Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A different path toward regional decisionmaking?

A recent article by Alan Ehrenhalt, editor of Governing magazine, suggests an interesting approach to bring metro areas closer to the elusive dream of regional government. The piece may be particularly provocative for those areas that have dabbled with the notion of regional government but appear to have little hope of achieving it - places like metropolitan Milwaukee.

Ehrenhalt starts his piece by discussing Buffalo, where city and county governments have failed to develop new business models despite a declining population and new and different economic challenges. He asserts that "both the city and county need a thorough bureaucratic housecleaning that would save money and make the whole region more competitive in attracting the new business it badly needs".

Ehrenhalt describes the failed effort of a former Erie County executive to solve the problem by creating "a regional government that would eliminate all the duplication and phantom agencies and place the area on a sound fiscal footing for the first time in a generation". He also cites the dozens of other metro areas that "have been engaging in the same debate for years, understanding at some level that cities and suburbs have to function together as regions, but unable or unwilling to make the sacrifices that could help bring it about".

Acknowledging that this parochialism likely will persist and preclude a shift to regional government in most metro areas, Ehrenhalt instead proposes to vest more power with the one regional governmental entity that currently exists: the metropolitan planning organization (MPO). He argues that if the federal government "figured out a better way to use these entities," metro areas could reap more of the benefits of regional planning and decision-making without having to motivate dozens of municipal governments to disband. Among other things, MPOs could directly receive and distribute transportation and economic development dollars from the feds, thus bypassing state and local governments and allocating those dollars based on regional planning and strategies.

Would such an approach be tenable and beneficial to southeastern Wisconsin? Clearly, there would be obstacles, not the least of which would be addressing the concerns that already have been voiced by City of Milwaukee officials, among others, regarding inequitable urban representation on our MPO, the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC).

Ehrenhalt notes that the one-county, one-vote approach currently employed by SEWRPC and many other MPOs, as opposed to proportional representation by population, likely would be challenged in court if real regional decision-making power were granted to the MPO. This suggests that a change in representation might be a prerequisite to implementing such an approach in southeastern Wisconsin, which of course would engender its own political controversy.

But putting aside the legitimate issue of composition, could a SEWRPC that was the direct recipient of federal dollars and that was empowered to enforce its regional land use and transportation plans inch us closer to a regional approach to governing that would make us more cohesive and competitive? The answer largely depends on whether one believes that our existing government structure is ineffective and outdated, and that the collective needs of the region should trump the desires of existing municipal and county units of government.

That being said, perhaps we learned an important lesson recently that giving more decision-making authority to SEWRPC at least could enhance cooperation. After weeks of disagreeing over the proper allocation of $38.7 million in federal stimulus money for area road projects, a SEWRPC advisory committee (whose composition is proportionally based on population) accepted a compromise brokered by SEWRPC staff. The final vote reflected support by both Milwaukee and suburban representatives.

Yes, it was messy and time consuming, but at least a difficult regional issue eventually was resolved in a manner that neither side found objectionable. For that matter, SEWRPC has been distributing various state-allocated transportation funding streams for years with little controversy. And in today's political environment, how often does that happen?

1 comment:

Tom Christoffel said...

Hello -
Google’s Blog alert sent me to this post because of the term “regional.” This should be useful to subscribers of Regional Community Development News, so I will include a link to it in the May 27 issue. The newsletter will be found at http://regional-communities.blogspot.com/ Please visit, check the tools and consider a link. Tom