The Regional Future of Local Government
by Bill Dodge
June 1, 2010
Local governments have strengthened their capacities multifold during my professional life.
I have worked in local governments that once keep financial records by hand, depended on snail mail for communications, and only responded to their neighbors under court order. I have seen local governments earn the respect, and accompanying tax dollars, to provide state-of- the-art roads and sewers, public safety and recreation programs, and even bus service and affordable housing.
In spite of this increased competency, individual local governments have been losing the ability to address the tough challenges, the ones that cut across jurisdictional boundaries, and at an increasing pace since the turn of the century. If there has ever been a time for innovation in local government, it is now. This article advances a practical approach for building the capacity to address cross-cutting challenges -- regional charters -- and a hopeful preview of the future of local government.
Crosscutting challenges are not new. Some were predetermined by our natural environment. For example, assuring potable water has always required consideration of entire watersheds. Local governments realized that taking drinking water out upstream and dumping waste water downstream only worked for the jurisdiction at the headwaters. Everyone else was going to drink someone else’s pollution. And the same was discovered when the jurisdictions drawing on a common aquifer exceeded its ability to replenish itself and had to keep digging deeper wells.
Local governments realized that they needed to negotiate watershed plans to drink potable water as well as airshed plans to breathe clean air. Similarly, the natural environment often shapes the path of development, requiring roads and rails, water and sewer lines to follow benign topography. Again, local governments have to come together to negotiate compacts to shape future regional growth, if building infrastructure is not going to be prohibitively expensive.
Whereas local governments are learning to respond cooperatively to some tough challenges posed by the natural environment, they still act as if they can divide up one of its most important living organisms -- human settlements -- without making a mess.
Human settlements are just as much part of the natural environment as deer or mice. They have vital organs -- downtown business and cultural districts, suburban employment centers and shopping malls, residential neighborhoods and recreational areas -- tied together by the sinews of transportation, the arteries of commerce, and the protoplasm of community. Over the last century, human settlements have been divided up by dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of local governments, especially the more urban ones.
All too often, individual local governments have searched for miracle drugs to address their piece of tough challenges as opposed to healing the wounds with their neighbors. But no medicine has been found to address tough challenges jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction.
And now less resources. Local governments have hit financial ceilings, limiting their responses to any tough challenge. Especially as a result of the recent economic turmoil, all too many local governments would be bankrupt if they were private businesses. They can no longer sustain their services, maintain their facilities, and finance employee heath care and retirement.
As the economy improves, it appears that the public does not have the will to return to the profligate behavior of the past. Even if individual local governments want to continue to be independent of their neighbors, they can no longer deny the need to work cooperatively to address their toughest challenges. Even the most affluent of exurban enclaves does not have enough resources to address the challenges that cut across jurisdictional boundaries, from volatile energy costs to fiercer global competitiveness.
Local governments have come together in ad hoc and ongoing ways to address these cross-cutting challenges. They have formed councils of governments and special districts to address transportation, air and water quality, and sometimes affordable housing and natural resource preservation. They have supported regional funding for transit, sports stadia, and sometimes arts, cultural, and library facilities. They have developed regional agendas to pursue state and federal government largesse. They have developed common plans to safeguard their citizens in natural and terrorist disasters. They have even participated in programs to train regional leaders and citizens.
But usually on a piecemeal basis. Local governments have been reluctant to invest in creating sufficient ongoing capacity to take advantage of crosscutting opportunities and brunt common threats. Witness the response to the American Recovery and Revitalization Act. Some regions had already invested in cooperative plans and programs for transportation, emergency preparedness, weatherization, or broadband communications, and were prepared to take advantage of the largest infusion of federal funds in this and probably many decades to come. Others had to play catch up and will probably not be as successful in securing adequate funds to address common challenges.
Bottom Line: The future of human settlements depends on local governments being able to work together. Region-by-region, local governments need to design and build a "regional charter” that empowers then to work together, as effectively as their individual charters empower them to work independently. Only a few regions have wrestled with this task, usually under the mandate of state governments, such as the Minneapolis/St. Paul, Portland (Oregon) and San Diego regions, and even they do not encompass their entire human settlements.
What would life with a regional charter be like? It would bring the parts of human settlements together that have grown, are growing, and want to grow to create a joint capacity to address the common aspects of any tough challenge. As a result, it would require redrawing the boundaries of many regional councils of governments, as they also divide up human settlements, and recasting them as regional charter councils to facilitate addressing the toughest common challenges.
The regional charter councils would have access to adequate staff and resources to assist local governments to design common strategies to address the tough challenges. They would also have access to predictable funding streams for implementing critical actions, including the ability to submit funding options to the public in regional referenda. They would engage regional stakeholders, from all sectors and the general public, but be controlled, or heavily influenced, by local governments. Most importantly, they would be held accountable by the public, such as through annual reports on their activities and periodic citizen reviews of their charters.
And regional charters would be equally important in more rural areas. It would require groups of smaller human settlements tied together by a common future -- such as marketing a successful “stall” in the global “marketplace” or collectively offering the amenities of the good life demanded by citizens -- to also design and adopt regional charters. In fact, many regional councils of governments in more rural areas already understand their growing interdependence and are demonstrating many of the characteristics of regional charter councils.
Regions with charters will transform local government. It will require elected officials who are comfortable negotiating with their neighbors. It will require staff that is skilled in network management, administering collaboratively what it cannot do alone. Most importantly, regional charters will require the public to become practicing regional citizens, trained to participate at both the local and regional level and elect officials that can do the same.
Governance will become more interactive as elected officials, staff, and citizens move seamlessly between local governments and regional charter councils. Everyone will become trained, and experienced, in removing the historic blinders that have blocked their view of the whole human settlement and considering the local and regional implications of their thoughts and actions.
Human settlements with regional charters can provide local governments with the confidence to address any challenge thrown at them. Of course, many of those challenges will require state and federal government support. And, at times, some gentle or not so gentle prodding. However, if local governments are coming together regionally, as opposed to engaging in interjurisdictional food fights, it should increase their influence, and clout, at higher levels of government. Local governments will want to strengthen their regional presence in state capitals and Washington, DC to assure robust responses to the common challenges being addressed by human settlements.
How can we start building regional capacity? Gather existing regional citizens -- there are dedicated ones in every region -- to design a vision and strategy for building a regional charter, probably incrementally. Build on activities that already demonstrate some of the characteristics of regional charters, such as Metropolitan Planning Organizations for planning and distributing transportation funds or regional sewer and transit authorities. Establish a regional organization, possibly called the Regional CitizenShip, to train everyone to become a practicing regional citizen. Test the regional charter by negotiating a compact to shape future regional growth. Challenge state and federal governments to provide priority funding for regional initiatives.
Regional charters, developed by local governments and regional citizens, can provide the capacity to negotiate sustainable, affordable, regional growth compacts and provide the confidence to address the toughest regional challenges. And maybe, most importantly, help our grandchildren be proud of their local governments!
Editor's note: Virginia Planning District Commissions/Regional Commissions are chartered political subdivisions of the Commonwealth of Virginia formed under the 1968 Virginia Area Development Act. Current requirements are found in the Code of Virginia - Title 15.2 - COUNTIES, CITIES AND TOWNS. Chapter 42 - Regional Cooperation Act. The name was amended in 1995 as part of other significant changes, including the shift of the requirement for a District Comprehensive Plan to that of a District Strategic Plan.
To learn more about Virginia "chartered regions" check the Virginia Association of Planning District Commissions: http://www.vapdc.org/aboutpdcs.htm
More information about how my Virginia experience led to development of the Regional Communities approach can be found in the documents and PowerPoints noted in the right margin of this blog. Questions? Tom.Christoffel@gmail.com
Bill Dodge is looking for a few good local governments that are interested in designing regional charters to strengthen their capacity to address tough common challenges. He is the former Executive Director of the National Association of Regional Councils, author of Regional Excellence, is writing a new book on regional charters, and can be reached at WilliamRDodge@aol.com.