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Gaining Legitimacy

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If there's a question that should give every public official pause, it's this one: "What gives you the right?" Think carefully before you reply.

Pointing to the statute books, to your appointment papers, or even to your election is no answer. Nor is reciting your resume, your knowledge of the community, or the seminars you've attended.

Today government legitimacy (and with it the legitimacy of those who work for government) is up for grabs. That's clear in Washington, where the federal government's role is under attack. But it's also clear at the local level, where matters once thought settled, such as local governments' authority to regulate property to protect the environment, are hotly debated. ...

I can’t help you with those debates, but I can give you the correct answer to that troublesome question, “What gives you the right?” Here’s the answer: “The people of this community have set the goals that this commission follows. And as long as we follow those goals, that gives us the right.”

Probably at no time in modern history has it been more important for local officials to actively seek the public’s participation.

Probably at no time in modern history has it been more important for local officials to actively seek the public’s participation. That’s because the old consensus under which localities operated — the “power structure” of hometown business leaders, accommodating politicians, and a deferential public — has broken down.

In most places there is no more power structure to quietly enforce the rules. Your formal authority, as you’ve no doubt learned, is weak. Rule as you wish; your decisions can always be appealed. As a result, if you want to be a leader, and an important source of guidance for your community, you must do more than just attend meetings and follow procedure. You have to gain the “consent” of the people.

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