Community-Focused Leadership: A “Localist” Vision

Posted: 11 February 2014 in Local Issues

The following is the most recent in a succession of posts focused on my home town. Though there is some context-specific stuff here, hopefully there will be some appeal to people beyond the confines of my home. This is merely a first attempt to articulate a different political foundation for leadership.  I write with many thanks to Jacques Ellul, Robert Thayer, Wendell Berry and Ivan Illich and I apologize to them for distortions of their ideas and work.  

(NB. I use “we” here though “we” for now is really “I”.  There is no grand following, there is not even (yet?) a core but there is hope that some of this may seep out more broadly)

We are the orphans of Davis politics.  In saying this we are not seeking pity.  Rather we want to acknowledge that we do not fit into the traditional dichotomy of “progressive” versus “machine Democrat” and, we want to lay out a vision for a third way that motivates our approach to decision making in our city.

Terms such as liberal, conservative, and progressive have little meaning in local politics (and seem to have less and less meaning even on the national stage–Bacevich, rather, refers to a “neoliberal consensus”); for at the local level alliances are built around a more parochial vision of what is needed and they form, un-form and re-form based on how interests and needs converge or diverge around local projects, initiatives and choices. We eschew these terms in favor a description of leadership that we hope will emerge in the coming years in Davis.

To do this we believe we must move away from a narrow “issues” focus that characterizes much local debate and define the kind of leaders we aspire to be: define the parameters that will guide our decision making across issues, initiatives and projects.

Fundamentally, we believe in leadership that is community-focused.  This does not imply the adoption of specific processes for decision making (participatory budgeting or planning, for example), though such tools may be helpful.  Rather, community-focused leaders are careful to solicit input from a variety of community members, interests groups and stakeholders.  They are not afraid to receive input from stakeholders who stand to benefit monetarily from a given decision, but they balance that input by expanding the field of those with whom they speak to find a way forward that will benefit the broader needs of the community.

Community-focused leadership does not guarantee that no mistakes will be made.  It does not seek to “balance” all interests or find a compromise that everyone can live with.  Instead, it seeks to broaden the base of influence and use evidence rather than appeals to emotion for decision making. And, it explicitly considers and articulates the tradeoffs involved in the decisions being made.

Further, community-focused leaders seek to make critical information available to all stakeholders.  It has become, perhaps, cliché, for leaders to say they want more transparency, but citizen-focused leaders push for it because they realize that building confidence in decisions (despite disagreements with them) and in the leaders that make them requires information to be shared broadly on as many platforms as possible.

A localist vision

Community-focused leadership is grounded not in a particular political philosophy but in a commitment to a strong “localist” vision of governance and decision making.  In other words, community-focused leaders are primarily concerned with creating resilient and sustainable local communities.

There are a number of key understandings and commitments that drive this localist vision and those who lead according to them we might call “localists”.  These understandings and commitments include the following.

  • Localists understand that communities are deeply embedded in and constrained by macro-level forces (including understanding how insertion in global economic and trade systems influence local decisions).  To be a localist is not to seek isolation.  Rather, localists are committed to finding the best solutions for local thriving given the constraints.
  • A localist analyzes and understands the macro-level constraints but this does not compel the localist to leave behind local decision making in order to achieve “greater impact” at higher levels of policy making.  Rather, a true localist begins and ends his/her political career in local public service.
  • While localists are focused on solving problems at the lowest level of governance possible and practice subsidiarity, they also work with other local actors to encourage entities at the state and national levels to cede more autonomy and decision making to local governments. They use their understanding of the local challenges to offer policy recommendations but do it in partnership with others facing the same challenges.
  • Localists work hard to gain a deep understanding of all contributors in a community—the men, women and children who live in and create the social bonds in a community.  They do not merely seek out the voice and concerns of the powerful, but make efforts to listen to and learn from diverse groups and individuals—including those traditionally excluded from having a voice.  They willingly place themselves in proximity to a variety of community members to learn from them in order to better represent their needs and concerns.  
  • It may go without saying, but localists know intimately the physical resources and constraints of their community and its place in the broader bioregion—they are constant learners of all things “local.”  This understanding leads to a commitment to conserve local resources (especially those that are unique to the community or bioregion) and use them in a sustainable way. They understand that there is no community without economy but strive for an economy that is honoring of local resources and those who work to nurture, share and sustain them.
  • Localists understand the tension that exists between the commitment to conservation–and the sustainable use of local resources–and the needs imposed on a community by broader global (macro) forces. They name the tensions, never pretend that all tensions can be balanced out, and articulate the basis for decisions they make in reference to the tensions and tradeoffs.
  • An understanding of the community’s place in a broader bio-region leads localists to nurture and invest in relationship building with other communities in the bioregion.  Localists understand that even “unique” resources are shared beyond narrow political boundaries and work with other leaders in surrounding communities to stretch scarce resources, avoid duplications in key services and provide for the bioregion’s broader needs.
  • Localists are committed to the economic, social and environmental health of the communities they lead.  They do not view the health of one of these as a “pre-requisite” for the health of the others but find ways to intentionally work towards all three—again, acknowledging the tensions and tradeoffs involved.

Given these commitments, localists rely on and nurture clear communication and conflict resolution.  They are inherently “conservative” because they are careful about the shepherding of local resources and approach change with prudence.  They are committed to the health and rights of the most vulnerable in the community and understand that formal political entities (e.g. city and county governments) often needs to play a role to assure that the needs of the most vulnerable are met.  Localists believe in local justice systems built on the notion of restoring wayward members to the community to the extent possible.  They are committed to providing economic development that provides opportunities for all members of the community: economic development consistent with values of the community and the many gifts and skills within it. Indeed the broad economic vision of the localist (as alluded to above) is to realize the flourishing of all members of the community—an economy that serves people and not the other way around.

What a localist vision means for leadership in Davis

  1. Community-focused leadership in Davis assures that all decisions are driven by broad consultation and not narrow interests.  As community-focused leaders who are driven by a localist vision, we have the luxury to not worry about how any one group—or “future supporter”—will react to our decisions.  Recall that localist political action is focused on the local community.  Without aspirations for higher office comes a freedom to serve without fear of the consequences.
  2. The localist vision means that we will enact conservative land use policies. However, because we realize that we are embedded in a global economy, and because we desire to create opportunities for our citizens to thrive within it, we will remain open to supporting economic development opportunities.  The tensions here are clear: “zero growth” is a meaningless term and not an option, but we will be prudent and cautious in decisions that take peripheral farmland out of agriculture.  We do this because, knowing our bio-region, we realize that our land and water represent unique local, regional and global resources not replicable elsewhere on the planet.
  3. The prudence implied in the foregoing means that we will favor policies and actions that enable and encourage more efficient use of the space within our city limits. This means we will seek to build “up” whenever possible, adopt policies that encourage the densification of our core, remove barriers to more flexible use of existing retail spaces (in neighborhood shopping centers for example) and prioritize multi-family, dense housing for new housing projects.
  4. Densification and conservative peripheral land use policies allow for us to promote alternatives to automobile use for trips within the city.  Fewer car trips is good for the health of our citizens, reduces carbon emissions and reduces wear and tear on our streets.  We will seek approaches that encourage walking, biking and public transit choices wherever possible because they enhance the environmental health of our city and region.
  5. Our focus on the needs of all citizens means we will focus on the most vulnerable first. This includes children, elderly residents (especially those with limited financial resources) those facing homelessness and addiction, and those with mental health challenges.  Our commitment to regional engagement means we will seek to maximize county and state funds by helping to coordinate the actions of all organizations—NGO, faith-based and state—to provide for the needs of the weakest members of our community.  We will be open to using dedicated taxes as needed to bridge gaps in service provision.
  6. We will actively pursue partnerships with surrounding communities to jointly provide for basic needs when synergies for service provision are possible and yield cost savings.  This includes provision of water, wastewater treatment, fire and police protection if appropriate, and waste management.  In addition, we will pursue partnerships with the criminal justice system to find alternatives to dealing with crime in our community so we can confront the harms done in a restorative way within the community.
  7. Because the localist vision seeks to build a resilient and sustainable community, we will be inherently conservative in our approach to fiscal decisions for our city.  We will regularly publish inventories of infrastructure “reserve requirements” and budget for upkeep. We will assure that total city employee compensation grows more slowly than projected revenue growth.
  8. Our commitment to the full health of our city means that we will be disciplined in returning routinely to the question: what is the core business of the city of Davis.  The answer need not be merely the narrow “required” activities of providing safety and water and sanitation services. It can also include other activities that we value such as child-focused activities, parks and arts and entertainment. We will focus on these ends in a routine way and chart a course that enables us to meet the ends we articulate.

A word about the University of California at Davis

The University represents one of the unique resources in our city.  At the same time, we must recognize that it also offers challenges.  As a city we must honestly name both the positive opportunities (and build upon them) and the negative externalities that flow from it.  We are next door to a de facto city, but one with a very different culture and governance structure, with loyalties and responsibilities to a larger “federation” far beyond our city.

We share a bio-region but we are both limited in unique ways in our ability to respond to needs within it and changes that emerge from the outside.  We have a representative democracy but the University does not.  We are constrained by laws and our own chosen policies in ways that the University is not and it is not bound to us except in ways that we choose to mutually initiate (such as shared services for fire).

As a result we must be very intentional about our relationship with the University.  We must actively and persistently seek mutually beneficial partnerships—especially those that build our revenue base, enable us to deal more effectively with negative externalities and draw upon the expertise and student energy and inquisitiveness that exist in a world class university.  Communication and mutual problem solving will be the key and will require a commitment to respectful listening, joint visioning and deliberate conflict resolution.  The days of vague reference to “town and gown” are over. We are both mature cities and must explore the implications of living in close proximity as any pair of twin cities must.


This is our home.  We want to live here today and help create a healthy environment for today’s citizens as well as our children’s, children’s, children.  To do that we commit to focusing our energies in the activities that will create a solid base. We will not be diverted by short-term political gain or a fear of what our decisions might mean for our personal futures.  We will stay focused on critical ends.  We will engage in broad and constant consultation. 

We ask you to join us in our localist vision.

  1. Reblogged this on Striving for Zero Waste and commented:
    Another spin on local…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s