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There is a great deal of interest in some of our physicist colleagues who have run for office to become a member of the United States Congress, some of them successfully and others with valiant but losing campaigns. Of course there are many other offices at the state and local level, so this article is my description of some experiences as a member of a City Council; in particular the office of Alderman in the city of Warrenville, Illinois (population 13,318 in 2012). I served over a period of 14 years, for five terms. In a slightly related endeavor, I also was a slated candidate for delegate to the Democratic National Convention, unsuccessfully for Bill Clinton in 1992, successfully for Clinton in 1996, and unsuccessfully for Bill Richardson in 2008.
It is not obvious what parts of this interesting experience are worth sharing in the Forum on Physics and Society. From Tip O’Neill’s advice that “all politics is local” to Andrew Lloyd Weber’s refrain that “politics is the art of the possible”, the activities were varied and complex at times, but rewarding. Activity in local politics is highly probable in Illinois, where there are more than twice as many elected positions than any other state. School boards, park boards, library boards, and many other taxing districts are separate entities with separate elections. My city deals with land use and zoning, police protection, and road maintenance, along with water and sewer and issues of civic pride.
How did I become interested in local politics? I’ve always had some interest in the political process at every level. I grew up in Washington D.C. where it was a notable fact (at that time) that the citizens had no role at all in their local government. The particular issue that took me to a city council meeting was a report about an annexation agreement where a bank held some land in trust for an individual, and decided it would be in his interest to develop the property and kick him out, when he was living there and wanted no such thing. That offended my sense of fairness. As I became involved, most of the issues were not related to my background as a scientist. Some issues, such as should we spray for mosquitos, might have a scientific aspect to them, but that was as much beyond my expertise as anyone else’s. I will touch base on three Warrenville City Council issues that seem plausibly relevant: magnetic fields, Fermilab as a neighbor and finances.
Running through Warrenville was an abandoned railroad line that had become a bike trail called the prairie path, and the electric power company decided it wanted to put some high voltage power lines along the path. This became a big local environmental issue, a valid one in my mind because several trees would need to come down, and there were aesthetic issues as well. But some of the opponents also loudly latched on to the claim that electromagnetic fields from the power lines would be a health issue. One person stated that he didn’t care if the claim was true or not, if they could use it to stop the power lines. A power line opponent brought a “model ordinance” to the city, which banned magnetic fields greater than 2 milligauss at the site boundary of a switching station. I opposed the ordinance, claiming that the earth’s magnetic field was 500 milligauss so the ordinance was unreasonable. Maybe they meant AC rather than DC, but they didn’t say so and it would have been just as silly. The idea that either AC or DC magnetic fields were dangerous always struck me as silly. A non-scientist might not realize that it was silly, but ought to try to find out before making claims. I remember as a student at MIT, the school newspaper ran a headline on April Fools Day about claims that electromagnetic radiation from the sun was as dangerous as ionizing radiation. A motion to direct the attorney to prepare the ordinance passed 5-3. But the attorney came back saying that regulating the power company was a state responsibility and outside the power of the city, so he never prepared it.
I had the opposite experience with my powers of persuasion when the police chief said some officers were concerned about the health effects of radar guns, and he wanted me to attend a staff meeting and talk about the issue. I gave a 5-minute lecture that biology was chemistry and chemistry was physics, and there was no way that radar could affect a biological process. Later when the chief brought forward an order for some radar equipment, he told me that my visit had settled the issue for them.
Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, where I conduct some of my research, abuts the western boundary of Warrenville. When I was first elected, I imagined that I could be a resource for any issues that came up with that neighbor. It never happened. One time there was a proposal to provide Warrenville water to the residents of the Fermilab village, the former village of Weston. (It was actually the creation of Weston that spurred Warrenville to incorporate in 1967, long after its founding in 1833.) The agreement was worked out between our public works director and Fermilab and I was never involved, other than voting for it just as all the other aldermen did. I was involved in some outreach from time to time, but my position on the city council played no special role.
The one place where my education ironically seemed to play a role was in the budget and finances. My ability to understand numbers quickly became apparent to the others, and they soon made me the chair of the city finance committee. I worked with city staff to prepare the budgets each year, and they always passed unanimously, with some discussion but little controversy. But it was when finance issues came up outside the budget process that I was most frustrated. I characterized my colleagues’ position as saying that $5000 was a lot of money, and $5,000,000 was a lot of money, and that they treated these two things the same. Despite considering myself a liberal within a group that was intrinsically conservative, I usually found myself on the no side of many funding issues. Most of my so-called conservative colleagues, seemed happy to spend all the revenue that the City collected.
Let me give one example. Road repair is an expensive proposition. The city had several pots of money that could be partially dedicated to this, general fund, road taxes, sales tax, state income tax, etc. Each year the public works director would plan maintenance on as many roads as he could afford that year. I felt we should make a long term plan balancing expenses and revenues over the lifetime of all the roads in town. This was done, putting all roads on a schedule for maintenance. To get the numbers to work, we had to pass a utility tax. To me, this has turned a haphazard endeavor into a successful long-term program. In subsequent years, when people proposed additional expenditures without a long-term funding source, such as building sidewalks here and there, I found myself in opposition.
I think being a scientist did affect the way that I looked at things. I wanted to see evidence that something would give the desired benefit before approving it. I wanted to see quantitative results from past programs and compared benefits across the budget, not in isolation. But in the long run, it was just a way of looking at things which complemented the way that others in business, the service industry, retirees and homemakers came to their decisions. I did feel a sense of satisfaction from trying to contribute to the community, and some of my ideas became reality. This helped motivate me to continue for many terms. While those who decide how research dollars should be spent should have a deep understanding of the scientific issues involved, physicists have no special role in local government, but neither would it be proper if we shirked such a role.
Maury Goodman is a high energy physicist at Argonne National Laboratory. He works on neutrino experiments at Fermilab and in Minnesota, South Dakota and France.