Local Politics Matter – Interview with Brian Defferding

Brian Defferding is the Chair of the Fox Valley Libertarian Party, former candidate for Neenah City Alderman, and a member of the Winnebago County Board. He has been involved in political activism for years and is a staunch believer that local politics matter, and that true change comes from the bottom up.

Keller: People from anarchist Adam Kokesh to constitutionalist Ron Paul, and even neoconservative John Bolton have called themselves a libertarian. What is a libertarian and what is libertarianism all about?

Defferding: Libertarianism is rejecting the use of force to achieve solutions. It’s the most pacifist of all types of philosophy. It’s the mutual agreement of terms in exchanging goods and services. It’s freedom to express in the most innovative ways. As a fine art graduate, I hold that freedom of expression to be utmost important. When we are able to express in ways that typical verbal and written languages cannot, we become our true selves. That creates happiness.

Keller: What attracted you to the Libertarian Party?

Defferding: When I was a teenager, I originally held liberal views, but it was a general opinion – I didn’t understand much about politics and the details entwined with it. I had a friend who was political nut, and he later moved to Washington D.C. to work for various think tanks and ultimately became staff for a U.S. Senator. In High School he introduced me to libertarianism. That led me into a research frenzy. I realized that often policy, no matter how well its intentions may be, created even worse results for the economy. Our farm policies from the Great Depression era is one example. Government still has rules put in place since that time – the price of milk’s formula is absolutely dizzying. For milk! Why has it been so hard for laws to be repealed? Why is it so hard to let temporary policies end? Government started to buy off cattle to subsidize farmers, which actually added fuel to the fire – farms started to sell off en masse, and megafarms came in the fill the void; collecting subsidies along the way. This created further problems, distorting the price of dairy. I started voting Libertarian when I turned 18 and never looked back. I should note, the government’s answer to these problems they unwittingly created is, of course, further government control. In 2008 they pass another farm bill micromanaging all the things farmers do – subsidize some farmers here, subsidize a few crops there; creating price distortion which artificially creates demand (or slows demand) of a product. This was in 2008, a good 75 years after the Great Depression. Despite year after year of many farm bills passed and signed all designed to “protect the farmer,” smaller farms still cannot compete, so they sell off their land and operations and more corporate megafarms come in. The independent farmers that are left, complain about how difficult it is to get by, so they introduce another program that artificially puffs up dairy prices. The temporary policies from the 2008 farm bill gets rewritten in another grand omnibus 2014 Agricultural bill – which had some limited changes with subsidies and some adjustment to restrictions, but control is still heavily prevalent. Rinse, repeat. It never ends. It never works.

Keller: Many who get involved with the Libertarian Party get excited and want to run for Congress and serve in the House of Representatives or the Senate. You choose to run for city alderman. What inspired you to run for local office over the national legislature?

Defferding: Local politics is exactly where libertarians should be. I’m a huge fan of “thinking globally, acting locally.” Local government is where most micromanagement happens – just look at your building permits and city ordinances. While knocking on doors, I met a couple who moved to my little town in Wisconsin from New York City. They loved the people, the scenery of the lakes and rivers, but their local government has been giving them headaches. Amidst building a deck in their backyard, because the deck was above 24 inches above the ground, they had to get a permit from the city, which included providing the city a drawing of your deck, and the inspector needed to approve of your deck supports and ensure the supports were properly buried into the ground. They built a stairwell on two sides of the deck, and the city inspector told them their stairwell was too narrow and had to expand it by three inches. It’s been a year, and the deck is not finished. They could not finish the changes to appease the inspector so it had to wait another year after winter was over. Here is the thing – the husband is a carpenter. He knew what he was doing and I walked on that deck, everything was well supported. But the city felt the stairwell needed a few more inches. If they don’t comply, they get hit with a $50 non-compliance fee. Which turns into a $100 fee if they don’t pay. Which continues to increase on their property taxes every year they do not comply. That stairwell is perfectly fine, and even if it wasn’t – it’s not your property anyway.

I attempted to build a fence in my backyard to keep my dogs in while they run and play. But because I was on a corner lot, I could not build a wood fence taller than three feet within 25 feet from the sidewalk. However, where I was building my fence, it would be behind 12 foot tall lilac bushes – nobody would even see my fence in the first place. The fence is also over 100 feet from the intersection, so I would not be blocking traffic vision in the first place. I attempted to get a variance for this ordinance, but the city informed me they do not grant variances at all. One of my dogs is half Great Dane – a three foot fence is not going to cut it for him to stay inside. After several city council meetings, which included two foam core boards of pictures, statistics, print-outs of fencing policies from neighboring cities and townships, rallying my neighbors to support me, and pictures of other yards that were technically in violation of the ordinance – the city decided not to vote on making a single change to the ordinance. So, a six foot tall wood fence in my corner lot backyard, to this day, is not legal in the city of Neenah. 

I spoke to another couple who owns an old home in Neenah, one of the first built. The garage is dilapidated and crumbling; so they wanted to re-build the garage from scratch in the exact same style it was before. However the city informed him that they would be subject to a two-to-three foot setback rule to build any establishment on their property. This would mean they would have to build new foundation to accompany moving the garage three feet – furthermore, it would put the garage uncomfortably close to the house, creating a narrow, awkward passage to the backyard area. The garage’s current overhang does not enter neighboring property, and their neighbors were completely cool with them re-building their garage where it already stood. But the city still required them to move it two to three feet. This would cost them a substantial amount of extra money to comply, so instead, the garage sits there, unfixed and in shambles.

Want to know where all that missing money from the Department of Housing and Urban Development goes? Look no further than your city, with their Community Block Grant Program. All cities love this program, because to them it’s “free money” – tax dollars not from property taxes or other local taxes, and they have a “use it or lose it” system, where if they don’t spend these federal dollars then it goes back to HUD. Even the Republicans love it. They can spend like drunken sailors and it doesn’t affect their budget – or rather, not directly their budget. What they do with this money is often questionably criminal and borderline corrupt; they buy up “blighted” properties and sell it to developers for the sake of “economic development.” Gentrification, thanks to your local government glad-handing and pocketing large real estate developers and construction companies. Blighted, of course, is a heavily arbitrary term. You can accurately guess that Neenah’s term for blighted properties differs from, say, Milwaukee’s or Detroit’s term. With Neenah, they can say a property has been vacant for a few months and call it blighted. Sometimes it doesn’t even need to be vacant. In my town, the person who controls all of this HUD money is an unelected official – for lack of a better term, a bureaucrat. Almost every month he finds a new property to request the city council to buy up, but here is the thing – even if the city council rubber stamps it (which they do), the property may end up being sat on idly by the city anyway because there is often unforeseen costs they run into, like issues with the soil, or there are other ulterior motives not mentioned up front, like the city wanting to buy up surrounding properties before they move forward with a pet project. 

Keller: Branching off of the last question, what is the importance for Libertarians to get involved at the local level over the national level?

Defferding: Two reasons. Calvin Coolidge once said it is more important to stop bad bills than it is to pass good ones. Government operates by creating a forceful legislative measures to resolve a solution, ninety nine times out of a hundred. On the local level, this is how those overly strict ordinances get passed all the time. Somebody maybe had a bonfire in their backyard and had people over who were noisy a few times, so neighbors complain, and city council creates a backyard fire permit. In order to ensure the riff raff stays out, local government might set the permit fee at $150, and have the inspector come in and inspect the pit in accordance to their standards – thus, in order to get out one bad apple, they create a headache for everyone else. The same may go for backyard inflatable pools; they might put a volume limit on how much water they can hold before the city requires to grant you permission. 

The second reason – and the most important one – is that Libertarians can demonstrate how to resolve issues without needing a government policy. What if someone bought up some land and turned it into a private dog park? What if doctors got together and did wellness check-ups pro bono for a week for those who cannot afford their services? What if there were classes to show how to grow and retain a sustainable indoor garden year-round, so people could farm their own crops independently? All of this takes initiative, and sometimes some bravery too; as the state will be quick to nay-say anything and everything unless it is under their control. But it has been done in the past, and it can be done again.

Keller: In your campaign for city alderman, what is the most bizarre incident in the city council you have come across?

Defferding: On the campaign trail, I once knocked on a door to a guy that had pock-marks all over his face from using drugs. That was awkward. I also spoke to some doe-eyed conspiracy theorists; one told me that she helped bring over 20 Russian ex-pats to a military base; and wanted their Neenah city council to tell the armed forces they we need more air support because she saw a helicopter land a block from her house, nine people got in and then it left. And she was straight-faced the whole entire time telling me this. On the actual city council, it was recently a sexting ordinance for minors. Now in Neenah, if teenagers sext each other, even if it is consensual, their parents may be subject to a $200 fine, or the teen will be forced to take a behavioral class plus pay a smaller fine. This all stemmed from the police liaison officer fielding complaints because high school couples break up and then pass their pictures around to spite their jilted ex. So instead of having a community conversations in the school about being respectful and not holding grudges, they pass another ordinance and call it solved. 

Keller: What are some of the major issues you’ve come across that are handled at the local level that people need to be more concerned about then, perhaps, certain national issues?

Defferding: Most definitely government schools. Right now the Neenah school board is looking to overhauling the entire government school system, from top to bottom, with expensive renovations for each and every option. This whole thing started because the school board did nothing to improve an old middle school until staff started to complain, so they brought inspectors in. The school failed so many codes it was deemed unfit for its own purpose. So instead of working on one school, they choose to refurbish all of them. Pretty much every option they provided will create a significant rise in property taxes. It is very obvious some schools are really old and dilapidated – but why did they take so long to start these renovations? You can look on Ballotpedia to see the voting history of your school board. Over the least four years, the Neenah school board voted unanimously 95% of the time. These are the people who control how the education dollars are spent locally. The whole thought process is that we are supposed to elect the school board by the people so the local curricula will reflect the priorities of those voted for them, and the education dollars will be spent wisely. But what if they managed those funds poorly? What if the curriculum turned into more tyranny of the majority – like right-wing Christians attempting to shove the Bible in front of students? People are losing faith in school boards, with good reason. Education is changing, and the old brick-and-mortar style method of government schooling might be going the way of the dinosaur. It would be great to see people find new innovative ways to educate children at a far lesser cost, and the only way for that to happen is to allow for people to have the freedom for that innovation; not force people into more desks and big buildings. A more individualized approach to education may have greater rewards.

Keller: Other than being elected, what do you hope to accomplish with your campaign and in the end your tenure as alderman?

Defferding:  Ultimately, I would like to completely change the way Neenah is taxed – I would like to see the property tax abolished completely and instead adopt a 2% city sales tax. Stafford, Texas did this, and that city’s population is comparable to Neenah. They have been functioning just fine with it, very well in fact. They kept in a small property tax reserved for government schools but that’s it. Neenah is a part of a string of cities connected to 10 other small cities – people would immediately be looking to buy property in Neenah instead of other cities nearby. And with more residential properties in Neenah will come the demand; people will prefer to shop close to their homes if they are able to. I know I’ll be fighting an uphill battle on this one, and it likely won’t pass during my term on the city council, but the least I can do is introduce the idea, and start having it marinate in people’s brains. Change will happen, just not at the speed we would like to see. But change cannot happen by complaining. It takes action.

Keller: What, do you think, should the role of local and city governments be? What role do local and city governments currently play?

Defferding: I think the city’s basic services should include providing drinkable water and sewer, have a police department, provide some roads with good lighting at night, and maybe a fire department, but I heavily prefer a volunteer fire department, though. Cities today go far beyond that. As an example, nearby Appleton is currently looking to finance $31 million dollars for an Expo Center; to which they paid a lawyer $700,000 to oversee the whole process. And Appleton had the nerve to ask neighboring towns to use a room tax to pay for part of that tab! Neenah is building yet another public park – we have 1 for every 1,000 residents right now – and this one will be its biggest park, costing 75% of the entire city budget to build, and that does not include the cost of the city to buy up the land, and then prepare the soil for development. In Cedar Rapids Iowa, the city owns a hotel and they will be spending sixty million dollars now to renovate. But I don’t even need to mention these large projects – there is that saying, “shavings make a pile.” Watching over Neenah committee meetings and city council meetings, I’m seeing a monthly pattern of money being spent here and there on frivolous things – just this month they passed spending $60,000 to help Habitat for Humanity refurbish a home. Not build one, but refurbish one. I saw the house they are refurbishing, it wasn’t an eyesore. Anyone could have invested the money into that house to make it livable again, and Habitat for Humanity is a very popular non-profit organization. These debts the cities incur doesn’t necessarily come from large projects like what Appleton and Cedar Rapids or Neenah schools are doing, it’s often in thousands of smaller items spent when it otherwise should not be. This is why it’s important to have more Libertarians in local office – to end this rubber-stamp method of governing. As Frederic Bastiat famously said, “Government is the great fiction, through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else.”

Keller: Do you have any final remarks you would like to give to the readers or libertarians interested in seeking office?

Defferding: Yes – run for local office. Even if you lose, it will be an incredibly enlightening and humbling experience for you. But don’t just run – attend your city council meetings, including the committee meetings too. Read the notes in the meeting minutes, get familiarized with how your city operates and the people that operate them. Do a ride-along with the local police department, get tours of your local fire department. It helps to know what you are talking about to voters when you start knocking on doors, they will like that you are knowledgeable of all the numbers and upcoming legislation and projects, and names of important people in key positions. Remember that you are serving the people. If you get elected, as a libertarian you will be grossly outnumbered. That means you need to know more than everybody else does in the room about all the facts related to whatever policy is being talked about. And it’s worth asking questions to various city officials and department heads, no matter how much you’re being a pain in their ass, ask them. Nobody else on city council questions these people, and that’s a bad thing. To the city, it’s easy spending other people’s money when nobody questions them. 

I would like to thank Brian Defferding for his time! For more information on Libertarianism and how to volunteer and get involved, visit the Libertarian Party website.

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