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Regional Governance Challenges and Opportunities—Part Two

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

By James Bourey
August 18, 2023

This is the second part of a three part series on regional governance. This column will focus on the potential and most appropriate roles for regional organizations in this country. There is a wide range of roles that regional bodies currently play, ranging from providing utility service to transportation planning and operation to land use planning and controls. Let’s begin with the most common roles and then proceed to the less frequent. This will include examples from a number of places in which I have worked as they offer a range of possible functions.

The Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG), the regional organization for the Phoenix Metropolitan Area, provides an excellent example of many of the typical roles of regional organizations. It serves as the designated Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) for the region, the body required by federal statute to provide transportation planning and make decisions for federal funding at the regional level. MPOs are responsible for developing and adopting long range plans and short range improvement programs for a region’s transportation system. Organizations that fulfill this responsibility can either be single purpose bodies or perform other functions as well. For instance, MAG is the designed MPO but also performs many other functions such as planning for such things as air quality and human services as well as environmental considerations. When I served as the Executive Director of MAG a number of years ago, I wore two hats, one as the Executive Director of the entire MAG organization and another as the MPO director. While MAG is not responsible for land use planning and controls, it does provide regional information important for local decision making and serves as a forum for regional discussions about growth.

The Hampton Roads area of southeastern Virginia offers examples of some additional regional roles. In part one of this series, I mentioned the Hampton Roads Sanitation District that provides regional wastewater treatment and collection. In addition, the Hampton Roads Economic Development Association, a public-private partnership serves as a special economic development body to coordinate economic development at a regional level. Since regions really operate as an economic entity, planning at that level certainly appears warranted. In addition to the MPO, many areas have transportation regional operating entities that are responsible for running transit systems such as Hampton Roads Transit. Some authorities also operate bridges and tunnels.

There are many examples of areas with agencies responsible for water supply, treatment and distribution. In many instances, the provider is a central city. This is the case in both Newport News. Virginia and Greenville, South Carolina, where I served as the city manager.

While there are many examples of the services described above, there are also additional agencies that offer possibilities for other regional roles. An excellent example is the Metropolitan Council (Met Council) which serves a seven county area including the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. This includes Hennepin County that I referenced in the first column. The Met Council provides transit services for the region as well as wastewater treatment and regional planning. It develops a regional plan and ensures that localities’ plans are consistent with its provisions. It also is responsible for the acquisition and development of a regional parks system as well as plays an active role in regional housing. The expansive roles of the Met Council makes it come the closest in this country to a regional government.

The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency is also a relatively unique body. It is a multi-state agency created by a Bi-State Compact (California and Nevada) which established powers to help control the growth and development around Lake Tahoe and assist in preserving the sensitive environment. It is a rare example of a regional agency with actual land development permitting responsibility. The area covers part of El Dorado County where I served as the Chief Administrative Officer.

The examples above outline a range of roles that some regional agencies play. So what roles are appropriate? An answer to this question should be guided by considering where true value can be created through a regional body. This would include instances where a regional organization  would provide a service more effectively and/or more efficiently. Efficiency would take into consideration economies of scale where a regional operation would be more cost effective. This would suggest that the planning and operation of water, wastewater and transportation systems on a regional level would be best. An exception would be for local roads which makes sense as a city or county responsibility. Stormwater management is also more appropriately handled at a local level as it is so tied into local permitting. A strong argument can be made that a framework for growth and development should be formulated at a regional level and consistency of local development with the framework required. While permitting for development is not something that would be likely or appropriate to be done at a regional level, the collection and analysis of information would be a valuable function.

The next column will discuss the enabling authority and governance structure for regional organizations.

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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