Democracy is most real — and often most consequential — at the local level of government in Wisconsin.
It is there that citizens choose from among their neighbors to serve on town boards, village boards, city councils and county boards.
The elections are nonpartisan, and often non-ideological. Local officials serve with little or no pay, and they do so as true representatives of their neighborhoods, their regions, their communities.
And when those communities are concerned — especially about destructive projects and developments — local elected officials reflect and act upon those concerns. They don't bow to big-money campaign donors. They don't defer to out-of-town, or out-of-state, lobbyists. They do what is right for the people and the place they serve.
This really is what democracy looks like.
Unfortunately, democracy is under assault.
Legislators in states across the country are attacking local control with so-called "preemption" bills. These measures — often promoted by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a national group funded by multinational corporations — take away local control and rest the decision-making power with politicians in state capitols.
Those politicians are much more likely to do the bidding of all those free-spending campaign donors and lobbyists.
In Wisconsin, state Sen. Tom Tiffany, a Republican who has aligned himself with out-of-state mining interests, is trying to get the Legislature to adopt a proposal that would severely limit the ability of local governments to control the destructive practice of frac sand mining.
Tiffany, who chairs the Senate Committee on Workforce Development, Forestry, Mining and Revenue, used a hearing last week to promote his proposal. The senator says he wants to prevent Wisconsin's towns, villages, cities and counties from becoming "mini-DNRs" — a reference to the state Department of Natural Resources.
But an analysis by the public interest group Food and Water Watch has determined that the bill represents "an attack on local governments by the silica sand mining industry, better known as 'frac sand' mining. This proposed legislation would strip counties, cities, villages, and towns of their authority to protect local air and water quality, to prevent unsafe blasting, and to recoup costs to taxpayers from damage done to local roadways by heavy truck traffic from silica sand mining."
Conservation, environmental and community groups have expressed concerns regarding the measure, which Glenn Stoddard, an attorney with broad experience in environmental and land-use issues, told WisconsinWatch.org, “essentially takes away all meaningful regulatory authority of local and county governments to protect the public from the adverse environmental and public health impacts of frac sand mining.”
Those concerns are not only environmental. They also relate to the quality of our democracy.
State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout decries Tiffany’s bill as “another example of legislation … that is being driven by out-of-state corporate interests that takes away local people’s ability to protect their health, their safety, and their neighborhood.”
The Alma Democrat, a potential gubernatorial candidate, is not alone is speaking up. State Sen. Dale Schultz, a responsible Republican from Richland Center, says he has “a deep concern about any bill which would remove local control over a municipality’s natural resources and send it to Madison.”
Vinehout and Schultz speak for the traditional Wisconsin faith that the cure for what ails democracy is always more democracy — especially when it shifts power from the corrupted corridors of power back to the communities where Wisconsinites live.
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org @NicholsUprising