Keyes on Empowerment

August 16, 1992

No one can accuse Alan L. Keyes, the Maryland Republican running against Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski, of campaigning on vague platitudes. The outspoken former diplomat and college instructor has devoted much campaign attention this year to an issue that is probably more familiar to academics and community organizers than it is to ordinary voters. The political scientists call it "empowerment;" Mr. Keyes calls it "grass roots community self-government."

Sounds like a sleep-inducer. But it is, in fact, a truly radical idea: shifting some real governmental powers to elected officials at the neighborhood level. Not just passing judgment on cosmetic changes to people's homes, as many neighborhood associations But passing laws, enforcing them with constables, imposing taxes to pay for them, punishing minor miscreants and dispensing public funds. The argument is not as outlandish as it may seem at first glance. Some cities around the country have already delegated to elected neighborhood associations meaningful authority and significant power to influence government decisions.

Mr. Keyes' idea is certainly controversial. Most urban experts, in the universities as well as in government, think he carries the germ of a good idea to an outlandish extreme. Even people with decades of experience in neighborhood self-government shudder at the thought of community law enforcement or taxing powers. And some hark back to the community action agencies of the '60s, many of which dissolved in anarchy, as models not to be emulated 30 years later.

Yet a study by three Tufts University scholars, to be published early next year by the Brookings Institution, depicts a significant amount of successful power-sharing in cities like Portland, Ore., St. Paul, Dayton and Birmingham, Ala. After years of study and intensive interviews with citizens inside and outside the neighborhood groups, they conclude that empowering neighborhood agencies controlled by the residents may not be the sort of romanticism that other experts insist it is.

The dangers of giving citizens at that level political muscle are real. Some neighborhoods will use it more effectively than others. Politicians nationally and locally could use such groups as an excuse to walk away from urban problems. It's questionable whether neighborhood groups could deal effectively with the cities' greatest plagues, like drugs and joblessness. Still, Mr. Keyes is talking substance to the voters, and they can only learn by listening.

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