In this episode, Andrew Gillum, Mayor of Tallahassee, Florida and founder of the advocacy group, Campaign to Defend Local Solutions joins Christopher Mitchell, the director of ILSR’s Community Broadband Network’s initiative and Nick Stumo-Langer, ILSR’s Communications Manager for the latest episode of the Building Local Power podcast. The trio go into detail on the issue of preemption and what the state-level attacks on local sovereignty mean for communities across the country.
“There’s a nimbleness to local governments that I think people have an appreciation for,” says Mayor Andrew Gillum of the harms of state-level preemption in America’s communities. “…The legislature [is trying to] exclude us from being able to make any investments in that space for the greater good.”
Here’s the reading/watching recommendation from Mayor Andrew Gillum:
From our guest, Mayor Andrew Gillum:
|Chris Mitchell:||Hey Nick, I’ve run across this new term ‘prumption?’ How do you say it?|
|Chris Mitchell:||Preemption. You think I would have come across that before.|
|Nick Stumo-Langer:||Yeah, well I can give you the dictionary definition.|
|Chris Mitchell:||Yeah, please.|
|Nick Stumo-Langer:||“A prior seizure or appropriation” but what that actually means in context, is a bunch of states repealing soda tax bans, plastic bag bans, and municipal broad band.|
|Chris Mitchell:||Wow. this doesn’t seem like such a good idea and it seems like something we should talk about on Building Local Power, right now.|
|Chris Mitchell:||In just about 15 seconds, you’re gonna hear us talking to Mayor Andrew Gillum but before that, I want to tell you who us is. I’m Chris Mitchell. I do a lot of the broadband work for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and to help me talk with the mayor, we have …|
|Nick Stumo-Langer:||Nick Stumo-Langer, the Communications Manager for ILSR.|
|Chris Mitchell:||Let’s get to the mayor. Welcome to Building Local Power Mayor Andrew Gillum of Tallahassee. Thank you for coming on our show today.|
|Andrew Gillum:||Yeah, no it’s my honor. I’m so pleased to see you all covering this topic.|
|Chris Mitchell:||So today we’re gonna be talking about preemption and we wanted to start by asking you, mayor, how you really got drawn into this problem of states trying to take away your local rights. What happened in Tallahassee?|
|Andrew Gillum:||We were really recruited into this by the state, by the second amendment foundation and their allies at the NRA. Circa 2011 the Florida Legislature passed a law basically prohibiting local governments from regulating guns in any way, shape, or form. We had prior to states preemption, a law in the book that basically said you couldn’t fire a gun in the city park. Because we refused to remove that from our local ordinances, we were then sued by these groups under Florida statute, which allows them to sue us in our personal capacities, including for decisions we make in our roles as elected officials. Which previously we had immunity from so that’s personal lawsuit. We could be fined up to $5,000. We could be responsible for paying up to $100,000 in attorney’s fees for the opposing parties, should they prevail. That we cannot use public funds to defend ourselves, which means we must find our own legal counsel and that we could face removal from office at the discretion of the governor.
And so we pushed back on that lawsuit, sort of dug us deeper into this fight. So for two years we’ve been in the courts, beat these interest groups now twice, but still seeking some constitutional judgment here on whether or not Florida law is in fact constitutional, which we maintain it is not. But I will say at least in the courts, we’ve been able to push back on these groups from being able to push local governments around and bully us into doing their bidding. My hope is that through our fight we maybe stiffen the spines of some other local governments that they don’t have to roll over to these guys. They have a lot of money and they may have a lot of political will and power, but we have people on our side. That’s why they elect us at the local level to represent their interest and it’s my hope that we’ll see more of this kind of action by way of defending local governments take place in other cities around the state of Florida but also around the country.
|Chris Mitchell:||Well and that’s what I think brings us to the larger story that we wanted to talk about, which is something called defend local solutions. I just wanted to note that this is an organization that is about preemption broadly. One of the things that we try to do and one of the things that I have no doubt that you do as a mayor, is try to make sure we’re not being unnecessarily divisive. And one of the things I like about this story is there’s a lot of conflict about the proper role of guns and policy but this is actually a fight not over whether or not one can have firearms, but about where you can discharge one. So I just wanted to highlight that for anyone who’s supporting local decisions but is kind of more of a fan of the NRA that might be listening.|
|Andrew Gillum:||We’ve got people who support our fight here who are NRA card carrying members who are concealed carriers themselves but they get the common sense piece of this, which is it doesn’t make sense to fire and shoot a gun off in a city park where our families picnic and our kids play. They understand and they understand what that means to have common sense laws and any laws that impact guns to them is not an affront to the Second Amendment. I maintain that that’s the right conclusion that there are some things that can still be common and can still be logical and can still make sense to the average person without us having to go down this unnecessarily divisive rabbit hole or to have guns or not to have guns. That isn’t the fight and that’s not what this fight about.|
|Chris Mitchell:||I’m just wondering if you could maybe follow-up a little bit on the campaign to defend local solutions and kind of talk a little about the breath and the depth of the organization and maybe even point to some of the great names that you have signed onto the campaign.|
|Andrew Gillum:||One of the things that I think is important about this campaign is that we’re trying to pull together local government from over the United States because we’re noticing increasingly that this is a battle that’s being waged in cities and in states all across the country. And so whether you are concerned about where you can discharge a weapon or if you’re concerned about your own local regulations around the environment and around minimum wage or local hiring practice, affordable housing, human rights, you know, you name it. Broadband issues. You know, we’re here to defend the rights of local governments to make decisions that are in the best interests of the communities that they serve. That’s why people elect their superintendents and their local mayors and city council members so that those voices will undoubtedly be their representative voice in the corridors of power.
And so we’ve been really fortunate to hear from elected officials really all across the country, from California to Arkansas to Arizona to cities all over the state of Florida, Charlotte, North Carolina, Ohio. We’ve also been fortunate to get groups across the range of issue interest to join this campaign to defend local solutions because like us, they believe that local government has a role and in fact, Tip O’Neil was the one who said all government is local. In fact, you can probably find more Republicans quoted on the issue of local being the best and most representative form of government and now all of a sudden, in state legislatures, they’ve abandoned that thought and are now doing their earnest best to take away local decision making.
That’s why we created the campaign to defend local solutions so that local citizens and local elected officials can have a stronger collective voice to say we have a role in this Democratic process as well.
|Chris Mitchell:||It does seem like many people tend to believe the level of government that should be exercising power is whichever level of government they currently exercise the majority in. I’m curious in your work with defending local solutions that you came to this with a specific issue, were you surprised or were there any preemption issues where you were thinking really? They’re preempting on that? Take us along as you sort of went along this journey from where you started to where you are now.|
|Andrew Gillum:||Well, as I heard stories from folks all around the country, North Carolina was very pronounced, right? Because it dealt with the transgender issue and transgender bathrooms.|
|Chris Mitchell:||Right, the HB2 Bathroom Bill.|
|Andrew Gillum:||Yeah, but that was only one element of it. I mean the other thing that the legislature in North Carolina did was remove the local government of Charlotte’s ability to set their own minimum wage and their own non-discrimination ordinances in their own city. And so we’ve seen that number played in a number of places around the country where non-discrimination practices have been challenged. Local communities ability to ban fracking. Their abilities to set their own minimum wage and bar middle regulations. In Florida, this legislative session there’s even a bill that is the most sweeping that I’ve ever seen, which basically says that local governments can’t create any regulations that impact businesses.
I can’t imagine the decision that I make as a mayor and previously as a city councilman that couldn’t be argued that it impacts business. And so the vagueness of that and the wide and sweeping nature of that is a huge threat to local governments. We fear that it may impact our ability to protect our water quality to our air quality to our signage, to our non-discrimination and wage laws. I mean, you name it. Legislation like that it’s overwhelmingly broad and in fact I don’t think it would stand a legal test but it does exactly what these legislatures are intending for it to do, which is to chill activities and to chill the rule making at the local level of these locally elected officials.
I think people will be surprised if they learn the kinds of things that were being discussed as part of this debate and I get it. I mean I understand it. If you are special interest and you pay tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands a year for lobbyists to represent your agenda, I would also want to concentrate the number of people that I have to talk to about my interests by limiting it instead of talking to over 400 cities across the state of Florida, to talking only to 120 members of the Florida House and 40 members of the Florida Senate. Their interest is very clear and their motives for doing that are very clear but who loses in that setup are the voters. The everyday people who are impacted by these kinds of decisions and that’s why we believe it’s important to defend local rule making and local involvement and how our communities are governed.
|Nick Stumo-Langer:||That’s great. So here at ILSR, one of our guiding principles is that we believe the best decisions for the community is made at the community level, at the local level. We’re kind of wondering, what’s the economic impact of preemption? What kind of things, outside of your own personal being able to be sued by whomever if they don’t like what you’ve come up with, what’s the local economic impact?|
|Andrew Gillum:||I mean, for instance, if you’re preempting local communities with regard to how it is they set local wages, those are very real life and present impacts on the people who live in your community. If you’re in the state of North Carolina, your state has impacted to the billions because of … The negative impact of their own preemption laws, you had sporting tournaments canceling annual conferences, annual sporting events. You had slues of private sector businesses say that’s not a place in which I want to do business. Increasingly, young people and increasingly retirees are looking for and seeking out a certain quality of life, a certain level of inclusivity.
Welcoming communities when if you are retiring, you choose what is it you want to retire. Or if you’re a young person coming off of one of our college campuses or looking for where it is you may want to start a family or even a business, you’re looking at what kind of progressive policies might exist in the communities that you might be seeking to relocate. And so the impact is probably off the charts. There’s some real quantifiable ways we can see this. I think North Carolina gives us a really good glimpse of when you have regressive policies how it is can impact a community but you also see at a very localized level how it is that when you don’t create a good and strong quality of life for people to choose to live, they can choose other places to go.
I don’t think the story is yet told completely on the financial impacts and the negative regressive financial impacts that these kind of super preemptive policies have on local communities.
|Nick Stumo-Langer:||Definitely. And I think something I hear you saying and you might be a little bit too modest to say it, is that a place like Tallahassee or a place like Boulder or a place like wherever, the local leaders live in that community and they know what’s best for their community and they’re making these policies for a reason. So I think that’s a very powerful point.|
|Chris Mitchell:||The opposite of that of course is the idea that everyone should have to live by the same exact rules and fundamentally, you deal with different problems in Tallahassee than people deal with in other parts of Florida where it’s not as dense where they have fewer people. I’m just wondering if you can-|
|Andrew Gillum:||No, you’re right.|
|Chris Mitchell:||Talk a little bit about that as a local leader.|
|Andrew Gillum:||Anyone who has served at the local level knows that our communities are unique and they’re interesting and they are specific, right, to where we live. My city I’m the only city in the state of Florida that has two state universities located in them. One in HBCU and one a majority serving institution. We are in the northern panhandle where Tallahassee is a little bit of an arbitration compared to what exists around us, which around us is largely more rural. It is on the coast a little bit more tourism center and where we are we’re an everyday working community. We’re the seed of state government with universities and challenges that present themselves because of those unique differences. We’re not Miami, Florida. We’re not Miami Beach, Florida. And Miami Beach isn’t homestead Florida and so all of these places are different and are requiring their own local look at some of these problems.
I gotta be honest, I mean someone asked me what if the legislature were of your political persuasion and wanted to create laws that you felt were beneficial to your own ideology? And what I would say is preemption has a role largely to set the floor. A place by which regulations and standards should not go beneath. But in this case, the Florida legislature is conducting itself as a way to create a ceiling to regulation, create a ceiling to what could be done in that local communities are not allowed to do anything different or beyond what the state says because they carved out the territory again largely to feed a particular interest that doesn’t necessarily benefit the interest of the local government and the citizens who make up our cities and our counties. It’s really important that folks recognize, even if you’re not in the granular details of lawmaking and policy making, that all of us could I think reasonably agree, that we elect our local officials to represent the values and the interests of that local community.
There’s real value to that because I’ll tell ya, as a local elected, I don’t get to escape my decision making. I’m reminded when I’m on date night. I’m reminded when I’m standing in grocery store lines, when I’m at church, or taking my kids to the park. People are unrelenting about telling me what it is that they think based off what they read about an action that the local government took last week or yesterday or even a month ago. They don’t forget and they like having access to folks like me so that if they need to help change my mind or change my perspective about something, they can do that and I can’t underscore how critical it is for local government to be able to act rapidly to make certain changes in their community, which is very different than a legislature that meets three months out of a year. In some cases and in some states, take Texas for instance, where they don’t meet until every other year.
There’s a nimbleness to local governments that I think people have an appreciation for. I can literally take a vote on a Wednesday night and it have Thursday morning impact and I think that’s a little value for folks at the local level and people at the local level understand that and they appreciate it.
|Chris Mitchell:||Well, I have to say to some extent I feel like you’re reading out of our playbook. I mean all of the points that you make … When I first learned about the idea of ceilings rather supporting floors than ceiling and policy from co-founder of our organization. I think it’s just worth noting for people that before the great economic meltdown of ten years ago, a number of states in that case were actually trying to do some commonsense regulation to stop the rip-offs of people that wanted to buy homes. The state regulators said they couldn’t do it and we had a bigger problem because they wouldn’t let those sorts of things through so floors not ceilings. Absolutely. I’m totally with you on that.
Picking up on where you were leaving off though, a little bit about that local regulation you feel from the fact that you live in the community and your decisions have real, immediate impact, one of the things that Florida does it’s one of about 19 or 20 states that limit the ability of local governments to build broadband networks. Which is something that I focus on for ILSR and I’m just curious. The reason that state legislators often give for this is because you could just go ahead and squander millions upon millions of dollars that’s unnecessary and you wouldn’t face a consequence for it. That local taxpayers need to be protected so I’m always curious when I ask a mayor, do you have a sense that if you just squandered millions of dollars in unnecessary investments that there would be no repercussions?
|Andrew Gillum:||Well, I tell you I wish. Listen, we can’t squander a penny without reading about it or hearing about it and therefore creating a whole backlash from folks around what it is we’re doing with their money. It’s a little bit of jiu jitsu on behalf of state legislators to make that claim because you know they squander money everyday of the week and nobody knows about it because of the volumes of dollars that they’re talking about.
In our case, and we are looking at every dime, every nickel, everything that we spend as a government. In fact, if you go to our website, you’ll see there’s a checkbook on there and as you go through that checkbook you can see down to the cent what we spent on a vendor, on procuring a certain service, on buying a certain item, an investment that we made. That is available visa vi our public checkbook because our public demands that level of transparency and accountability on our behalf. That argument with regard to broadband is a false argument. It’s a straw man. It’s a nice sound byte but it doesn’t actually show up in any everyday life in our communities.
Take Chattanooga, for instance. Not only have they found a really powerful public use for the expansion of broadband and now they’re the one gig city, but they’ve also found an economic sort of edge that puts them and sets them apart from other communities because of the kind of rapidness of internet speeds that you can get as a business or a consumer or an everyday citizen. Like Chattanooga, we own and operate our own electric utility system. There are tons of efficiencies that we could gain through a smart grid system that gives our customers real time data, real information, assuming we were able to have a ubiquitous presence with regards to internet and high speed internet access.
But Florida law precludes us from doing that. Now to whose interest is that? I mean who does it benefit to keep local governments from being able to respond to the needs of their citizens as expressed through the will of their democratic vote but also through what we get to hear from them on a pretty everyday, robust feedback system at our city halls and in our email inboxes and on the telephone. Folks are on a best about telling us how they feel and I’ll tell ya, I consistently get comments from businesses and from individuals and from college students predominantly, saying man why don’t we have this? Why can’t we get that? Can you get Google fiber here? Can you do this? Can you expand this?
And at one point, we were able to be responsive to that and now that legislature has done a carve out excluding us from being able to make any investments in that space to the greater good. And so I think it’s very harmful and I think it also impedes the competitive advantages of local government that are increasingly trying to find ways to distinguish themselves, not only from the competitiveness of growing new business and industry, but also for our ability to attract and retain the kind of talent that we need to fill the pipe line for jobs that we want to create. The impacts are pretty significant for us and the legislature was clear about what it wanted to accomplish and I would maintain that what they were accomplishing was not in the interest of the everyday citizen but in the special interest of folks who pay lots of money to have sway over the process.
|Nick Stumo-Langer:||I think that’s a great point. So I know that we kind of touched on this a little bit earlier, but this is a useful buzzword I think for our listeners to hear. Can you just define ‘super preemption’ and what this means. Maybe kind of what the state legislature … Why this is a new problem.|
|Andrew Gillum:||The courts have maintained that states do have the ability to carve out territory for themselves, also known as preemption. But what we have seen now and what we have referred to as this sort of preemption 2.0 the draconian version, is now that they have taken aim at individual elected officials. Removing from elected officials and indemnification or immunity for decisions that they make in their capacities as elected officials.
Take for instance if we were voting on a seatbelt law, and I had decided that I was going to vote against mandating seat belts and someone got in an accident and were hurt because they didn’t wear a seatbelt. You couldn’t come back and then sue me for voting against the seatbelt law simply because there was an accident and someone got hurt in. For me making a decision at my capacity as an elected official, I have immunity over that. Could you imagine if the new terrain became based on how you vote on a particular issue and its impact on a community you can be personally sued for those decisions. I mean it would have a complete chilling effect on elected officials and frankly our democracy as we know it.
So this is an important line that’s been moved by these lawmakers. Frankly we have not seen yet a strong enough constitutional challenge to force judges to answer this question as to whether or not that is legally acceptable. So the super form takes aim directly at electives but I would include in that another very punitive aspect is where you hear the president and others talking about penalizing cities that have declared themselves sanctuaries of taking federal money and withholding federal money for housing programs and homelessness programs and food safety and security programs because of a political difference. That’s unreasonable and it is extremely punitive to citizens.
|Chris Mitchell:||I would say it’s not actually only unreasonable, it’s particularly unwise because you look at Los Angeles where there’s this discussion about if they were to lose funding are we gonna not have security at the docks where we’re importing goods? I mean … It’s just a threat that has been made before. Anyone that’s actually contemplated the consequences of it. But I want to with our five minutes left, I want to make sure we just touch on what people can actually do. So you can certainly follow defend local solutions on social media. You know, I see you guys are active on Twitter but what really can be done to make sure that we’re correcting this problem?|
|Andrew Gillum:||Well one, I do want to emphasize folks is following us and joining us at defendlocal.com where you can find a great collection of resources. Stay up on the latest news on some of these fights that are happening all across the country. Sharing those stories out because I really do believe that the most powerful instrument here is changing public will. If the public knew exactly what was at stake in some of these preemption fights, it would make their heads spin. I think legislators largely get away with it because it feels like inside a baseball but the impacts of these decisions are real and they’re felt everyday in communities.
But what we’re trying to do is we’re not just trying to be an aggregator of information, but we’re trying to help local elected officials find their voice so that they can be stronger advocates for what local governments and local communities need to build a strong enough and robust enough fight back mechanism so that our folks know that they’re not dealing with this thing in isolation. But that this seems to be a real plan coming together in cities and states all across the country that are stripping power from local governments.
We’re also hoping that through our work we’ll be able to find stronger legal ground to fight this fight. In Ohio, we found that off of the merit of the local charter that was grounds enough to push back on the state legislator’s overreach into decision making that belonged squarely with the local government and not in the hands of the state. That’s an important legal argument that maybe it can be asserted in other counties and cities that also have strong charters that carve out space for local governments to have a real ground to fight on.
I would say we’re trying to increase the level of communications and discussion and conversation about this really important public topic. That this is not just about local governments and state governments fighting for more control. That to the extent that we’re fighting at the local level is to increase the ability and maintain the ability for local governments to choose and decide for themselves what’s in the best interest of their own communities. That’s not part of an issue, I think it’s simply a question of division of power and our ability to make sure that our communities can be treated when distinct and unique that we’re able to have laws and rules and governments that reflect the uniqueness of our communities. That’s not to say there shouldn’t be floors, there absolutely should be floors.
But preventing us from looking our for the best interests of citizens to do the bidding of powerful money well healed and local interest, is not going to serve the public well and that’s why we need the voices of local governments, local officials, local citizens, speaking up and speaking out.
|Chris Mitchell:||Mayor Gillum, can I ask you one last question. It’s our easiest question and that’s, if you can recommend a recent article that you’ve read that you think is interesting, whether it’s on this topic or another, or a favorite book. We always just like to recommend something for folks to check out.|
|Andrew Gillum:||One piece that I found was particularly striking to my constancy, was the “We Are All Newtown” web series that was done. I believe we may have access to the resource for that on our campaign to defend local. I’ve gotten really close to a number of the folks who shot and supported the Newtown documentary that was done but there’s a good reading about that and also access to the documentary that was done on PBS that folks can get access to. I highly recommend it.|
|Chris Mitchell:||All right. Well thank you so much for your time Mayor Andrew Gillum and for spearheading this campaign to make sure that we can restore local authority.|
|Andrew Gillum:||Absolutely. And thank you all for your interest in the subject.|
|Lisa Gonzalez:||That was Mayor Andrew Gillum from Tallahassee, Florida joining Christopher Mitchell and Nick Stumo-Langer for Episode 17 of the Building Local Power podcast. Nick is our Communications Manager and Christopher heads up the Community of Broadband Networks Initiative. Remember to check out defendlocal.com to learn more about the campaign to defend local solutions.
We also encourage you to subscribe to this podcast and all of our other podcasts on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever else gets your podcasts. You can also sign up for our monthly newsletter at ILSR.org. Thanks to dysfunction Al for the music license to creative comments. The song is “Funk Interlude.”
I’m Lisa Gonzalez from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Thanks again for listening to Episode 17 of the Building Local Power podcast.
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