(Denver Post, May 18) “The era of big government is over,” Americans were told by Bill Clinton in 1995. If only. Since then we’ve seen his wife run for President in pursuit of a health care takeover, his buddy Al Gore propagandize for massive intervention on global warming, and his successor George Bush balloon the budget deficit. States and localities have continued to fatten as well, multiplying budgets, payrolls, and new government entities at “an astounding rate,” according to Clint Bolick, author of the book “Grassroots Tyranny.” Familiar with Colorado from his years at Mountain States Legal Foundation, Bolick is now with the Goldwater Institute in Arizona. “Big government didn’t disappear,” he says, “it simply moved to the suburbs.” Our state is notorious for its kudzu-like proliferation of special taxing districts. We’re also the place where life imitated art in 2000, when a city called Centennial incorporated itself south of Denver, echoing James Michener’s novel by that name about an imaginary town north of Denver. A struggle over the young municipality’s future is now underway.
Centennial, where I’ve lived since 1974, will hold an election June 10 on its proposed home-rule charter as drafted by a citizens’ commission. Residents are divided. The debate matters to all Coloradans as a case study in government’s inherent tendency to grow, whether driven by real needs or not.
Commission chairman Cathy Noon argues that under home rule, “we the citizens will craft our own governmental structure, one that meets our needs,” resulting in “more self-governance” and “enhanced quality of life.” Sounds good. But Chris Raab, head of the opposition, worries that city hall insiders are “trying to grow the city, and the growth is not paying for itself.” He contends the charter is fatally flawed with “poor checks and balances.”
Sounds bad; so who’s right? Under Colorado’s constitution, a city or town is entirely a creature of the state legislature unless it votes for home rule under a mini-constitution of its own. Such autonomy has superficial appeal, and most of our larger municipalities have opted for it. But you’d best be skeptical if you value individual liberty, small government, and free markets. Political empire-building is just too big a temptation, especially in localities.
Studying my locality’s proposed charter at CentennialColorado.com, I found a number of commendable safeguards against overgovernment. But they’re mixed with troublesome provisions reflecting the weak checks and balances that Raab criticizes. Why eliminate the treasurer and the clerk, two of the only three citywide elected officers? Why empower the mayor and council members to fire each other for undefined “good cause”? I’ll be voting no.
It’s nothing personal. I just want more safeguards than this plan gives. Founding Father James Madison warned that “schemes of oppression” are easier to carry out locally because special interests swing more weight there. City politicians are much less well-known than those in state and federal offices, notes Clint Bolick, adding: “Local governments are like vampires: they operate best under cover of darkness.”
Randy Simmons, who teaches political economy at Utah State and is mayor of his small town, says that a meddlesome populism infects city councils, and the lack of partisan accountability in local government makes it worse. He observes that even Republicans tend to “go socialist” in municipal office, tempted to “do good with other people’s money.”
Simmons says he’s glad Utah’s constitution has no home rule option, so their legislature can prevent grassroots tyranny. But Colorado lacks that protection. “If the charter’s not written right, citizens can lose control of their city to the hired manager,” says Larry Merkel, who as a Wheat Ridge councilman saw it happen there in 1976. Will Centennial make the same mistake? Let’s hope not.