Shaking Off the Rust
Last Thursday, Daniels sat in on a conference call with me, Brian Burcham, and Keith Anderson to discuss their undertakings. Collectively, they spoke of a medium size city (77,000 residents) in peril, bleeding residents and jobs since the early 1980's. Despite its size and location, Decatur is an urban community with all of its typical implications. Heavily reliant on manufacturing jobs, the city was devastated by a Firestone plant closing and its continued dependence on Caterpillar, Arthur Daniels Midland, and its namesake, A.E. Staley.
The city has a sizable minority population arguably ignored by its current city council and manager, and its schools are in shambles. Poverty is widespread, with 70% of Decatur students qualifying for the federal lunch program.
Unlike many other locales in the Rust Belt, Decatur has responded poorly to the forces of globalization, and the organizers of Change Decatur attribute this to lack of government accountability. The six-member city council is elected on an at-large basis, and its city manager is selected by the council. In order to pass resolutions and ordinances, or to essentially govern the city, the votes of only four council members are required.
Because of its small size and distance from voters compared to an aldermanic system based on wards, the council is allegedly "special interest" centered, focusing narrowly in the purchase of a hotel and constructing a brick street, for example, rather than the more general, pressing issues confronting local residents. The future water supply for the city, for instance, remains unaddressed.
Change Decatur proposes a strong mayor system, with the executive elected at large by voters, and an expanded city council with 20 members elected by ward. The organizers hope to place the proposal before voters when the state heads to the polls for a presidential primary on February 5th. This isn't the first time they tried to find the ballot, however, as their January 2007 effort was nixed when their signatures were challenged. They went to court once more last week as a single objector, a local realtor and former city council member, challenged their authenticity. The verdict is pending.
The group is composed of men and women of disparate interests and backgrounds, but they all agree on the common cause of changing the political course of their city. The working group of 10 to 15 has been buoyed by a number of local endorsements, including the Democratic Party, labor organizations, and teachers. They are wanting for the support of local businesses, and last year were lampooned by the local paper. They are hoping for an editorial endorsement this time around as the election nears, but none of them are holding their breath.
In terms of financial resources, this is, in the words of Burcham, a classic case of David versus Goliath. He has provided over 80% of the seed money thus far, a good portion of it ($20K) devoted to fighting for ballot access via the appeal process. Recently, individuals and unions have made small contributions to their efforts.
You might recall the last time Decatur made national news. It was the Fall of 1999 when Reverend Jesse Jackson and his Rainbow-PUSH Coalition trudged through the cornfields to Decatur to contest the expulsion of 17 African American students for a 17-second fight at a football game for 2 years. Anderson is the President of the Central Illinois Chapter of Rainbow-PUSH, and he recalled how frustrated he was with his initial battle to overturn the arguably excessive punishments. 90 days after he initiated the fight, once Jackson entered the fray, the suspensions were reduced to more reasonable sentences.
Why, you might ask, is this blast from the past recounted here? Anderson points once more to the lack of leadership inherent to a weak mayor system like that established in Decatur. It leaves racial fissures unaddressed, and trickles down to local schools where a strong partnership between city government and the school board is wanting. The board, by the way, is also elected on an at-large basis.
As a student of political science, I can honestly tell you that the verdict is still out on the ideal form of urban governance. "Professional management" forms like that in place in Decatur were a product of the Progressive Era when disgust over urban political machines was at high noon. City managers and councils elected on an at large basis were seen as non-partisan means of negating the patronage and graft endemic to strong mayor-aldermanic systems.
In the last several decades, many cities have reverted to the traditional template for many of the same reasons that Decatur is considering, namely lack of representation and accountability. While I won't hold one form up as superior here, I do commend this upstanding group of citizens for committing their time and treasure to the improvement of the place they call home. Daniels, Burcham, Anderson, and all of the members of Change Decatur embody the principles of effective citizenship, and here's hoping they get a fair shake on election day as local residents choose to either renew their commitment to their current form of government, or to sign a new social contract in favor of a strong mayor system.