Municipal consolidation Quebec style: a comparative North American perspective (1).

AuthorVengroff, Richard

    In the United States, interest in consolidation of urban governments is cyclical. Many of the existing city-county consolidations occurred in the 1950's and 1960's. Recently, the successful city- government consolidations in Kansas City-Wyandotte County, Kansas in 1997 and Louisville-Jefferson County, Kentucky in 2000 renewed interest among urban reformers and academics. In most major U.S. metropolitan areas, a combination of suburban activism and central city minority political control makes metropolitan government a non-starter. The literature in recent years (e.g., Rusk 1999 and Stephens and Wikstrom 2000) emphasizes "governance" rather than "government." Nelson Wikstrom, a leading academic expert writes that "given the rise, recognition and institutionalization of regional governance, the concept of one comprehensive metropolitan government has become a somewhat archaic intellectual relic, identified with the past century" (Wikstrom, 2002). It is fair to say that no existing city-county consolidation, on either side of the border, can really be called a comprehensive metropolitan government.

    Despite these recent differences, we think that a U.S.-Canadian contrast is very important, feasible and useful, for at lease two reasons. First, these are strong local government similarities. City governments in both countries exist in the context of federal systems. Local governments are legal creatures of the state (or province) in both countries. Municipal governments share a common heritage based upon the English system (even in Quebec). Many of the reforms associated with the Progressive Era in the early 20th century United States crossed the border. These include the city-manager system, and the practice of nonpartisan local elections. Both countries lack strong socialist parties, especially at the local level. In recent years, both countries have devolved and downloaded governmental functions to the local level. Both countries have shown evidence of an active neighborhood movement. Some experiments in U. S. local democracy, such as Chicago's Local School Councils and Alternative Policing Strategy (Fung, 2004) can be viewed as parallels to developments in Canadian cities, such as the Montreal borough system.

    Second, many of our academic colleagues have made such comparisons previously. The most explicit comparison appears in Rothblatt and Sancton's (1998) edited volume on metropolitan governance. In this rich, detailed work, a Canadian metropolitan area (i.e., Montreal) is implicitly paired with a single U.S. metropolitan area (i.e., Boston). Laura Reese's (1997) study of local economic development policy compares cities in Michigan and Ontario. A recent volume on city-county consolidation (Carr and Feiock, 2004) includes a chapter on the Ottawa amalgamation. Donald Phares's recently edited volume (2004) on metropolitan governance presents an overview chapter on the U.S. and Canada, as well as a case study of the Vancouver region. Interestingly, this book also includes a case study of Mexico City, and a survey chapter on Europe.

    Overall, this literature concludes that Canadian cities have more highly developed metropolitan planning and government systems than their U.S. counterparts. Rothblatt and Sancton (1998) consider the differences and similarities in terms of political culture influences, policymaking influences, and the global social and economic situation. The political culture argument, in brief, is that the U.S. is more individualistic and privatistic than Canada. Thus, Canadian metropolitan areas have a political and social climate more sympathetic to metropolitan government. The lengthy, tragic history of U.S. racism also comes into play. Policymaking influences include the interplay of these levels of government; we will have more to say about this below. The global forces argument is that jobs and people have decentralized, and that a common competitiveness is important to any metropolitan area today. Newman and Thornley summarize many of these global changes in a world cities planning context (2005).

    Most of the researchers in these fields attribute the more highly developed metropolitan institutions in Canada to the major proactive role played by provincial governments. Still, there are many U.S. states which are activist in nature--California, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oregon, and Wisconsin come to mind. A crucial difference is the form of provincial government. Provincial governments have adopted Canada's parliamentary system. Thus, a caucus majority in a provincial governing party can impose a controversial government change. The result is "local government amalgamation from the top down" (Rosenfeld and Reese, 2004).

    The federal role differs somewhat. Despite the Canadian constitution's assignment of responsibility for municipalities to the provinces, the Canadian government is pursuing urban policy much more vigorously than is the U.S. government. Canada has financial equalization policies that result in transfer of federal monies to "have-not" provinces. While both federal governments are large landholders, the presence of the Canadian federal government in its cities, and the consciousness of this as a policy concern are greater. On the other hand, Canada lacks ongoing programs of direct assistance to localities, such as the long-standing Community Development Block Grant program in the U.S. Similarly, Canadian urban governments are less encumbered with federal mandates than U.S. cities.

    In the U.S., consolidations of cities and counties have been cyclical. However, U.S. cities have proceeded through a series of less comprehensive measures; annexation, interlocal agreements, and special district governments. Many U.S. observers feel that these lesser solutions provide a more fruitful and more feasible approach to metropolitan problem solving.

    To reiterate a point made briefly above: existing city-country consolidations are not comprehensive in their metropolitan regions. They have not really contained growth or sprawl in their areas. As constituted, they cannot deal with true regional policy issues, like economic development or environmental policy.

    The Quebec situation has many interesting aspects. In Quebec, the presence of local political parties in the larger cities provides a different environment for local elections. In Montreal, the linguistic duality creates a context that is politically different from almost all the rest of North America. The fact that Montreal is located on an island in the St. Lawrence River is a constraint for comprehensive governance. It should be noted that New York City reached its present form which includes two islands, part of a third island, and part of the U.S. mainland in 1898.

    Whatever the governmental form, whatever the governmental function, there is much to be learned on both sides of the border, from an awareness of the other country. U.S. cities can learn much from Canadian city-county consolidations; many have cited the Greater Vancouver Regional District as a less comprehensive, but more useful model for the U.S. Similarly, Canadian metropolitan areas might find the Twin Cities regional tax base sharing program, or the myriad efforts of U.S. cities' economic development offices useful.

    The story of municipal mergers and de-mergers in the Montreal area in the last five years is one of the most notable episodes in the history of North American local government. There are two main reasons why we think it is important. First, the Montreal case provides an outstanding example of conflicting values in metropolitan governance. The tensions between centralization and decentralization and between efficiency and responsiveness are fundamental to the Montreal situation. The issue of equity in the distribution of services and the assessment of costs is also critical.

    Metropolitan government reform has been an academic and practical issue for more than a century in North America and Europe. In American public administration, the traditional view among both academics and practitioners was that governmental consolidation was highly desirable. By making possible economies of scale, consolidation increased efficiency--or so the theory ran. Enlarging the tax base improved fiscal equity, while the broader problems of regional planning, transportation, environment and the like could be entrusted more appropriately to a new "higher" (i.e., metropolitan) level of government. By the 1920s and 1930s, political scientists and others favoring regional planning were regularly looking to metropolitan solutions (Munro, 1923; Institute for Government Research, 1932). This viewpoint was prevalent until the 1960s, and was evidenced in annexations, city-county consolidations, and other attempts to create metropolitan governments (for restatements of the traditional view, see Gulick, 1962; Bollens and Schmandt, 1965).

    Not all informed observers have favored consolidation, however. The public choice school agrees that the existence of a plethora of local government units maximizes consumer choice. Citizens can choose their location within a metropolitan area on the basis of the service package available, and the rate of taxes and fees levied. This view, based on economic theory, is given some support by survey research indicating that suburban residents are generally satisfied with the level of public service they receive (Ostrom et al., 1988 provides an excellent accessible statement of local public choice). The view that American citizens "vote with their feet" in moving to the suburbs has been accepted by many American politicians, including, most notably, former President Ronald Reagan.

    Other groups skeptical of metropolitan governance include community activists of the left, and minority politicians. Minorities often oppose metropolitan governance proposals because they would eliminate hard-won political gains. In the 1960s, "grass-roots"...

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