Regional democracy wouldn’t pan out for slow-growth

saturated bay area sunset

by stephen schiller, on Flickr

Unelected bureaucrats want to impose their will upon us, cry critics of Plan Bay Area. Nobody chose their town’s representative to the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), after all. We elected them to city councils, not the ABAG General Assembly or Executive Committee. Plan Bay Area, passed by these unelected appointees, then, is an affront to democracy and the fair people of the Bay Area.

This is, roughly, also the central thrust of a Marin Voice piece by Susan Kirsch, spokeswoman for Citizen Marin and Friends of Mill Valley. She’s one of Marin’s so-called “slow-growth” proponents, who favors existing zoning laws and automobility.

So why not elect those bureaucrats?

Intriguingly, there was a plan about two years ago to create just such a body. SB 1149, by far-East Bay senator Mark DeSaulnier, would have created the Bay Area Regional Commission, or BARC. The bill, which died in committee last year, would have had 15 members, each elected from a district of equal population. BARC would have rolled the powers of ABAG, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD), and the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) into a single agency.

A hypothetical BARC would realize significant savings by eliminating redundancies, have the legitimacy of being controlled by an elected body, and improve interagency coordination. Rather than passing Plan Bay Area through a body of officials elected to local government then appointed to regional government, it would have been passed by a body of officials elected to regional government full-time.

In case you’re wondering, a one-county-one-vote BARC would be illegal if the county representatives were elected. The Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that electoral districts of special areas, like a BARC, must be of roughly equal population. The only way for us to get one-county-one-vote is through appointed boards, which how ABAG currently does things.

But one gets the feeling Kirsch and other activists in line with her would not be so enthusiastic about it. Rather than emphasize local control, a regional elected body would put the emphasis on the region instead. On top of that, Marin wouldn’t even get their own elected representative, given its small population. It would have to share one with Sonoma.

The push by Kirsch and others is really for local control and local democracy, not a regional democracy. If Plan Bay Area had been passed by a hypothetical BARC, I can only imagine they’d say they we’ve been outvoted by the rest of the region. Had it been put to a plebiscite, they’d likely say the same thing. After all, for residents of tiny Tam Valley it is their world. Why would they cede control to people in Gilroy and Fairfield who have probably never even heard of Tam Valley?

While I support BARC in theory, given the regionalist perspectives of the other counties, I fear that it would only further embitter isolationist Marin. And, while I support the idea of putting Plan Bay Area to a regional plebiscite in theory, I fear the losing side would not embrace the result as legitimate, whether it passed or not. On top of that, it wouldn’t really address Kirsch’s underlying concern: that Plan Bay Area is not good policy for Marin or anywhere.

The way forward in regional governance is one I’ve said before: for Marin to create its own subregion. It would be able to have direct control over its regional housing needs allocation (RHNA), focusing development into the towns or areas most willing and able to take it. It would take control out of the hands of the region and into the hands of Marin’s governments.

Putting more democracy into the system won’t help Marin find self-determination, nor will it help the region address the concerns Kirsch and others raise. Bringing affordable housing decisions to Marin, however, will at least get that part back into the hands of our own elected officials.

A version of this piece appeared in The Greater Marin.

Written by David Edmondson

David Edmondson

David is a native Marinite working in Washington, DC. He writes about how to apply smart-growth and urbanist thinking to the low-density towns of his home.

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