On February 20th, 2018, I attended a Board of Adjustment meeting for the City of St. Louis, Missouri. The board is a part of the Building Division of city government, and hears appeals for any person who is discontented with decisions made by any officer, department, board or bureau of the City, or is affected by any decision of the Building Commissioner or the Board of Public Service. They typically hear appeals regarding building permits and can grant dimensional variances, which allows deviations from the established requirements of a certain zoning ordinance. The purpose of the court is to not only try to accommodate the population’s needs, but foremostly ensure that zoning requirements are not being unnecessarily circumvented. Work from Linz (1978) identifies the need for healthy deliberation between the public and elected officials in a democracy, and these meetings uphold the citizen’s right to disagree with their government.
During this process of hearing appeals, the board also assumes the role of interpreting the existing zoning regulations. Since they determine the appropriateness of the administration’s decision based on the intent of the regulations, it is necessary that they become interpreters of the law, particularly when an ordinance is unclear. Zoning laws and regulations are often quite complex to the average citizen, and a lack of clarity regarding what the laws are saying is often what leads to contentions between the zoning administration and property owners. The board will therefore examine the ordinance in question and offer up an appropriate interpretation of the ordinance that more plainly states the regulations in regards to that particular case, eventually making a decision either in favor of the administration or the contesting party. In Saint Louis, the decisions made by the Board of Adjustments are binding and final, and cases will not be heard again unless an appeal is made to the Circuit Clerk.
The board is composed of five members, residents of St. Louis who must live within the city’s limits, and each are appointed by the mayor to serve four year terms. Of those five members, law requires that one be a graduate of an accredited school of architecture of licensed architect, and one be a licensed real estate broker. These requirements ensure that at least ⅖ of the sitting members have formal training and experience related directly to building codes and property issues. The board then elects their own chairman to serve a one year term. It is interesting to consider the nature of how the board is assembled when considering how democratic it may be. A procedural definition for democracy from Schumpeter (1943) asserts that democracy is an institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power by the means of a competitive struggle. This definition eliminates the classical conception of striving for a common good in a political society, and only emphasizes the need for free and fair elections in order to have a democracy. While the members of the Board of Adjustment are not elected, but rather appointed by an elected official, it could still fit into Schumpeter’s definition for democracy because it functions as an institutional arrangement to arrive at political decisions. The board arrives at decisions as a response to city’s need for zoning clarifications, carrying out the will of the city rather than the will of an undefinable common good, a clarification Schumpeter considers important.
I also found it interesting to examine the board’s democratic properties in relation to Dahl’s distinction between a polyarchy and a democracy. Besides how it is assembled, the Board of Adjustment’s format and execution could be considered a display of democratic principles in action. There are clearly defined rules regarding who can sit on the board, along with limits on their terms, and the duty of the board is to act as a checks and balances tool within the Building Division of government, checking the authority and legitimacy of the Zoning Board’s decisions, and providing a form of judicial review in the face of public contestation. Dahl (1972) has identified that a continued responsive government is a key feature of democracy, and in order to meet these requirements of democracy, voters must be able to formulate preferences, signify preferences, and have those preferences weighted equally in conduct of government.
Dahl breaks these requirements for democracy down further, claiming that it is almost impossible for a government to be completely responsive to all of its citizens. He therefore creates the term “polyarchy” in his procedural conception of democracy, claiming that what we traditionally label a democracy should be redefined, as a polyarchy implies that power is invested in multiple people and institutions. Polyarchies are also defined by high levels of both liberalization (public contestation), and inclusiveness (the right to participate). The Board of Adjustment therefore potentially fits into Dahl’s conception of a polyarchy by fulfilling the requirements of liberalization, such as hearing public appeals and allowing contestation from society, and upholding inclusiveness, as any one is allowed to appeal to the Board. The meetings are also public, so anyone may attend and listen, and the minutes are posted for public viewing, creating a more transparent system. Additionally, I considered Bourke’s emphasis on the media as the fourth estate when learning about the online presence the city of St. Louis’s boards possess- by publishing the details of each meeting, along with the times and dates of the next, the public remains informed and retains the ability to attend a meeting, keeping the governmental body accountable.
My experience at the Board of Adjustment meeting reflected the strength of institutions and the necessity of public interaction and disagreement. The board serves as a way for the voice of the people to be heard on a local scale, upholding civil discourse and checks and balances, even at the local scale.