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Why Local Matters

Eric J. Plosky

The most irritating statement put forth by the apathetic as a reason for not voting in local elections? “They don’t mean anything. I’ll vote in the presidential election, but I don’t care at all about city council.”

Idiotic. First of all, your vote goes much further in local elections. It takes millions to elect a president or a senator, but only a few hundred to elect a city councilor. There is enough potential voting power at MIT alone to elect the entire Boston and Cambridge City Councils.

This power is important, as the residents of Sigma Alpha Epsilon and Phi Kappa Sigma are finding out, because local officials exert much more influence over our lives than nationally elected Beltway wonks. The governments of Cambridge and Boston control a number of crucial levers that greatly affect us, and the only way to have any input at all is to participate in local elections.

Housing is a local issue, as the Boston Licensing Board dramatically demonstrated this week. More generally, the governments of Boston and Cambridge control the licensing of new construction, affordable housing, and most landlord-complaint and eviction issues. Cambridge, in particular, is concerned with housing issues this season -- the 1995 statewide repeal of rent control threw apartment prices to the market, squeezing out a lot of lower-income residents, including many MIT and Harvard students. (Graduate students, take particular note.)

Transportation is a local issue, much more so than most people realize. Even the Commonwealth of Massachusetts often can’t deal well with local public transportation -- the long debate over extending the operating hours of the T is unsurprisingly bogged down in state-level debates. It is local government that could provide the answer here, by providing transit services, especially late at night, that vex the State House. Neighboring Somerville is an example -- it operates its own shuttle service, independent of the T.

Other transportation matters are also handled by city government. The city regulates the rules by which parking permits are distributed and parking rules are enforced -- look to City Hall, not the White House, when you are unable to obtain a permit for your car and find that it’s been towed away for illegal parking. Bicycle facilities are also managed locally, from re-striping roads to include bike lanes to providing locking bike racks for cyclists.

The Cambridge and Boston police forces, needless to say, are not controlled from Washington. Anybody who has ever had occasion to deal with a local police officer should consider that city government, not Congress, is ultimately responsible for resolving complaints. Crime and its prevention are local matters.

Development is regulated from City Hall. Most students don’t necessarily mind the relentless intrusion of Starbucks, but such corporate sanitization often destroys beloved cultural institutions. The unique urban character of Cambridge and Boston is subject to the whims of local officials.

If you have not yet realized it, the only way to have any influence at all over these issues is to participate in local elections. If you don’t vote, you have no right to complain. Fortunately, Tuesday is Election Day -- your chance to make a difference, to hold local government accountable, to seize the power given you as citizens. If you’ve ever had reason to complain about housing issues, parking or transportation, if you’ve ever had a beef with the local police or just wanted to leave your mark on the place you’re spending your career, take two minutes from your problem sets and forget your apathy long enough to vote on Tuesday, to raise your voice so loudly you cannot be ignored.