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home : most recent : statewide implications December 11, 2018

4/13/2018 6:42:00 PM
A 'speck' on the radar or a citizens' lobby: Can local officials influence national leaders?

Craig Lyons, Post-Tribune

With its recent stance that utility companies should pass savings under new federal tax laws to consumers, the Lake County Council was expressing itself on an issue it can’t control, but hopes to influence.

It was the latest such resolution of local governments, raising the question of whether these actions have a point or are tilting at windmills. Officials have waded in on violence in Charlottesville, Va.; gun safety; the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program; the North American Free Trade Agreement, among others.

Citizens should be able to demand elected leaders take into consideration questions of local, national and international importance, said Hammond resident Carl Wolf, who has asked the Hammond Common Council to pass an immigration resolution.

“In many ways, they’re the political leadership of our region,” Wolf said, but the council and Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. have demurred, saying it’s not their place to take up DACA changes.

McDermott said weighing in on federal legislation does little to influence those politicians.

“We’re a speck on their radar,” he said.

Hammond could have resolutions on North Korea or trade deficits, but they’re not discussions for city officials, he said.

“I’m not a congressman, I’m a mayor,” McDermott said.

Yet, the city — one of Indiana’s largest — could have an impact on a state issue, he said, citing its stand against the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Wolf said by officials suggesting citizens should talk to their senators or representatives, they’re missing opportunities.

“Maybe local officials should also take on an activist role,” Wolf said.

Highland resident Terry Steagall agrees. He has lobbied the Highland Town Council and Hammond Common Council to pass resolutions, saying it’s a way for citizens and local government to have an impact on policy.

“We protect our democracy this way,” Steagall said.

Highland Clerk-Treasurer Michael Griffin said the town council can consider such “sense of the council” resolutions as telling the U.S. Post Office to correct zip codes.

“From time to time, they’ve done it,” Griffin said of council members reacting to citizen concerns and community discussion. For example, the council felt strongly about passing a resolution condemning violence after what happened in Charlottesville, Va., and discussed another on the DACA program, he said.

Lake County Councilman Dan Dernulc, R-Highland, believes local officials can proceed with caution on such matters.

“We have to be prudent in what we send to our representatives both state and federal,” he said, adding that a NAFTA resolution was “just affirming some of our positions.”

When the council considered the gun safety resolution, he agreed that people with felonies and other issues should not be able to obtain guns, he said.

Lake Councilwoman Christine Cid, D-East Chicago, has sponsored resolutions opposing violence, supporting DACA recipients, and advocating for stronger guns laws.

“I believe I am the voice of my constituents and all state and federal laws affect their quality of life and thus it's important that I relay their message to state and federal lawmakers,” Cid said in an email.

That voice needs to be heard, Steagall said.

“It’s basically a citizens’ lobby,” he said.

Wolf said local officials should realize what happens nationally has local impact.

“They need to be more involved in the big picture,” he said.

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