Commentary : Council of Governments Is Needed to Deal With County's Problems

Dan Young is mayor of Santa Ana.

Orange County and its 29 cities have been issued a stern warning: Either clean up your planning act or lose your authority to decide the future course of your communities.

The state Legislature and the U.S. Congress have placed laws on the books demanding that local government use its land-use power to clean up the air, fix the transportation mess and address a wide variety of other environmental ills. These laws have sent state and federal regulators into action demanding results from cities and counties or threatening to take over local government's all-important land-use power if they don't.

How Orange County and its 29 cities respond in 1990 to this warning will decide whether or not local government can be effective in the 21st Century or whether it will pass into oblivion, replaced by now obscure regional bureaucracies. What is urgently needed is a Council of Governments in Orange County (a confederation of cities and the county) that will see to it that our environmental problems will be dealt with but without losing local control.

Perhaps the most ominous of these warnings has come from an agency created as a result of the federal and state Clean Air Acts called the Air Quality Management District. Because Southern California has the worst air quality in the nation, our local AQMD has been put on a short leash to clean up the air. Its demands of local government in Orange County to meet the clean air standards will tax our ability to think and act as a united group of cities. Among AQMD's actions to clean up the air are:

A demand that Orange County "balance" job creation with housing. Today we are "job rich" and "housing poor," according to AQMD. Having enough of the right housing stock near employment areas will, according to AQMD, cut down on traffic and hence, smog. The AQMD is demanding that cities plan an appropriate mix of housing and employment opportunities in their cities. AQMD is considering parking fees and other taxes to create incentives for job creation in the Inland Empire and disincentives for job creation in Orange County. Cities are on notice to "balance" the housing/jobs equation or lose their current authority to approve development projects.

A demand that the county and the cities prepare air quality plans that restrict work schedules, encourage ride-sharing and mass transit, restrict approvals on development that pollute the basin or do not incorporate solar energy and other "clean fuel."

A demand that the county and the cities pull all of these environmental ideas together into a growth-management plan that is consistent throughout every city in Orange County.

If these demands are not ominous enough, the Legislature has "upped the ante" on local control with the passage of AB 471. This landmark legislation requires the county and cities to measure the performance of every traffic intersection in the county and give it an A to F grade. If a city allows an intersection to fall to F, or failing status, it would be punished by being refused gas-tax funds, the only source today of local road improvement money. The bill goes into effect if the governor's gas-tax plan is approved by the voters in June.

These are but two of the more important mandates on local government. Congress and the Legislature are considering a raft of new bills that follow the same theme--local government must either come together to solve macro-regional problems now or be replaced by macro-regional agencies that will do it for them.

Can Orange County get its act together? The recent incorporations have increased the number of locally elected officials to 180. This is substantially more than the 120 members of the Legislature, which is frequently accused of being too big and cumbersome to effectively solve problems. How, then, can 180 elected officials come together to legislate coordinated, far-reaching plans mandated by new federal and state laws?

For the past year and a half, the Orange County League of Cities has been negotiating with the county and other regional agencies to create a council of governments in Orange County. This agency would require no new taxes, but rather would consolidate the planning budgets of the Orange County Transportation Commission, the Southern California Assn. of Governments, the Orange County Transit District, County of Orange, AQMD and others. By consolidating these functions, one agency could formulate a coordinated strategy for transportation management, air quality, waste management and jobs/housing balance. Because these functions would be pulled from existing agencies, no new funds would be needed. Control would remain in the hands of the cities and the county through a governing board made up of city and county representatives selected by all 180 locally elected officials.

Sounds like the natural thing to do, doesn't it? No new taxes, big picture coordination, local control. Why then did the bill carried by Sen. Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach) to create this council of governments fail during the last session of the Legislature?

A major flap developed over who would be on the board of directors of this new agency. The original concept of five city representatives (one from each supervisorial district selected by the full League of Cities) and two or three county supervisors failed when the Board of Supervisors refused to go along with any plan that did not include all five county supervisors. The formula was then changed to include all five supervisors and expanded to have 10 city representatives; two from each supervisorial district.

Sadly, the compromise died in the last hours of the Legislature's session when the supervisors decided to oppose the compromise because it left them with less than a majority control of the new board. Hopefully, this petty debate can be put aside.

Since land-use control is the principal tool for implementing these environmental policies, and the county is over 90% incorporated into cities, the board needs to encourage the new role of cities in solving the regional issues and allow 10 of the 175 elected city officials to be represented on this new board.

A second flap that appeared to be resolved was the inclusion of the Orange County Transit District (bus company) into the new agency. Some argued that mass-transit planning must be part of the regional plan while others agreed but argued that we must avoid the Los Angeles quagmire by keeping bus company operations separate from the planners. The compromise that appeared to work for all was to leave the transit district as a distinct legal entity but draw its directors from the 15-member council of governments board to assure consistency of leadership of planning questions. Hopefully, that compromise will stick.

Within the League of Cities there has been discussion as to how to assure the involvement of all 29 cities in the powerful issues that would be discussed by the council of governments. The best idea to date is to create a congress-of-cities format so that all 175 city representatives could meet, perhaps quarterly, to discuss current issues and legislative resolutions embodying the sense of all the cities. This would then provide the 10 city board members with a consensus view of how all the cities feel about the key issues.

If we move with the council of governments legislation, the county and its cities can demonstrate the leadership necessary to prove that the big issues can be solved by local governments working cooperatively. Otherwise, the warning that local government faces today will become a cry for extinction tomorrow.

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