“We Know Where You Live”: Why City Councils Are More Responsive

“We Know Where You Live”: Why City Councils Are More Responsive

In The Hunger Games trilogy, we are presented with a post-war dystopia in which the Capitol, an armed and insulated region, lives in extraordinary luxury and frivolous excess while the “districts” live in squalor.

The “Hunger Games” themselves are designed at once to unite the various districts in a shared media spectacular and pit them against each other. The media spectacle that the Games are unites the entire nation in a common preoccupation. The struggle in the arena between the Tributes of each district fosters antagonism between the districts.

The Tributes, all children, most drafted into the Games, slaughter each other in the slim hope of being the lone survivor, the final victor of the games. The reward is a lifetime of wealth and security, a life in stark contrast to that lived by their neighbors. More fundamentally, the reward is life itself, rather than brutal death.

Throughout the Games, the Capitol district makes its power felt through the manipulation of the game environment. Booby traps, bizarre “natural” events (firestorms, killing fogs, packs of deadly animals, beautiful and deadly fruits), all controlled by the Capitol’s “game makers,” kill more Tributes than knives, arrows, spears and swords.

As intimate as the media coverage of the Games is, the people of the Capitol are always one powerful step removed from the true significance of the Games: none of their children are in the arena.

Separated from this fundamental brutal fact of the Games, the residents of the Capitol follow the suspense, the intrigue, the backstabbing (literally), and the ultimate triumph of one Tribute. They can make money betting; they can help their “champion” out by donating to his or her cause. The ultimate outcome, for them, is about pride and money . . . not about life and death.

It’s a very different world in the districts.

Without wishing to be taken too literally, there are considerable parallels between these elements of the Hunger Games universe and elements of our own political system. The government decision makers in Washington, D.C., don’t exactly live in a pristine world like the Capitol, to be sure. The poverty rate is  nearly 20%, the unemployment rate 7.5% (well above the national average), and the murder rate has increased by more than 50% in the last year.

But the major federal decision makers tend to live behind gates, walls and security. They have their designated parking spots, their favored watering holes where constituents rarely find them. While they all return home to their districts from time to time, many spend much more time in the Capitol than they do in the districts.

This is another fundamental difference between municipal councils and even state (as well as federal) legislatures.

City councilmembers make their decisions in the places where they live.

In many of our cities, the mayor is a more recognizable figure than the local representatives to the state legislature and, often, even Congress. Councilmembers, too, may have a higher profile than those who are in “higher” legislative office.

Their higher profile reflects the intimate reality of their service. Council meets in city hall, not in another city. Council members go home to their districts, not every couple of months, but every day. They live next door to neighbors who may be pleased or furious with them, depending on the most recent events at city hall. And while they probably have their favorite watering holes, those haunts are frequented by their constituents in greater numbers than by lobbyists.

In short, for elected city officials, there’s really no place to hide. Our constituents know where we live, and can walk right up onto the front porch, or right up to our table at lunch, or right up to us while we’re doing a price comparison on peanut butter, and tell us exactly what they think of us.

There’s a parable about a widow who brought suit in court over an injustice she suffered. The judge, however, was unimpressed by her pleading (and, seemingly, by the responsibilities of his office). The widow, however, was relentless, seeking him out in his court, on the street, at the grocery store (I’m taking a little license here).

Finally, the judge decided to grant the widow the just compensation she sought. Because, he reasoned, if he didn’t grant it now, the widow would hound him until he did.

Most elected municipal officials don’t require such hounding to do the right thing by the people they are elected to serve. Still, the fact that we serve where we live, that we suffer or thrive with our constituents, not separate from them, is a nice bit of insurance that we will do what we ought to do.