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New Year, New Way 

by Robert Herold

We're approaching New Year's resolution time again. I have none to offer; however, with apologies to St. Paul, I express a few things hoped for, even should the evidence for them presently go unseen

I hope for a healthier political life. To have a chance, we will need to strike the word "taxpayer" from our vocabulary. Daniel Kemmis, the very thoughtful former mayor of Missoula, Mont., in his book The Good City and the Good Life, draws a meaningful distinction between the words "taxpayer" and "citizen." He writes that "People who customarily refer to themselves as taxpayers are not even remotely related to democratic citizens." He observes that "taxpayers" see themselves as people who pay tribute in exchange for services. Kemmis observes that people living under totalitarian regimes do the same thing. Citizens are up to something very different. In a democracy, citizens engage in a process we have come to call "self-governance."

And have you noticed that people who proclaim themselves "taxpayers" also love the pronoun "they"? As in "they are taxing us to death." Or "As a taxpayer, I want to know just exactly how they are spending my taxes." Taxpayers also claim to be omniscient -- to know the will of the people: "The taxpayers of Spokane..." blah, blah, blah.

Taxpayers are just full of anxiety. Citizens seek to participate in a constructive manner. Taxpayers seek always to reduce public life to a balance sheet. Citizens seek ways of broadening and deepening public life. Taxpayers, by definition, live in a private world, and they don't much like government penetrating that world. The word "taxes" symbolizes that penetration. Citizens seek life in the polis. Citizens live in a world of values, which, when agreed upon, determine how we will live.

Many people preface their self-limiting and proclaimed title "taxpayer" with the word "resident," as in "resident of the city." Residents don't view themselves as citizens, either. Literally, the word "resident" means nothing apart from specifying a location. Taxpayers use it to add weight to assertions like "as a resident and a taxpayer."

Others (including all taxpayers) resort to the adjective "concerned," as in "concerned citizen." Which brings us to the true-blue taxpayers. They manage lines such as "My name is ______, resident of the city; I come tonight as a concerned citizen to denounce how they are wasting my taxes."

The citizen is up to something very different. The citizen is concerned with what urbanist James Kunstler terms "the public realm." Kunstler defines the public realm as "the connective tissue of our everyday world. It is made of those pieces of terrain left between private holdings. It exists in the form of streets, highways, town squares, stretches of the seacoast, national forests, most lakes and rivers, and even the sky. The public realm exists mainly outdoors.... Exceptions to this are public institutions such as libraries, museums, zoos and town halls."

Kunstler observes that our public realm is in a state of serious decline. It isn't so much that the private realm is expanding, but that the public realm doesn't receive the support it needs.

While our somber taxpayers exhaust themselves determining the cost of everything but the value of nothing, our more imaginative citizens are out and about pursuing their own self-interest by making enlightened contributions to the health and vitality of the public realm. Developers who build mixed-use housing and contribute parks to their new subdivisions come to mind. Small-business owners who take a chance on a neighborhood location. Business leaders who address the problems of health coverage for small businesses. All preservationists who take such risks so that this generation can pass history and tradition on to the next. These are good citizens, all.

If concerned taxpayers in the private realm detract from the important work of citizenship, concerned taxpayers who have managed to get themselves elected to public office are a disaster. On the Spokane City Council, we have had more than a few of these. They see themselves as watchdogs. They spend their time counting dollars and examining contracts. What they don't do is contribute to the health of the public realm. Nor are the many members of the council who permit "process" to bind them into inactivity much help either. And when these elected officials pursue a course of action that uses "process" as an excuse for doing nothing -- well, then, the public realm is further diminished. Process and patriotism have much in common. Scoundrels take refuge in both words.

Our newly re-endorsed strong-mayor form of government does carry with it the expectation that our mayor will lead the city's efforts to revitalize the public realm. Mayor Powers understood this, but he wasted so much political capital on his attempts to take on our all-too-obvious problem of poverty. He also understood the importance of fiscal solvency. Alas, poverty and solvency, as important as both issues are, didn't connect with enough voters. I hope that Mayor Jim West invests his political capital with greater skill than did Powers, while showing appreciation for Powers' expansive view of the office he held.

Most fundamentally, I hope that Mayor West will view himself not merely as an occupant of an office, but as an advocate for our besieged public realm. That's the kind of leadership we need at this critical moment in our city's history. We need a person who can understand the taxpayers, but who will represent the citizens.

Best wishes for a hopeful New Year.

Publication date: 12/25/03
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