The (potentially) life-changing magic of local government

The (potentially) life-changing magic of local government
Caleb Walsh illustration

I made the mistake of watching the Marie Kondo series on Netflix earlier this year. As you probably know, Kondo is the author of The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, which suggests you go through one big tidying up process where you keep only those items that "spark joy."

The process works by gathering all the items of a particular category together, from wherever they may reside in your home, and picking each one up to determine if it sparks joy, discarding whatever doesn't. I found it initially to be a startlingly comforting practice. I hadn't realized how much stuff I had that didn't deeply matter to me, and with it cleared away, I was left surrounded by just the things I loved.

At least it started that way. With a burst of energy, I quickly moved through my closet and books — both of which were multi-day exercises in tidying up. But I've since gotten stuck on papers for months.

I have a complicated relationship with paper. At my request, my parents gave me a filing cabinet before I was 10 — which I have steadily filled with scraps and old half-filled notebooks. It has everything from my first attempts at writing letters (which I insisted on keeping as a kindergartener) to the first chapter of a forgotten novel I was working on in college to my notes as a young City Council member in Sandpoint.

I probably should just set all of these papers aside to deal with the sentimental category Kondo recommends tidying at the very end, but I'm in the thick of it now — and while I'm stressed out by my lack of progress, I'm finding so much joy in this solipsistic exploration of my personal history and the musings they stir.

Just yesterday, I stumbled across a decade-old note from my time on City Council. It read: "We spend a transformative sum of money every year, but are we creating transformative change?" Below it I had noted that the city's budget was then $42 million.

It's the kind of question I dwelled on when I was younger — and a good reminder that now in my mid-30s I ought to be thinking about such things more.

We have the potential collectively, through government still close enough for each of us to wield influence, to do a tremendous amount of good in this world.

When we look at our local budgets, conservatives point out the waste and liberals point out the unfilled possibilities to spark progress. I think good policy often lies in recognizing both are sometimes true. Too often our politics and the budgets they produce have become like my apartment — filled with things that were accumulated over time but no longer bring our communities joy.

I propose that it's time, in many places, to apply something like the KonMari method of tidying up to our local governments and focusing on the things that truly spark joy for our communities. As Kondo points out, joy can come in many forms — from the usefulness of a tool to the warmth stirred by a family photo. We would still have police departments, firefighters and roads, but perhaps we might question whether a road-widening project really did as much for us as a safe route to school for our kids.

Our neighborhoods, cities and counties have such tremendous potential. Let's unlock their life-changing magic. ♦

John T. Reuter, a former Sandpoint City Councilman, has been active in protecting the environment, expanding LGBT rights and Idaho's Republican Party politics.