If you don't know urban political theory, it's likely that you don't understand local land use: St. Louis: DC; etc.
In academia, there are (at least) two competing theories of local politics.
From sociology comes the "Growth Machine," which makes the point that despite seeming intra-elite competition, local political and economic elites are for the most part united on a pro-growth agenda focused on intensification of real estate, since local governments are dependent on property taxes (and sales taxes) for the bulk of their revenues.
Harvey Molotch's paper, City as a Growth Machine: Toward a Political Economy of Place, published in 1976, and later expanded into the book Urban Fortunes: Towards a Political Economy of Place, serves as the foundation for this theory.
Political scientists offer the theory of the "Urban Regime," which came to the fore in 1989, with the publication of Regime politics: Governing Atlanta, 1946-1988 by Clarence Stone (until recently he was a professor at the University of Maryland). A good synthesis of the work is in the paper "The Evolution of Urban Regime Theory: The Challenge of Conceptualization by Mossberger and Stoker (2001).
I don't think these theories are competing so much as different sides of the same coin. "Growth Machine" theory is best for explaining the motivation and focus of "the land-based elite," and "urban regime" theory explains in detail how the land-based elite operates and functions.
In the paper, "Now What? The continuing evolution of Urban Regime analysis," Stone writes:
An urban regime can be preliminarily defined as the informal arrangements through which a locality is governed (Stone 1989). Because governance is about sustained efforts, it is important to think in agenda terms rather than about stand-alone issues. By agenda I mean the set of challenges which policy makers accord priority. A concern with agendas takes us away from focusing on short-term controversies and instead directs attention to continuing efforts and the level of weight they carry in the political life of a community. Rather than treating issues as if they are disconnected, a governance perspective calls for considering how any given issue fits into a flow of decisions and actions. This approach enlarges the scope of what is being analyzed, looking at the forest not a particular tree here or there. [emphasis added, in this paragraph and below] ...
By looking closely at the policy role of business leaders and how their position in the civic structure of a community enabled that role, he identified connections between Atlanta's governing coalition and the resources it brought to bear, and on to the scheme of cooperation that made this informal system work. In his own way, Hunter had identified the key elements in an urban regime – governing coalition, agenda, resources, and mode of cooperation. These elements could be brought into the next debate about analyzing local politics, a debate about structural determinism.
On the other hand, Urban Fortunes is particularly good on various elements of the land use intensification agenda, from Downtown revitalization to sports stadiums and arenas, conference centers, and in particular, the role of local media--fully dependent of the success of the local region for its own success, being dependent on advertising revenues generated primarily from sales to local businesses--in cementing this agenda.
If someone has keen observational and interpretative skills and delves into the academic literature, you can see how this works. Of course, good writing on the local Growth Machine always helps. In DC, the classic book that illustrates these theories, but was written by journalists likely unfamiliar with either, is Dream City: Race, Power and the Decline of Washington, DC, which covers the first two administrations of former Mayor, Marion Barry, and chapter 4, on land use and development, in particular.
Not only does the media not report the back story, they're part of it
One fault of journalism is that it is published every day and isn't focused on explanation of systems so much as it is reporting the facts of the latest events and exploits and ribbon cuttings.
In any case, the real story is the Growth Machine/Urban Regime and how it operates.
So articles about local corruption tend to miss the point because they look at is as one-off behavior for the most part (cf. Chicago and Illinois generally, Tammany Hall history, Robert Caro's book The Power Broker on Robert Moses, and the Starz network tv show, "The Boss").
It's all about sustained efforts, operating over multi-decade time frames, and intimate interconnections between political and economic elites. Although just like regime change in foreign countries (e.g., Libya, Tunisia, China, Egypt, Syria) there are winners and losers (e.g., "D.C. won't renew Chartered Health Plan contract" from the Post) when the leaders change, and a new crew comes in, even though the general "mode of cooperation" functions identically, just some of the positions have been moved around.
I think that's why Walmart continues to do community organizing with regard to their entry into DC as their biggest supporters have left or are leaving the stage--Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. is in jail, Council Chairman Kwame Brown has resigned, and Mayor Gray is under a cloud due to campaign finance violations and isn't likely to run again, even if no charges are filed against him--and they want to maintain their presence and visibility, even though for the most part, zoning regulations allow their entry without significant public involvement.
The blog entry "The Missouri History Museum, Freeman Bosley, Jr. and the Broken Nature of Civic Leadership" from the NextSTL (St. Louis) blog discusses a series of articles in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on overly intimate financial dealings between local nonprofits and business and political leaders in need of various bailouts. It's got outrage, but misses the deeper point.
Although maybe 8 years ago or so, the Richmond Times-Dispatch did an amazing profile of Richmond's power structure and power brokers, with a spider map showing the various interconnections. This was a surprise, because the Bryan family, owners of the paper, are a part of that structure.
The Washington Post reports on the various corrupt and ethical failings of local politicians (the latest being "Report: Councilman Graham's actions contrary to Metro ethics rules" and the editorials "Jim Graham’s breach of duty" and "Jim Graham investigation to test the D.C. Council’s ethics stance" on Councilman Jim Graham's likely misuse of his dual position as DC City Councilmember and member of the board of the local transit authority and interference in contracts and deals involving parties with business before both) without ever disclosing its role as one of the initial organizers of what Clarence Stone would call the local governing coalition, the Federal City Council.
But this is hardly new. In San Diego, the local newspaper is now owned by a real estate developer. The Los Angeles Times was owned by a key landowning family for decades. DC's Examiner is owned by the same group that owns Anschutz Entertainment Group, a major player in arenas, concert promotion, and entertainment across the globe. Gaylord Entertainment (the company that owns National Harbor and Grand Ole Opry, and is being acquired by Marriott) grew out of the Oklahoma City Daily Oklahoman newspaper.
Although local alternative papers can be good sources of information on Growth Machine politics. The original Washington City Paper Loose Lips columnist (Ken Cummings) and the City Desk news pieces were legendary for providing deep back story on such issues.
Without knowing the back story, too often you fly blind
I'm not sure that knowing the theories helps advocates transform the system, but it does allow you to understand what's happening, and how and why, and it gives you some insights into how to shape the system to function better, in part by introducing citizens as a force for civic engagement, action, and ethics, and also by trying to improve the various processes of "the system."
For example, my writings on community benefits-proffer processes make the point that without clear definition, likely deliberate, the process is designed more to limit the financial impact on developers, and less to monetize some of the economic value created by variances, density bonuses, and other special changes to planning, zoning, and building regulations that would otherwise limit the economic value of projects. See "What community benefits are supposed to be versus what people think they are about."
Similarly, many advocates don't understand that government employees aren't usually independent actors, but are very much constrained by their bosses, who ultimately, are the elected officials.
So it is essential to have checks and balances built into the system, in this case the right planning regulations in place, to provide residents with more control and ability to shape the built environment in their communities, be it having "big box" ordinances, a parks master plan, a robust transportation vision plan, neighborhood and sector planning processes that produce neighborhood and/or sector plans, planning and/or transportation commissions, robust capital improvement planning, etc.--none of which, by the way, are present in DC--although transportation and parks master plans are in the process of being developed.
See "Lessons from Walmart's foray into Washington, DC" and "More on DC ethics and corruption: intrinsic vs. extrinsic behavior," among others.