The Pogo Factor


The editorial of June 24 ("State of the City: the Suburbs' Stake") concerns the need for cooperation among the principal local governments in the Baltimore metropolitan area.

Clearly, cooperation is necessary, even vital, to the well-being of the entire region. Unfortunately, at least five important structural factors, as well as citizen attitudes and behaviors, make cooperation unlikely.

First, local governments possess constitutional and legal status, and as such are autonomous political entities. Regional bodies exist at the sufferance of local governments in their regions.

Second, local governments have broad responsibilities to provide services to their citizens. They uniformly choose not to give up those responsibilities to regional bodies, even when the issues involved are essentially regional in nature. Water and air pollution control are issues that should be addressed regionally, but are not because of local-government autonomy.

Third, local governments have the power to tax. No matter how important it might be to provide a public service on a regional basis, no regional body has or is likely to be granted the ability to generate revenues from taxes to pay for such a service.

Fourth, local governments possess geographic territory over which, within limits, they are sovereign. There is no regional territory as such, and no regional body lays claim to such territory.

Fifth, citizens are not directly represented on any regional body, although they are represented on a one-person, one-vote basis in their local governments.

In fact, no single organization exists that represents the interests of regions. The Baltimore Metropolitan Council, as necessary and important as it is, actually represents the interests of the mayor of Baltimore, the county executives and commissioners of Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Harford, Howard and Carroll Counties. This is hardly the same as representing the citizens or the interests of the region, because the first responsibility of these officials is and must be to represent the interests of their jurisdictions.

One additional factor I call the "Pogo factor," in tribute to that estimable swamp creature who said: "We have met the enemy and he is us."

For at least 50 years, Americans have voted with their feet to leave central cities and establish autonomous suburban communities. With rare exceptions, they have repeatedly voted against consolidations of governments in metropolitan areas and other regional solutions. Additionally, local voters make it clear to their elected officials that support for regional cooperation is politically perilous. More than one local elected official has told me that it is one thing to be in favor of regional solutions at meetings of regional bodies, and quite another to come home and try to sell regionalism to local voters who want to retain their autonomy.

As necessary as regional cooperation and governance may be to the well-being of this and other metropolitan areas, they are unlikely to occur without substantial changes in the structure of governments in metropolitan areas and in the attitudes and behaviors of metropolitan citizens.

Donald F. Norris is director of the Institute for Policy Analysis and Research at UMBC.

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