Empowering Local Governments
As the rhetoric around Silent Sam heated up, culminating with the statue’s fall weeks ago, one of the most controversial issues has been Chancellor Carol Folt’s role in the debacle. Does she bear any responsibility for the monument’s lengthy stay on McCorkle Place? Despite her “pass” from Governor Cooper, did she truly have the authority to remove the statue for “safety reasons,” as the Governor claimed? The much-discussed 2015 law passed by the General Assembly reads, “A monument, memorial, or work of art owned by the State may not be removed, relocated, or altered in any way without the approval of the North Carolina Historical Commission”. While the 2015 law has certainly garnered the most media attention in recent months, it is only the most recent one in a long string of state laws designed to suppress the power of local authorities and deny local communities of all kinds the right to have their voices heard.
Since Republicans assumed control of the state legislature in 2010 and established supermajorities in both chambers soon after, the state’s disregarding municipalities’ right to self-governance has been propelled to new heights. The most publicized examples of this can be found in the aforementioned 2015 law, clearly designed to protect Confederate monuments, and House Bill 2, which prohibited municipalities from enacting higher minimum wages and non-discrimination legislation. But individual legislators had been going out of their way to threaten local control before these laws were enacted, and they have continued to do so since, with seemingly few consequences. State Republican legislators attempted to change Asheville’s voting system to favor Republican control at the local level. They voted to change voting districts and voting years for the Wake County School Board and Wake County Commissioners to favor the GOP, only to be checked by the state appellate court. Legislators have long refused to allocate any state funds to light rail projects, and when municipalities have agreed to foot the entire bill, legislators have blocked them. These actions are part of a pattern. When considered en masse, North Carolina’s war against local control has intensified to a shocking degree in recent years.
However, North Carolina’s issues with state dismissal of local needs extend well past the Republican takeover in 2010. Due to state law, cities and counties in North Carolina - do not have “home rule” zoning power. In other words, municipalities only have as much power as has been specifically delegated to them under state law. In fact, because of these strict zoning laws, Chapel Hill’s inclusionary housing ordinance has been largely unsuccessful. Since Chapel Hill was entering a legal gray area with the ordinance, city councilors and government officials have been hesitant to enforce it in dealings with developers. As of now, municipalities have extremely little say in what developers can do with land once they acquire it. If the state allowed local communities such as Chapel Hill to create requirements for developers, it would go a long way towards solving future problems in our cities, addressing everything from affordable housing to limiting energy consumption. Right now, our municipalities can’t make progress on these issues because of Republicans in Raleigh.
To me, the solution is clear. If there are certain policy arenas – such as Confederate monuments, LGBTQ rights, and even zoning – where different communities clearly feel differently, we must let those communities decide on those issues. Republicans in leadership in our state legislature have no business dictating the decisions communities should be allowed to make. Municipal officials are the most electorally accountable to their constituents for decisions they make and usually have the best understanding of their constituents’ concerns and how to solve them. Instead of attempting to create blanket solutions for our entire state - a state extremely diverse in political opinion - let’s empower mayors and town councils across the Old North State to actually govern their constituents.
The conservative fight against federal intrusion on states’ rights has been ongoing for decades. Now, it’s time for the people to fight against state intrusion on our municipalities’ rights.