By Bobby King, Land Stewardship Project
The 2011 Minnesota legislative session ended at midnight on May 23 with township rights and local control strong in Minnesota—a testament to how seriously this state’s farmers and other rural citizens value their right to determine the future of the communities they live in.
House File 389 and Senate File 270 were introduced early in the legislative session. The bills proposed to weaken the right of townships, counties and cities to stop unexpected and harmful developments such as factory farms, big box stores and garbage burning facilities.
As we have in past legislative sessions, LSP made protection of local control a priority this year. We engaged our members and township officers across the state in standing up for local democracy. In January, LSP laid the groundwork for preserving local democracy by contacting our members and 5,000 township officers from around the state, warning them that it was likely that corporate interests would attempt to weaken township rights this legislative session. This prediction proved accurate.
Once the bills were actually introduced in early February, LSP members and staff called, wrote and e-mailed rural citizens alerting them to the fact that local control was under attack. We held two grassroots organizing meetings—one in Little Falls and one in New Ulm—where we engaged members directly on the issue. LSP also launched a radio campaign that ran around the state over the Easter legislative recess. And as always, this issue was a focus at our annual Family Farm Breakfast at the Capitol in February.
As a result, hundreds of farmers, rural residents, township officers and others contacted legislators with the message that Minnesotans value strong local control and township rights. The citizens’ message to legislators was that weakening local control should be off the table and that the lawmakers’ focus must be on addressing our $5 billion deficit.
This grassroots opposition had a measurable impact. Three co-authors removed their name from the bills, and a Senate committee hearing on the bill was postponed after a flood of calls. Late in the session, a House hearing was canceled and never rescheduled. When the Senate version of the bill finally did pass the Senate Local Government Committee on April 27, we alerted the state’s township officers as well as our members and prevented it from getting to the Senate floor.
The strategy that worked was one of directly engaging a broad range of grassroots people from around the state: farmers, rural residents, township officers and urban people. Minnesotans believe that local folks should be able to have a strong say in what their communities look like by working through their local government, be it city, county or township. Corporate interests have long tried to weaken these rights and centralize control outside of local communities at the state or federal level where they have more access and clout.
In Minnesota, we know it is better when the proposers of factory farms and other controversial developments must contend with local governments—the government that’s closest to the people. This is what happened in Ripley Township in Dodge County when a New Jersey investor wanted to build a 5,000 cow mega-dairy. When local residents there had concerns, they were able to work through their township to get them addressed. It’s no accident that corporate ag representatives from as far away as St. Louis came to township meetings in the community in an attempt to undermine the process.
Local government in the hands of local residents is exactly what corporate interests absolutely do not want. Corporate interests want a relatively weak set of uniform standards for the entire state. The problem is this vision doesn’t square with one of strong local democracy where local communities chart their own path to prosperity— a path that includes respect for the land as well as the people.
As the saying goes, if you don’t use democracy, you lose democracy. In this case, Minnesotans used this important right to great effect.
Bobby King is a state policy organizer for the Land Stewardship Project. He can be reached at 612-722-6377.