Local government exists for one reason and one reason only: to decide how land gets used. Everything, and I mean everything, that local government does deconstructs to a decision about which landowners will win, and which will lose.
Who gets rich, and who doesn't.
The process is inherently political, and it's why local politics is pregnant with burlesque. It's why people spend tens of thousands of dollars to get elected to positions that pay almost nothing at all.
Because it's about access. It's about getting your way. It's about enabling the bigger picture, for you and your cronies. It's about payback for the people who gave you the money to get elected in the first place.
The policy manifestation is that local elected officials never vote "no." No request for a change in land-use designation, no extension of public infrastructure (sewers, roads, etc.) to private property, no "economic development" subsidy can ever be refused.
You don't get into office without the support of real-estate interests, everyone from the land speculators to the banks, from the newspaper to the institutions. And once there you don't bite the hand that fed you. You don't bite the Growth Machine.
You never say no, or at least you're not supposed to.
Going off script
Last Wednesday developer supplicant and sherpa-to-the-speculators Steve Smith stepped up to the city council podium. "What this community really needs, " he said, "is another suburban automotive retail development!"
(Caution, I'm in the mood for heavy paraphrasing tonight.)
"And my client would like to give the community just that," continued Smith. "He's located the perfect spot for it, south of Tapp Rd. and up against SR37. The fix is in, the planning commission has already green lighted this thing, and now you need to do the same, same as it ever was.
"When you do, my client will not only give the community its much-needed new shopping center, but he'll give the community a brand-new frontage road to carry them to that shopping! Pavlov says: Time to say 'yes,' doggies!"
And ordinarily they would. Ordinarily, the brainwashing congenital in local politics would take over. Ordinarily the councilmen would hit the only button they're programmed to see: the "yes" button.
But something was wrong this time. They wavered.
"Isn't that the largest and most environmentally sensitive parcel remaining in the city of Bloomington?" slurred Dave Rollo, his eyes deglazing slightly as his hand pulled back from "yes."
"What's your point?" came the retort.
"Well, could we get rid of the frontage road and in doing so save our last remaining wetlands?" Rollo asked.
Suddenly Bill Brown, alpha speculator and wealthy man who has probably received more money from direct and indirect government handouts than all of the city's indigents combined, charged the podium and did his best Angela Lansbury impression.
"Connectivity!" he thundered. "Traffic only increases!" he continued, "And I, we, need more roads to keep it that way!"
Brown, who owns the land just south of the parcel in play, knew the road would spiff his own pocket. He tasted green and he demanded "yes."
After all, these guys were supposed to be his, and Smith's, Manchurian Councilmen.
But it must have been the sight of Brown, one of the largest contributors to the local GOP, that broke the trance for the Democrats.
"Wait a minute, isn't this the same guy who, when he's not here with his hand out, is bankrolling Republican political goon Herman "Bud" Bernitt? And doesn't Bernitt spend every waking hour engaged in the politics of destruction against us?" they thought.
"We're being told to enable more of that?"
Suddenly six more eyes on the council went clear, and six more hands pulled back from "yes."
Tomorrow will be just like yesterday, only more so, right?
That left two Republican robots on the reservation, soothsayer David Sabbagh and wet-behind-the-ears Brad Wisler.
"Doesn't the Growth Policies Plan call for more frontage roads?" they argued, citing a determination made in 1983 that building new roads just to parallel existing ones made sense. "Isn't pavement synonymous with progress? Shouldn't past decisions straightjacket the future?"
Never mind that the straitjacket was made back when we were preoccupied with the transition from Disco to New Wave and nobody was thinking straight.
Never mind that the straightjacket was made back when we still discovered more oil every year than we burned. Never mind that the straightjacket was made back when advocating for more automotive infrastructure wasn't considered fundamentally irrational.
In 2002, a Texas Department of Transportation (TXDoT) study concluded what Mr. Brown had stated: roads, particularly frontage roads, create traffic. They never relieve it.
In 2002, TXDoT imposed a moratorium on its policy of building frontage roads, saying, meekly: "It may be that such policy has generated urban sprawl in rural areas, because of ease of access."
Rubbing their eyes, Democrats Steve Volan and Andy Ruff picked up on this theme, pointing out that just because something seemed like a good idea in 1983 didn't make it so nearly two-and-a-half decades later. The future, they said, wasn't likely to look much like the past, at all.
The Republican robots reeled as the seven Manchurian councilmen stood astride history, moved their sights from yes to no, yelled "stop" and pulled the trigger.
No was not bad. Not bad at all. Bully for them.
Gregory Travis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.