Local government matters
With a historically important election just around the corner, the eyes of Americans have been fixated on their TVs and social media feeds, attentively watching the race between candidates President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, as well as the clash between their respective parties battling in congressional elections nationwide.
With all of the fanfare surrounding the presidential, senatorial, and representative campaigns, what is perhaps the most important level of government has been shunned: the local level.
City governments and school boards are often just as influential in our lives as the top-ticket offices.
Many students, teachers, and parents are already aware of the undeniable influence the San Ramon Valley Unified School District Board of Education has on their lives. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted these powers for many.
Parents and students alike have sent hundreds of emails to the Board of Trustees and protested several times in front of the district offices, and San Ramon Valley Education Association has threatened to strike twice in the past two years for higher salaries, among other concerns.
We applaud the engagement that students, teachers, and parents have had in Board of Education affairs. But the same cannot be said of issues at City Hall.
It is rare to see people, especially teenagers, care about what happens at City Hall, but it is often more influential in our lives than even the federal government.
The five-member San Ramon City Council appoints the members of 22 different boards, committees, and commissions, which collectively manage a wide variety of city affairs, from internal policies to parks and culture, from transportation and housing to teens’ and seniors’ issues.
Especially important is the Planning Commission, which approves or disapproves all building projects in the city. Civic engagement with the Planning Commission will make sure that San Ramon develops in a way that the majority of residents can agree with.
As stewards of San Ramon, the City Council also ultimately has jurisdiction over the San Ramon Police Department. Any conversation about making criminal justice more equitable in San Ramon will absolutely involve the City Council.
The benefits of having a say in affairs at City Hall are undeniable. Then why do so few people care about city politics?
In addition to the incorrect idea that the City Council has very little influence, many people may be scared of partisanship making City Hall affairs just as divided as our national politics. But all City Council seats are non-partisan. This does not mean that each City Council member doesn’t have a certain political mindset, but it does mean that party tribalism is much less likely to show up in our local elections.
People should also care about local politics because it is a way to test solutions before scaling them up to the national level. For example, both Oakland and Denver this year decriminalized the usage of psychedelic mushrooms. We, in San Ramon and nationwide, can observe the benefits and drawbacks of decriminalizing mushrooms in these cities, and accordingly create local and national legislation about the issue.
But creating a desire to participate in local government is a two-way street. Both the City Council and Board of Education must actively encourage civic engagement by attracting the city’s already civic-minded segment of the population: teenagers.
Teenagers often actively want to be involved in city and district affairs, but cannot, either because of the labyrinthine organization of both entities or, more importantly, the absence of the right to vote. Both the City Council and the Board of Education should investigate ways to involve youth in the electoral process.
On Oakland voters’ ballots this year is Measure QQ, which would allow 16 and 17 year-olds to vote in Oakland Unified School District elections. We encourage the Board of Education and City Council to take this as inspiration for developing civic engagement among young people.
The San Ramon City Council should expand the profile and powers of the Teen Council and allow 16-year-olds to vote in City Council elections. Meanwhile, the Board of Education should add students to the Board or to an elected advisory body in some capacity, in addition to enfranchising them. City Council should also allow people under the age of 18 to participate in the semi-regular government and planning 101 workshops they offer, as well as increase the number of internships available at City Hall.
City Council candidates also must ensure that they can differentiate themselves in the public eye. Cookie-cutter language about “protecting open spaces” and “ensuring City Council listens to residents” means nothing if there are not concrete policy proposals behind those flowery words.
Cookie-cutter candidates mean cookie-cutter civic engagement.
Lastly, City Council must address the issues that matter to teenagers. Issues like criminal justice reform, combatting the climate crisis, and affordable housing may be unappealing or uninteresting to many adults, but young people champion these causes to ensure our city develops sustainably. The City Council should tap the knowledge and passion of youth to draft creative, out-of-the-box solutions to these problems. Merely having an appointed Teen Council is not enough.
Only by ensuring active involvement in our democracy can we ensure that our democracy survives.