Metropolitan Government Needs Federalism and Proportional Representation

by Howie Hawkins

This op-ed was submitted to the Syracuse Post-Standard on February 13, 2017 but not published.

The Green Party believes that our region needs a metropolitan government in order to effectively address segregation, poverty, economic stagnation, sprawl, and civic disengagement. Unfortunately, we cannot support the Consensus Commission's partial metro government as proposed.

The Commission's proposal disempowers city residents. They lose their local government, while the towns retain theirs. City residents are stripped of their local planning, zoning, and code enforcement powers, while the towns retain theirs. Debt is not consolidated. The city is reduced to special tax district to pay on its debts and underfunded schools. Schools and public housing remain segregated from the rest of the county, which has the the most “concentrated” (i.e., segregated) poverty of any metro region in the nation. This is the consolidation of segregation.

Only a metropolitan government can overcome existing municipal and school district borderlines that – intentionally or not – enforce race and class segregation in housing, schools, and job and business opportunities. But that kind of metro government requires a metropolitan school district and metro-wide policies to enforce fair housing, inclusionary zoning, and equal employment and business opportunities.

That said, with only a few concerns, we support all of the Commission's other recommendations for consolidation of governmental functions covering infrastructure, public safety, municipal operations, economic development, land use planning, and property tax sharing. These consolidations would result in better infrastructure, services, economic development, and environmental protection, as well as modest public fiscal savings. However, none of these functional consolidations require the Commission's proposed County takeover of the City. They can all be accomplished by inter-municipal agreements, as the Commission report notes.

While consolidation of various governmental functions can begin immediately, the current county government, as well as the Commission's proposed metro government, are not democratic enough to insure accountability and responsiveness in administration and fair representation in policy making. We must keep moving toward a truly democratic metropolitan government.

The Green Party proposes a federated model of metropolitan government that gives city neighborhoods the same local democratic powers that towns now enjoy. The city should begin now to set up neighborhood governments with these powers. As the noted urbanist Jane Jacobs recommended in 1961 in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, “Workable metropolitan administration has to be learned and used, first, within big cities, where no political boundaries prevent its use.” In order to plan effectively at the regional level, we must develop our capacities to do so at the neighborhood and town level. Our towns have experience here. Our city neighborhoods need local governments within which to develop it.

The Green Party's federated model for metro government would make both local and metro government more democratic by introducing citizen assemblies structured like New England Town Meetings, revenue sharing and participatory budgeting by the citizen assemblies, and proportional representation in the metropolitan legislature. It would retain the towns, create comparable local governments in city neighborhoods, and create a metropolitan government with a legislature elected by mixed-member proportional representation.

Proportional representation is the best way to optimize the competing concerns identified by the Commission for responsive local district representation, regional cooperation, and inclusive diversity. Half the legislators would represent districts. The other half would be at-large, elected from party slates in order to create overall proportionality in proportion to the countywide votes for party slates. The district representatives and metro-wide executive officers would be elected by ranked choice (instant runoff) voting. That method insures the representatives and officers are elected with majority support and not just a first-round plurality.

The Commission's findings indicate that the strongest argument for consolidation of governmental functions is better service yielding a better economy. The maximum projected savings $33 million are modest, less than 1% of the about $3 billion spent by all of the county's governments including school districts. To really address the fiscal crisis facing most of the county's governments, the Green Party calls for the consolidation of municipal lobbying of state government, in concert with fiscally strapped municipalities across the state, in order to restore former levels of state revenue sharing sufficient to cover the costs of unfunded state mandates.

We urge the county's various political units to immediately pursue the Commission's various functional consolidation recommendation. But we urge going back to the drawing boards for a full metro government structure. This time, include the school districts and develop a federated model that retains for the towns and gives to city neighborhoods a local government for local participation in planning, projects, and programs for town and neighborhood improvement within a metro-wide framework of more efficient and effective public infrastructure and services.

Howie Hawkins is Chair of the Green Party of Onondaga County.

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Howie Hawkins is the 2017 Green candidate for Syracuse Mayor
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