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Agency Is Weak but Flexing New Muscles

Leader of Southern California planning group says it is making headway against regional problems.

October 29, 2005|Daryl Kelley | Times Staff Writer

The moment Mark Pisano had relentlessly pursued arrived with an emotional punch, when the political cats he'd been trying to herd for decades finally fell into a single line.

On a unanimous vote, 45 public officials who rarely agreed on anything approved a strategy for solving Southern California's daunting problems of growth.

"The only experience I have had that was more intense was when I had my three children," said Pisano, 63, who adjourned to a quiet dinner with his wife, Jane. "We toasted with a glass of wine, and I told her, 'We finally did it.' "

In the 16 months since that vote by directors of the Southern California Assn. of Governments, the nation's largest metropolitan planning agency seems finally to have hit its stride.

As the agency with the unfortunate nickname -- SCAG -- turns 40 this month, it owes much of its newfound stature to the indefatigable Pisano, a wonkish bureaucrat with the survival skills of a chameleon.

After all, he's led SCAG for 29 years, presiding over a confederation that critics say has no reason to exist -- in a region whose cohesion has been compared to that of the former Soviet Union.

Its formidable mission is to develop plans for transportation, air quality, aviation and housing in a sprawling region that covers the counties of Imperial, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura.

This loose, voluntary union of 160 cities and six counties is all but toothless, with no power to tax or to legislate, only to advise and cajole.

Its greatest power is to draft regional plans for transportation: If a project is not on the regional plan, it doesn't get federal funding. In recent years, SCAG has also been an unpopular state enforcer, imposing quotas for new housing on cities -- a program that was intended to spread responsibility for growth but that has spread resentment as well.

All in all, it hasn't been an easy road for SCAG, or for its veteran executive director -- an affable man with a penchant for unconventional planning schemes. Some call him a visionary; others quixotic. Either way, he has suffered some setbacks.

His plan for regional shuttle buses stalled, for instance, as did that for a 300-mph monorail linking the region's city centers and airports.

His efforts to spread airline service more evenly throughout the region lost ground when voters rejected a second large airport for Orange County and an $11-billion modernization was approved for Los Angeles International Airport.

Orange County nearly divorced SCAG in the early 1990s. And the organization's state and federal funding was jeopardized several years ago by what auditors called historical weaknesses in its accounting and cash flow.

Some say Pisano's primary success has been keeping his job, and hanging on, mostly, to potential breakaway republics.

"He hasn't been fired, and he hasn't incited a revolution," said USC planning professor Dowell Myers. "And that's a measure of his ability to balance competing objectives. I don't know who could have done it better."

Supporters and critics alike say they like and respect Pisano for his intelligence, knowledge and diplomacy.

He is "seen as a national leader in the intellectual planning world -- in thinking about how to do this work better," said Nick Bollman, president of the nonprofit California Center for Regional Leadership.

But even some of Pisano's friends are no fan of his organization.

"This is an agency that studies things that may never happen," said Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, a longtime friend. Citing the monorail project as an example, he said: "If my grandchildren live to see it, I'll be surprised."

"Bureaucracy on steroids" is how Larry Parrish, chief administrator for Riverside County and former chief executive for Orange County, describes SCAG. But he adds, "I'm really sincere when I say Mark is a wonderful guy who was born to do what he does."


SCAG was formed in a shotgun wedding of cities and counties, when state and federal officials ordered local governments to set aside parochial interests to build a metropolis that works -- or lose funding.

Twenty-seven cities -- including Santa Ana, Garden Grove and Costa Mesa -- never joined or have dropped out. Some say the Los Angeles-based association, with 110 employees and a $35-million annual budget, remains too remote or detached to answer their needs.

But SCAG and Pisano are gaining a growing constituency for their ideas -- not because of a growing sense of municipal brotherhood but because the region's problems are so severe.

"Cities and counties ... now understand they have to work with their neighbors," Pisano said, "because we're facing absolutely overwhelming, intractable problems."

The Southland has grown from 8 million residents in 1965 to 18 million today -- and is projected to reach 23 million by 2030.

The region's freeways have become the nation's most congested, and its air quality and housing prices are among the worst.

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