The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Opinion

January 28, 2014

Dan Ross, guest columnist: Local governments' oversight under assault

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Local governments are closest to the people. So it makes sense that local governments should have day-to-day authority and exercise an everyday commitment to protecting our neighbors, our neighborhoods and property values across Missouri. This means making smart, responsible and accountable decisions on land uses through planning and zoning.

This sensible local oversight role is under assault in Jefferson City by big telecommunications companies. They are pushing legislation to weaken municipal authority over their highly visible structural footprints in our communities. Municipalities are accountable for citizen-owned assets, including electric utility poles and other utility facilities in the public right of way. Local officials must bear the responsibility to ensure the safety and reliability of utility service to the citizens they serve.

Urban, suburban and rural — we all support expanding broadband to take full advantage of technology. But from erecting soaring towers to attaching multiple antennas on existing structures, telecommunications giants want state lawmakers to give them an almost free hand by gutting local government review.

It must be up to local governments to make sure telecommunications towers are in harmony with other structures, businesses, homes, parks, trails and public spaces. Local officials can best judge community planning and zoning practices and applying the related safety codes. State lawmakers and big telecommunications companies should stop these attempts to undermine the local governments closest to Missourians.

Last year there were similar legislative efforts by telecommunications giants to weaken local oversight of land uses. The 2013 efforts started with a single bill, which, like a snowball rolling down a mountainside, grew and grew through the legislative process until it was heavy with all sorts of unrelated things. This conglomeration made it into law last year, but the courts recognized that the mish-mash covered so many subjects in a single bill as to violate the Missouri Constitution.

The flawed 2013 law was put on hold under court order. But that legal defeat didn’t stop the telecommunications giants. They are back in 2014 with more legislative shenanigans. This time, the subjects that had been rolled up in one bill are now in separate bills. One bill deals with right of way in political subdivisions. Another refers to wireless infrastructure deployment. A third proposal affects access to railroad right of way, and a fourth bill’s provisions relate to access to municipal utility poles.

Standing alone, one bill’s effect may seem minor. But the words matter, and taken all together, they would put local governments and our citizens on the sidelines as the big telecommunications firms have their way.

Such challenges to sensible local oversight are not new battles for the Missouri Municipal League, which is now in its 80th year and represents 673 member communities that are home to 2.9 million Missourians. It has a strong voice, with positions agreed upon and advocated through its diverse membership, from the largest cities to the smallest villages.

What the Missouri Municipal League and its members are up against is big money, corporate influence and an army of lobbyists working the hallways to weaken authority of local governments without any valid reason.

In fact, local oversight is working well, and we have many examples of constructive solutions cities have reached with telecommunications companies while protecting neighborhood interests. Just look to the Kansas City area, where the ongoing expansion of Google infrastructure is a product of cooperation in playing by local rules.  

Our city leaders are contacting their legislators, urging them not to vote to weaken the protection of publicly owned assets and local review in favor of big telecommunication companies. I ask that citizens in our communities join this call to lawmakers to keep sensible community oversight where it belongs — with officials who are closest to the people most affected.

Dan Ross, of Jefferson City, is executive director of the Missouri Municipal League.

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