Toward Regional Cooperation

November 17, 1991|By PHILIP S. CLAYTON

In these times of fiscal and social problems, can governments in the Baltimore region cooperate better in their own interest to deal more effectively with problems which cross their boundaries? Or can each jurisdiction go its own way?

On May 5, 1991 the Sunday Sun published a challenging report by Neal Peirce and associates entitled "Baltimore and Beyond" which stated that better cooperation is essential to the quality of life here. In a second article on Sept. 8, the Pierce team both "ate crow" and renewed its challenge.

There has been little response, yet decisions which will affect regional cooperation will be made. For example, on Tuesday and Wednesday, two General Assembly subcommittees will hold hearings and begin deliberations on the future of the Baltimore ,, Regional Council of Governments.

The Peirce team showed that the quality of life and economic prospects of all political jurisdictions in the Baltimore region depend on cooperation: that such things as employment, crime, pollution, transportation, housing demand, business and culture cross political boundaries as if they weren't there; that the whole is greater than the parts. It showed that this is truly a single urban/rural area and that the parts are interdependent.

How can we get better cooperation going? The Peirce report stated that a "deal must be struck" among Baltimore City and the metropolitan counties (Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard) if they are to work together to take the coordinated political, economic and environmental actions they cannot take separately, as well as to do together things which can be done better or cheaper that way.

The Peirce team found a lack of cooperative leadership for the area, the product of a weakness of institutions rather than a weakness of individual leaders. Two changes in regional institutions are necessary to enable the leadership to respond to the challenges which confront this area:

* A more active role must be played by civic, business and academic leaders here to promote cooperative action and to support government. An area-wide "town meeting" should be called to get moving to create a regional citizen's association or civic league.

* An effective regional organization should be created to facilitate cooperative action among political jurisdictions.

The citizens' association would work with business and other non-governmental organizations to clarify regional issues, recommend goals and priorities and encourage cooperative actions to solve problems. It cannot be an "anti" group such as some local improvement groups; its purpose is to take a positive stand for cooperation. It must also be autonomous. William McDonnell, who was Executive Director of the former Baltimore Region Citizens League comments, "the most successful citizens' organizations are completely independent of any other organization, public or private."

Mr. Peirce envisioned an intergovernmental cooperative body which would provide, "consensus building rather than order giving, collaborative rather than heavy-handed leadership, an arbiter rather than regional government."

A look at the three decades of experience of the now financially-troubled Baltimore Regional Council of Governments can help in designing an effective regional roundtable. The Regional Council, designed in 1963, was very effective when it worked in certain ways. For example, in the 1970s it initiated planning for the rail rapid transit system; in the 1980s it led establishment of the cooperative reservoir protection process.

My review of the council's experience shows that for significant results to be reached for the Baltimore Region agreement must be built on issues and actions among at least the following local and state leaders: chief executives of major local governments, city and county council leaders, the governor, state legislative leaders, and civic, business and academic leaders.

Hearings scheduled by the General Assembly on Tuesday and Wednesday on the Baltimore Regional Council of Governments may determine the future of that organization. One option would be to give some of its functions to the state and let the reduced organization become an organization of local governments only. In most states regional councils of government are creatures of, and advocates for, just local governments.

If that kind of organization were built here there would still be need for an institution for regional leadership and agreement-building among all of the interests in the metropolitan area. We need therefore, argues for a different kind of organization, a consensus-building organization as envisioned by Mr. Peirce, involving local, regional, state and national leadership.

The key to a consensus-building Regional Roundtable is leadership and participation. Selection of a chairperson is a key. His or her effectiveness will be determined not only by personal qualities but also how the chair is selected. If the chairperson is to be successful in building consensus among the local chief executives, governor, legislative leaders and others, they must all be involved in the selection of the chair.

Consensus can best be built if the chairperson is not in political competition with any of the key leaders listed above. J. Hugh Nichols, a former chairman of the Regional Council, commented, "It will definitely take an enlightened chair of the Regional Roundtable to achieve major goals. It will require political skills without political ambitions or at least a willingness to forgo these DTC ambitions, and that is very hard to come by."

Philip Clayton served on the Regional Council staff from its founding in 1964 until this year. He now consults and teaches planning.

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