Constitution Week, Milton’s Charter, and the Search For Good Governance

(I am still working on Part 2 of my blog post about variances.  Before publishing, I want to ensure that my facts about land use are correct and my sources are consistent and authoritative.)

This week is Constitution Week.  And it is fitting that a week (vs. a day) is dedicated to honoring The United States Constitution.  And my hope is that some Americans might take the occasion seriously and actually spend a few minutes reading and pondering The US Constitution (and its sister document, The Declaration of Independence).  Following are links to the texts of The US Constitution and to The Declaration of Independence


Declaration of Independence

These two documents must necessarily be considered together.  As Abraham Lincoln so eloquently stated, “The Constitution is the frame of silver adorning and preserving the Declaration of Independence, which is the apple of gold.”  Lincoln, like the Founders, intuitively understood that the fundamental mission and vision of the American project is reflected in The Declaration of Independence . . . and that is securing liberty (i.e., the natural and equal rights of humankind).  The Declaration of Independence specifies WHAT we are seeking to achieve:  liberty, while The Constitution (by itself, without the amendments) addresses HOW to achieve the Declaration’s mission/vision.  The HOW is critical, because the Founders rightly understood that the biggest threat to liberty is government, which has a monopoly on police power (i.e., legal force and even legal violence).  Government’s power must be properly constrained.  These limits on federal power were to be achieved by the Constitution, which provides the architecture for our national government.  Because the Founders settled on a republican form of government (vs. direct democracy, monarchy, oligarchy, etc.), they rightly understood that the danger of republican democracy is tyranny of the majority.  Therefore, the Founders designed a government that would diffuse power, that would make majorities (combinations of factions) unstable, that would encourage deliberation and minimize rash actions, that would put certain fundamental rights beyond the reach of majorities, etc.  Various mechanisms were employed to achieve this design:  federalism, three co-equal branches of government, supermajorities for adopting Constitutional amendments, and various other checks-and-balances.

Taken together, The US Constitution and The Declaration of Independence are the most profound and influential documents in political history, (eclipsing the English Magna Carta and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man).  In the late 1700s, The Constitution and The Declaration of Independence took many then-radical ideas of great political philosophers (e.g., John Locke)—that were until their time, mostly theoretical—and put them into practice.  Through these two documents, the Founders, particularly Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, reimagined and re-engineered government—a government dedicated to the proposition that “all men are created equal;” that government power derived from “the consent of the governed;” and that rights were not a dispensation of government, but rather rights preceding government (i.e., were natural) with government’s purpose to “secure” these rights.

And what has this got to do with government in Milton?  The simple answer is EVERYTHING.  Milton City Council Members actually take an oath to support and defend The Constitution of the United States of America.  Following is the oath for the Mayor and Council members:

I do solemnly (swear) (affirm) that I will faithfully perform the duties of (mayor) (council member) of this city and that I will support and defend the Charter thereof as well as the Constitution and laws of the State of Georgia and of the United States of America.

Unfortunately, as someone who has closely watched Council for 7 years, I wonder if any Council members ever give a second thought to their oath or to The US Constitution (or any laws they swear to uphold).  If Council members do take their oaths of office seriously, why do they assert (as more than one has asserted to me personally) that “citizens don’t care about process; they only care about outcomes?”  (It was this statement that caused me to part ways with the council members that I previously and strongly supported.)  And more importantly, why do their Council’s actions consistently convey a disregard for our laws, including sometimes the Constitution itself?  (For example, Milton’s Ethics Ordinance’s wrongful use clause is blatantly anti-Constitutional.)

It is important to understand that Milton has its own version of the Constitution, which is referenced in Council’s oath of office as the “Charter,” and establishes Milton’s governmental architecture.  Almost no one knows this, but Milton’s City Council recently seriously weakened Milton’s Charter.  In early 2021, Council voted to eliminate a periodic (every 5 years) review of Milton’s Charter by an appointed group of citizens—a sort of Constitutional Convention convened every 5 years.  This review by a Charter Commission was an important—and I would argue, essential—check on the power of Council and City staff . . . and unfortunately, Milton’s government has very few such checks-and-balances (in contrast with the federal government).  And eliminating this Charter review is the opposite of “shifting power back to citizens,” which was the most important campaign theme of 2017.  (So much for campaign promises, huh?) Council argued that things were proceeding so swimmingly in Milton that they no longer needed any such oversight from citizens.  It was a singularly self-congratulatory moment for Council.  This action by Council was a fundamental Charter revision that not a single citizen opposed, that the Milton Herald neglected (to understand or) to report . . . and sadly went almost totally unnoticed by anyone in Milton .  I hope an intrepid candidate for council (in 2021 or subsequent elections) will resurrect 5-year Charter reviews.

So what might be the moral to this story?  Well, the single most important point citizens should take away is that Milton needs elected and appointed government leaders that  understand the criticality of municipal government’s architecture to the achievement of good governance and good outcomes (as our Forefathers understood it).  Hopefully, a future “James Madison” in Milton will work to reform Milton’s government processes so government works well for all citizens.  I know from experience that effective leaders focus more on process and principles (i.e., good governance) and less on policy, understanding that good policy is only possible through establishment and execution of excellent processes.

Honoring the Constitution and Milton’s Charter,


Postscript:  This issues of The Constitution and good governance are very personal for me.  For nearly 8 years, I served in the military (as a US Navy nuclear submarine officer), and I was proud to do so.  I strongly believe in our America and in good governance.  I took my military oath seriously . . . and still do:  “to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”  While I understand that our nation and our government are far from perfect, for most of my life, I had faith and confidence that, in the United States, my liberty is relatively secure and that justice is usually served.  It was not until I waded into local governance and politics that my faith in our political system was shaken (but thankfully not shattered).  My experiences with local government made me realize that our basic liberties (for example, the five First Amendment freedoms) in America are much more attenuated than most of us realize and that our system of justice often fails miserably.  Citizens should understand that there are enemies of good governance right here in Milton, including former and current Council members, that misuse and abuse the powers of government to exact vengeance on citizens, like myself, that have the temerity to challenge them and the status quo.  (More about this is future blog posts.)  Sometimes aided by City staff, the tools of their trade are personal attacks, selective enforcement of Milton’s laws, and frivolous ethics complaints. However, these politicians underestimate the power of the truth and the power of persuasion and thankfully often pay the price for their misdeeds.  Miltonites have not been shy about booting bad actors in our local government—many receiving their comeuppance at the ballot box; others withdrawing from government rather than face the ire of voters.  I say:  good riddance.