SALT LAKE CITY — In an era of gridlock, dysfunction and polarized politics on the federal level, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams hopes other mayors and local leaders like himself embrace the idea that power is shifting to the "problem solvers" of communities.
It's a concept described in a new book titled "The New Localism: How Cities Can Thrive in the Age of Populism," by Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak of the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C. — and the authors believe the Salt Lake area could be a "poster child" of that power shift.
"We think (the Salt Lake area) is fundamentally one of these vanguards in localism," Katz said. "We think you're big enough to make an impact and you're small enough to actually work together."
Urban experts Katz and Nowak said nationally they've noticed a "structural shift in problem-solving" from the "bottom up" rather than "top down" because of how cities, counties and public-private partnerships are working together to solve problems that aren't being solved on the federal level.
"You have multiple sectors cracking at the problem rather than the 'experts' sitting in a siloed bureaucracy," Katz said in a recent meeting with the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards.
"The hope," Katz added, "is with mayors and businesses, civic and university leaders at this level. These are the folks that get this. They not only get it, they're doing it."
It's a concept that McAdams is taking to heart in a time when he said big problems like homelessness, environmental issues and transportation may seem daunting to local governments — and he thinks Salt Lake County has already been wielding that power.
"I do see this happening here locally," McAdams said, pointing to the work on the county's Collective Impact on Homelessness steering committee — the group of homeless providers, business leaders, and city and county officials that have worked over the past several years to transform the county's homeless delivery system.
McAdams also pointed to the Mountain Accord, a group of environmental groups, ski resorts, multiple counties and cities aiming to manage watershed protections, traffic and environmental impact in the Wasatch canyons.
Katz and Nowak visited Utah as part of several events, including the Wasatch Choice 2050 symposium — a gathering of hundreds of local leaders to explore how to work together to plan for the future and tackle tough problems like traffic congestion, housing, homelessness and air quality, especially considering Utah's population boom expected over the next 30 years.
McAdams, a Democrat who is running for Congress against GOP Rep. Mia Love, called "the new localism" an "intellectual framework" that gives him "comfort" when he begins talking about empowering local governments rather than the federal government.
"I feel like sometimes I sound like (Rep.) Ken Ivory or (Garfield County Commissioner) Leland Pollock," McAdams joked, referring to politicians well-known for their pushback against federal control.5 comments on this story
But localism "isn't just filling the vacuum of the federal government," McAdams said. The concept is still a "good roadmap for the power and importance of localism, even if the federal government becomes functional again."
McAdams said it's an idea all levels of government can embrace, including mayors.
"It's a message to government leaders to say, 'It's OK to let power go to the people who can solve it best," he said. "I think it's a persuasive tool that we don't have to have a one-size-fits-all solution. Let go of the steering wheel — let somebody else take it and they'll figure it out."