A defining feature of local democracies is that these smaller units of government can allow for more direct participation by the public. In Columbia, Missouri, each of the city council’s monthly meetings includes opportunities for Columbia residents to speak in front of Mayor Brian Treece and six other council members. At the council’s meeting on January 22, 2019, members of the public brought up two controversial issues: LGBTQ conversion therapy and community-police tensions. Over the course of the meeting, the city council dealt with these issues in different ways which illustrate the strengths and limitations of local democracy.
Three of the meeting’s public speakers discussed issues related to the Columbia Police Department. The first was a pair of representatives of Missouri Faith Voices, a faith-based coalition focused on racial and economic justice They presented a “moral agenda” of calls to action related to education, transportation, and other issues affecting the city. The centerpiece of the agenda was series of requests for changes to Columbia’s police force. Specifically, the speakers asked for more community policing and restorative justice systems, for the Columbia Police Department to refuse to detain undocumented individuals on behalf of ICE, and for the city to hire a new police chief. Later, Nina Hampton, representing a local activist group focused on racial justice, also spoke about the relationship between the city’s police and its residents. She addressed the recent controversy surrounding Columbia police lieutenant Brian Tate, who was placed on paid leave in early January while the department investigated his allegedly racist, Islamophobic, and otherwise problematic social media posts. Hampton stated that in order to achieve reconciliation, the police needed to “acknowledge the harm done” by issuing an apology for Lt. Tate’s actions. After Hampton, the final speaker who discussed police-related issues was Alan Mitchell, president of the Columbia Police Officers Association. Mitchell spoke from a different perspective, asking the council to remove a member of the Citizens’ Police Review Board (CPRB). Mitchell claimed that the individual in question, Alan Davis, was biased against police, citing Davis’ social media posts and comments at meetings as proof. Mitchell asked the council to select a “neutral figure” to replace Davis on the CPRB. After Mr. Mitchell spoke, as with the previous speakers, the council thanked him for his contribution and moved on with no discussion.
Another controversial topic brought forward was LGBTQ conversion therapy. This issue was raised by Howard Hutton, representing a local LGBTQ-focused community center. Hutton began his speech by giving background information on conversion therapy, the pseudoscientific practice of trying to change an individual’s sexual orientation through psychological or spiritual interventions. Hutton outlined the dangers of conversion therapy, explaining how its frequently abusive techniques “pose serious risk of psychological and physical harm to youth.” Hutton argued that the city council has a duty to protect Columbia’s LGBTQ youth, and requested that the council prohibit conversion therapy in Columbia. Specifically, he proposed that the council adopt a ban already written and approved by the Denver City Council. He explained that using the preexisting Denver ban would allow the legislation to be ready for adoption in Columbia before the next city council council meeting. After Hutton’s speech, Mayor Treece thanked him and, unlike with previous speakers, added that he would have the Council address Hutton’s proposal at the end of the meeting.
As promised, during the very last segment of the meeting, Treece revisited the possibility of banning conversion therapy. He asked another council member to examine the Denver ban and determine how it could fit within Columbia’s legal framework. In the meantime, Treece proposed that the Council pass a resolution in support of Missouri House Bill 516, which aims to ban licensed health professionals from practicing conversion therapy on minors. No one objected, and voting on the resolution was officially placed on the next meeting’s agenda. In contrast, issues regarding the Columbia Police Department and the CPRB were not revisited.
As Ulfedler (2016) points out, the entire United States has “a long history of state-sanctioned racial and sexual hierarchy,” so much that “it is encoded in our national political DNA.” It seems natural, then, that issues related to police-community tensions and the LGBTQ community were two main issues raised by members of the public at this Columbia City Council meeting. The different ways the city council dealt with these issues illustrate some of the powers and limitations of local democracies like city government. When it comes to complicated and divisive issues like police-community tensions, local governments’ effectiveness is often limited. The complexity of the issue can make it difficult to propose specific, achievable measures. For example, the moral agenda’s call for restorative justice systems, while sincere and important, is also vague and thus hard to act upon. Even for more concrete proposals, such as Mitchell’s request for Davis to be removed from the CPRB or Hampton’s call for a police apology, the divisiveness of the issue means that acting upon any of these proposals would likely generate backlash for the city council. Of course, risk of backlash should be no excuse for leaders to avoid action. Realistically, however, low participation from already small constituencies leaves elected officials like Columbia’s city council members less insulated from public backlash than state- or nationally-elected leaders. This dynamic can cause local elected officials to shy away from making decisions on more controversial topics.
On the other hand, the council’s treatment of the issue of LGBTQ conversion therapy tells a different story. This issue, while still controversial, is less divisive than issues surrounding policing: polls show that national support for conversion therapy is relatively low, and now that many of the US’ most well-respected healthcare institutions have spoken out against the practice, fewer and fewer people are advocating for conversion therapy, especially in secular settings. Based on this city council meeting, Columbia would seem to be mirroring the broader national trends, since no one opposed Hutton’s request for a ban on conversion therapy, and no council member objected to researching the Denver bill or considering a resolution supporting HB 516. It seems, therefore, that the specific, achievable, and relatively low-risk nature of Hutton’s request created the necessary conditions for the Council to follow through. This interaction demonstrates how citizen participation, one of the two vital pillars of a healthy democracy, according to Dahl (1972), can be particularly impactful in local governments. The chance to directly address elected leaders like Hutton did is much scarcer at the state and national levels.
As Dahl (1967) wrote in “The City in the Future of Democracy,” “the smaller the unit, the greater the opportunity for citizens to participate in the decisions of their government.” The interaction between Hutton and the Columbia City Council is a perfect example of such participation, and at the next council meeting in early February, a resolution expressing support for HB 516 was passed unanimously. But while local democracies can excel at giving their constituents opportunities for participation, they often simultaneously struggle to tackle complex and divisive issues like police-community tensions. The concerns raised in this area were not revisited at this city council meeting, and the council has taken no apparent action to address police-related issues since their January 22 meeting.
*Photo by KBIA, https://www.kbia.org/post/after-extensive-public-hearing-columbia-city-council-approves-new-trail#stream/0