given the provocation. The second best explanation is to consider domestic politics. And the least preferred explanation is to attribute decisions to the individual people involved.
For example, the United States invading Iraq didn’t seem inevitable or even likely based on traditional state-to-state relations so one has to consider the role U.S. domestic politics played. Only after exhausting possible causes for the Iraq War in domestic politics should one consider President George W. Bush and members of his administration as causes.
What’s the flashpoint for the conflict in Oak Park politics? Development. Why do people oppose development? They don’t like change if they feel powerless to control or influence it. Who supports development and why? Developers obviously benefit from development, but local government actively promotes development. How does development affect local government?
Local government?#34;not just village government?#34;supports development to generate tax revenue by increasing the amount of taxable real estate.
Why isn’t the current tax base sufficient? The cost of government is rising faster than the natural growth of property tax revenue. Why is this? Health care costs, increased expectations for schools, cuts in federal funding, pay increases, etc.
Oak Park Village Manager Carl Swenson is doing what he understands his job to be. Swenson is trying to increase the revenue stream for the village and other taxing bodies. The job is a tad thankless since the two school districts get about two-thirds of the revenue gains while Swenson and his political allies take over 90 percent of the heat.
The Village Manager Association (VMA) is the political establishment although they don’t like to be called a political party. While there are no ideological litmus tests to be part of the VMA, its members, in general, support Swenson’s strategy of increasing the tax base. It’s a rational thing to do given the incentives. And the VMA prides itself on technical competence.
The opposition is skeptical of development. On a gut level they don’t like change, but there are practical reasons to oppose change too. Parking and traffic are getting worse and individual developments diminish the quality of life for a small minority much more than they improve the tax situation for the majority. Skeptics wonder if village “investment” in the tax base pays for itself. Finally, for all the village has done to increase the tax base property taxes are still rising at a rate most consider unacceptable; developmentmania isn’t working as policy.
The development skeptics have tried to derail or shrink individual projects. It’s the rational thing to do from their point of view. Swenson, his village employees, and trustees elected by the VMA fight these attempts to derail or shrink projects. The pro-development people play hard. They use the power of government. They use secrecy and deception.
The secrecy and deception has a couple effects. Secrecy limits input. Less input means less people checking for mistakes. So individual projects would be better if policy weren’t made so secretively.
Secrecy and deception also provoke the opposition to be more shrill and righteous. The opposition’s tactics push Swenson to be more controlling. The more each side digs in its heals, the more each provokes the other to behave badly. But the intransigence is not irrational since there’s no workable compromise to be made.
So the voter’s choice is futile. On one side there are the pro-development candidates that can’t deliver enough development to hold the line on property taxes. On the other side is the anti-development candidates that can’t deliver enough cost cutting to hold the line on property taxes. The voters get to choose between one untenable policy labeled “status quo” or one labeled “change” or one that will probably pitch himself as, “change, but in a not-too-threatening-way.”
The important question is, how do local communities, like Oak Park, make it so natural growth in property tax is sufficient to pay for local government? This question will (or won’t) be solved in Springfield (shifting taxes from the property tax to other taxes) and in Washington (changing how we pay for health care).
By the way, are Congress and the state legislature behaving rationally by sluffing unworkable problems onto non-partisan local officials? Would local officials have more leverage in Springfield and Washington if they ran the local Democratic and Republican party organizations? Did “goo goo” (good government) reformers indirectly cause local government to be overburdened and under-funded?
Both the pro-development crowd and the development-skeptics are acting rationally. But there is no local fix to the underlying problem. This is where individual egos contribute to understanding local politics. People don’t get elected saying “it can’t be fixed.” Presumably the people running want to win. And since neither side of the development debate is right on the policy merits, Oak Park politics will probably emphasize the candidates’ personal negatives?#34;those quirks and foibles.
P.S. “Small government conservatives” who think there is a fix by cutting local government should run candidates and tell voters what they’d like to cut.