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The power of local government

43 minutes
Peter Buckland

No matter where you live, chances are that your local government is filled with things like feasibility studies, property tax assessments, and endless meetings governed by Robert’s Rules of Order. It’s difficult to keep track of, but yet could fundamentally impact your day-to-day life in ways that few state or national-level decisions do. This week’s guest says that citizens and the governments themselves have a role to play in changing the conversation.

Peter Buckland is the Chair of the Board of Supervisors in Ferguson Township, Pennsylvania. You’ll hear him describe the area and the structure in the interview, but really Ferguson Township could be just about any municipality in America. He outlines three ways that citizens and local government can work together to create more informed and more vibrant democracy at the local level:

  1. Citizens should pay attention to meeting agendas.
  2. Municipalities should use a variety of communication tools to let constituents know what’s happening.
  3. Everyone should support local media so it can do its job of reporting on local government.

All of the small places add up and Peter shows how local governments working together can have a big change on national or global issues. Peter lead an effort to adopt a resolution calling for carbon neutrality in Ferguson Township by 2050. It’s easy for a cynic to say that one municipality of 20,000 people can’t change anything, but as you’ll hear, the idea is already starting to catch on.

Additional Information

Peter’s op-ed in the Washington Post about Ferguson Township’s carbon neutrality resolution

Ferguson Township, Pennsylvania

Two local government podcasts we enjoy: GovLove and Building Local Power

Discussion/Reflection Questions
  • What is the importance of the local government?
  • Why people would be aware of what’s happening in their local government?
  • Which are the challenges local governments face?
  • How are local governments related to democracy?
  • What can people do to be more involved in local government decision making?
Interview Highlights [5:22] Can you tell us who you represent and your municipality fits into the larger structure of state government?

I serve as the chair of the Ferguson Township Board of Supervisors and we represent the roughly nineteen to twenty thousand people who live in about 50 square miles west of State College Borough.

[9:07]How does being an elected official differ from what you thought it would be as an outsider?

Before I ran, I underestimated the slowness and the deliberate transparency. When you’re running, you are excited and you think these people are trying to get something over on me. I could have actually gotten more information than I had before I ran.

[11:19] What are some strategies for how people can find out what their local governments up to?

On the citizen side, the agenda of a meeting it is public. It is easy to access I would guess pretty much anywhere in the Commonwealth. So getting those and simply looking through what’s on the agenda, you can see what they’re working on and the stuff that affects your daily life.

[13:42] What can local governments to do connect with their constituents?

Something that we do on the township or the municipal side is that every couple of months we do a coffee and conversation. We’re in different parts of the township. We invite citizens to simply come and talk with people who work at Ferguson Township, and we also invite State officials to come, like the local Representatives because they represent to the state.

[17:16] What pressures do local governments face?

One of the things that happens at all levels of government is that people are trying to make money no matter what they’re doing. In a way developers can practically capture a department with bags of money, they have a lot that they can do and can overwhelm a local government like that.

[20:17] What can local governments do to try to get issues out in front of people before action is taken on them at a meeting?

There are three possible strategies. First, individuals should pay attention to agendas. Second, the township or city or whoever should very deliberately let people know what’s coming do as much as they can to publicize and be transparent about pending decisions.And the third thing is that local media in this country is not doing what it needs to do.

[23:37] What Ferguson Township is done regarding climate change?

I took a resolution that Don Brown had authored and I had quasi co-authored and I adapted it for our Township couching it in terms of Article 1 Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, which is the green amendments. I said we need to have a net zero greenhouse gas emissions goal by 2050. We’re also working on a solar-powered public works building.

[26:59] It’s easy for for a cynic to say that one small township can’t make a meaningful impact. Does it really matter?

It matters hugely. If you can assist in reducing the greenhouse gas emissions of all of the individual people within your municipality, that’s good, and if you have 500 of those places doing that, you have 500 times 20,000 what you end up with a million people.

[28:33] Did it take any convincing to get your fellow supervisors on board with this idea?

That resolution passed four to one. The lone dissenter is no longer on the board and I think she was ideologically just sort of opposed to it. The other three on the board were open to it. I think one of them might have been a little bit hesitant about it simply because of the potential ideological backlash that we might get.

[29:58] How did you learn all of the information needed to make these informed decisions?

It’s a combination of having good training. The regional government trains you in all of the sort of different things that it does and makes these sort of lunch and learns available. When we came on the board the manager of the township. Did a sort of training session with us to take us through the Home Rule charter and that’s my learning zone.

[31:32] Why people should want to be part of their local government?

If you care about where you live and you want to improve the quality of life for yourself and your neighbors and you think that someone needs to do that, that person might be you. If you just think “someone has to do something about this,” that person very well might be you.



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