Cities may be passe, but voters want them

September 15, 1997|By Neal R. Peirce

MIAMI -- Why have Miami voters turned down, by a margin of better than 5-to-1, the proposal to dissolve their city and merge it with the other unincorporated areas of Dade County?

If there was ever a case for abolition, this was it. Instead of celebrating its 100th birthday last year as a distinguished capital of the Americas, Miami was awash in a tawdry array of official scandals. Its operating budget deficit was so huge that the state of Florida imposed a financial-oversight commission.

As this month's vote on abolition neared, present or former city officials ranging from a city manager to a port director to a city commissioner were in deep legal trouble. Some were off to prison, for alleged offenses ranging from bribery to money laundering to illegal campaign contributions.

Yet voters chose to stay with the government they knew. The immediate explanation was that Hispanics -- Cubans in particular -- saw the proposal as a thinly disguised effort to reduce their fast-rising political power, and turned out in heavy numbers to defeat it.

Look around North America and Europe, however, and the Miami vote is hardly an anomaly. Even in an age of globalization, people resist throwing their lot in with a larger jurisdiction.

In Rotterdam, leaders in the early '90s decided they needed a metropolitan authority to modernize the port, Europe's largest. Their ingenious idea: Abolish the old city of Rotterdam, create 10 subdistricts the size of existing suburbs, and then unite the whole bunch under a new federated government. It seemed a brilliant solution, but Rotterdam voters -- upset about their old center city's losing its identity -- said ''no'' by a thundering 87 percent.

Berlin merger

In Berlin, the idea was to merge the city with the surrounding state of Brandenburg, enriching and modernizing Brandenburg

after decades of communist rule, while giving Berlin space to grow. Top German business and political leaders were all for the merger. But not the suspicious residents of old East Berlin and Brandenburg. They voted ''no'' in sufficiently large numbers last year to overwhelm ''yes'' votes in the former West Berlin. The final tally: 55 percent negative.

A merger in Toronto next January will combine the present city with five big suburbs, creating a new Toronto three times larger in population and six times bigger in area. The Toronto Board of Trade thinks it's a great way to raise Toronto's profile on the world stage. But when Mayor Barbara Hall called a referendum on the proposal last spring, the vote was 3-to-1 against. Old Toronto wanted to remain old Toronto.

But the popular vote didn't matter. Ontario Prime Minister Michael Harris' government exercised party discipline and forced the merger through the Ontario Parliament anyway.

No imaginable politics in the United States would permit that. In fact, since the mergers of Nashville, Jacksonville and Indianapolis with their surrounding counties in the '60s, proposals for formal metropolitan consolidation have foundered at the ballot box almost everywhere.

Why? Despite the gains in image and coordinated services from unified leadership, there's been little proof of cost savings. So, say skeptics, why give up the government close to you? At least it's likely to hear you when you have a problem.

Break up L.A.

Indeed, smaller governments do seem popular. There's a strong move to split the San Fernando Valley off from Los Angeles. Affluent communities like Key Biscayne have been incorporating in effect, seceding -- in Dade County, Florida.

In a discussion with local officials in heavily splintered St. Louis County last fall, I heard that in a choice between efficiency and close-to-home representation, people will pick the representation every time.

The problem is that virtually every significant present-day problem, from airports to land-use planning, clean air and water to economic development to work-force preparedness, isn't local all. Each is a strategic issue that needs to be addressed by an entire citistate region.

Business and government leaders know this. Citizens may. But in a ballot, they're still likely to vote with their hearts, for the old place, their ethnic group or class. Governments, to fill the gap, are forced to more and more ad hoc arrangements, from service agreements among towns to special single-purpose authorities.

Compounding the problem are fiscal inequities -- sometimes massive -- between rich and poor jurisdictions.

Twenty-first-century governance will demand a delicate balance -- hearing people's legitimate wishes and concerns, neighborhood by neighborhood, even while citistate regions find ways to bolster their poorer communities and act strategically in a fiercely competitive global economy.

As Miami reminds us, it won't be easy.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

Pub Date: 9/15/97

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