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Rioting! In The Suburbs

How angry suburban voters are sabotaging the governments they seek to reform

For five days in June 1967, the City of Buffalo was convulsed by riots. The disturbances began on the West Side on the evening of Monday, June 26, when a police attempt to break up a fight at the Lakeview Projects escalated into a confrontation between a crowd of several hundred increasingly agitated onlookers and a police contingent that grew ultimately to several dozen. The following afternoon, the East Side blew up. Groups of angry residents took to the streets. They stopped traffic, set fires, stoned cars, broke store windows, looted neighborhood establishments, assaulted local merchants, and pelted responding police officers. Buffalo police made 21 arrests.

For the rest of the week, arson, vandalism, looting, and violence erupted intermittently. Police made 300 additional arrests. A meeting between Mayor Sedita and a group of more than 100 young East Side residents eventually helped soothe the public mood, and by late Friday calm prevailed. Nevertheless, the damage was done. Thriving commercial districts on Jefferson Avenue and Broadway were severely damaged, and many merchants either refused point blank to reopen their stores or soon after abandoned the neighborhood—blows to the East Side economy and quality of life from which it has never recovered.

Forty years later, residents of metropolitan Buffalo are rioting again, but with a twist: Now the rioting isn’t in the city, but in the suburbs. This time, the conflagration started in Evans and West Seneca, spread to Alden, Orchard Park, and Hamburg, and now threatens to engulf Amherst. To be sure, suburbanites don’t riot in the same way as city folk. They don’t burn or vandalize physical structures in their own neighborhoods and they don’t beat up their neighbors. That kind of behavior would be untidy, and suburbanites above all else like things neat and orderly. Nevertheless, suburban mobs throughout the region have vandalized local institutions in their own way. They have hurled rhetorical bricks and firebombs at their own local governments, and they have hauled their neighbors from town hall offices, gleefully setting fire to the positions those individuals previously occupied.

I am referring, of course, to the so-called legislative “downsizing” movement, a home-grown, Erie County movement that has succeeded, through a succession of ballot referendums, in reducing from five to three the size of the town boards of an ever-growing roster of local communities. The bizarre goal of this movement, its proponents claim, is to reduce the number of local legislators in every community in the region by exactly two—regardless of the size, needs, or interests of the community, regardless of the present size of the local legislature, and regardless of any factor or consideration relevant to sound local governance or institutional design.

The proponents of legislative downsizing claim that they are engaged in a kind of civic reform. But saying that downsizers are engaged in civic reform is a bit like saying that the rioters of 1967 were engaged in urban redevelopment. As then, what’s happening now is rioting. What makes it rioting is that it is destructive behavior, undertaken in anger—no, not just in anger, but in a foul, frothing rage—for the sole purpose of hurting something. This harm is inflicted not on any thing or person that might be the source of any legitimate or documented grievance, but on whatever is nearest at hand, whatever can be seized and dismembered immediately, with great and satisfying public spectacle. Because, in this enterprise, fulfillment lies in the public and largely symbolic venting of anger rather than in its results, things are attacked without regard either to their potential long-term value to the community, or to the actual likelihood that hurting them now will lead ultimately to long-term gain. These are the hallmarks of a riot.

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To understand fully why legislative downsizing is a kind of suburban rioting, it is helpful to understand what it is not. First, legislative downsizing has nothing to do with regionalism or regional consolidation. Regionalism is a respectable position holding that all communities within a region share a common fate, and that meaningful progress can be made on problems of regional concern only by addressing them cooperatively at a regional level. Regional consolidation is a rational policy meant to advance the goals of regionalism. It holds that the multiplication of autonomous local governments impedes solution of regional problems while simultaneously producing fiscal waste. For this problem it straightforwardly prescribes the elimination of the least efficient local governments and recommends consolidation of local services.

Legislative downsizing bears no relationship to these potentially worthy policies. Downsizing does not eliminate any layer of government. It does not consolidate villages into towns. It does not cause any municipal service to be provided at one level of government rather than another, or indeed to be provided more cheaply or efficiently. Downsizing is aimed solely at legislatures, not governments or municipal service departments. Its only philosophy is that if a local legislature has some number of members—any number—two of them must go.

Some downsizing proponents appear to be confused about the relation between downsizing and regional consolidation, as though downsizing were some sort of second-best substitute for consolidation. If we can’t get rid of the whole town board by consolidating it out of existence, they seem to think, surely the next best thing is to get rid of half the board.

This is not sound thinking. The point of consolidation is to remove layers of government by transferring their functions and responsibilities to other levels of government that are able to do the job better or more efficiently. Reducing the size of a local legislature without stripping it of any functions only leaves it do all the same jobs with fewer resources. Downsizers seem to think it unnecessary to consider the possibility that reducing the number of part-time, underpaid, understaffed, undersupported local legislators by two could conceivably damage something they might just value: legislative performance. This is not so different from the thinking of some 1967 rioters who demanded local black ownership of neighborhood businesses. Evidently they reasoned that if ownership of neighborhood businesses could not be transferred immediately to blacks, a reasonable response would be to destroy local establishments owned by whites. This turned out to be a poor move.

Legislative downsizing also is not about good governance. Downsizing is recommended by its proponents indiscriminately for communities large and small, rural and urban, diverse and homogeneous, shrinking and growing, high-tax and low-tax. Downsizers propose it for local legislatures facing simple issues or complex ones, and for legislatures responsible for annual municipal budgets ranging from $1 million to more than 100 times that amount. It is perhaps conceivable that a single policy of governance could be so remarkably good that every community, everywhere, ought to adopt it immediately, but surely such claims should be received with some degree of skepticism.

The opportunism of downsizing proponents is well-illustrated by the example of Amherst, where a newly elected supervisor is preparing to propose reducing the size of the town board from seven to five. Its proponents often justify downsizing as a response to regional population shrinkage. This argument was made frequently, for example, in support of the 2002 reduction of the Buffalo Common Council from 13 members to nine. The city’s population, it was often said, has shrunk by half since its peak in the 1950s, and the Council should be reduced correspondingly. Even if this were a valid argument for shrinking the Buffalo Common Council, it simply doesn’t apply to Amherst, or indeed to most suburban communities. During the period in which the population of Buffalo contracted by half, the population of the Town of Amherst nearly quadrupled. By this logic, the size of the Amherst Town Council should therefore be increased to 20 or 30.

Moreover, one hears nothing from downsizers about any imperative need to reduce the size of other kinds of governing bodies that affect the lives of suburbanites. If downsizing is always good for everyone, there ought to be at least some agitation to reduce the size of the governing boards of the Park Country Club, the Rotary Club, the Fredonia alumni association, and the Orchard Park Republicans. If less is always more, it is puzzling that we hear no agitation to reduce the size of the US Supreme Court from nine to seven, or the US House of Representatives from 435 to 433, both of which could be accomplished by simple federal legislation.

The reason one hears nothing from downsizers about other institutions is that downsizing relies on no theory or principle of good governance. It is a policy that appeals solely to otherwise undirected anger by offering to lay a world of hurt on a handy, nearby target that is usually too weak to fight back.

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Despite the claims of its proponents, legislative downsizing also has nothing to do with saving money. Downsizing produces no savings for the simple reason that salary expenses for local legislators are trivial. Town legislators in Western New York typically earn less than $10,000 a year, and the proportion of municipal budgets allocated to paying them is typically less than 1/10th of one percent. By eliminating two legislators, the people of Hamburg, for example, saved themselves about $37,000 per year, a solemn act of fiscal responsibility that put a grand total of 68 cents into the pocket of every man, woman, and child in town. West Seneca residents pocketed a hefty $1.06 a year. These kinds of “savings” are statistically indistinguishable from zero. Cutting municipal expenditures is a worthy goal. It might be meaningfully advanced by making substantial cuts in large-ticket municipal services, such as highway or sanitation services. But it is not advanced in any meaningful way by eliminating legislators.

Nevertheless, downsizers insist that the benefits of downsizing are fiscal. Look, they say, 68 cents is 68 cents. We need savings, and here is one way to provide them. Never mind that the savings are in amounts so trivial that you might not bend over to pick up an equivalent amount of loose change from the sidewalk. All savings are good savings, so there is no reason to refuse them. Indeed, downsizers claim, all savings are so intrinsically good that they justify the rather extraordinary and expensive effort of a petition drive, political campaign, and ballot referendum to achieve them.

This is a specious argument, but because it goes to the heart of what downsizers claim to stand for, it is important to examine it closely.

Legislators are indeed an expense of governance. Eliminating legislative positions will reduce expenses because eliminating any expense by definition reduces expenses. But that’s not the real question. The real question is: If you want to cut expenses, which expenses should you cut? Downsizers don’t say that budgetary savings should be found by downsizing the police force or the fire department. They don’t say that snowplow or trash pickup routes should be downsized. They don’t advocate downsizing the town beach, pool, senior center, or hockey rink. They don’t even advocate downsizing the number of lower-level employees such as clerks, secretaries, janitors, or groundskeepers. They want to go directly to the top and get rid of the highest-level officials they can eliminate without causing town services literally to grind to a halt (that, presumably, is why town supervisors have so far escaped their wrath).

This tells us two important things about the true calculus of legislative downsizing. First, downsizers are just angry, plain and simple, and they want to vent their anger by punishing whoever in responsibility they can get their hands on. Interestingly, we already have a mechanism in place to punish elected officials—it’s called an election, and the way it works is that the public votes out people who are doing a poor job. For downsizers, though, voting out incumbents isn’t enough. They want to vote them out so hard they’ll never come back.

Second, in order to achieve this goal, downsizers resort to a tactic that has served many of history’s bullies: They dehumanize the targets of their rage by claiming implicitly that the local legislators they wish to eliminate are completely worthless—so worthless, in fact, that their value to any citizen is less than 68 cents per year; so utterly useless that no one will ever know they’re gone.

This kind of talk is not merely specious; it’s offensive. Local legislators are ordinary citizens and neighbors who, out of a sense of civic duty, take on an immense job, in their spare time, in the course of which they devote hundreds upon hundreds of hours to difficult, complex, thankless work. The typical local legislator drafts ordinances, serves on committees that oversee town business, manages the town’s budget and debt, establishes municipal policies, sets tax rates, regulates land use, and responds to constituent needs and complaints. These functions are not worthless; they are the essence of local self-governance. It is demeaning to these individuals to speak of them as though their efforts on behalf of the public welfare are worth no more to any citizen than a pack of gum.

And it is profoundly misguided to suggest that a legislature is inherently a worthless redundancy. Legislatures are the most representative and democratically legitimate organ of government; they reflect the breadth of popular will more completely than any other institution, and they counterbalance the highly concentrated power of the executive branch. These are functions that are essential to the effective maintenance of liberty at every level of government.

Nevertheless, just because downsizers don’t seem to take their own arguments seriously doesn’t mean that no one should. In a spirit of reasonableness that downsizers themselves do not practice, let us consider their position in its best light. Is it possible, then, that downsizers are correct—in spite of themselves, and for the wrong reasons, but nevertheless correct—that hiving off two members from any local legislature on the planet cannot possibly diminish the ability of that body to perform its public functions?

Well, what exactly are these functions? What do local legislatures actually do? The basic purpose of any legislature is to enact laws. Local legislatures in New York have authority to make law on many subjects: public safety, zoning and land use, economic development, licensure and regulation of local businesses, provision of municipal services, eminent domain, assessment and valuation of property, municipal expenditures, tax rates, acquisition and extent of municipal debt, and so on. These are not trivial powers. Their exercise can in many circumstances significantly affect the quality of life in a community; good decisions can bring real benefits, but bad decisions can have real costs. Surely, then, we want to design a legislature that is capable of exercising these powers as well as possible, and for the maximum public benefit.

The question on the table therefore is whether a local legislature can function every bit as well with three members as it can with five, or with five members as well as it can with seven. Can it be said with confidence, in other words, as downsizers imply, that downsizing will have no effect whatsoever on the quality of legislative performance?

To the extent this question is posed in the abstract, wholly apart from the specific circumstances of any actual community, the best answer is pretty clearly no—in principle, downsizing is likely to have at least some negative consequences for legislative performance. Larger groups usually make better decisions than smaller ones because they usually possess collectively more information and more ideas about what to do with it. There is, of course, a point at which a group’s size can become a liability. In New Hampshire, where the 400-member state legislature is the nation’s largest, reformers want to reduce its size on the ground that it is simply too large to conduct state business efficiently. Legislatures of five or seven, however, like those found in Western New York, don’t begin to approach these limits.

Smaller groups stack up poorly against larger one in other ways. With fewer legislators in the room, fewer points of view will be represented in the debate and decision making processes. According to a venerable justification for majority rule known as Condorcet’s Jury Theorem, if each decision maker is even infinitesimally more likely to make the right than the wrong decision, then decreasing the size of an already small decision-making group can dramatically reduce the likelihood of a correct decision. Furthermore, the risk of capture by wealthy special interests—suburban real estate developers come immediately to mind—is greater with a small legislature because it can be securely controlled by capturing fewer votes. Issues of just such cozy and corrupt relationships recently prompted voters in nearby Cuyahoga County, Ohio, to replace their three-member county governing board with a supervisor and an 11-member council.

None of this, however, means that downsizing necessarily impairs legislative performance in every case. In some circumstances, downsizing might indeed have no effect, or only a minimal and therefore acceptable effect. For example, in communities that are very small, or in which public opinion is unusually homogeneous, or in which the legislative workload is very light, or in which the legislature routinely faces few difficult or controversial issues—in such communities, a smaller legislature might perform just as well as a larger one. But these are empirical questions that require consideration of a community’s specific characteristics.

One troubling aspect of the downsizing movement is that its members have no interest in answering questions such as these, or indeed in asking them. Yet downsizing, like any proposed policy reform, has potential costs in the form of diminished legislative performance that must be weighed against its likely benefits. And just what are these benefits? They are said to be fiscal. Now, if town board members earned such exorbitant salaries that cutting a couple of members would indisputably produce truly significant savings for the town, the cost-benefit equation might be clear. But town board members take home so very close to nothing that eliminating one or two produces savings of essentially zero.

Viewed even in the best possible light, then, downsizing is a policy that carries some unknown amount of risk alongside benefits that with certainty are known to be trivial. That is the very definition of a sucker’s bet, and it is difficult to see why reasonable voters, motivated solely by an earnest desire to do the right thing for their communities, would support it. The fact that downsizers not only support these policies but do so with single-minded zeal suggests that their motivations are not rooted in anything that might plausibly be called reasoned decision making. What kind of mood must a person be in to take to the barricades because his town legislature has five members? That simply can’t be what any of this is about.

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There remains, then, one important question: Why are suburbanites so angry? Their anger has been focused for the moment on an irrelevancy, but they clearly are deeply and sincerely enraged. One of the great public mistakes of 1967 was to dismiss the sentiments motivating East Side rioters. Civic leaders at the time wrote off the riots as the work of “outside agitators.” In fact, although rioting was in no sense a legitimate response, those who took to the streets had serious, longstanding grievances relating to racial discrimination, persistent residential segregation, and denial of economic opportunity. If today’s Erie County suburbanites are angry enough to riot, we should not make the same mistake by dismissing their anger.

That said, it is not entirely clear precisely what suburbanites are so angry about, perhaps not even to them. Taxes seem to have something to do with it, or perhaps more accurately, taxes in a weak and shrinking local economy. Confusingly and paradoxically, however, suburbanites also tend to worry about the opposite problem: the erosion through fiscal contraction of the quality of local services and consequent decline in the value of their investment in their homes. Perhaps local suburbanites are at bottom anxious about maintaining their economic status; the prospect of slipping down a rung or two on the ladder of social class clearly terrifies many people. Or perhaps suburbanites simply feel frustrated by the complexity of the problems they understand themselves to face in light of what they perceive to be very high personal stakes. In any case, though, angry suburbanites will have to sharpen their message if it is to be understood, and lashing out randomly in anger only obscures the substance of their real complaints, whatever those might be.

In the end, there may very well be more than a merely metaphorical link between the urban rage of 1967 and its present suburban counterpart. In Buffalo, as in many other cities, black Americans began in the 1960s to gain some traction in presenting and seeking redress of bitter, long-standing grievances. In some cases, such as desegregation in public schools, resort was had to law; in other cases, such as outbursts of urban rioting, other means were attempted. Regardless, whites in great numbers fled the city for the suburbs rather than stand their ground and shoulder the difficult but necessary burden of reaching a just and lasting settlement with their black neighbors. Instead, they left these problems for others to address in an effort to build new lives for themselves free of the challenges they came to associate with city living.

Four decades later, those same people and their children now find it impossible to sustain the socially and economically separate lives to which they aspired without making financial sacrifices on a scale that they may no longer be willing to tolerate. By cutting themselves off from the region’s economic engine and primary tax base—the central city—and by continuously demanding top-quality services in isolated pockets rather than collectively, they have created for themselves a different set of equally complex problems from which there may be no ready escape. Even a further round of flight—to the exurbs, say—may not be feasible given the magnitude of the investment most suburbanites have tied up in their homes and the extremely slow rise of real estate values in a shrinking region. At the end of the day, contemporary local suburbanites must perhaps make precisely the difficult and unpleasant choice that they chose to avoid forty years ago: either reintroduce the city into their social and economic calculus, or continue to pay an ever-increasing price to maintain their self-imposed isolation.

That, apparently, is a quandary capable of inciting a riot.

James A. Gardner is Joseph W. Belluck and Laura L. Aswad Professor of Civil Justice at the University at Buffalo Law School, State University of New York.

Accounts of the 1967 riots and their aftermath are drawn principally from Frank P. Besag, Anatomy of a Riot: Buffalo ’67 (University Press at Buffalo 1967) and Neil Kraus, Race, Neighborhoods, and Community Power: Buffalo Politics, 1934-1997 (SUNY Press 2000). All empirical data is drawn from University at Buffalo Regional Institute, “Sizing Up Local Legislatures” (September 2009).

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