In a recent post on her blog, former AJC business reporter Maria Saporta lamented what she said was the decline of “regionalism” in the Atlanta area.
“I don’t know why or when regionalism became a dirty word,” she writes.
Indeed, for the last 40 years, a lot of political efforts have been made toward the idea of “regionalism.” It has been a popular concept that is based on a very simple premise: By working together and pooling resources, communities in a region can accomplish more together than they can by working alone.
In theory, that concept makes sense. People cross multiple government lines to go to work or play; we don’t just live in a small, isolated geographic area as many of our ancestors did. We are a mobile and dynamic society and our economy doesn’t exist in just one place anymore.
Many of the efforts at regional cooperation flow around infrastructure needs in an area. Transportation is the biggest issue that is the focus of regional cooperation efforts. In addition, reservoirs, jails and other high-cost projects are often done jointly by several local governments. The idea behind that is that such cooperative efforts will save money for all the parties involved.
With all that positive vibe, is Saporta right? Is regionalism on the wane?
Yes, it is and for a good reason: Regionalism has become the favorite tool of “progressives” in their bid to dictate how other people should live.
The most famous example of that was the ill-fated Georgia T-SPLOST effort that went down in flames in 2012 when voters rejected adding a new tax to construct a long list of regional projects. The T-SPLOST failed in the 10-county Metro Atlanta region by a wide margin and was defeated in most other regions in the state, including Northeast Georgia.
Although there were a number of reasons for that defeat, the main one was the public’s resentment of how state political leaders attempted to use the new tax to fund their own pet projects. Rather than fixing real traffic problems in Metro Atlanta, for example, the tax would have been split among a variety of bike paths, walking paths and public transit that would have done nothing to fix the core traffic issues.
Fundamentally, there are three main problems with regionalism:
1. The ego and self-serving attitude of the largest players.
2. It’s co-opting by liberal/progressives as a political weapon.
3. It’s lack of public accountability.
There are many examples of the first problem. The biggest government in a region always tries to dictate to the other governments what should be done. They do that because the largest government’s attitude is always self-serving: “What can the other regional governments do to help me?”
We saw that in the early 1990s when the City of Atlanta decided it needed a new second Atlanta airport. The city did a study and decided to plop down a 10,000-acre airport in the middle of Jackson County. At that time, Atlanta had the legal power to condemn land anywhere in the state for an airport, even against the wishes of the local communities involved. The airport would have been a “regional” project, but the impact would have been to destroy one small community (Jackson County) to help the largest community (Atlanta.) That effort failed when the state legislature took away the city’s power of condemnation because of the outcry over the plan.
Another example is the ongoing dispute on the Bear Creek Water Authority over the allocation of water from its reservoir to Athens-Clarke, Jackson, Oconee and Barrow counties. Although the reservoir is located in Jackson County, Athens is the biggest player in the room and has used its position to try and dominate the other three counties.
A few years ago, Jackson County officials discovered that the actual “yield” of water from the reservoir had been grossly overstated in the original paperwork and that during a severe drought, it would only produce about half the amount of water originally projected.
Jackson County officials pushed for the authority to recalculate the yield, as is called for in the original agreement between the four counties. But Athens has refused to do that because if Jackson County’s right, there would be less water allocated for Athens during a drought. That refusal to do the right thing forced Jackson County to sue the authority, litigation that is still going on. Athens, the largest player, took a self-serving attitude to protect its interest at the expense of what is nominally “regional” cooperation.
The biggest player in a region never really wants cooperation; it always wants regional domination.
The second problem with regionalism is that it has become the favorite tool for liberal/progressive groups to undermine local control. Especially here in the conservative South, it’s sometimes difficult for liberal politicians to get elected. But they’ve found a way around that by co-opting regionalism in a bid to make policy decisions without having to be in a political office.
Transportation is a perfect example of this. Liberals hate roads. They hate cars, especially SUVs. Liberal dogma pushes the idea that people should walk, bike or take public transportation to go to work, shop and for recreation.
Through regionalism, that philosophy is evident with a lack of emphasis on fixing or building roads. Regionalism puts more emphasis on bike paths, walking areas and public transit, the very things that helped to kill T-SPLOST last year.
But it’s more than just about roads, it’s also about lifestyle. Progressives hate suburbia. The suburbs, with their massive subdivisions, malls, schools and ball fields, represent everything that liberal theology opposes.
Progressive thinking dictates that everyone should live where they work, mostly in apartments; that housing should not be apart from shopping; and that public transit and biking are ethically superior to cars. In short, liberals want everyone to live in an urban environment. With its spread out design that clusters housing apart from shopping, the suburbs have become progressives’ nightmare. Rather than give people a choice about how to live, progressives want to force people to live in the way they dictate.
And that brings up the third major problem with regionalism, which is a lack of accountability and transparency.
Although few liberals can get elected to political office in a conservative state with their urban-bias agenda, progressive interests groups have found a way to bypass the political process and push that agenda: Regionalism.
For the most part, regional boards are not elected. They are appointed positions and progressives have been fairly successful in getting appointed to these boards, even in conservative states. In addition, many of the consultants who get hired by these regional boards are themselves acolytes of urban-bias thinking.
The result is that we have appointed regional boards making public policy and infrastructure decisions outside of the political process. Since these boards don’t answer directly to voters, they are immune from taxpayer pressure. They are free to create policies that push their agenda, local control be damned.
They do that by blocking new road construction and creating new layers of regional rules and regulations about housing and other infrastructure that bypasses locally elected councils and commissions. Their goal is to force people to live in an urban-style environment by making it difficult to live in suburbs or exurbs.
So Saporta is right, regionalism is not in vogue right now. And although there are some limited projects that make sense on a regional basis, the entire idea has been hijacked by extremists. Those interests want to undermine local government control through appointed regional boards so that they can imprint their own agenda.
If regionalism is dead, it’s not because the public doesn’t want the various governments to work together for the common good; it’s because regionalism is now dominated by groups that seek to undermine local control.
Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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