Cities and counties cooperate

December 29, 1997|By Neal R. Peirce

WASHINGTON -- Read most newspapers' metro pages and you're bombarded with news of sparring mayors and county officials. These politicos are either competing for an industry or new stadium, or fighting to load tax burdens on each other. Crime, 911 systems, water rights, solid waste -- the sniping seems nonstop.

The media, feeding on conflict, laps it up. The leaders, hungry for news bites and headlines, respond by spitting more.

Can this vicious circle be broken? Cynics say no. But America's first organized effort to persuade the local Hatfields and McCoys to talk and collaborate has been launched.

New effort

It's called the Joint Center for Sustainable Communities -- a follow-through, in its themes of urban revitalization and land conservation, of the President's Council on Sustainable Development. Vice President Al Gore was on hand to play spiritual godfather when the new center held its first official meeting at the White House Dec. 17.

But while the center has some federal funding and certainly federal blessing, it's a city-county affair. Its membership of 50 consists of 25 mayors and 25 county commissioners. It's being run by the U.S. Conference of Mayors and National Association of Counties in an alliance that is itself unprecedented.

And as Mr. Gore noted at the Washington announcement, ''This will be the first time in U.S. history that the cities and counties have come together to address quality of life for all Americans, focusing on such issues as sprawl development and using our scarce infrastructure dollars to undergird existing communities instead of building projects on cornfields.''

But why are the moon and stars coming into alignment right now, There's no longer enough public money to permit uncoordinated duplication of efforts.

suggesting new potentials in city-county cooperation?

First, the times demand it. There's no longer enough public money -- certainly not federal subsidy -- to permit senseless, uncoordinated duplication of efforts.

Or as Louisville's Mayor Jerry Abramson put it: ''Our constituents are pushing us hard to get past this damned interjurisdictional infighting. Citizens, businesses are saying, 'Don't give me the argument it's someone else's job.' ''

In fact, said Mr. Abramson, ''The issues we deal with -- whether they're air and water quality, or an educated work force, crime or drugs -- are permeable. They blow across jurisdictional lines as if they weren't there. People want solutions. They aren't very sure which government does what anyway.''

The second, powerful force behind the new cooperation is ''sustainability.'' Counties association President Randy Johnson of Hennepin County, Minn., told me that the mayors and county officials focused in on the related issues of ''smart growth,'' public mass transit instead of more new highways and recycling urban brown fields for new jobs so that less farmland needs to be bulldozed for development.

On the human side, the leaders discussed ''welfare-to-work'' connections -- ways to get inner-city folk coming off welfare to the reservoir of unfilled service jobs in the suburbs.

A set of initiatives is under way to do just that for the St. Louis region's hardest-to-employ young men and women -- from both the city and older suburbs. That effort is one of the 10 leading models cited in the center's just published handbook -- ''Innovative City/County Partnerships.''

Another model is how New York City, after a century of antagonisms, chose to work amicably with seven upstate counties to assure a continuous supply of safe water for its millions of inhabitants. Parts of the remarkable ''win-win'' deal include the city paying to acquire hydrologically sensitive lands near reservoirs, working with local farmers to develop farming methods that minimize pollution, and setting up an economic development bank that will also protect the environment in the Catskills.

But do cooperative city-county politics yield good Election Day results?

From Detroit comes a stunning ''yes.'' Mayor Dennis Archer won a hard election four years ago to succeed Coleman Young, who had feuded bitterly with suburbs over most of his 20 years in office.

Mr. Archer immediately made cooperation with the suburbs a central theme of his administration -- and not just with county officials, but also corporate leaders, universities and civic groups.

One key to Mr. Archer's effort: the City of Detroit/Wayne County Roundtable on Sustainable Development. It works on simplifying regulations so that brown fields redevelopment can proceed. Other targets: quicker condemnation of land parcels for redevelopment, streamlining government, marketing the region and bringing citizens into decision-making that affects their neighborhoods.

Negotiations have sometimes been difficult in the historically cantankerous Detroit region. But results have included a number of big infrastructure projects, new automotive manufacturing facilities and new corporate headquarters operations in downtown Detroit.

Says Wayne County Commissioner Edna Bell: ''If we can do it, it can be done anywhere.'' Detroit voters obviously agree. Last month, they re-elected Mr. Archer with a thundering 84 percent vote.

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

Pub Date: 12/29/97

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