Local governance is not monolithic, but multiply constituted by a variety of factors. While it is true that many different localities share similar problems with governance such as the balancing of trust and effectiveness, the prevalence and role of community-based organizations, and encouraging and responding to community involvement, the contours of those difficulties are very different depending on the city. Geographic, cultural, and political differences across localities mean that cities have very different approaches to solving problems. These types of differences include form and function of the city council, ie: does the Dillon Rule limit their ability to legislate, are they advised by a city planner, etc (Nelson and Svara). Perhaps most importantly, context dependent factors like the issue agenda put forward by the city council, which organizations advocate for policy, how those organizations advocate, and the forms that city councils take all have major implications for how public engagement can happen. This paper will focus on a local city council meeting in Harrisonburg, Virginia on October 22nd, 2019. It will address the key issues facing the community and the responses by the council, how citizens can influence policy making at the local level, and the opportunities and challenges of local governance.
The key issues facing Harrisonburg right now are largely framed around how the large student population from James Madison University is affecting the policies that are passed. For instance, item 7A (the first discussed at the meeting) was the Smith House Galleries, which appealed to the council based on using art to cultivate connections across the community within Harrisonburg. They cited previous monetary support from the council as helpful and advertised their plays, such as The Diary of Anne Frank, and Annie. The new funding was approved without discussion. There was only one other major item on the agenda, although a few were discussed and passed without discussion afterwards. Item 7C was about Rezoning and Special Zoning of student housing. A concept plan was put forward for a new residential building to be developed without a parking lot near Costco. It would require moving a sewer line and could impact the aesthetics and feel of the community. The ensuing discussion is illustrative for the function of Harrisonburg City Council because not only do they control policy through voting, they also listen to requests by organizations and discuss their positions with one another in front of a public audience (Molden et al). For instance, Councilperson Christopher Jones said that it is unacceptable to frame JMU students as outsiders, and that they are just as much a part of the town as the people who live in Harrisonburg year-round. Councilperson George Hirschmann said that JMU housing “flows all along the city” and cited grievances by residents in prior meetings. The discussion was long-winded and repetitive, but the point is that different members of council felt an obligation to different members of the community (JMU students vs “townies”) and even went so far as to cite them in their speeches on the matter (Handley and Howell-Moroney). The form of the city council also facilitates this discussion because they have public meetings that are openly accessible. While they are advised by a City Manager, whom we met earlier this year, they still make decisions autonomously. Similarly, while community-based organizations were lobbying the council for support, it was ultimately their decision to provide that support or not. It is difficult to unpack the differences between form and focus here, although we can track the outcomes by observation (Nelson and Svara).
Citizens and local organizations are playing larger roles in local government than ever before. Take for instance item 7C in the city council meeting on 10/22. The facilitation of accessibility to information technology over the past few years has unsettled the “boundedness of small towns” (Catlaw et al) and this manifested itself over the issue of rezoning apartment housing in items 7 C-F with the “townies” concerned over new housing developments near their local Costco ruining the neighborhood. Now this issue was bound to appear at some point in debates over the issue, but it exacerbated tension in the debate and led to little change of opinion from the Councilpeople from the initial stances and just a standoff for an hour or so. The citizens and CBOs involved in the debate over item 7C did have clear impacts on the debate with Councilman Hirschmann clearly advocating for the side of the “townies” by saying that the new multi-use buildings would ruin the overall theme of the neighborhood and cause great furor among the ordinary people who do not want loud college students. However, information technology hugely facilitates this involvement from citizens particularly in younger demographics and contributed to the discussion of item 7C and the issue of rezoning so as to build a multi-story building for student and family apartments near a Costco parking lot. Councilman Christopher Jones advocated for the students and stressed a need to be more inclusive and Councilman Baugh made the point of it not being anyone’s particular jurisdiction to dictate where and where not the students can live. So, the planning committee initially denied the special use permit requests from Kathy White and Madison Lucy Realty, LLC Political participation in administration, particular voting and policy debates has always been emphasized (Wang and Van Tart) due to trust in participation in administrative fields. Thus, this resulted in a narrow 3-2 decision to approve the new building development special use permits, thanks to discussions between council members and residents in the community, online and other participation from residents taking different positions on the issue through information technology, in addition to simply attending the City Council meetings.
As might be expected, there is little new in the view that local governments are having a difficult time during the 21st century. Funding restraints and new service requirements are functions that are causing a significant change in many localities like Harrisonburg that are looking to the future of public and community engagement, but there is also a generous amount of room for growth and opportunity. Such an argument for this case is the fact that citizens are seeking more collaboration with local government and community-based organizations (as seen in items 7A and 7C), and are looking to help form the overall vision of what the community should be. Local events that are open to the public like the most recent city council meeting offer Harrisonburg citizens the chance to be more intrinsically involved in crafting the issue agenda and being connected to the community they love (Walker and Andrews). However, some forms and functions of local governance pose numerous issues that public officials are required to either mitigate or solve for the sake of the public interest. The role of local citizens and CBOs (community-based organizations, Mosely and Grogan) is to take an interest in political affairs because they love the community, leaving public officials with the responsibility to work towards growing and expanding the community in order to create more and better opportunities for employment, boost the local economy, reduce poverty rates, and achieve shared objectives. The exchange of public information through forums, city council meetings, and community engagement is also of paramount concern to local governance as Harrisonburg needs to build mutual responsibility and accountability for the council and public.