Revolt Against Regionalism

'Smart growth' starts to chafe in Wisconsin.


A revolt may be brewing in Wisconsin. In 1999, the state passed a bill requiring all its local governments to develop "comprehensive land-use plans" by the year 2010. Now there's a movement, at the grassroots and in the state legislature, to revise or repeal the law. Part of the objection is financial: Developing such plans can be costly. And part of the objection goes to deeper concerns about property rights and local self-government. "When this is all in place and [county and town plans] do not match up," one legislator told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, "somebody's going to have to change their plan. Towns' plans may be altered to fit everyone else's plan."

The law's defenders retort that that's not so. But you can't blame the rebels for being worried. Wisconsin is not the only state to require such "comprehensive" planning. From Oregon to Maryland, the process has come with an agenda attached: to channel growth toward the cities, generally by limiting property rights and local self-government in the suburbs.

The second element—the limits on self-government—puts the advocates of "smart growth" in a longer tradition, one much older than sprawl or the concerns it's spawned.

A century ago, in the Progressive Era, a similar movement swept through American cities. Urban government, the reformers declared, was disorderly and corrupt, a graft-ridden playground for political machines. It's hard to dispute the diagnosis, somewhat easier to object to the cure. Cities, they said, needed professional management, a corps of expert civil servants uncorrupted by political influence. That way, in the words of the Dayton industrialist John Patterson, "municipal affairs would be placed on a strict business basis," run "not by partisans, either Republican or Democratic, but by men who are skilled in business management and social science."

In different cities that meant different things; typically, it meant wiping out the old system of councilors elected by ward and installing instead a commission government. This idea first took hold in Galveston, Texas, in response not to graft but to the devastating hurricane of 1900. The old regime seemed ill-equipped to deal with the town's needs after the disaster, especially when civic leaders decided to shield the city from future storms by constructing a seawall. This required raising the grade of the town, sometimes by as much as 17 feet. The Deepwater Committee, a business group, took on the task and took over the city; when the emergency passed, they devised a new form of government. For a model, they looked to another central institution of the Progressive Era: the corporation. Galveston would be managed by five commissioners. Each would run his own city department, acting as both executive and legislator.

The new system soon spread to other cities. An important modification came in 1912, when Sumter, South Carolina, adopted the commission-manager plan, an idea first considered in Lockport, New York, two years before. Under this regime, the commission continued to legislate but another figure, the city manager, took on all administrative functions. The manager was appointed, not elected, shielding him yet further from the corrupting influence of the mob.

The effect, naturally, was not to end corruption but to concentrate it. Under the old system, graft was diffuse; its favors flowed downward, to neighborhoods and wards. The beneficiaries were often immigrants: ethnic, often Catholic, and not exactly loved among the Progressive intelligentsia. Ironically, that system had been devised by the last wave of centralizers. A century earlier, many cities—even New York and Boston—had been governed largely by town meetings. Direct democracy decayed as immigrants arrived; representative government, the reformers reasoned, would protect the system from undue influence by grubby, working-class foreigners. They didn't dream that the immigrants would launch political machines and turn the new system to their advantage.

Under the commission system, old patronage networks disappeared—and new bureaucratic empires emerged instead. Neighborhood businesses lost their tickets to the treasury; downtown businesses took their place. Nor was the shift limited to cities with commission governments. Seattle, for example, kept its city council but transformed it completely. Before 1910, 18 councilors governed the city, most of them elected from districts or wards. After 1910, the council consisted of just nine members, all of them elected at-large. The effect, again, was to professionalize government and to disenfranchise neighborhoods.

What does this have to do with smart growth and intergovernmental cooperation? Consider the parallels. One more, a reform movement hopes to transform America's cities. Once more, it prefers professional expertise to both democratic input and market discipline. Once more, it favors an intense centralization of power. The regionalist reformers speak in buzzwords no one used a century ago: "smart growth," "sustainable development," "regional governance," "metropolitics," "citistates." But they are the heirs to the old Progressives.

The biggest difference is the municipal environment they face. In the years after the Second World War, the nation suburbanized; and as the suburbs grew, more of them incorporated, forming rings around cities once surrounded by farmland. The result was a thick net of competing jurisdictions, a nightmare for those who believe urban growth should be carefully planned. Cities, counties, townships, and special districts duplicate services, compete for tax dollars, and make orderly growth impossible, the regionalists argue; the result, they charge, is stagnation and sprawl.

The classic way to unite competing jurisdictions is for the biggest to annex its neighbors. This tends to be popular with city officials, who like to expand their tax base, and unpopular with rural and suburban annexees, for much the same reason. It is common for a city to grab an unincorporated community, hit it with new taxes, and then be slow delivering services to the junior part of town.

For the regionalists, annexation is an imperfect solution at best. On the plus side, it brings those pesky microgovernments under control. (One of the bibles of the movement is Cities without Suburbs, by former Albuquerque mayor David Rusk. It's a paean to those cities that have systematically annexed new growth areas or merged with the counties that surround them.) On the other hand, it also concentrates power in the central cities, and that isn't necessarily what the regionalists want. To quote the columnist Neal Peirce, primary author of the much-cited study Citistates, "center cities often remain stubbornly sovereign, acting as if sophisticated and capable suburban governments had not grown up all about them."

What's more, annexation produces political conflict, drawing out the very divisions the reformers want to erase. The same is true of consolidation, typified by city-county mergers, an idea the feds tried and mostly failed to advance back in the 1960s. "Say 'region,'" Camille Cates Barnett writes in Governing magazine, "and many hear the politically charged term 'metropolitan government.' That's why efforts to think bigger must not begin by consolidating and abolishing governments. That does not work; all of the energy is spent in turf wars, and nothing gets done."

The alternative is cooperation—as the planners like to say, "governance, not government." If jurisdictions won't immolate themselves, they still might give up authority over tasks best handled regionally. This is an easier sell than consolidation, not least because it makes sense. It sounds like a reasonable federalist formula: separate towns that collaborate when it's appropriate, but maintain the rights to rule themselves and to withdraw from the agreements they're making now. The best of both worlds, right?

Not necessarily. It's already common for one local government to contract with another for one particular service. And of course, as cities privatize services, it's a simple matter for a company to pick up trash or put out fires in more than one town. In theory, regionalists should support this sort of cooperation. In practice, it's exactly the sort of mess they can't stand. The result, after all, is an even more complex jurisdictional web. Thus, while Peirce is impressed with such spontaneous arrangements, he also writes that such "informal consultations" must give way to "such tangible regional steps as tax-base sharing, cross-border school enrollment, or formation of a work force preparedness plan."

So the cooperation the reformers espouse usually takes a top-down form, with state or federal authorities bribing or forcing the locals to create new, higher levels of government. This often degenerates into de facto consolidation—and a shadowy, unaccountable kind of consolidation at that. Recall that Barnett didn't say not to consolidate or abolish local governments. She said one must not begin by doing so. Once people are acclimated to regional cooperation, she notes, "State laws would begin to change, facilitating combinations of jurisdictions, re-sorting of responsibilities among jurisdictions, and tax-base sharing."

Which brings us back to Wisconsin. To receive certain sorts of state funding, local governments must adopt a 20-year plan, covering transportation, housing, utilities, natural resources, economic development, land use, and intergovernmental cooperation. The plans are supposed to be generated locally, but the goals are already laid out in the law. The first is "Promotion of redevelopment of land with existing infrastructure and public services, and maintenance and rehabilitation of existing residential, commercial and industrial structures." (In other words, it's better to redevelop existing settlements than to launch new developments.) Another is "Encouragement of land uses, densities and regulations that promote efficient development patterns and low costs." (This is aimed at "leapfrog" development, supposedly one of the worst elements of sprawl.) Then there's "Balancing individual property rights with community interests and goals." (This is the sort of language that's got property owners worried.) And yes, there's "Encouragement of cooperation and coordination among nearby units of government."

Wisconsin isn't likely to repeal the law, though it may make some minor modifications aimed at easing the planning expenses for rural counties that aren't likely to see much growth. Alternately, it might alleviate those concerns with the more regionalist approach enacted in Waukesha County and now being considered in Ozaukee County: A state planning commission will devise a plan for the county, whose municipalities will then "localize" it without hiring planning consultants of their own.

And if the state does reverse itself, that won't be the end of the issue. While lawmakers in Madison reconsider the law their predecessors passed, the fiscal control board that now runs Buffalo, New York, is mulling whether it can restore its former glory with "a collaborative form of regional government," created through annexation or city-county consolidation. Some ideas never die: They just reemerge elsewhere, unscathed.