OPINION — To many Utahns, the idea of “local control” is a self-evident truth — a foundational element of good government. For years, I clung to this theory, repeating it as a tactical talking point to oppose a bloated federal government and uphold the virtue of empowering local governments to do more instead.
This theory clashed starkly with reality when I began observing these local governments consistently advocating against proposals in the Utah Legislature that would protect the rights of their residents by limiting or eliminating a city’s authority to regulate those rights.
After repeated instances of this interaction with local governments, I realized that local control is not about local property rights, local free markets or local personal freedom. Cities do not try and circumvent heavy-handed state laws to provide relief for residents. Instead, they consistently want to regulate more, and more often.
Local control, quite simply, is about just that: control.
A few specific examples may help illustrate this point. For several years, cities fought efforts to minimize the burden on home-based businesses, seeking to retain the over $1 million in fees paid to them. And they nearly went nuclear when the Legislature was looking earlier this year to stop them from overcharging their citizens on fees for city services like water, electricity, or garbage.
Many cities use this excess revenue as a slush fund for general government programs and activities — a convenient, if constitutionally problematic, way to circumvent raising taxes.
Or how about the food truck freedom bill that passed almost unanimously earlier this year? The only vote against it was from a senator who caved to political pressure from a mayor in her district who wanted to continue banning food trucks in the entire city. You can’t get much more controlling than that.
Another example is St. George’s obstinate opposition to the Legislature’s efforts to protect property rights in the area of short-term rentals. Nobody disputes that cities should be able to control against actual nuisances — loud music, congested parking, trash, etc. But heavy restrictions on the peaceful use of property are unnecessary to protect public health and safety.
Despite being completely unaware of — and thus unaffected by — neighbors who had been quietly sharing their basement on Airbnb for quite some time, Mayor Pike and the city attorney spent significant time on Capitol Hill encouraging legislators to oppose a bill that was designed to allow people to share their home as long as they themselves remained in it, to help police bad behavior.
The mayor also implored other city officials to join his cause, noting that while other communities didn’t have any issue (real or perceived) with short-term rentals, they should stand together with St. George in fighting for the right to continue restricting and banning the activity. His passionate plea carried the vote, and city officials statewide mobilized to protect their “local control” of homeowners.
Cities are jealous guardians of their supposed authority, always attempting to stonewall state legislators that look to limit the power these cities were granted in cases where that power is used to violate the rights of their residents. City officials tout the same idea I once did: Local control is best.
I have observed many local government officials who, when objecting to legislative restrictions on their power, point out how legislators object to the federal government telling states what to do. This, they say, is hypocrisy — because if legislators don’t like the federal government telling the state what to do, then how can the state tell cities and counties what to do?
This is a common objection, but it’s simply wrong. The federal government is a creation of the state, and receives its legitimate authority delegated to it by the states.
Similarly, local governments in Utah are classified as political subdivisions of the state, meaning that the state receives its delegated authority from the people, and then subdivides and grants a portion of that authority to local governments. In both cases, the state is first and foremost in charge.
With little to no regard for the property rights of their residents or maintaining a free market or protecting personal freedoms, cities regulate all manner of activity.
Local government often enacts laws based on unlikely edge cases, fear and “model policies” they copy from other governments that copied other governments.
Lost in the fray is the voice of the most local level where the control should reside — individuals and families.
If cities can’t respect that local control, then they can’t cry foul when the state makes them.
Written by CONNOR BOYACK, president of Libertas Institute, a free market think tank based in Lehi.
Letters to the Editor are not the product or opinion of St. George News and are given only light edit for technical style and formatting. The matters stated and opinions given are the responsibility of the person submitting them.