Go to Admin » Appearance » Widgets » and move Gabfire Widget: Social into that MastheadOverlay zone
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.
By Matthew Howell
April 21, 2015
A little over four years ago, I conducted a survey with the Kentucky League of Cities (KLC) of their member mayors. We asked them about their networking with other members and other mayors. KLC and mayors of the state’s largest cities after reading the report decided that they could facilitate more cooperation at the local level. In 2013, they created a group called Cities of the Second Class and started having quarterly get-togethers in the city of Elizabethtown. I was invited to observe and I attend about two meetings every year.
Since the initial meeting, the mayors have continued to convene and have successfully achieved one major change: The abolition of city classification in Kentucky. As a result, the group is now made up of Home Rule Cities Over 20K Residents –which includes Elizabethtown.
This informal group is a fascinating case of cooperation among local governments. For the next four quarters, I will be using this column to talk about what the group is, how it works and what it achieves so that others can think about how to create or adopt similar systems. In this quarter’s column, I will talk about the structure of the organization and what the members do.
Kentucky has several intergovernmental organizations. In addition to KLC, there are associations for city managers, county officials, local officials and the Jefferson County Metropolitan Government that includes Louisville and the surrounding county. Yet, when I surveyed Kentucky officials, they were highly insular.
This is not surprising for local governments, which Agranoff and McGuire have shown are commonly opposed to collaboration. Among the Metro government in Jefferson County, there were few connections outside a clique of major suburban governments centered in Lyndon. In conversations with these officials, everyone recognized there is significant social distance between the two major cities and the other large cities. While the local officials could come together for conventions and meet with their neighbors through area development districts, these mayors felt that they had special problems that could not be addressed in large, open settings.
Thus, the nine second class mayors started meeting. They were supported by KLC, but the organization is not a formal one. There is no charter and no budget. It is just a group of mayors getting together at a police station to talk.
They have an agenda, but they do not always stick to it. If a mayor has a problem, he or she will bring it up. The other mayors might be able to brainstorm a solution or they can talk to their friends or KLC and have a solution at the next meeting. Members come and go. The gathering is a conversation among equals, not a business meeting. The conversation is thus somewhat less guarded –every mayor feels the need to complain about something happening in the state or community and needs a sympathetic ear –and encourages officials to work with each other to solve problems. Even when the discussion gets technical –such as conversations about pension spiking, tax reform or water quality–the mayors kept the conversation practical and informal, asking many questions and comparing experiences in their different cities. Because they have similar issues and similar structures they were quite up front about specific problem cases they had and how they solved them.
While the mayors are all equals sitting around a table sharing their experiences, the group would not exist without the work of the mayor of Henderson. He was the one who found the meeting place, invited the initial members and extended invitations to the later members, coordinated with KLC and invited me. He keeps the time during the meetings and makes sure everyone has the opportunity to talk. He acts as the chair during the discussion, but rarely does he need to call on people. The conversations are free-flowing. However, without his initial work, the group never would have met, even with KLC’s prodding.
While formal organizations are valuable, this informal and voluntary group demonstrates additional choices for local cooperation are available. The choice of members, who are similarly situated although not geographically close, helps maintain a sense of equality. The small and informal setting encourages conversation and discussion. The sympathetic reception from people with similar problems encourages solutions, not just talk.
However that informal system is supported by outside organizations, mainly KLC, and relies on the leadership of a single particular champion within the group. When these characteristics are mixed together, the result is an organization that provides technical support for member cities, direction for their lobbying of the state government and a forum for discussion of local government. Next quarter, I discuss the effectiveness of the Home Rule Cities Group.
Author: Matthew L. Howell is an assistant professor of government at Eastern Kentucky University, in Richmond, Kentucky. 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].