This week, the national news may be focused on Super Tuesday, but here in New Mexico, it’s municipal elections that are making headlines, with races being decided in cities and towns across the state.
And since about half of all New Mexicans live in municipalities of fewer than 30,000 people, these local elections are big news in small towns throughout the state.
According to the U.S. Census, more than 80 percent of the nation’s population lives inside one of about 350 metropolitan statistical areas around the county. But that doesn’t mean all those people are living in the big cities, under big-city laws.
Census data also show that more than half the nation’s population lives in communities of fewer than 25,000 people, or in rural areas. Moreover, there are more than 34,000 local governing bodies for municipalities of fewer than 25,000 people, including 31,000 local governments with fewer than 10,000 residents. So local governing is still alive and well in the good ol’ U.S.A.
This year’s March 1 municipal elections are a big deal for a lot of cities, towns and villages scattered around the Land of Enchantment. And while each municipality has its own unique set of issues, there are plenty of common threads, too—and they surface during local elections.
Downtown is a common concern in small cities and towns. It’s the original business district, so it’s important to the local economy, and it’s at the heart of small town commerce and history, where economic activity and community identity both began. Downtown is important to a community’s health, so maintaining or building it up is critical to a town’s survival.
Tourism often goes hand in hand with downtown development, as the downtowns themselves, from Taos’ Old Town to Silver City’s Bullard Street, are natural tourist attractions. Add a festival or two, to draw in out-of-towners, and you’ve not only got a good time, but new money coming into town as well.
Of course, historic preservation plays into the equation, since downtowns are central to a community’s heritage, and that heritage is often a tourist attraction. The town’s collective identity is found in its history. To survive the future, a small town must preserve its past.
I think one of the best ways to secure a future for a small city or town is to focus on services to the young and the old who live there. The quality of the schools will factor into parents’ decisions to stay in town or move away, while the quality of health care services will keep the old folks in town. In fact, a lot of boomers are seeking smaller communities in which to retire, and at the top of their list is health care availability.
That’s why communities like Santa Rosa are working so hard to keep open their facilities serving senior citizens, and why places like Fort Sumner are focusing so much attention on improving their schools. Let either of those services fall into decline and you’ll be losing population in a heartbeat. Education and health care are critical to any town’s future.
Then there are the basic services. Police and fire protection, trash collection, water and sewer systems, streets and drainage projects are all essential public services that municipal leaders must deal with every day. Add in parks and recreational facilities, along with other attractions and entertainment options, and you’ve got quality-of-life issues that can make or break a small town.
These and many other matters will be facing those who are elected to municipal offices around the state this week. But they’ll have help in addressing them, since politics at this level of government is often quite personal.
Super Tuesday is part of the process that keeps our representative democracy intact, but our municipal elections are local, where participatory democracy resides. The next president of the United States may say he or she will serve your community’s interest, but really, it’s the municipal judge, the mayor and your councilors who will fight hardest for your hometown.
All politics is local, Tip O’Neill famously said, and it doesn’t get more local than in municipal government. Here’s hoping your hometown has the leadership it needs.
Tom McDonald is founder and editor of the New Mexico Community News Exchange and editor of the Roswell Daily Record. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.