This is what “local control” looks like when it’s out of control. It’s a dangerous trend emerging in cities across the United States, and it was the subject of a recent panel discussion in Scottsdale, Ariz., hosted by Goldwater Institute Executive Vice President Christina Sandefur.
Councilman Sal DiCiccio, Representative Warren Petersen,
and Christina Sandefur (L to R)
“It doesn’t matter the level of government. Federal. State. Local. If they infringe on individual rights, it’s wrong,” said Arizona State Representative Warren Petersen, who spoke alongside Phoenix City Councilman Sal DiCiccio about the tension between limited government and local governance — and how to rein in abuses of power by cities.
Neighboring Phoenix provided an object lesson in an out-of-control local government for the panelists who considered the city’s latest move to impose increased fees on citizens using ride-sharing services to travel to and from Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport. The Goldwater Institute sent a letter to Phoenix’s mayor last week warning her that the fees are unconstitutional, while State Representative Nancy Barto sent a letter of her own, indicating that she would call for an investigation by the state attorney general if the city imposes the fees — a move that could result in the state withholding funds from the city.
Threating legal action and withholding funds from the city are both compelling restraints on municipal power, but failing that, cities are flexing legislative power without the built-in checks and balances that constrain other levels of government, as Petersen described.
“Cities and counties cannot write statutes, and for good reason. They don’t have checks and balances,” Petersen said. “People are really lost on this. Cities and counties are not set up to be policy bodies. They’re administrate bodies — administrative arms of the state.”
But as DiCiccio attested to, powerful unelected city managers and city staff routinely enact policies that can have devastating consequences, and they have no accountability for their actions. “We all have personal responsibility. We all have free will. Why not hold really bad decisions to some kind of accountability?” DiCiccio asked. Incredibly, not only are these local leaders and bureaucrats unaccountable to citizens, most people don’t even know who they are.
“People can name the president, but don’t know their mayor, city council. Certainly they don’t know whom the city manager is. Yet these are people implementing policy,” Sandefur said.
Arizona has taken steps to protect people’s rights when local control becomes destructive. In 2016, the legislature passed and Governor Doug Ducey signed SB 1487, a state measure that puts teeth in state laws that safeguard our rights from local abuse. Under SB 1487, if a county, city, or town is found to have violated state law or the state Constitution, the state treasurer can withhold state shared monies from the municipality until the violation is resolved. That’s significant—in Arizona, the state shares 15 percent of collected taxes on income, sales and transportation with local governments. It’s under authority of this law that Phoenix could lose funding for its out-of-control ride-sharing fees – and it’s one powerful way to return power where it belongs: the people.
“What is the most local form of government? Self-government. Individual rights. So if we really want to talk about local control, let’s give power to the individual,” Petersen said.