11:27 am April 22, 2013, by Andre Jackson, Editorial Editor

By Tom  Sabulis – The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Regionalism. The word has almost taken on a pejorative meaning in metro  Atlanta. A lot of people have come to dislike it, or at least, what it implies.  It was all but tarred and feathered during the bitter fight last year over the  proposed transportation sales tax, which aimed to fund regionalized solutions to  our traffic mess.

Even the chairman of the Atlanta Regional Commission, says he’d like to move  away from using the term because “it carries so much baggage.”

No doubt, he’d find some agreement among those behind the Georgia website  www.repealregionalism.com, which criticizes regionalism as a “4th layer of  government” and “an unconstitutional taxing authority,” among other things.

What’s next, then, for metro Atlanta and its problems if not regional  solutions? Sub-regionalism? Additional cities? Or more of the go-it-alone  approach that got us where we are in the first place?

At a recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution community forum, sponsored by PNC  Bank, we asked a panel of area leaders if true regionalism – or whatever it  should be called — is possible within such a diverse archipelago of interests as  metro Atlanta. Here’s some of what they said. (Comments have been edited for  clarity and space.)

Eva Galambos, mayor of Sandy Springs

On regionalism: I think regionalism is an abstract term. To  me, it makes sense for governments to work together when there are economies of  scale that you can garner by working together. That may be two or three  counties. It may be a watershed. It depends on what you’re talking about. It’s  not always the same thing. Regionalism, to me, is working together if it makes a  difference in getting more efficiency at lower cost.

Priority issues: The most important issue is water. There is  no way that any jurisdiction in the Atlanta area can prosper if we don’t have a  water supply. But in terms of transportation needs, the differences are so  tremendous, especially in densities. And transportation infrastructure has to be  related to density. If you don’t take density into account, you are going to end  up with product that is not used and you can’t afford.

Suggested fix: Fulton, DeKalb, Cobb, Gwinnett, Clayton –  that’s the region that needs to talk about transportation (collaboration). We  have four different bus systems — that’s ridiculous. The buses ought to be under  one central management. We need to think of the region in a different shape than  we have in the past, and make it more relevant to what the real problem is,  which is to meld MARTA and the other systems into one.

Cityhood trend: Since we (Sandy Springs) have come become a  city, we’ve paved 110 miles of road. We never saw a paving truck under Fulton  County. We put in a brand new park, 20 miles of sidewalks, street lamps up and  down the roads, all under the same millage rate. That says to me that people are  better off than they were before.

Positive regionalism: There’s a huge amount of collaboration  that goes on that the public does not realize. We have inter-governmental  relations with other jurisdictions on so many services. We make new  relationships where we see they are needed. My need to collaborate with other  local governments comes because I can see the benefit of lower costs if we do  things together.

Tad Leithead, chairman of the 10-county Atlanta Regional Commission  (ARC)

On regionalism: We don’t take up an issue and define it as  regional unless the board of the ARC agrees collectively that it is a regional  issue, and one around which collaboration is desirable. We have 39 board members  at the ARC — 10 are the county commission chairs for the 10 counties; 13 are  mayors. These are local elected officials who come together around issues where  we agree collaboration creates a synergy.

Priority issues: At the ARC, we very specifically have  identified what we believe are the top three regional issues. The top regional  priority is water. If people think we are running out of water, we simply cannot  be competitive in this national or international (business) environment. Second  is aging services. We need a public infrastructure that provides transportation  services, that provides facilities and programs for those who are aging who  don’t have the wherewithal financially to access those types of services on a  private basis. We have 750,000 people over the age of 65 in our region today. In  20 years that’s going to double to 1.5 million. The third issue is  transportation. We have right now $58 billion to spend on transportation over  the next 30 years. Our aspiration plan says that our needs total about $160  billion.

Suggested fix: We at the ARC developed several years ago a  number of principles for a regional transit entity that would bring all of the  various transit entities together under a single umbrella. But so far we have  not been successful in passing a transit governance bill. We have to recognize  that sprawl creates a burden and a cost on our infrastructure that is simply not  affordable any more.

Need for regional approach: In this region, 67 percent of  the people who get up in the morning and get in their cars to go to work, leave  their county and wind up in some other county. So it is truly regional in  nature. We are going to double in size over the next 30 years and we’ll have  double the number of cars.

Steve Brown, chairman, Fayette County Commission

On regionalism: One thing that doesn’t work necessarily is  mandated regionalism, and I think we’ve experienced a taste of that with the  state legislature. That’s one thing that we need to be careful of, where you’re  forcing the issue. The Transportation Investment Act (TIA) is one example of  where you had to participate in that (T-SPLOST) referendum. You need to have a  (regional) conversation. But a mandated policy where you have to fit into a  particular mold, I don’t think is necessarily productive.

Priority issues: When you’re talking about transportation  and water and a lot of things that we consider regional issues, the unfortunate  thing is that most of it is controlled by the state legislature. They are the  ones that pull the trigger. The decisions have to come from on high. The state  tried to do the transportation solution and it was just a very awkward  proposition. A lot of times the legislatures don’t have the knowledge to wrap  themselves around the issue. A lot of times they’re very parochial. A lot of  times it’s very, very slow.

Suggested fix: Flexibility is the key to planning in this  regional context, allowing core urban counties to collaborate with one another.  One thing I espouse is looking at sub-regions. It’s easy for me to get together  with Coweta County, south Fulton county, Clayton County and Henry County and  say, ‘We see you all the time, we drive on all your roads, what’s important to  us and what do we need to solve?’ You have to come up with a mutual solution  that’s going to benefit everyone.

Cityhood trend: I think the new municipalities have added  some vitality to those areas. It’s given them a sense of ownership. Allowing  people to decide their own fate and their own destiny, I think is a good thing.  Sandy Springs is an entirely different place since it became a city.

Ellen Mayer, executive director, Civic League for Regional  Atlanta

On regionalism: We often talk about regionalism in the  context of fixing problems. Regionalism also presents opportunities to achieve  shared goals, things we’re excited about. There are a lot of positive things  that can be achieved through collaboration and that’s being done on a 10-county  basis. It’s not just about the problems.

Priority issue: There is a disconnect. We elect our  officials locally and then a part of their time is allocated to regional  policymaking. It puts local elected officials in a very precarious position  sometimes because they’re elected to represent the interests of their  constituents. In campaign rhetoric, that turns into defending their constituents  against everybody else’s constituents and that does not set the tone for  collaboration. It’s very difficult for local elected officials to balance that.  I think it’s something that can’t be solved by any one thing and it will take  time, but we need to as elected officials and constituents (recognize) that  there are times … when we need to collaborate and there are times we don’t.

Suggested fix: At the Civic League, we would like to see  citizens and residents involved early and often in regional planning processes,  and in all planning processes. Since you don’t have regional elected officials,  you don’t relate to the people making regional policy decisions in the same way  you do your county commissioner or your mayor. With the transportation  referendum, I think that was a large part of the problem – the distrust, the  feeling that there was a lack of transparency. The legislation was written in  such a way that we didn’t have a year or two to involve citizens in these  conversations about transportation, and we should have. Going forward, any  attempts we make at collaboration, whether it’s a on a regional or sub-regional  basis, should involve citizens at the very beginning. Citizens should be  informing policymaking.

Cityhood trend: These new cities are born out of genuine  discontent with county governments, and distrust of government, and that’s a  problem.

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