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We Need More Home Rule With Cooperation, Not Coercion

There has been constant debate on "municipal fragmentation." People have moved to suburbs to create their own cities, splitting local governments. 


For some, cities need to have more autonomy to make local decisions. Others contend that there should be powerful metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) that effectively rid the cities of their autonomy to make the area more centralized. They argue powerful MPOs make better environmental, equity and transportation policies.

 

Yet, powerful MPOs have incurred disastrous consequences. For example, the creation of the Metropolitan Council in the Twin Cities metropolitan area, Minnesota, has created more dangerous suburbs and a more dangerous metropolitan area. Yes, travel times are down and the environment is better, but larger metropolitan areas have done these tasks without eroding city rights. A good example is California's Los Angeles metropolitan region. In fact, contra the Twin Cities case, most MPOs work like a confederation where elected representatives from neighboring local governments meet to formulate united plans that local governments can opt out of. 


However, as American politics have become more polarizing, local governments with different viewpoints than those of a higher authority have been attacked. For example, primarily Democratic California politicians have sought to copy the Metropolitan Council by creating policies like SB 375. These policies force cities to build affordable homes as a way to evenly distribute wealth inequality and to help the environment, all despite cities normally having these powers. When Republican cities protest, they are met with coercion through fines and loss of home rule powers.


In the Twin Cities, the Metropolitan Council has been accused of targeting conservative cities. The Metropolitan Council has plans to end single-family zones and to eliminate suburbs far away from Minneapolis and Saint Paul (to fight "urban sprawl"). They've also advocated equaling out crime and low-cost housing across each city against market realities. In fact, suburban wealth and safety have been equated to "white supremacy" and segregation as suburbs have become increasingly attacked.


It is clear that the object of substituting the home rule rights of cities covers more than just improving the environment, public transportation and wealth distribution. Rather, it appears the goals of MPOs, when used to circumvent city rights, are often tied to political activism from a relatively centralized government. This harms federalism in our local governments, which is meant to create competition between policies, separation of powers, democratic choice and the fundamental principle of the freedom of movement to migrate to the periphery and escape urban inefficiencies and, frankly, dangers.


By circumventing these home rule rights, the state, MPO and the principal city destroy bipartisanship. They allow policy frameworks that appeal to urban areas to dominate the suburban policies they have no legal power to create unless they destroy city autonomy. 


Part of what makes America great is the diversity of its cities. During COVID-19, people who wanted stricter measures and those who did not could choose which cities fit them best. 


Of course, there are some policies that require city cooperation, such as pollution. This is exactly what MPOs are meant for. But it appears that people have been using MPOs for ideological policies and not logistical necessities. 


This form of activism not only goes against the spirit of MPOs but also works against their goals by making them less trustworthy. When MPOs become necessities for lowering air pollution, it is much more likely citizens will push back because, now, MPOs are politicized. 


A federalist balance whereby the top and bottom, the central and the local, share powers is the best way to run MPOs. If Americans are able to coexist through democracy across city lines, then each person’s preferences can be represented best by one of the many layers of federalism.


Cities should continue to have home rule status. These cities should also continue to work with MPOs to make the lives of their constituents better, all without letting the MPOs dominate city policy. Cities should retain the right to leave or opt out of certain programs so long as the federal and state constitutions, plus the county charters, are followed.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author.

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