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Regional Governance Challenges and Opportunities—Part Three

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

By James Bourey
September 15, 2023

The first column of this three part series included a discussion of the challenges of regional organizations in this country. The second described the range of roles of such bodies. This final column in the series discusses various governance models and suggests the most effective. It covers the basis of authority, governing body structure, board make-up and sources of funding.

The authority for the creation and powers of regional organizations most often comes from state statutes. While this varies, states generally establish regions directly or enable them to be established by agreement between local governments. Many states stipulate the responsibilities of regional organizations and others leave more up to the members. It would appear that the weakest regional bodies are those in which the local government members establish the responsibilities because they are less likely to grant it powers which would supersede their authority. As covered in the last column, in rare instances, the federal government has become engaged in establishing the authority such as with the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.

While the structure of governing bodies varies, most organizations have a board made up of local city and county council members. Sometimes, the local jurisdictions are represented by the chief elected official, generally the mayor or board chair, and sometimes the councils appoint a member to serve. In less common instances, non-elected representatives serve on the regional governing board. This is the case for the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission (HRPDC) where the city managers have a seat on the board alongside of the mayor and, for the larger cities, one or more council members. By virtue of my position as the Newport News City Manager, I served on the board of HRPDC. From my perspective, it is far from ideal to have staff sit on the same decision making board as those that appoint them when they are making policy decisions that directly affect their cities. What is a staff person to do if their views on an issue differ from their boss? Do they vote for what they believe is correct or the way their boss would vote.

A challenge for regional boards made up of representation from their members is how to account for the different sizes of the member jurisdictions. If each member gets one vote regardless of the size of their jurisdiction, the populations of the larger cities will have less representation than those of the smaller cities. Some organizations attempt to overcome this by determining the number of representatives based on the size of the jurisdiction. However, it is almost never possible to gain equal representation for the jurisdictions due to size differences and also can lead to a large and unworkable board.

One way that governing bodies attempt to overcome this issue is to use a vote weighted by the size of the local city or county. Since most votes on issues are often unanimous, bodies who utilize a “weighted vote” generally do not do so on all issues but rather only when requested by one or more members. With computer technology this is relatively easy to administer but runs the risk of alienating members of smaller places who get outvoted based on their population. This can, at least to some degree, be avoided if all votes are automatically done with a weighted vote. This really can be done quite easily with today’s voting systems.

Some regional bodies such as the Metropolitan Council for the Minnesota Twin Cities’ region are appointed by the governor to represent districts in the region. While this does ensure equal representation from populations, it does take the local jurisdictions out of the decision-making process.

Dealing with the various sizes of local cities and counties which are members of the regional organizations also presents a challenge for funding. Generally, the amount of the membership dues are at least somewhat proportional to the size of the jurisdiction. This can also lead to issues as it is often that the large jurisdictions end up funding a very high percentage of the cost of the organization and they often do not feel they get similar proportional benefit. This issue can be ameliorated by additional funding such as transportation funding flowing from the federal government or other grants that the organization may achieve.

So, given all the challenges that were discussed in the first column and the governance challenges presented in this column, what is the best way for regions to be constituted and operate? I would advocate for national legislation that set a minimum threshold for the creation and operation of regional bodies. This would be helpful to deal with regions that cross state boundaries and deal with the reluctance of some states to grant reasonable authority to regional bodies. This legislation should designate a specific set of base level responsibilities for each regional organization. Some might chose to go beyond that base level. The responsibilities would be as recommended in the second column. It is time that the U.S. Congress steps up, as other nations’ legislators have done, to establish better regional governance.

Author: James Bourey served local government for 37 years, including as a city and county manager and regional council executive director. He also worked as a consultant to local government for another six years. He is the author of numerous professional articles as well as the books, A Journey of Challenge, Commitment and Reward; Tales of a City/County Manager and A Guidebook for City and County Managers: Meeting Today’s Challenges.

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