Iraqi visitors to Raleigh wonder: Who runs your government, again?

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For an hour yesterday, Raleigh City Councilors Russ Stephenson (center, in the blue shirt) and Nancy McFarlane attempted to explain our uniquely American system of democracy to nine visiting Iraqi mayors, clerics and researchers from Anbar Province. (Anbar: heart of the Sunni triangle. Raleigh: heart of the Research Triangle.) When we caught up with Stephenson today, he was afraid that perhaps something got lost in the translation -- as rendered by a total of six translators. The Iraqis quickly grasped our "Dillon Rule," which says that no local government in North Carolina can do anything without prior authorization from the General Assembly. Saddam, the visitors said, had a similar rule: Every capital project in Iraq, no matter how big or small, was approved by Saddam.

Beyond the Dillon Rule, however, Stephenson thinks, our intergovernmental ways were a little murky to the Iraqis.

For example, they were amazed, he said, that the Mayor of Raleigh needs four other votes on the eight-member City Council to get anything done. The Iraq mayors -- some of whom are Sunni Imams as well -- are apparently accustomed to having a bit more clout than that.

Various other things we do, despite Stephenson's and McFarlane's best efforts to explain them, struck the Iraqis as odd:

* We have a Board of Education to run the schools, but the school budget is set by the county Board of Commissioners. "That just didn't seem very efficient to them," Stephenson said drily.

* We elect the county sheriff. But the Raleigh police chief is appointed. Why?

* In Raleigh, the city manager does the hiring and firing and runs the government. The only folks the mayor and council control are the manager, the city attorney and the city clerk. That's it?

* The city runs on money collected by the county (property taxes) and the state (sales taxes). "They wanted to know if our budget needed state approval," Stephenson said. "And of course the answer is, not exactly, but ... yes, sort of."

* To get things done, the city government works with the county government and state government and the federal government and our members of Congress, and don't forget the private sector. And depending on whether it's health care or transportation or whatever it is, the relationships are constantly shifting in kaleidoscopic fashion depending on who's got the power ... and who's perceived to have the power.

"Well," Stephenson said, laughing, "you just imagine trying to explain to somebody [from another country] how American democracy works. By the end, I think they all wondered how the USA ever gets anything done!"

But he did his best, Stephenson said, to emphasize that what we have in America is "a more highly refined process of government that tries to take into account a wider diversity of views" than maybe they're used to in Iraq. In other words, our government -- at every level -- is supposed to persuade people to go along with what it does. Not the other way around.

The Iraqis are on a tour organized by the U.S. State Department and coordinated locally by the local International Affairs Council.

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