While the global pandemic caused by the Coronavirus has impacted people everywhere across the globe, the United States has been hit especially hard. With nearly 800,000 cases and 39,000 deaths in the U.S. alone, people have been losing their faith in the administration and their handling of this public health crisis. Stepping aside from the approach of the federal government and state governors, what are local cities doing to govern us through this crisis? Looking at the Boston City Council’s initiative on battling the issues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic may restore our faith in government and encourage citizen engagement.
Local governments play a crucial role in the American political system. Local government is actually not mentioned in the Constitution of the United States. “State legislatures created local governments, and state constitutions and laws permit local governments to take on some of the responsibilities of the state governments” (Ginsberg et al. 84). Local governments are “subject to ultimate control by the states” (84), their power and authority is very limited and could be legally resolved by the state at any time in theory. Because of this, many states created a home rule which gives power from the state to local governments to manage themselves without interference. Functions of local governments include the adaptation of state laws to local conditions, public works and contracts for public works, licensing of public accommodation, zoning and land-use regulation, and basic public services (Ginsberg et al.). The response to COVID-19 by the federal and state governments has been representative of the challenges of federalism in the United States, with many states longing for a stronger federal government to guide the country through this crisis. But what about the administrations of local towns and cities?
The Boston City Council consists of 13 councilors who create, pass, and amend local laws and oversee approving Boston’s budget each year. The members serve as a link between citizens and their municipal government. Due to the public health crisis, the city council has moved their meetings online via Zoom. In a meeting on April 8th, 2020, the council discussed some of their agenda to combat the COVID-19 crisis and assist the people residing in Boston, Massachusetts during this challenging time. One of the issues presented by Councilwoman Mejia regarding food and security was that many Boston families earn too much to file for assistance but not enough to sustain and feed themselves. Many of these families have to travel long distances to access food pantries which was already a problem before the health crisis and has only been worsened by the pandemic. Councilwoman Breadon also spoke out to support elderlies living in poverty and find a solution to get these communities through the crisis. Councilman Flynn noted that there is also a need to support non-profit organizations who are feeding the poor and people with disabilities and struggling to pay their bills. Councilwoman Michelle Wu mentioned the issue that there is a lack of authority on the local level to pass blanket moratoriums and the need to pass this on to the state house. However, the city can issue rent relief for city owned and BPDA owned buildings which could already make a difference for many, especially small businesses who may not survive the pandemic economically. This was supported and amended by all members of the Boston City Council. When it comes to property tax, the councilors emphasized that they would do everything possible under city authority to grant relief to businesses and people who are struggling. Property tax and rent relief will not only benefit housing costs, but also help house low income individuals and will be passed on to the Committee of Ways and Needs. Councilwoman Bok further noted that of the 1000 new housing vouchers that were issued, only 500 holders were able to find housing for their families. Councilwoman Essaibi George also supported this and called for suspension of the rules to house low income families in vacant housing. The councilors want to call on property owners to house people with vouchers. The council also noted they want to find solutions to get around the administrative burden that renting to low income families poses on property owners under Section 8. This includes the initiative to create infrastructure for long-term planning beyond the public health crisis. Lastly, the members of the Boston City Council discussed the city’s budget surplus that resulted from the lack of snow days in Boston this winter. The councilors are planning to move some of the surplus toward healthcare personnel and first-responders to support frontline workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many people are unsure if they can trust their government in these uncertain times. While it’s clear that there are varying responses in leadership across state governments, it is certain that our local government is trying to work very closely with its residents to address issues within local communities. Not only can you fulfill your civic duty by attending a city council meeting in your local city or town, it is also a great way to contribute to local politics. Thanks to the digitalization of our world, the pandemic isn’t going to stop citizens from getting involved. If there are issues you feel need to be addressed in your community try reaching out to the councilor representing your district. Maybe this pandemic can restore the faith of many Americans in their government and encourage civic engagement especially on the local level, where your voice is most likely to be heard.
Ginsberg, Benjamin, Theodore J. Lowi, Margaret Weir, Caroline J. Tolbert, Andrea Louise Campbell, and Robert J. Spitzer. We the People: An Introduction to American Politics. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2019.