Managing Chaos: The Growing Allure of Regional Governance

Some form of growth management is pivotal to shaping California. For the last five weeks, The Times has explored the sense of crisis engulfing the state. There's a feeling that the California dream is turning into a nightmare. While the Golden State remains an economic giant with still-untapped potential, the phenomenal growth of the 1980s is now problematic. If the problems are not resolved, our quality of life and social inequities will worsen.

Frustration with what seems like runaway growth has unleashed local attempts to slow or even halt growth in some parts of the state. That's not the answer, because, like it or not, people will continue to flood into the state well into the 21st Century. The solution: A policy of managed growth.

WHAT IT IS: California needs a long-term, comprehensive, statewide growth management plan to meet demands created by the 1980s' population explosion. A socially equitable and conscientious growth strategy would help revive inner cities and communities, bring jobs back, reduce smog and protect open spaces from wanton development. Such measures would create an environment for sustainable economic development and help reverse California's anti-business image.

Existing policies and goals aimed at governing certain aspects of growth--air quality or transportation--are fragmented, uncoordinated and often contradictory. A hodgepodge of growth management efforts at the local level not only adds to the confusion but could even one day put localities at odds with Sacramento.

Effective growth management requires unflagging commitment from the governor, clear policies established by legislation and mechanisms to implement directives that are respectful of local concerns but skillful in inducing municipal and county governments to cooperate.

Gov. Pete Wilson seems headed in this direction. He created a Council on Growth Management in January to formulate recommendations by year's end. The idea he said then was "to shape our future, not just suffer it." His commitment could make a crucial difference from years past when legislative attempts fizzled amid executive indifference and uncooperative special interests. To bolster support, the Assembly and Senate created a Growth Management Consensus Project, representing interests ranging from business to ethnic groups, at Cal State Sacramento.

The emerging consensus stitched together from the governor's council and from five new pieces of legislation centers on issues of growth management: economic development, land-use (affordable housing, agriculture, conservation), transportation and environment (air quality, water and waste management).

Collaboration is the key because elements of growth management extend beyond county and city borders. Development plans for one city or town, for example, increasingly have some impact, often negative, on neighboring jurisdictions. The regional nature of problems requires regional solutions.

State efforts so far have tackled growth concerns with legislation for air quality, transportation or housing. Each is handled separately by a variety of single-purpose regional entities, ranging from the air quality boards to voluntary councils of governments. There is no consistency.

HOW TO DO IT: Creating a framework for growth management requires artfully superimposing new policies on existing entities. This would be the most expedient and prudent approach, considering the fiscal and political restraints on the state. The simpler and more resourceful the mechanism for growth management, the better. That process can best be served by realigning existing agencies and entities to produce desired results.

The focal point for formulating and implementing growth policies would be in the governor's existing Office of Planning and Research (OPR). It would define and coordinate statewide policies, set performance standards and create fiscal incentives. It would streamline and create consistency among state agencies. OPR already has reviewed 45 agencies for consistency in their planning--and found none. OPR would also develop some dispute-resolution mechanism. A guiding principle for growth management is to reward participation and cooperation with incentives. Heavy-handed sanctions must be avoided.

OPR would define regions to act as "bridges" between the state and local government. Designating regions is a tricky proposition, but the process is made somewhat easier if existing regional entities such as the voluntary councils of government and air quality or transportation boards are used. They would come together and decide on regional management plans, incorporating state and local planning needs and priorities.

Now is an opportune time to move forward to embrace the localities under a common growth management program. This would allow for maximum local flexibility and incorporate the various growth management efforts now under way in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties and in the Bay Area.

What's needed is regional governance , not regional government. The difference: Governance is a way of improving existing entities to govern better, rather than creating a new bureaucracy or layer of government.

If regional governance is to be anything of value to Californians, they must demand that it speak to the common good. And that means Californians must realize the common good requires give-and-take across the board.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The Times will revisit the issues of California's economic future on occasional Mondays.

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