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Why Your City's Home Rule Status is Under Attack

Many politicians have advocated for greater metropolitan integration since the post-World War II suburban boom.

Home rule municipalities now exist in 41 states. These cities have legal autonomy to control things like zoning, bearing a relationship to the state that is similar to states' relationship with the federal government. 

The suburban boom allowed citizens to create municipal corporations that provided different lifestyles with different rules and demographics than the principal city. Unintended consequences followed.

For one, suburbs exist away from the principal city, which detractors claim leads to upticks in traffic, bad air quality, accidents and decreases in worker productivity and health. For example, Los Angeles' lack of timely public transportation from the suburbs has created an over-reliance on cars, leading to the aforementioned issues. L.A. suffered from severe smog during the middle 20th Century, leading to cooperation between the cities, counties and the state for regulation. 

Another example is city-controlled zoning. In most states, cities must place industry away from residential areas to limit pollution effects, but this often applies only within the city. Some places have no legal authority to make sure the industrial area in one city does not border the residential area in another. This is what's happening to Boyle Heights in Los Angeles, which suffers from cancerous environments due to factories near Vernon.

Principal city politicians complain about lower tax pools due to "rich flight," when wealthy individuals flee to suburbs to escape being taxed more, taking money meant for social services. These wealthy individuals still use the principal city's roads, parks and other amenities, fostering freeloader concerns. However, suburbanites contend they already pay into re-distributive taxes at the county, state and federal levels.

These issues led to the creation of metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs).

MPOs are usually confederations of cooperating local governments in a metropolitan region for solving issues across boundaries. Local governments generally continue to hold ultimate authority in deciding their laws and can leave the MPO or opt out of certain programs. MPOs are often controlled by elected representatives in each local government. For example, smog in the Los Angeles metropolitan area is regulated by the state and MPOs, such as the South Coast Air Quality Management district (AQAM) and the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG). 

The Metropolitan Council MPO in Minnesota's Twin Cities metropolitan area is unique in that it has the power to override city zoning laws. Further, representatives are selected by the state, often against suburban citizens' wishes. Thus, many who decry the effects of municipal fragmentation (too many cities in a metropolitan region) have looked to copy the Metropolitan Council because of its power to regulate without city pushback.

There is a battle between those who wish to keep city autonomy, allowing it to formulate its own laws by cooperating with MPOs or not, versus those who wish for MPOs to usurp the responsibilities of cities to create better environments, transportation and equity.

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