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Cities, Counties Unprepared for 21st Century

Local government has served us well, but it can't cope with the realities of impending growth in California.

February 27, 2000|MARIAN BERGESON | Marian Bergeson is a former state senator from Newport Beach and former member of the Orange County Board of Supervisors

"California's challenge in the 21st century will be to manage its inevitable growth in such a way that irreplaceable resources, government services and quality of life are maintained."


This statement from "Growth Within Bounds," the report of the Commission on Local Governance for the 21st Century, certainly applies to Orange County. The Census Bureau predicts that Orange County will grow by 44% between 2000 and 2040, when we will have more than 4 million residents.

Unlike in the past, most of this growth will be generated internally through births to current residents. Our growth rate will be less than in other parts of California, but this is largely because we are exporting much of our housing problem to the Inland Empire in exchange for worsening traffic and air pollution.

Recognizing the impact this growth will have, the governor and Legislature have formed no fewer than 10 commissions or study groups to deal with local reform.

Citizens from across the state of California, selected by the governor and legislative leadership, made up these commissions, and it's been my pleasure to serve on the Commission on Local Governance for the 21st Century, which recently finished its work.

The commission's charge from the Legislature was to reexamine the laws that regulate changes in local government organization and boundaries. We were asked to do this from a broad perspective, which we did. One of our conclusions was that the basic local institutions--counties, cities and special districts--that served us very well in the past are unlikely to be able to cope with the realities of the 21st century.

After 16 months listening to more than 160 speakers, receiving nearly 90,000 hits on its Web site and hours of deliberations, the commission concluded that California lacks an overall plan for taking charge of growth and is ambivalent about how to respond to this eventuality. California is so large and so diverse that it is difficult for any meaningful planning to be carried out centrally.

Local government is physically and financially constrained and, partly due to the necessity to respond to local issues, lacks a regional perspective. The penalty for ignoring the need for a more regional approach, long a favorite of academics but rejected by Californians because they distrust big government, is likely to be a continued loss of agricultural lands and open space, more pollution, worsening traffic and strained public services.

The commission found one tool already present in every county in a little-known but potentially key agency known as the Local Agency Formation Commission or LAFCO. These agencies generally are made up of county supervisors, city council members and representatives of special districts. Traditionally, LAFCOs have overseen the formation of new cities and special districts and approved boundary changes of existing agencies. Except for occasional controversies, LAFCOs have stayed fairly invisible to most people.

LAFCO, however, is the only locally based general governance entity whose basic policies and procedures are established by the Legislature. Moreover, although LAFCO does not have land-use authority, it can guide the directions of growth effectively through the organizational powers it possesses. The commission's recommendations would make LAFCOs more neutral and independent, more accountable to the public and local governments, and more consistent and predictable in their procedures and decisions. We believe these changes would improve local governance in the 21st century.

With increased accountability, LAFCOs need additional powers and policies that are clear and unambiguous. Land-use decisions must remain the province of local elected officials, with LAFCOs available to review boundary and service-related issues. The proposed new LAFCO powers will allow them to steer growth in regionally desirable directions and ensure that services are available to support appropriate development while discouraging urban sprawl.

One matter that particularly concerned the commissioners is the current schism between school districts and other local governments. During its public hearings, the commission heard testimony on three case studies in Orange County, which illustrated the coordination problems that often exist between school districts, local governments and developers.

To improve communication between local governments and school districts, the commission has recommended more extensive notification and coordination about pending decisions and, where possible, the alignment of school district and municipal boundary lines.

The recommendations of the Commission on Local Governance for the 21st Century are only a beginning. They must be accompanied by reform of local government finance that eliminates the incentive to approve retail land uses above all others, increases the value to local governments of the property tax and ensures the stability of local revenue sources.

Implementing actions must be left in the hands of local officials, who are much closer to and better understand the desires of local residents. It is imperative that we move toward meaningful planning and local government reform for the 21st century.

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