Durable Growth, Government

Is it time for regional government?

Housing in Goose Hollow District of Portland

Housing in Goose Hollow District of Portland

Events might be leading the Bay Area to a fundamental change in our pattern of governance.  I think it’d be a good change although, as on most topics, I remain willing to consider counter-arguments.

Let me begin the discussion with a hypothetical question.  Imagine a large business with operations in many regions.  Within its domain is one particular region where it produces several highly profitable products.

To earn that profit, there are three departments in the region, sales, manufacturing, and shipping, which must work well together.  Each department is organized with a staff overseen by a department manager.

Here’s the question.  To whom should the three department managers report?  Should there be a regional director to oversee interdepartmental coordination first hand?  Or should the departments report to a vice president in the corporate office who would be at a distance and would have more departments in other regions to also oversee?

Perhaps I’ve presented the question with a too obvious slant, but I expect it’s apparent to most that a regional director would be the better solution.  If effective integration is essential to an operation, the person responsible for that integration should be in a position to closely oversee the integration, which almost always means daily eye-contact.  Most readers who have worked for larger corporations have likely experienced this structure as the standard organizational approach.

(I once worked for a corporation that tried the other approach, with each group within an office reporting to group directors in the corporate office.  It wasn’t effective.  Along with most other offices, the office where I worked gave lip service to the corporate dictate, but resumed coordination within the office long before the corporate office gave up the experiment.)

Now, here’s the unfortunate fact.  What is a commonsense organizational structure throughout the business world isn’t followed at a crucial level of government.

Within a region, cities and counties are the equivalent of departments.  The roles of the local governmental units may not be as clear-cut as sales, manufacturing, and shipping, but each city and county is unique, providing a distinctive blend of residential, agricultural, manufacturing, professional, creative, and tourism roles without which the region would be diminished.

And yet much of the coordination between the local governments is overseen not at the local level, but at Sacramento, where the governor and legislature must worry not only about the Bay Area, but also San Diego, Los Angeles, Fresno, and a multitude of other regions and districts.

Regional government isn’t an unknown concept in the U.S.  Portland is often cited as the gold standard, with the only elected regional government in the country.  Minneapolis –St. Paul is often noted as rivaling Portland for regional coordination and Unigov in Indianapolis has also had successes.

But the origins of those regional governments trace back several decades.  With the exception of some rumblings in Cleveland, creation of new regional governments doesn’t have any current momentum.  As a former head of Portland Metro was quoted in CityLab on Portland and Minneapolis-St. Paul, “How is it that you can have these two models who apparently sit atop two very successful metropolitan regions, where costs have been managed more efficiently than other places, where they’ve gotten their regional act together – why doesn’t that spread?  Why isn’t it imitated?”

To be clear, it’s not that the Bay Area is without regional coordination.  There are a number of organizations that fill a coordination role, starting with MTC (Metropolitan Transportation Commission) and ABAG (Association of Bay Area Governments).  But their roles are more related to setting regional strategies and serving as conduits for state and national funds than as a true level of government.  To the extent that they have authority, it comes from the control of purse strings.

But there are rumblings of change.  MTC’s Bay Area 2040 plan, now getting underway, will again focus attention on the correct role for regional planning.

Also, using their role as a principal funder of ABAG, MTC is conducting a study into the merger or “functional consolidation” of the two agencies, a possible step toward regional government.  Although MTC is aggressively promoting the idea as good for the region, some journalists are questioning the process and the underlying motives.

Within the North Bay, the Press Democrat considers regional government worth possible study, but remains concerned that the North Bay would be trampled under a regional government.

I share the concerns of the Press Democrat, but lean more strongly toward a regional government.  I lived for many years in Oregon and watched as Portland made progress as a region.  They didn’t reach perfection, no place ever does, but they made better progress than they would have without the regional focus.

Alert readers may see hints of contradictions in my intended support for official regional problem-solving.

For one, I’ve always argued for the primacy of cities as the level of government from which economic productivity flows.  However, regional government would put another level of government above cities.  I see the conflict, but will argue that it’s the only possible response to the growth of suburbia.

San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose are the beating hearts of the region and set the stage for much of the economic activity.  It’s hard to conceive Silicon Valley or the Wine Country having the worldwide impact they do without the biggest cities having established the regional framework.

But the other cities and counties also play roles.  If San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose are the triple beating hearts, then San Rafael, Santa Rosa, and Healdsburg are other essential organs.  (This is an analogy that I’d best not carry too far.)  In the absence of strong regional coordination, the flow of oxygen and nutrients isn’t as effective as it should be.

So regional government wouldn’t be about suppressing the biggest cities, but about adjusting the region to allow the biggest cities to excel at what they do best.

Also, barely more than a year ago, I argued that Petaluma Transit shouldn’t be folded into a regional transit provider.  (Acknowledgment: I chair the advisory committee for Petaluma Transit.)  My grounds were that Petaluma Transit was better positioned to respond to the local demands on transit, such as adjusting bus schedules to better accommodate the final bell at local high schools or modifying routes to serve newly opened senior communities.

I still believe that argument, while also seeing the value in more regional government.  It’s the eternal challenge to government of how to provide a friendly, helpful attitude toward local problems while also claiming the efficiencies of bigger operations and coordinated strategies.  But the fact that it’s a hard balance to find doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t keep trying.  And any attempt at regional government must decide which functions should be regionalized and which should stay local.

So, I favor regional government, at least until someone convinces me otherwise.  But I’m eager to hear other perspectives.  Feel free to join the debate.

When I next write, it will be to provide a schedule of upcoming meetings and other involvement opportunities at which urbanist thinking can be advanced and urbanist voices can add to the conversation.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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