Hollywood Wants Local Control

Commentary, Urbanization, Frontier Centre

In our municipal elections, every returning member of City Council sleepwalked back into office. Things are a little more exciting in Hollywood, California, which goes to the polls November 5. The 140,000 residents of Tinseltown can vote to secede from the City of Los Angeles, as can the million and a half people who live across the mountains, in the San Fernando Valley.

You may recall a burning issue of that sort a few election cycles ago, when the good citizens of little Headingley told the rest of us to take our Unicity and shove it. They are doing quite nicely without us, thank you, and would never rescind the decision to go it on their own. The difference in L.A. is that the rebels don’t live at the edge of the city; they’re right in its heart. It’s as if the granola crowd decided to incorporate the Town of Wolseley.

In Hollywood and the Valley, the impetus to de-amalgamate gathered steam for the same reasons as in Headingley. The services offered by the City were shoddy, slow and expensive, and in the larger political unit the wants and needs of the locals appeared nowhere on the radar screen. Residents also envy the independent cities of Burbank and San Fernando right in their midst, both of which enjoy lower business taxes and a much faster permit process for new development. Nor will the spin-offs end if they vote to secede. Harvard academic Howard Husock reports that services may eventually be delivered by as many as 23 local governments.

In city after American city, the pattern is being replicated. Four new municipalities in Florida’s Dade County have broken away from the City of Miami. Eight suburbs of Tucson, Arizona, now run their own affairs, and plans by expansive metropolitan governments in Atlanta and Houston to absorb communities around them have been stopped dead by suburban activists. In 2000, there were 192 municipalities in the Twin Cities metro area. At its core lie the efficient cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, ringed by a gaggle of jurisdictions, many holding between 100,000 and 150,000 people.

The trend collides head on with the traditional wisdom dispensed by urban theorists, the ones we listened to when we set up Unicity and the newly amalgamated Toronto. Expert, central administration by benevolent unified governments, they believed, was inherently more efficient. Moreover, it served two modern goals, by redistributing income from affluent suburbs to poor inner cities and by protecting the environment with planning protocols to reduce urban sprawl.

The vision tempts, but the reality is far different. Urban guru Jane Jacobs, who helped in the losing campaign to stop Toronto’s amalgamation, scorns the efficiency argument. “Anyone who has had to deal with a big-city bureaucracy,” she says, “knows that the idea that bigger is more efficient is laughable.”

Four years ago, a public admin professor in Florida studied the costs of core municipal services in 24 fragmented localities around Miami. He found economies of scale in only two of them, fire protection and libraries. All other services – including police, public works, parks, water and waste – came in at equal or less cost.

The argument from equity is similarly flawed. Montréal’s Filip Palda argues the reverse, that inner cities have intrinsically lower service costs per unit because they are more densely populated than suburbs. When they are morphed into larger cities, they lose that advantage and the core ends up subsidizing more expensive services in suburbs. His position makes sense in the real world. The struggle of Winnipeg’s core area to prosper inside the Unicity maze of cross-subsidies — notwithstanding cancerous policies like rent control that forbid dense market-based housing redevelopment — refutes the egalitarian claim that prosperous suburbs would bail out the centre.

As for planning and the environment, the interests and values of people in different areas of a large city may be completely contradictory. When confined by a larger, lowest common denominator polity, divergent views cannot be accommodated and confrontation tactics ensue. Headingley seceded primarily because its plans for economic development were effectively quashed by the stranglehold of Plan Winnipeg.

In short, more jurisdictions are not a problem. In cases where it makes obvious sense to work in concert – arterial roads or emergency services, for instance – diverse, decentralized communities can plug into ad hoc arrangements for special purposes. The agency that handled such matters pre-Unicity was the Metropolitan Corporation, which worked pretty well.

The economic theory that supports the wisdom of competing municipal governments is hardly new. In his 1956 paper, A Pure Theory of Local Expenditures, economist Charles Tiebout said the model was superior because it allows urbanites the ultimate check against poor government. If city officials fail to provide what citizens want at a reasonable cost, the people can “vote with their feet” by moving across an invisible boundary to a more responsive jurisdiction.

The lesson applies as well to unsophisticated attempts to stop “urban sprawl”. Let diversity and choice prevail. That is the resounding message of Hollywood’s effort to have local control.

Stay tuned for the movie version, which is not being filmed in Manitoba.