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Time for New Charters: The Regional Future of Local Government

Bill Dodge / Jun 19 2010

For Release Sunday, June 20, 2010

Bill DodgeLocal governments have strengthened their capacities multifold during my professional life. I recall vividly working with some that once keep financial records by hand, depended on snail mail for communications, and only responded to their neighbors under court order. Conversely, 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.

Yet in spite of this increased competency, individual local governments have been losing the ability to address many of their toughest challenges — the ones that cut across jurisdictional boundaries — 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.

Crosscutting challenges are not new. Some were predetermined by our natural environment. For example, 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. 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. Neighboring local governments realized that they needed to negotiate watershed plans to assure adequate and potable drinking water. Ditto for airshed plans to breathe clean air.

Similarly, the natural environment often shapes the path of physical 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 and pull in the reigns of escalating infrastructure costs.

Yet while local governments are learning to respond cooperatively to some tough environmental challenges, they still act as if they can divide up one of its most important living organisms — human settlements.

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 — all tied together by the sinews of transportation, the arteries of commerce, and the protoplasm of community.

Yet over the last century, human settlements have been divided up by dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of local governments, especially the more urban ones.

Now enter the era of limited resources. Local governments have hit financial ceilings, limiting their responses, to any tough challenge. They have reached the limit of their capacity to sustain their services, maintain their facilities, and finance employee health care and retirement.

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.

All is not hopeless. Local governments have come together in ad hoc and ongoing ways to address their 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, arts, cultural, and library facilities. They have developed regional agendas to pursue state and federal government funds. They have developed common plans to safeguard their citizens in natural and terrorist disasters.

Yet all of that has usually been 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, for example, 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. Yet many 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 the agreements there do not encompass their entire human settlements.

A regional charter worth its salt would require redrawing the boundaries of many regional councils of governments, recasting them as regional charter councils with adequate staff and resources to address the tough challenges. Regional charter councils 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.

Regional charters would transform local governments. Elected officials would have to learn to negotiate carefully with their neighbors. Staffs skilled in network management, administering collaboratively what it cannot do alone, would be required.

Most importantly, regional charters will require the public to become practicing regional citizens.

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.

How can we start building regional capacity? Gather existing regional citizens 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. Plan sewer and transit facilities jointly. Establish a regional organization, possibly called the Regional CitizenShip, to educate the public on how to practice being a regional citizen. Test the regional charter by negotiating a compact to shape future regional growth. And challenge both the state and federal governments to provide priority funding for regional initiatives.

Regional charters 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, they might help our grandchildren be proud of their local governments!

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 columns are not copyrighted and may be reproduced in print or electronically; please show authorship, credit and send an electronic copy of usage to


  1. Posted June 20, 2010 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    See — an opened regional government that with elastic authority that has been operational for over 2 decades, handled hundreds of millions of dollars, has 100 municipal governments as members with a total of 150,000 population in sparesely populated state of 75,000 square miles. Has worked like a charm.

  2. Marty Rosen
    Posted June 21, 2010 at 7:56 am | Permalink

    Why don’t we just encourage and/or enable county governments to have a larger regional planning and coordination responsibilities? Granted, political boundaries don’t always coincide with resource sheds (e.g., watershed) but counties are existing entities that already serve some coordination/oversight functions — why don’t we build on what we have rather than constructing new organizations and generating new costs?

  3. Posted June 21, 2010 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    I would start with America2050 ( An impressive group of foundations took the steps to document national urbanization as ten (potentially sixteen) mega-regions but they have yet to publish data on the hottest of all hot buttons – governance. (therin lies a tale). Perhaps you can nudge them along. Nevertheless, the mega-region images and data produced of northeast mega region are highly instructive in my work.

    An exquisite view of the New York, New Jersey and Connecticut region was established in 1922 when the Regional Planning Association published the first regional plan in 1929, just prior to the advent of the Great Depression. (sound familiar?) RPA has a very deep archive, it has survived as a nonprofit agency, and given its longevity, it will emerge from its first century as a brilliant critic of the status quo and a strong advocate for regional planning. It has the satisfaction of being right or self-correcting with great speed. Perhaps telling, its most recent regional plan is entitled, “Region at Risk”, but when read closely it also says the dense urban centers of the region are not at risk.

    You also seem to be in a very holistic frame of mind. I recommend reading Janice Benyus. She is the top observer of the natural world, but unlike those who rile against the assault of the human settlement; her summary of the natural world’s purpose with human life is as exacting as it is promising. The natural world runs on sunlight, uses the energy it needs and no more; it fits form to function; recycles everything; rewards cooperation; banks on diversity; demands local expertise; curbs excesses from within; and taps the power of limits. Her book “Biomimicry” describes each all in detail.

  4. Beth Humstone
    Posted June 21, 2010 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    On a very small scale and in a rural setting, 3 small Vermont towns came together about 30 years ago to form an intermunicipal planning district – under the same authority that school districts are formed. Still operating today as the Mad River Valley Planning District, these three communities share planning staff and coordinate on matters such as land use planning, major development impact review, affordable housing, transportation and land conservation. A good model for rural areas.