By Bai Linh Hoang (University of Texas, Arlington)
The local council is one important institution that provides opportunities for constituents to directly interact with their legislators. In holding public hearings on specific policy proposals and reserving time for the public to comment on more general matters, city council meetings enable constituents to voice their concerns about community and municipal-related matters to elected officials. However, we know little of the potential disparities in how legislators treat different racial and ethnic groups in these meetings. Are there racial differences in the propensity of legislators to respond to and acknowledge a constituent’s concern? Previous studies on state and local officials have shown that the perceived race or ethnicity of the constituent shapes legislative responses to constituent emails. However, do these findings carry over into a communicative environment like public meetings, where interactions between legislators and constituents are more transparent to a wider audience than are email correspondences, the content of which may not be readily accessible to the public? As my research demonstrates, an investigation of legislator-constituent face-to-face interactions provides us with additional evidence that under certain circumstances, equity in responsiveness may too be lacking in public meetings.
Why should we care about how local legislators interact with their constituents in public meetings? Legislative responses to constituent concerns in face-to-face interactions are important for various reasons. A response from elected officials to constituents may be a way of facilitating understanding between the two, especially in circumstances of disagreement. Also, when constituents expend resources to attend public meetings to voice their concerns on an issue, they expect, at the very least, that they will be heard even if their preferences do not come to fruition. In these meetings, a direct response is one of the few ways to gauge whether or not the legislator was listening to the constituent. Overall, responsiveness (or lack thereof) has implications not only for constituent views of political efficacy but perceptions of institutional legitimacy as well. Furthermore, racial differences in responsiveness can exacerbate already existing inequities in the capacity to influence government.
For this study, I generated an original dataset containing information collected from the minutes and direct observations of the proceedings of three local council meetings in the southern Michigan region from 2012 to 2014. I paid particular attention to the public comment period, public hearings, and council discussions of the public hearings. The dataset contains more than 2,000 observations from an analysis of 36 different council meetings. Each observation captures the relationship between each constituent who speaks and each council member present who potentially listens to the information. For example, if 10 constituents address a 10-member city council, there would be 100 observations for that particular meeting. A council member is considered to have responded to a constituent during the meeting if a) the member specifically names the constituent when talking about the constituent’s message (direct response) or b) issues statements that address the constituent’s viewpoint raised during the meeting but makes no explicit reference to the constituent (indirect response). The member need not act on or comply with a constituent’s request or preference in order for his or her action to be considered a response.
Are White council members more likely to respond to Whites constituents than to Black constituents? Likewise, are Black council members more likely to respond to constituents who share their race than to those who racially identify otherwise? The answer is yes and no. On the one hand, I find no evidence that shared racial identity, on average, affects responsiveness in these meetings. However, on the other hand, I find that racial disparities in responsiveness depend on what constituents say. When constituents address council members on local ordinances that are being debated during that meeting, White legislators are more likely to respond to White constituents than to Black constituents. Additionally, racial considerations factor into legislative responses in other ways. For example, White legislators are less likely to respond when constituents, specifically Black constituents, speak about race-related issues than when they speak about issues having no bearing on race. Black legislators, however, are more likely, to some degree, to respond when constituents speak about racialized issues than when they speak about non-racial issues.
While the findings in my study deviate from the conclusions of previous studies showing that race independently affects how legislators treat their constituents, at the same time, the findings reveal that racial disparities emerge in other ways. However, additional research should be undertaken to study constituent-legislator interactions in local public meetings. Are racial disparities in responsiveness exacerbated or mitigated by the size of the city or the racial composition of the local government? Does the racial composition of a group of constituents expressing similar viewpoints in a meeting affect how legislators respond? Since my study focused exclusively on responses to individual constituents, it does not address potential racial differences in council members’ responses to groups of constituents. Certainly, these are not the only questions worth exploring in future investigations of citizen influences on local policymaking.
Bai Linh Hoang (pronounced Bye-Lin Hong) is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Texas, Arlington. Her primary field is American Politics, with topical specializations in race and ethnicity politics, political representation, and urban politics. Her secondary field is political theory. At the University of Texas, Arlington, she teaches an introductory course on American government and upper level courses on ethnic group politics and urban politics.