Over the weekend we ran a Strategize Your City workshop for the Hayward Democratic Club. Many of the participants were from unincorporated Castro Valley, and we were intrigued by the lack of elected offices at the local level. Who paves the roads? Who pays the fire department? Who oversees the parks? Who ensures there is enough affordable housing? And more importantly, how can residents effect change?
We will be having longer conversations with them about these questions and will report back with answers. Only about 63 percent of Americans live in incorporated cities and towns; the rest must rely on Boards of Supervisors and County Departments. A little research gives us information on the U.S. regionally, and it becomes clear that some states don’t want citizens to have power at the local level.
Everyone in New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island (and most people in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Vermont) is part of an incorporated city or township, giving residents control at the local level. Meanwhile, Virginia, Alabama, Maryland, and Tennessee have set strict requirements on incorporation, making it very difficult to incorporate. These states have many residents (including in large urban areas) who have no municipal government, and thus little local control.
It sounded like the residents of Castro Valley elect one representative to their County Board of Supervisors, which oversees basic services. This structure makes it more difficult for residents to get involved in decisions about their neighborhood, whether it be affordable housing, green space, access to health care facilities, or any other issue. The argument against incorporating is usually cost; this is often the argument against democracy: it’s too expensive.
Hopefully the 2016 elections have allowed people to see that democracy is, in fact, worth spending a small amount of money for. Electing people to the local level is the fastest way to create great, unwavering representatives of the people who can then move up to state and national offices.