Ten years have passed since we learned that the oil and gas industry was planning to frack a big chunk of New York State, including Otsego county. Battle lines were quickly drawn between those who believed that natural gas was a cleaner form of energy and also hoped to profit from it, and those who feared that our air and water would be permanently polluted, our scenic resources degraded, and our property values lowered. In the ensuing struggle communities were mobilized more than at any time since the rent wars of the nineteenth century. Hundreds of local municipalities passed anti-fracking resolutions, and finally, in 2015, fracking in New York State was banned by executive order of the Governor.
What the anti-fracking struggle revealed above all was the vulnerability of our local communities to powerful outside forces over which we have little or no control. In this case, it was the oil and gas industry, led by the most powerful corporations in the world. But other examples abound. Unfunded mandates from New York State, for instance, dictate much of our public education, health care, and social services, while bypassing local control. Local taxpayers pick up the tab, in a classic case of taxation without representation.
Our political rhetoric is of two minds over these outside forces. Either they are defended as somehow contributing to the general good, if we like them, or they are condemned as exploitative and destructive, if we don’t. It matters little whether the arguments for or against are persuasive, since they are mostly believed only by those who’ve already made up their minds. What matters is the deeper alienation we feel as decisions for our welfare, or exploitation, are made by far-away people in impenetrable organizations, most of whom we don’t know and could not even name.
This is not a conservative vs. liberal issue. Both sides bemoan the outside forces they don’t like, and applaud the benefits of those they do like. The deeper issue is that of democracy, of public accountability. Complain selectively as we will about the pros and cons of state and federal government, or corporate power, there is little appetite or imagination for asserting local prerogatives against these outside forces. Maybe that’s because we’re so used to having them act for us that it’s hard to imagine anything else.
It would be inspiring, however, to see local governments, especially the Otsego County Board of Representatives, begin to defend local interests more aggressively. Up to now, town and county local government has been understood mostly as an administrative responsibility–getting the roads plowed and maintained, supporting law enforcement, facilitating social services, regulating land use.
But that’s not good enough anymore. It’s no secret that representatives at higher levels of government, in Albany or Washington, are responsible not to the voters but to their donors. It’s a form of legalized corruption officially enshrined by the 2010 US Supreme Court decision in the case of “Citizens United.” But local representatives by and large are still connected in a personal way to their constituents, and big money isn’t normally a factor.
It will be said that local government ought to keep to its stated duties, that doing anything more is beyond its bounds. But there is nothing to prevent local government from passing resolutions to express and protect the interests of its constituents, and to give voice to their concerns. That’s exactly what hundreds of towns did across upstate New York when confronted with the threat of fracking, and it applies to any issue, whether left or right. In an era of profound alienation, where approval ratings of legislators and executives are shockingly low, where confidence in larger institutions is seriously eroded, it may be time for local governments to step up in the interests of their constituents, and in defense of the best of American democratic ideals.
Author of many books about decentralism, Adrian Kuzminski is a New York-based researcher, writer, and citizen activist.