Save Local Governments:  Charter Your Region

Back to Fall 2022: Volume 111, Number 3

By William R. Dodge

Since the founding of our republic, turning to the governments closest to citizens has been the preferred way to address new challenges. Until the turn of the century, this strategy most often called on individual local governments—the municipality or county in which one resided—to prepare plans and lobby state and national governments to provide the special powers and sometimes largesse to implement them, successfully.

Moreover, most of our newer and tougher challenges, such as providing enough housing for citizens of limited wealth, becoming carbon neutral enough to save the planet, and shaping future growth enough to be affordable, cannot be addressed unless local government jurisdictions (new and old, rich and poor, clean and polluted) and community sectors (public, private, nonprofit, faith-based and civic) can agree to participate in resolving them, cooperatively, regionwide.

There are roughly 600 regions, nationally, compared to about 40,000 local governments and an equal number of special water, transit, and other authorities. They vary in size from neighboring  groups of more rural human settlements that one can drive across in a couple of hours to metropolitan conglomerations of cities and counties that take from dawn to dusk to traverse.  These extremes describe my two regional homes, Southwestern Colorado and Greater Los Angeles.

Regions are organic and keep expanding, sometime explosively, into green fields outside of existing jurisdictional boundaries. They stay connected, however, by a sense of common regional community, resulting from reading the same news­papers, attending the same festivals, following the same sports teams, sharing the same roads and transit systems, and recreating in the same natural assets.

Most importantly, regions are big enough to provide the tools critical to having a competitive “stall” in the “global farmer’s market” (labor, capital, training, etc.) and the amenities desired for quality of life (housing, shopping, serving others, etc.). Yet, regions are still small enough to bring all interests together to address the thorniest common challenges.

Regional Charters offer the opportunity to play “championship” regional governance to address these emerging challenges. My new book, also called Regional Charters, guides you and your fellow regional citizens, with the assistance of seasoned regionalists, to work with elected officials and other leaders and breathe life into a Regional Charter. Such a charter would enable your region to work together, cooperatively, at least as well as the charters for your local governments and other community organizations empower them to work, independently. (A regional citizen is anyone who declares that regions are one of their citizenships and practices regional cooperation. Regionalists are the more-trained professional planners, administrators, and organizers.)

Regional Charters are needed to ensure that all views and experiences are heard across all sectors to make regions work and guarantee that challenges are being resolved together at the same charter-empowered tables. Regional Charters will not guarantee interjurisdictional equity nor renewable growth but will provide the governance capacity to practice it, as well as collaborate with other levels of governance—from neighborhood to global.

Charters are already ubiquitous. They provide the authority for public, as well as private, non-profit, academic, labor, and even civic organizations to exist. Charters specify their purposes, powers, structures, relationships, and limitations and guide their operations. Charters provide their organizations with the capacity to address the challenges facing their constituents and to deliver the services they need or desire.

Regional Charters will institutionalize the governance capacity to address the toughest common challenges without creating new regional governments that would threaten existing local governments and other community interests. Such governments have already been created in many of the larger and some smaller regions, globally. And, finally, they need to be prepared by regional citizens, probably in some type of charter commission, and approved by regional voters, as well as supported by state and national governments.

Regional Charters will be different from other charters in that they empower a continually   evolving region, not a single fixed organization. Regional Charters need to engage not just local governments and special authorities but all community sectors and regional citizens to succeed. Each region needs to create a dynamic, but flexible, governance capacity, and a set of interconnected tools that enables it to respond to both known and as yet unforeseen threats/opportunities, as well as to grow as its human settlements evolve.

In other words, designing Regional Charters requires building understanding and trust in “shared power” governance across all community sectors and, in the process, helping make our struggling intergovernmental system of national, state, and local governments succeed, a critical, but not an easy, task.

What would life with a Regional Charter be like?

Regional Charters will provide our evolving human settlements with a joint capacity to address the common aspects of any tough challenge. As a result, they will require redrawing the boundaries of many regional organizations, as they also divide up human settlements, and recasting them as part of a human settlement-wide governance capacity.

Regional Charters will:

  • enable providing adequate staff and resources to existing and new entities to design common strategies to address the tough challenges,
  • specify predictable funding streams for implementing approved actions, including the ability to submit funding options to voters in regional referenda, and
  • engage regional stakeholders, from all sectors and the general public, but be shaped, or at least heavily influenced, by their local governments.

In fact, the term “charter” was selected for strengthening regional governance capacity, since local governments, which also use the term charter, will be key partners and beneficiaries of effective Regional Charters.

Most importantly, Regional Charters will be held accountable by the public, through ongoing citizen monitoring of their components, regular evaluations of their accomplishments, and periodic updating of their components.

Regional Charters in both urban and rural regions need the flexibility to address challenges that do not fit within fixed geographic boundaries. Regional Charters could call for developing agreements with neighboring regions to address challenges that impact both. State governments could empower regions with adopted Regional Charters to do anything collectively with neighboring regions that they can do within their charter powers. Similarly, state governments could empower Regional Charters for regions that cut across state boundaries to pursue “look-a-like” actions to address common regional challenges.

The major test for Regional Charters is to negotiate compacts to shape future growth and to assure that development is equitable and eco-friendly, and that infrastructure and services are high quality and affordable. To do this, Regional Charters could provide safe havens to hold open dialogues on the innovative, practical, and probably controversial actions required to shape future growth. Even the individual jurisdictions that are most dedicated to shaping growth cannot succeed if there is lack of agreement with their neighbors on what kind of region they want to live in and how it will benefit all jurisdictions, rich and poor.

Regions with charters will especially transform their local governments. Each will require elected officials to be comfortable negotiating with their neighbors, as well as staff that is skilled in shared management, administering collaboratively what it cannot do alone.

Most importantly, Regional Charters will require leaders and staff across all sectors and the public to become practicing regional citizens. Everyone is already a regional consumer, knowing how to use the resources of the region, but few have declared themselves regional stewards, responsible for the region. Regional Charters will support training leaders, staff, and, most importantly, your fellow residents to become regional citizens and practice your skills and share your experiences.

Governance will become more interactive as local government elected officials and other community leaders, along with their staff, move seamlessly among Regional Charter processes and mechanisms. Everyone will become trained and experienced in removing the historic blinders that have blocked their view of the whole regional community and be prepared to consider the local and regional implications of their thoughts and actions.

Regional Charters could trigger the reform of our intergovernmental (national/state/local) system. Preparing a Regional Charter will require the cooperation of not only all local governments, but organizations in other community sectors as well. Moreover, it will require the approval and support of state and national governments in a Regional Grand Bargain, one of the components of a Regional Charter. One region adopting a Regional Charter will modify and strengthen its individual national/state/local relationships. Multiple regions adopting Regional Charters will change the intergovernmental system.

Additionally, a Regional Charter can protect your region from state and national government intervention and save your local governments. If your region has not empowered a Regional Charter and negotiated a Regional Grand Bargain, state and national governments will be more inclined to impose their own solutions to regional challenges, either because they believe they have the best ideas, or their constituents are demanding action. Why not prepare a Regional Charter that is controlled by you and your fellow regional citizens? Regional Charters provide you with the capacity to advance your own initiatives and help assure that proposed state and national government actions contribute to strengthening local governance, not imposing regional governments.

Although each Regional Charter will be uniquely different, all will need to contain ten key components to reunite regional human settlements and maybe, just maybe, restore governance excellence, nationally. (See exhibit at end of this article for a list of Regional Charter components.) Each of the components addresses a Regional Charter goal and defines a regional citizen role, or at least the first nine. Founding a National Council of Regions and a Global Alliance of Regions is not critical to launching each Regional Charter, but would increase the potential success of all Regional Charters.

Detailed guidance on creating each of these components is provided in the Regional Charters book. Especially smaller regions should not have to develop all of these components on their own but be able to tap into those created in neighboring larger regions, such as a Regional Governance Innovation Institute, which would potentially benefit by being housed in an educational/public policy institution.

Bottom line: Regional Charters provide the capacity, the robustness, the resilience, and—I hope, the audacity—to address the toughest cross-jurisdiction challenges in a time of chaotic change and help assure that each region, and its local jurisdictions, offer welcoming homes, environments, and futures for its citizens. 

Bill Dodge has devoted his career to building successful communities, from income-diverse neighborhoods to metropolitan regions. He is the author of Regional Charters, which helps citizens and leaders to understand and guide preparing a Regional Charter. He is the former Executive Director of the National Association of Regions. 

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