What is the ideal size of government? Should decisions be centered in a strong federal branch or diffused across thousands of municipalities? Liberals and conservatives have duked it out over these questions ever since Patrick Henry demanded a Bill of Rights to protect individual liberty from a tyrannical president. But there’s a retro, nonpartisan answer that’s been tested recently to add to the expected pull between local, state and federal governments: a regional body. The model first arose in the late 1960s as cities confronted the rise of suburbs, and it’s making a comeback as dealing with a new era of climate change — flooding, regional transport and open space — becomes a top priority. NationSwell looked at how this system of metropolitan governance has changed two cities and could impact a third.

Metro Council, Portland, Ore.

Leave it to Portland, Ore.’s biggest city, to come up with a new way of doing government. The area features the nation’s first and only elected regional government, which coordinates planning across Portland plus 24 neighboring cities and three counties along the Columbia and Willamette Rivers. (Minnesota’s Twin Cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul, have another notable Metro Council, but their board is state-appointed and has been criticized for a lack of accountability.) The core of greater Portland’s government is a Metro Council consisting of six nonpartisan representatives who direct more than 1,600 government employees: rangers for 17,000 acres of park land, economists, climate scientists, urban planners, mapmakers, garbage truck drivers and even animal keepers who staff the zoo. Among the challenges it’s dealt with? Everything from the boundaries of urban growth to retiring old elephants.

The body’s emergence dates back to more than half a century ago, when Portland residents first recognized the need to safeguard outlying forests and historic neighborhoods from population growth — in essence, preserving the attractions that were making the city a destination. At the same time, community members also wanted to see efficient government services, not the “wasteful, fragmented and uneven” delivery that Portlanders witnessed in 1960, according to a League of Women Voters mailer. After a regional vote, the body was officially set up in 1979. “Places in the west — and Portland’s a good example of this — were growing rapidly. This expansion tends to get people thinking regionally,” Kate Foster, an expert in regional governance, tells The Atlantic’s CityLab. Residents cared about “these gaps in service delivery at the regional scale, things like water, sewers, and roads. These are things that weren’t really thought of in the same way in the east.” That concern led to a new model, but today, “it’s oft cited, never copied,” Foster adds.

Unigov, Indianapolis

Indiana, as we’ve written before, has an intricate set of laws regulating the structure of local government that can lead to some incredible results, including one county’s precipitous drop in income inequality. Back in the 1960s, cheap, flat land at the midpoint between Chicago, Cincinnati and Louisville made Indianapolis a prime location for suburban sprawl. The result: 11 suburban towns popped up right outside the city’s downtown in Marion County. A state law passed in 1970 created Unigov, a unified structure that essentially consolidated most of the area’s municipalities under a city-county council with 25 seats. White flight in the postwar years led to a decaying urban core, but the new organization allowed tax dollars to flow regionally. (Nashville and Jacksonville took on similar unifications around the same time.) Some say that Unigov made Indianapolis “a city captured by its suburbs,” but others point to economic growth that resulted from cutting through the bureaucracy of 60 local governments, a population boom that rocketed it to the nation’s 12th largest city, increased clout on federal grant applications, streamlined services and created a revitalized downtown.

For all the positives, politics was never far from the decision to unify. Some insiders speculated Republicans had created Unigov to dilute the Democrats’ urban vote with conservatives in the suburbs (the GOP held power for 30 years). And to get the law passed, legislators settled on a big compromise: school, police and fire district borders stayed unchanged, allowing richer (and much whiter) suburbs to keep property tax dollars within their enclaves. “The spectre of racial integration … would have met instant death for the plan,” the head of the school board said at the time. That hasn’t changed much, but consolidation continues to have support, with the local police and county sheriffs joining forces in 2005 and the creation of a centralized fire department in 2007. 

A view of Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River.

County Merger, Cleveland

After being a hot trend in the 1970s, the reorganization of local government had died down — until recently. On the shores of Lake Erie, Cuyahoga County residents are now debating how to merge the two cities, 19 villages and 38 townships around Cleveland. The change in thinking started slowly and has been discussed for more than a decade. Back in 2004, Cleveland watched Louisville merge with Jefferson County, Ky., as its own population packed up and left. It took notice and rewrote the county charter to switch from a three-member board to a more active 11-member council and a county executive.

But a full merger is still in the works. In 2012, engaged readers of the local paper, the Plain Dealer, sent in thousands of color-coded maps for how the county could be reorganized. If nothing’s done and things continue as they are, at least 10.5 percent of the region’s housing stock — about 174,900 homes — will sit vacant and abandoned. East Cleveland, a separate city, is looking at bankruptcy. Based on what the experts are predicting, Cleveland could be the next spot to try out a different system of government.

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