The Only Elected Regional Government in the U.S.

Why has no other region followed the model of metropolitan Portland?

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Like many metropolitan areas in the U.S., Portland, Oregon, has a regional governance system, a bureaucratic overlay that has enabled region-wide planning and coordination. In many ways, it’s like a lot of regional entities – looking after transportation issues, addressing infrastructure that crosses municipal borders, and generally operating from a mindset of what's in the best interests of the region as a whole. But Portland’s regional system, Metro, is different than every other regional system and group in the country: its members are elected. With a strong focus on regional planning efforts and a highly regarded sense of urban governance, the Portland region has been a model metropolitan region. So why hasn’t any other place followed?

“It’s oft cited, never copied,” says Kate Foster, a visiting fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. She’s an expert on regional governance, and seems both bemused and unsurprised that Portland’s elected system hasn’t taken off in other places. When Metro was established in Portland in the 1970s, it came at the right place, in the right time and to the right audience.

“Places in the west – and Portland’s a good example of this – were growing rapidly. And rapid growth tends to get people thinking regionally,” Foster says. “There was a really high consideration about regional planning and these gaps in service delivery at the regional scale, things like water, sewers, and roads. These are things that weren’t really thought of in the same way in the east.”

Foster says Portland had the right combination of a pro-planning governor and a growing number of environmental and civic groups interested in larger-scale issues. It also helped that, at the time, the region was not very diverse.

“At the end of the day, Portland is a relatively small metropolitan region and it’s relatively homogenous. It’s homogenous racially and its homogenous background-wise. This is changing today, but it was back in the '70s this was first voted in,” Foster says.

The passage of a statewide planning law in 1973 paved the way for Metro, which began operations in 1979. It now covers 3 counties in Oregon, encompassing 25 municipalities as well as a number of unincorporated areas. Though it has no direct zoning authority, Metro is the federally recognized metropolitan planning organization for the region, and develops the regional transportation plan that directs federal funding. The region is divided in to 6 districts, each with an elected councilor in addition to an elected president.

“We’re directly accountable to the voters,” says Ken Ray, Metro's spokesperson. “My seven bosses go before the voters every four years. It’s a valuable check for us to see if what we’re doing is in line and in keeping with what the voters want.”

Unlike other regions that have councils of governments made up of representatives from each municipality, Metro’s council members don’t actively advocate for the interests of any one city or town – which can sometimes be a little irritating to individual cities and towns in the region.

“There’s some natural tension that’s going to exist between regional government and local government, just as there probably is in any state between state government and local government,” Ray says.

And that tension may be part of the reason Portland’s elected regional governance system hasn’t caught on.

The closest comparable system is the Metropolitan Council of Minneapolis-St. Paul. It shares similar powers over the region’s planning and services like sewers and water, but its members are appointed by the governor. When it was originally formed in 1967, it nearly became the first regional government to have elected members. But according to Curtis Johnson, a former council chair in the ‘90s, the proposal to have elected members was voted down in the state senate by just a few votes.

“And you can figure out why,” Johnson says. “Any senator can do the math and figure out ‘I’m just about to approve an arrangement in which some local elected official has a district twice the size of mine.’”

“Our governments are pretty wedded to the city and the county model. And counties in particular are very sensitive to the notion that you’re going to group them up and put somebody over them,” Johnson says.

The politics of regional governance – even without elected members – make the concept difficult to implement. But as the cities within metropolitan regions become even more interconnected, the need for such a regional approach is growing, according to Johnson. However that doesn’t mean the idea of a powerful regional body is likely to take hold in many places. Johnson worries that, given the political climate, even a successful regional government like the Metropolitan Council wouldn’t be able to develop today.

“If we didn’t have it, we couldn’t get a bill to create it passed,” Johnson says. “Times have changed.”

He’s also doubtful that other regions will follow the path of Portland. He says one way existing regional governments like the Metropolitan Council could follow Portland’s model would be to give the council members more complex powers that Portland-style accountability is necessary. “I can see that maybe happening in the future,” he says.

But for now, Portland remains the only regional government to take this path. And even Minneapolis-St. Paul’s appointed model hasn’t been followed. Johnson finds the whole thing a little perplexing, especially given the reputation of each place as a well-functioning region.

“How is it that you can have these two models who apparently sit atop two very successful metropolitan regions, where costs have been managed more efficiently than other places, where they’ve gotten their regional act together – why doesn’t that spread? Why isn’t it imitated?”

Top image: Rigucci / Shutterstock.com

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.