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A Bay Area Grand Bargain; A Model for Future Regional Governance?

Bill Dodge / Apr 06 2013

For Release Saturday, April 6, 2013

Bill DodgeNationally, the failure of Congress and White House to negotiate a grand bargain has undermined the federal government’s ability to invest in rebuilding the economy or the middle class. As a result, it lurches from fiscal crisis to crisis.

Similarly, in the Bay Area, the inability of local governments, along with state and federal governments and others, to govern together undermines the region’s ability to compete globally and thrive locally. As a result it risks falling behind other regions in providing quality services such as transit, resolving pressing challenges such as rising sea levels, and investing in underused assets such as struggling families and businesses in distressed neighborhoods.

Joint Venture Silicon Valley drew a similar conclusion in its recent State of the Region Report. Silicon Valley is adding jobs, but income growth is uneven, youth disengagement is growing and all are concerned about the region’s capacity to maintain its reputation globally. In an analysis for the report, Egon Terplan concluded that “weak or ineffective regional governance” undermines the Bay Area’s ability to address crosscutting challenges that threaten its economic competitiveness.

The Bay Area needs its own grand bargain to ensure that it has the governance capacity to provide quality services, resolve tough challenges and help everyone contribute to regional well-being.

Think of just about any of the Bay Area’s challenges. Maybe it’s the difficulty of commuting in an area with ever-more-congested highways but more than two dozen transit operators. Maybe it’s the problem of limited housing choices making it difficult to find a place to live near work.

Then ask: Where would you turn for help in understanding the challenge, in helping to address it, or in holding anyone accountable for resolving it?

In other regions, those answers may be easier. In Kansas City, the Mid-America Regional Council responds to those types of questions; in Portland, Ore., and Minneapolis-St. Paul, it’s their respective Metro governments.

Yes, those agencies are in smaller, less complex regions than the Bay Area. But worldwide, many major metropolises have strengthened their regional governance.

The Metropolis association, whose members are global cities with populations greater than 1 million, recently prepared a report, Metropolitan Regions, on regional governance in 72 regions, including the 28 most populated metropolises. More than half the metros surveyed have formal regional governments. Another one-sixth have the direct regional involvement of their national governments. These regions still have local governments, and their regional governments deal with political, environmental, financial, management and other obstacles similar to those found in the Bay Area.

Most of these global regions are better empowered than their U.S. counterparts to plan, implement and finance strategies to address tough challenges. Most important, all are accountable to higher levels of government; some also have directly elected leaders.

The remaining third of the regions surveyed, many of them in the U.S. and Europe, have either voluntary or mandated regional councils of governments/planning agencies/associations with regional planning responsibilities.

After over four decades in the regional trenches, I continue to be impressed with the commitment of regional councils to addressing tough challenges, and by state and federal initiatives to support them, such as to prepare regional transportation and sustainable communities plans.

Yet too often those regional councils are too weakly empowered to address the toughest challenges.

As one regional council director said, regional councils too often find themselves in a “pick-up game” of regional cooperation. They aren’t sure which players will show up, what equipment will be available or which rules will be followed. And regional councils are usually only one of many regional groups also playing “pick-up” regional cooperation against major league challenges.

Without empowering local governments and others to take common, cost-effective actions, our regions will be condemned to piecemeal solutions offering too little, too late, to compete globally with better empowered regions.

Unfortunately, current models seem to offer only extremes: either some form of a powerful regional government, or a plethora of somewhat voluntary mechanisms, coordinated to some degree by groups like the Joint Policy Committee in the Bay Area. If there is a middle ground, the Bay Area will need to invent it.

My suggestion: Focus the best regional minds on drafting a charter for governing the Bay Area. Do it now. Take control of determining the Bay Area’s fate. This will also provide a model for governance in other regions.

Local government charters are often prepared by citizens elected to charter commissions, submitted to voters and updated every few years. They define purposes, powers, structures, relationships and limitations, and provide local governments with the capacity to address the needs of their constituents.

Regional charters would be different, since no one organization could ever address all challenges. Successful regional charters should be prepared openly, with abundant citizen participation. They should call for a unifying vision for governing the region; negotiating compacts to shape regional growth; and establishing a governance network with power to explore issues, submit plans for public approval, finance actions, and hold everyone accountable.

All parts of a regional charter need not be put in place overnight. But all must be considered in preparing it. Continuing to address regional governance issue-by-issue, organization-by-organization will only add to today’s plethora of vaguely connected regional endeavors.

What if the Bay Area Charter provided the impetus for negotiating a grand bargain with state and federal governments? What if local governments and their partners in other sectors prepared a Bay Area Charter empowering them to work together and be accountable for their actions? In return, what if the Bay Area was empowered to enforce some state and federal regulations, such as for environmental protection, and once Bay Area voters approved the charter, received more flexible state and federal government funding?

The Bay Area will not be starting from scratch. There exists a strong base of regional governance capacity.

A Bay Area “grand bargain” – a Bay Area Charter (BAC) – could help achieve the region’s desired future. You could even say it’s going BAC to the future.

Bill Dodge writes the “Regional Excellence” column and is writing book on regional charters. He is former Executive director of the National Association of Regional Councils. Reach him at columns are not copyrighted and may be reproduced in print or electronically; please show authorship, credit and send an electronic copy of usage to