DUBLIN, Ireland -- Mike McKeever and I traveled 5,000 miles east from California this week to debate SB 375 in front of a Trans-Atlantic audience of planning and policy wonks at University College Dublin. Characteristic of how we each look at things, when we sit down to answer questions, my water glass was mostly empty and his was mostly full.
My presentation focused on the background of AB 32 and SB 375 and the challenges associated with implementing the regional Sustainable Communities Strategies, such as the one adopted by the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, of which McKeever is the executive director. The American sponsors of the symposium were the National Center for Smart Growth at the University of Maryland and the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.
My bottom line was this: Under SB 375, neither the state nor the regions can coerce local governments to follow the SCSs; and it's unlikely there are enough financial inducements available – especially with the loss of redevelopment – for the state and the regions to compel the locals to do the right thing.
That leaves what I call nudging. Using the financial inducements that are available – including transportation investments – and the general flow of policy, the state and the regions will have to nudge local governments to move in the right direction. Yes, my presentation (which otherwise included the requisite Schwarzenegger action-hero images) ended with an homage to Monty Python. (Nudge, nudge, wink, wink, know what I mean?) Mike McKeever, as I acknowledged in my presentation, is one of the great planning nudges of all time.
McKeever, to his credit, was not nearly as glib and cynical as I was. But his bottom line was that you have to trust local elected officials to understand that smart growth policies are in their best interest. You need not assume that you have to muscle the locals from above because they're too stupid or parochial to figure this out. "If you can't win the hearts and minds of local leaders, you're never going to effect change," he said.
As a former local elected official, I couldn't agree more.
After spending two days listening to presentations about state and regional planning efforts throughout the United States and Europe, McKeever made two good points:
1. A state planning law like SB 375 actually creates and stimulates a discussion about planning goals and planning implementation that can elevate local electeds out of their parochialism if it's managed well. He pointed specifically to the SB 375 debate at the Southern California Association of Governments as an example.
2. States and the federal government should rely more on performance standards and allow regions and locals more flexibility in meeting goals. He posited that this approach could be tested usefully if Obama is re-elected. I could add, this could be equally true even if Romney is elected and somehow tries to make the Partnership for Sustainable Communities work from his perspective.
Of course, Mike and I had this debate on the very day that the Irish government announced a massive consolidation/reduction of local government and rearrangement of both local planning power and state infrastructure power so that it is exercised at the regional level. But we're not tempted by all this. It's time to come home.