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The Social Side of Cooperation

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Matthew L. Howell
October 20, 2015

The October meeting of the Home Rule cities was postponed until December 2015. Instead, this column will discuss why a group like this is so important to facilitating cooperation. I rely on my research, surveys and discussions with mayors involved in this group and across the state. Previous installments dealt with the organization of such a group and its impact on public administration.

A Matter of Autonomy

Elected officials are often insular people. In particular, mayors worry about the loss of their city’s autonomy and control. In trying to abolish the city classifications in Kentucky, an important consideration was holding harmless the rural and small communities of the state.

One of the mayors surveyed in 2011 recalled the 2003 formation of the Louisville/Jefferson County Metro Government. At the time, he thought it was a stalking horse for eventual annexation but the cities and communities were promised their continued autonomy. Even in 2015, a state legislator from Louisville noted the hostility the suburbs had toward minimal projects, like putting up a sound barrier along I-64, unless they were involved in the process. Small cities are the most concerned but even midsized cities worry about being overshadowed by the behemoths of the Commonwealth: Louisville and Lexington. Somehow, though, these local officials are able to work together. Meeting in person is a big reason.

800px-Jefferson_County_KY_Courthouse_2 - howell

Courthouse in Jefferson County, Kentucky

Consider the story of the sound barrier along I-64 (and, for that matter, similar stories about a new exit in Jefferson County). The mayors were angry at the state coming into their jurisdictions and starting construction without informing them. However, once the state asked for their input, they came around remarkably quickly. At first, the legislator relating the story thought it was general hostility to big government (one of the officials was a Tea Party member). However, the Tea Partier was the first to come around once the cities were involved. He liked the project and he would serve to bring around the others. Bringing everyone together to talk built trust among the participants and they then approved the project.

A Focus for Trust

Contrary though it seems, trying to get local officials to put aside their distrust makes them more distrustful. Why would the state (or another city) want to override local autonomy unless they believed it was necessary?  If the state feels it must force a city to accept an offer, then the city probably would rather not accept.

William Fischel argued in The Homevoter Hypothesis that local residents keep a close eye on their elected officials in order to protect their most valuable asset: their home. They are risk averse about anything that would damage their property value. Their officials understand this risk aversion. However, both officials and residents are willing to take on risky policies–such as a landfill–as long as they are compensated for the risk. Fischel suggests home value insurance, for example, to defuse NIMBYism. Forcing a policy through just makes home voters more nervous. The same is true of local officials. Forcing through a policy makes them nervous and they revert to their constituents’ NIMBYism.

Given the opportunity to say no and have real input in the process, they get interested. If they have their fate in their own hands, as in the case of the sound barrier, they are quite happy to work with another government.

Why a Meeting?

What a meeting like the Home Rule Cities Group provides is a forum for having that input. The meeting is a group of equals where no one will force anything on the others. When they decided to attempt a specific policy–whether abolishing city categorization or pension reforms–it is not a fait accompli, but rather a decision everyone makes together. Those who want out have an easy way to do so. Those who want to argue against the effort, as, in fact, one did in the initial decision to take on city categories, have that opportunity.

More than the forum, the meeting provides a place to routinely meet and socialize. Lunch is always provided and officials from different cities will take the time to go talk to each other while they eat. They talk politics and policy, or sports and weather. They develop trust on top of their autonomy. They are then willing to work together because they have no fear of being taken over or harmed. They can work together without being constantly on guard. The meeting is a social focus that strengthens their relations and builds social capital for the officials.

Conclusion

All the reasons, from efficiency to coordination, for local cooperation are well-known. In order to get those benefits, officials must have trust. In building cooperation, we should remember the social side of building trust and not force cooperation. Instead, we should let it develop through organizations like 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 [email protected].

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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