A Problem of Scale
The interests of City and city often are at odds
February 25, 1977
An early piece in which I first articulated an insight, not original to me, that the corporate City of Springfield—and every other municipality in Illinois—which is presumed to function as the arbiter among vested private interests, is itself a vested interest. Needing to balance its books while providing services to voters who are loath to pay for them by taxing their property, city leaders are captive to development that the city can tax.
"It's a problem of scale. You've got the interests of the city as a whole against the interests of a few people. When that happens, politicians tend to vote in favor of the aggregate, especially when they're elected on an at-large basis."
The man doing the talking was Randy Kucera, associate professor of public administration at Sangamon State University. Kucera is a very brainy fellow, an intellectual by training and inclination, the kind of person who can describe a cigarette habit as a "dependable variable" and get away with it. He specializes in figuring out how organizations work.
The organization being discussed in this case was the Springfield city council. I had described to Kucera a zoning case that'd come up before the city council a few weeks earlier. Two Springfield land developers, Mark Nathanson and Charles Robbins, had petitioned the council to rezone 4.6 acres of land on Sangamon Avenue near the Northgate subdivision to a "highway business service district." They wanted the B-l zoning in order to build a 28,500-square-foot Eagle supermarket, store number 772 in that 28-state chain.
I thought it was an important story. The subject of the hearing was zoning, but the issue was land— who owns it, who decides how it's used, who profits by its use. The developers, speaking through their attorney, Robert Cohen, talked about jobs, about increased tax revenues for the city, about convenience to shoppers. Opponents of the project—some of the 127 people who'd signed petitions against it—worried about traffic, worried about the safety of their children, ultimately about commercialization that might change their neighborhood to the kind of place some of them had moved to Northgate to escape.
At first the episode looked like a confrontation right out of a "B" Western—cattlemen against the homesteaders, that kind of stuff. But, tempting as that metaphor was, it did not fit the facts. Land developers, as a rule, make unconvincing villains. They are in fact the spiritual descendants of the American pioneer, who saw the exploitation of the land not as a sin but as a moral obligation; they look upon "vacant land"—their lawyer's phrase—the way a missionary looks upon a heathen, as both an affront and a challenge.
There were other complications. The regional planning commission had approved the rezoning, thus lending that body's tarnished reputation to the request. Worse was the fact that 121 neighborhood residents had lent their names to a second petition, this one in favor of the supermarket construction. There was just too much gray in this story for good melodrama.
Besides, as I suspected, the story did not lie in the personalities of the actors anyway. That was where Kucera came in. He affirmed the notion, only half-formed, that the city—that is, the corporate City of Springfield—which is presumed to function in these cases as the arbiter among vested interests, is itself a vested interest.
Springfield's five commissioners are elected as stewards of the corporate city and pledged to look after its interests. The are, in effect, the city's board of directors. As does any board, they must secure the corporation's revenue sources, defend its territory against the encroachments of competitors, and expand its sphere of influence when such expansion is advantageous—in sum, protect Springfield's share of the market in the city business.
Their obligations in this regard are as much political as legal. Should they fail to stem the loss of jobs and business to the suburbs, for example, they must either squeeze a few more dollars out of a shrunken tax base by raising taxes or reduce municipal services—prospects for which neither politicians nor the public, for different reasons, have much enthusiasm. The corporate city is the child of the "People"—Kucera's aggregate—and it is the interests of the People that successful politicians must hold paramount.
As the developers' lawyer shrewdly pointed out, construction of the new supermarket would allow the City of Springfield to increase its territory (through annexation), its treasury (by addition of an estimated $49,000 annually in combined sales and real estate taxes), and its economic base (by creation of from 50 to 70 new jobs). These were sweet temptations indeed. After forcing the developers to accept a less intensive zoning (S-2 instead of B-1) and a few other concessions typical in such cases, the commissioners cast their votes four to one (Commissioner James Dunham voting no) in favor of the developers. "It is," as Commissioner Pat Ward noted, "in the interests of the city that we do this."
But was the new supermarket in the best interests of the neighborhood? The council is supposed to act as the advocate of the people (small "p"); as Commissioner Frank Madonia explained, "The people living here have a right to be concerned and they have nobody else except the city council to protect their rights." But when the interests of the city and the neighborhood of people and the People conflict, as some thought they did in this case, the council must act as the corporate city's board and vote on behalf of the city. It's a problem, as Kucera pointed out, of scale.
There's no hint of corruption in any of this. If the council members are caught in a conflict of interest, it's the conflict between their roles as protectors of the rights of individual citizens and their broader responsibilities as stewards of the corporate city. The commissioners are not, as is sometimes charged, captive to any developer. They are, however, captive to the need for development. ●
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