Elizabeth Regan
Benjamin Barber, Ph.D., gave a keynote address inspired by his new book, “If Mayors Ruled the World,” at the 2015 Connecticut Conference of Municipalities Annual Convention. (Elizabeth Regan)

After municipal officials at the annual Connecticut Conference of Municipalities convention made it clear that they want a seat at the table during state budget negotiations, an internationally known political theorist said it’s not enough to ask nicely for change — it’s time to demand it.

Keynote speaker Benjamin R. Barber, Ph.D., characterized local leaders as pragmatists who are able to get things done — whether it involves addressing the local manifestation of bigger issues such as global warming, the refugee crisis or pandemics — even as progress at the international and national level is almost nonexistent.

But municipalities lack both the authority and the resources to work as effectively as they could, Barber said. He called for a new American revolution to demand more autonomy and more money from state and federal government. 

The Harvard-educated scholar has written 17 books, including the recently released If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities and the international bestseller Jihad Vs. McWorld.

“Give us the authority, the jurisdiction, the autonomy and give us the resources,” Barber said. “And if you don’t, you better be ready to take us to court; you better be ready to put us in jail.”

“Where cities and townships do the work and generated the original revenues, they have a right to the funds. Every city in Connecticut needs to make that claim. No more unfunded mandates,” Barber said.

The state budget passed by lawmakers in June included a provision to send one-half percent of the 6.35 percent state sales tax back to municipalities as a way to help mitigate the ever-increasing local property tax burden; but Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s recent call for about $220 million in mid-year budget cuts could put that future property tax relief in jeopardy.

In a speech focused on the state’s metropolitan areas, Barber talked about cities as “wealth generators” responsible for 80 percent of the gross national product both in the United States and across the globe.

“But the fact is your towns and cities generate wealth for the state that [doesn’t] come back when you’re having problems you’re dealing with,” he said.

And yet municipalities are particularly well-suited to addressing even the world’s biggest issues, according to Barber.

“There is not one problem you will face that is not global in nature and will have global ramifications you (don’t) need to think about,” he told the audience. “That’s why I think that mayors and citizens of cities are in some ways better suited to governance, better suited to actually dealing with global problems than presidents and prime ministers whose job it’s supposed to be.”

He said the answer lies not in any one municipality, but in joining together against larger governments that are either unsupportive or obstructionist — or both.

He cited cases in both Texas and Colorado where municipalities banned oil and gas drilling known as fracking. The measures were met with lawsuits by the state, among other parties.

“The key as always in a revolutionary metric is doing it together, not alone,” Barber said. “If one city says ‘no fracking here’ and they all go to jail, it will be very hard for them to succeed. If every city in Connecticut says ‘no fracking in any city, no crude oil in any city,’ believe me, it will be heard.”