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Why a Referendum on County-Wide Planning Will Win

Bring it On!

Former Albuquerque mayor and regionalism advocate David Rusk came back to Buffalo last week to deliver the same message he’s been delivering since I chauffeured him around town on his first visit in 1997. He has delivered that message—that fractured, “little box” governance is bad for the poor, bad for rational land-use, and thus bad for the regional economy—to audiences in Rochester, Syracuse and Albany. He spoke on the subject at the very first meeting of former Governor Eliot Spitzer’s government reform commission. The already knowledgeable and the already converted know the message. Technicians, like county managers all across America, shake their heads in wonderment that Rusk still has to talk about this stuff as if it’s a new idea.

Earlier this week in Rochester, public policy experts, former and current public officials, and well credentialed researchers got together to talk about how to unify county-wide E-911 dispatch systems, and how to re-direct housing projects away from farm fields into areas that are served by existing sewers, and how to use county-level computer systems to keep track of road repair crews, salt, asphalt, and gravel.

Sometimes, the technicians become like the liberal theorists. Both the nuts-and-bolts folks and the high-minded tend to despair of politics. Neither understand the techniques of raising money, purchasing the talents of marketing professionals, testing simplified versions of complex statements, and then delivering messages through the various media that politicians use as a matter of course.

That’s why the views of theorists and the solutions of wonks seldom become policy.

But the time for despair about rational governance is past. A new age of opportunity is upon us. Take heart, ye good government types! Chris Collins, David Paterson, and Bernie Madoff have all opened the door to opportunity!

A little history

In 1999 and again in 2003, in two county-wide elections, a large majority of voters chose a county-wide leader who campaigned on regional governance—and who, before a devastating political meltdown in 2005, implemented many functional changes to enable actual regional governance. Folks around the country noticed. More importantly, a longstanding, home-grown trend toward regional thinking was validated at the ballot box. Twice.

Lots of folks in Western New York understand the need for practical implantation of ideas that are as old as the consolidation and merger of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Bronx, and Staten Island, the consolidation which occurred way back in the late 1890s.

But then again, there are folks like the incumbent Erie County executive, who not only vetoed a bill to created a county-wide planning board but who declared that even if his veto is overridden, only a referendum would make it happen.

That’s not a threat. That’s an opportunity. Because now there isn’t a single controversial personality, neither a potential savior nor a fallen idol, to get in the way of a competent campaign for a county-wide planning board.

In 2004, there was a private poll commissioned to test the receptivity of the Erie County electorate to an outright merger not just of planning boards but of all of city and county government. In that year, focus groups were conducted to find out how well folks in the Buffalo-Niagara media market liked the idea of taking that first step toward a metro or regional government; the second step would be the elimination of towns and villages so that, like Hamilton or Toronto or Louisville or Omaha or New York City, we’d only have one regional government at the end of the process.

Generally, the poll found that city folks, better-educated and higher-income city and suburban folks, and young people all over really strongly liked the idea. Elderly women, working-class men, and folks in rural areas ranged in opinion from less than enthusiastic to quite hostile. It was a 40-35-15-10 proposition: 40 percent pro, 35 percent con, 15 percent undecided, 10 percent didn’t know or care. That was without a single campaign ad being aired or mailing sent. Among likely voters, the proposition was a pretty darned good bet.

That’s because Western New York has been talking about regional or metro-wide approaches since the 1950s, when the late great daily newspaper the Courier Express ran a year-long series on why regionalism was better than localism.

Even the brand-new novel Buffalo Lockjaw reflects evidence of this sentiment.

But back to history.

The 1950s was when county government in New York State began to take on some elements of modernity, as Erie County did when it got an elected executive and a legislature to replace the unwieldy amalgam of town supervisors and city councilmen. The Buffalo library got melded into a county-wide library system. Local health departments, several local police functions, most social service functions, clean-water and wastewater systems, and other services started migrating from the town and city level to become county functions.

And then the evolution toward regionalism stopped. Abruptly. Why? Simple. It was because political operatives (i.e., the market-savvy people who take these wind-up toys known as politicians and tell them what to say) saw the opportunity, the business opportunity, in keeping things local. Not only in Buffalo but throughout the Great Lakes and the Northeast, a revived localism based on racial fear-mongering was the most effective path to maintaining suburban Republicans’ power. City-centric policies from Washington and Albany were the most useful tool for getting money, jobs, and other resources into the hands of reliably Democratic urban political operatives.

Around here, evolution ceased in 1968, the year a Buffalo-area referendum on consolidating police services at the county level just barely failed. Until Joel Giambra ran on his regionalism message in 1999—part of which was a pledge to restore the county-level planning board that his predecessor Dennis Gorski had dismantled in 1994—the county in Upstate’s largest population center was just another one of David Rusk’s “little boxes.”

Counties in New York State are in a state of arrested development, and the current county executive, along with the current mayor of Buffalo and the current leadership of most towns, like it that way.

A cautionary tale, an American tale

Former Rochester Mayor William Johnson is a regionalist. He was Rochester’s first African-American mayor, serving from 1994 until 2005. Toward the end of his third term, he became a candidate for Monroe County executive. He didn’t set out to run on regionalism, he says, but spoke more and more forcefully about the need for the city and the county, for once-wealthy Rochester and sprawling Monroe, to function together to stop duplicating services, streamline functions, achieve trans-boundary goals, and think like one metropolitan economy.

The late Monroe County Republican Party chairman and his consultants devised what proved to be a devastatingly effective campaign to defend the status quo. In the TV spots they produced for the Republican candidate, Rochester and its black mayor became something like the old Pac-Man computer game, setting out to gobble up white suburbia.

White suburbia stood its ground, and Bill Johnson got his ass kicked. Racist innuendo worked well even in the highly educated, genteel corporate suburbs that were created by the old wealth of Kodak, Bausch & Lomb, Xerox, and other Rochester-based corporations. Racist innuendo would probably still work, and Republican operatives can be relied upon to utilize it.

But here’s a tip for whoever is going to organize the campaign for a referendum on creating a county-wide planning board: Remember the lesson of George III.

Our revolution did not have a single hero pitted against the dictator. It had crowds of them. The notion of declaring independence from the faraway English king was not advanced by one politician but rather by a committee of shifting membership. When a dictator is out there saying no while lots and lots of less-visible folks are saying yes, the lesson of history—civil rights history, voting rights history, and lots of propositions both naughty and nice—is that it’s very hard for the no guy to answer all those who say yes.

A lack of planning keeps the poor impoverished and expensive. No planning retards economic growth, wastes energy, drives up the cost of government and utilities, and dooms future generations to foot the bill for over-built infrastructure.

King George tried to defend the indefensible. He lost. Chris Collins is trying to defend the indefensible. So far, nine of 15 county legislators are trying to become 10 county legislators to override his veto. They’re all up for re-election this year. Every last one of their campaigns should take advantage of the opportunity to take on King George, because any campaign that reminds folks about the consequences of “little box” thinking will win.

A referendum would be an organizing opportunity for the next stage of evolution, the one we tried to begin in 1968, the one we voted for in 1999 and again in 2003. This time, the opposition is a single defender of the status quo. This time, the coalition can form around an idea rather than around a personality. An idea that has many champions is a better bet than a man who would be king. It’s time for a fight. So bring it on.

Bruce Fisher is former deputy county executive for Erie County and visiting professor of economics and finance at Buffalo State College, where he directs the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.

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