Save Local Government By Eliminating Local Governments

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

California is finally getting the local government apocalypse it needs. 

I love local government. In most places, it’s the most democratic, participatory, and effective level of government, and it deserves to be the most powerful and best-funded.

But in California, local governments are too weak and small to be effective. Why? There are simply too many of them. And so, for the past decade, I have pined publicly for an “extinction event” that would kill off thousands of California local governments. Now COVID-19 may fulfill my awful wish.

Heartless as it may seem, the only way to save local government in California is to eliminate local governments.

Our ship of state is barnacled with governments. In addition to the state’s hundreds of agencies, we have 58 counties, 482 cities, 1037 school districts, 73 community college districts, and nearly 5,000 special districts, governing everything from mosquitoes to cemeteries. 

Taken together, all these governments resemble nothing so much as San Jose’s Winchester Mystery House, with an incoherent design and overabundance of rooms that produce feelings of frustration and futility.

Citizens are represented by so many different governments that neither they, nor our shrinking media, can monitor agencies’ behavior. With so little scrutiny, our local governments routinely produce fiscal disasters—from corruption to budget-destroying retirement benefits. And instead of solving regional problems like transportation or housing, local governments get in each other’s way.

The resulting public distrust has led Californians to limit the powers of local officials—especially the power to tax, via Prop 13 and related measures. And those limits have made our local governments some of the weakest in the U.S.—and centralized California power at the state level. COVID-19 deepens this dysfunctional dynamic. Our local governments lack the resources or expertise to decide how to respond to the crisis by themselves; Sacramento makes the big decisions. 

And with financial support slow in arriving from the federal government, local governments are already cutting services and laying off employees. Local bankruptcies are suddenly on the horizon.

In all this pain lies great possibility. The local apocalypse is so big that every local government may need a bailout. But there are simply too many governments, and too little money, to save them all. In this moment, we must two enormous changes in our local governments.

First comes elimination of smaller and weaker governments—that’s the extinction for which I pined. Second, we need to make sure that remaining local governments are much bigger, more powerful, and more resilient, so they can give us more in good times, and hold up in future crises.

To do this, we also need to confront California’s greatest curse. Governor Gavin Newsom’s highly publicized brag that California is a “nation-state” acknowledged it, but in a backwards way. Yes, we have the economy, size, and population of a large nation—we’d be the 35th most populous on earth if we were independent. But because we’re a state within a larger country, we don’t have our own regional governments—our own states—like real nations do.

We should. Our regions—the North State, the Bay Area, the Central Coast, Sacramento’s Capitol Region, the San Joaquin Valley, the Inland Empire, greater Los Angeles, and greater San Diego—have the size and character of American states. And in our daily lives, we Californians are really citizens of those regions; our economies are regional, our sports teams have regional fan bases—and our biggest problems are regional. But, unfortunately, instead of having powerful regional governments, we’re split up into tiny shards of local governments instead.

Let’s fix that, by allowing California citizens to establish regional councils—an idea first suggested by California’s constitutional revision commission in 1996. These regional councils would form plans to consolidate our local governments and build real power.

They could start by folding our thousands of special districts into existing city and county governments. Fiscally weak local governments could be merged into stronger ones. It also would make sense to combine small, contiguous counties, cities, and school districts. 

My home county of Los Angeles, with 88 cities, is ripe for this. Do we really need both an El Monte and a South El Monte, a Covina and a West Covina, a Pasadena and a South Pasadena? Artesia, Cerritos, and Hawaiian Gardens already share one school district—why not a single City Hall, perhaps with Lakewood and Norwalk as well? 

To avoid having newly combined cities become larger versions of our current local weaklings, consolidation must be accompanied by restoring local government power—above all, the power for local officials to tax whatever they like, as much as they like. Local governments would then have control over their fiscal destinies, and be able to provide better services and more stable employment. In each region, local governments should jointly enact taxes to address regional concerns—like transportation, public health, and economic development—and to better prepare for disasters.

Such local governments would be more democratic and accountable. There would be fewer governments to watch, and more incentive for watchdogs to emerge, since governments would have more power to reach into our wallets. These newly consolidated governments also could more easily get rid of outdated departments, and produce more responsive, technology-based systems for providing services.

“We continue to provide [government services] without adequately re-examining their fit for the world we live in today,” former Santa Monica city manager Rick Cole recently told the Planning Report. “If we were starting from scratch today, we would design a government that looked more like the iPhone than the rotary phone.”

One blessing of this terrible pandemic is that we can start from scratch, and redesign our nation-state. The politics are favorable, too. The statewide interests that have protected centralized state power—our big labor unions and corporations—are also reeling from the effects of COVID-19. Any bailouts for them should be conditioned on their support for restoring local government to power.

The local apocalypse is here—whether we wanted it or not. Let’s come together and make the most of it.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.

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