On Monday, February 11th, citizens of a St. Louis suburb braved the cold temperatures and sleeting weather to voice their concerns on the state of affairs within their own community. In hoping to witness democracy-in-action, I attended a city council meeting at the local library of Webster Groves, Missouri. At the meeting, the mayor of the municipality and six members of the council were present to field any questions raised by their constituents. The group had just finished conducting an informational session on a proposed renovation of the local fire station, and they had devoted the rest of their time to members of their community. Walking into the meeting, I was initially shocked by the crowd that had gathered; there were over 70 people in attendance. There were more bodies than seats, and the meeting eventually became a standing-room only event.
The organization of the meeting was relatively structured, as citizens wrote down questions to ask, could raise them throughout the meetings, and had the ability to respond directly to councilmembers in an open dialogue that remained respectful and enlightening. The mayor, however, had all the power; she used her discretion on what questions and issues to raise to the council as a whole. The diversity of community members in attendance reflected the diversity of topics discussed at the meeting, ranging from serious issues such as housing discrimination and an influx of gentrification, to menial issues associated with trash build-up on city sidewalks. As an relatively affluent community, its metrics are high in amenities, crime, and education, but are typically poor in affordability and housing accommodations. That divide is easily observable, which caused the demographically-diverse members of the community to spotlight different problems based on their individual experiences living in Webster Groves. As Robert Dahl says, a key characteristic of democracy is “the continued responsiveness of the government to the preferences of its citizens, considered as political equals” (Dahl 1972). Clearly, not all citizens have the same preferences, and not all are considered equal. The vast differences in problems and experiences conveyed at the meeting made this clear. But city council meetings like this provide an opportunity for people to come together to pursue remedies that tackle such issues, big and small alike.
Inevitably, the Better Together proposition, which lays out a plan to merge St. Louis City and St. Louis County together, was discussed at length. During the discussion, community members seemed divisive on their stances: some believe the move is necessary to reduce inequality in the region (including one council-member), whereas others wished to retain their autonomy as an independent municipality outside the city. An NAACP representative, present at the meeting, spoke on her experience with the Ferguson riots and death of Michael Brown as an anecdote about the current political climate within St. Louis and the consequences that merging the city and counties together could have on the community. Throughout this discussion, it was apparent that the mayor, Gerry Welch, was vehemently opposed to the proposal; she, as well as the council-members, would lose their jobs if Better Together is passed.
Although Better Together is a necessary conversation that members of Webster Groves need to have, the informal setting of the meeting proved unequipped to handle the debate properly. Polarization between community members and councilmembers was blatantly observed as people continually talked over one another, advocating their ideas in the limited time offered. Once the debate shifted topics into poverty levels and gentrification within the community, Better Together was shelved. Since there was no consensus on where Webster Groves would stand on the issue, there was no point in continuing the conversation. Joseph Schumpeter, when discussing an idealistic model of democracy, claims that people elect their leaders to promote the common good of society that all people agree on (Schumpeter 1943). It was apparent during the meeting that this is an impossible standard to meet, which Schumpeter contends. In reality, there exists no common good that works for everyone, which is something democracy – as inherently majoritarian – confronts daily. Within any decision, the minority must live with the choices made by the majority. City council meetings can offer a glimpse into what choices should be made that reflect the best interests of everyone. In the case of Better Together, what’s best for the community may not be in the best interest of the city council. Only time will tell which preferences hold more weight.
When discussing trash collection, one comment made by a citizen summed up the importance of city council meetings as a form of democratic governance: if the citizens don’t notice the problem, neither will the government. Community members gave numerous examples of where the city had foregone its responsibility to keep city streets clean, which none of the councilmembers had noticed. Democracy at all levels rely on the citizens to provide oversight on issues that need addressing, which is the inherent purpose of these meetings. Once problems are identified, steps can be taken by the government to mitigate citizens’ concerns. In the case of trash collection, the solution that many seemed to agree on was revelatory: citizen action. In other words, if the trash is irritating you, pick it up yourself. This shows that democratic governance has inherent limitations. Not all representatives can focus on every issue raised by their constituents, and citizens cannot expect the government to solve every problem. City council meetings make these limitations clear. By raising awareness to specific issues, government officials can prioritize problems to solve the most flagrant abdication of responsibilities. In Webster Groves, citizens raised concerns that there exists a systematic reluctance to change zoning laws that prohibit low-income housing developments within the city limits, leading to a reduction in minority populations. Discussing and tackling these problems can help promote the common good and adhere to citizens preferences. Sidewalk trash in a society can wait, but equity and access to resources among different socioeconomic and racial divisions should not.
*Photo by Kim Wolterman