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By Matthew Howell
February 19, 2016
Previously in this series, I have described the organization of a cooperative group of mayors, described how they influence policy and explained why such a group is necessary to facilitating cooperation. The question I turn to in this concluding column is whether it is possible to extend these lessons beyond the limits of the self-described group.
The Dark Side of Networks
As previously discussed, a key part of what made the group of mayors work is commonality. All of the members were mayors of second-class cities (and later home rule cities with more than 20,000 residents). In addition, the organization is informal, which allows the mayors to socialize and get to know each other while adding their input. This built trust among the mayors and made them a more effective force for advocating their needs. It also means that, even though the participants are good politicians with open minds and the desire to do good work for the state, they are insiders for the group. As O’Toole and Meier argued in 2004, the creation of a network to make policy decisions is a political act that will dictate, in part, the direction of the policy.
During a recent meeting, the mayors discussed with state legislators the method by which infrastructure funding is divided among the jurisdictions of the state, with the mayors complaining that rural districts and the largest urban districts were receiving more than their fair share. They had a point. Politics in Kentucky has often been predicated on the urban-rural divide between Louisville and Lexington and the far east and west of the state. This has squeezed out the mid-sized cities, even though a plurality of the state lives in the mid-sized towns. However, if the mayors of Louisville, Lexington or many of the small towns and rural areas were to attend the meeting, they would surely have counter arguments about the wealth and poverty of the state.
For this discussion, who is right is not important. What matters is that no one will get their way without cooperation between the groups. None of them controls an outright majority. Even if one did, allowing a slim majority to impose its will on the minority—urban, rural or in between—goes against the point of a pluralist democracy, modern polarization notwithstanding.
Cooperating with the Outsiders
Directly expanding the group would be counterproductive. The features that make the home rule cities group successful are the same features that allow it to defeat the insularity of the local governments. It would also make the group too large to remain informal and likely reduce trust between members, as it would bring into the discussion their chief competitors, even if that distrust of the major cities declines over time.
One possibility is for the other factions of the state to organize themselves and then have the different organizations talk to each other. Elinor Ostrom found this solution. To some extent, Kentucky League of Cities (KLC) already facilitates this for the largest cities. Lexington and Louisville are large enough to be their own actors. But KLC acts as an umbrella, allowing them to discuss matters with the mid-sized cities, whose organization allows them to reduce their fragmentation and talk with the big guys more equally. In my discussions with KLC’s analysts, they would happily do the same for the small towns if those towns desired it.
Rural voters living in the unincorporated counties are outside that umbrella. For those residents, the equivalent to KLC is the Kentucky Association of Counties (KACo). But KACo is a formal organization that must meet the needs of both the large urban counties and the small rural ones. Despite this, a review of their minutes and reports indicates they care about the same issues and even feel the same way about some of them. KACo can provide some outside views, but it does not provide the kind of informal bonding and trust that the mayors group provides.
The mayors group occupies a special organizational niche that is hard to expand, but it is still important to avoid falling into pure groupthink. The association with KLC and their openness to outside observers, and the need to convince the legislature along with KACo, KLC and the mayors of the larger cities, are good steps in that direction.
Local government cooperation is an important part of American pluralism. It gives voice to the people, gives them control of their government, builds trust and helps diffuse ideas across America. Organizing that cooperation is hard, but doable, and Kentucky provides part of a model. It is, however, only part of serving residents best.
Author: Matthew L. Howell is an assistant professor of government at Eastern Kentucky University, in Richmond, Ky. He holds a doctorate in public administration from the Martin School of Public Policy and Administration at the University of Kentucky. He specializes in state and local government, public policy and social networks. He can be reached at EKU by email at [email protected].