Is local government in Massachusetts too pervasive?

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In a country as culturally and politically diverse as the United States, vastly different political systems have come to serve local populations in various states. Certain regions of the nation have far-reaching and invasive local government systems, while others have large swaths of the population that don’t have any sub-county government at all.

A typical Greater Boston town has about 25,000 people, while urban conglomerations out west often consist mostly of unincorporated communities. Clark County, Nevada, which includes Las Vegas, has well over 2 million residents but only 5 municipal governments. Meanwhile, Cumming, Georgia is a city of 6,000 people whose mailing address serves over 100,000 people. Cumming is the only incorporated community in its county. At the opposite extreme, many midwestern states have several layers of local government that each provide their own services, such as townships, villages, and boroughs. Infamously, Illinois’ nearly 7,000 local government units have allowed for widespread corruption and absurd property tax rates. Nearly 115,000 people left Illinois for other states between July 2016 and July 2017.

Where possible, Massachusetts’s local government is largely organized in a traditional New England town meeting style. By law, towns with fewer than 6,000 residents must have an open town meeting, meaning that all citizens have a vote on the town’s budget and bylaws. Larger towns often use representative town meeting formats, meaning that a certain number of local elected officials in each ward vote on behalf of the town as a whole. Such grassroots democracy has a rich tradition in New England, yet as the region has become both more connected economically and more polarized politically, the slow, laborious town meeting process might cease to make sense for well-populated towns.

Framingham is the most recent community to adopt a city form of government. Previously, the city had 216 representatives employed to vote on fiscal and legal issues. Now Framingham has a City Council and mayor constituting a mere 12 people. While some might be concerned that a stronger, more concentrated form of government could increase corruption and mismanagement, the transparency and accountability of a single, highly-visible public figure may be greater than when such responsibility is spread amongst hundreds of relatively obscure officials. This is why Boston-area communities should consider the future of local governance in the context of eliminating wasteful, time-consuming practices, especially in municipalities that will likely continue to grow for the foreseeable future.

Andover, population 35,000, still has an open town meeting. The largest town with a representative town meeting is Plymouth, population 59,000, having recently surpassed Brookline. Brookline has 240 representatives in its local government.

Still, Massachusetts lacks the intense layering of bureaucracy seen in some other parts of the country. County governments were largely abolished in the 1990s, and the simple city/town duality of local governance leaves clear expectations for the services each municipality provides. Villages have no legal status in Massachusetts. While Chestnut Hill may have a neighborhood group, it doesn’t have a government of its own, and its status as an incorporated place is considered archaic.

The legacy of highly localized governance lives on, however, from a time when traveling from, say, Worcester to Boston took far longer than it does today. Streetcar suburbs like Arlington and Belmont are often a part of their corresponding central cities in other parts of the country. Geographically, Massachusetts towns and cities are noticeably smaller than in regions and states that developed later. Some of the Commonwealth’s towns even have long histories of splitting off from others. The original land area of Dedham, for example, now encompasses 14 municipalities.

Retroactively “fixing” this is next to impossible as towns have developed their own characters, identities, policies, and traditions. However, in the spirit of facing the future as a stronger collective whole, Massachusetts can still do more to prevent the disastrous situation Illinois now faces. More informal institutions like sub-regional partnerships over specific issues can develop on a grassroots level. Town officials can arrange for shared resources with their neighbors, and can coordinate zoning and other policy measures with nearby towns.

Perhaps this idea of shared resources defies the goal of self-sufficiency as towns expand their tax bases. There is not a city budding in every growing town. But as land becomes scarcer and neighbors become physically closer, integrating and simplifying resources – whether by having fewer leaders or fewer governments – might just help give everyone a stronger sense of community.

Andrew Mikula is a rising senior at Bates College majoring in economics. Since joining Pioneer Institute as the Roger Perry Government Transparency intern, he has focused on using Pioneer’s MassAnalysis database to analyze social and economic issues. He aspires to be an urban planner upon graduation.