Those who listen to my radio show know that I spend my mornings and some evenings practicing and teaching law. For the 20 years since I left Washington, D.C., I have been a land use and natural resources lawyer, guiding landowners –principally home builders but also churches and commercial developers—through the maze of federal, state and local regulatory permitting that blankets the use of land in the U.S. I have had clients throughout the west, and this has meant appearing hundreds of times before city councils, county boards and regional and state commissions and agencies. It has meant thousands of meetings with elected and appointed local government officials.
I provide this as background to a few comments on Sarah Palin’s decade as a city council member and mayor of a small town, Wasilla, Alaska. Don’t underestimate the enormous benefit this provides the governor in the campaign and beyond as she takes up the duties of a vice president. Local government experience means an immersion in the real problems of real people as well as with a myriad of issues from the details of budgets for road maintenance and police and fire forces, to the land use issues I mentioned above, to parks and recreation and school construction issue issues.
And, of course, snow removal, the bane of many mayors' lives.
It also means appearing at thousands of the events that define small town life, from the Rotary to the start of the local fund-raising 5K, and the hiring and firing of staff that has to make the traffic lights work and oversee the trash collection.
And mostly it means being able to connect with people who look to the local government to get the big things in small towns right.
Sitting on a dais week after week and listening to public comments and presentations from staff is the least glamorous of all elected offices, but very central to the functioning of the republic. Hundreds of thousands of Americans serve in these all-but-voluntary jobs and do so out of a sense of public spiritedness. Of course there are knuckleheads among the local electeds, and I have encountered many of them.
But by a very large measure these mayors, council members and commissioners are genuine public servants –and they get very smart, very fast about the communities they serve and the real successes and failures that define American life, whether in Wasilla, Alaska or Dearborn, Michigan or Sharon, PA.