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[From the Vault] Regionalism: Time to Party Like it’s 1999

photo.JPGI’ve heard it said that Buffalo is where good ideas go to die. I don’t think of it like that.

Buffalo is where good ideas are made to inhale chloroform, dragged around to the back of the abandoned house, and murdered by status-quo driven self-interest.

Buffalo in 2011 (and 2012) is besotted with the same problems, the same issues, the same concerns, and – strikingly – the same debates it had a decade ago.  Save one.

Regionalism.

Regionalism was murdered in 2005 after being debilitated by people who have an interest in maintaining the status quo, and then unintentionally killed by a politically beleaguered Joel Giambra; it was manslaughter.  After all, during the last few years of his 16th floor Rath Building tenancy, Joel Giambra was political poison. If he was for pink bunny rabbits and sun-shiny days, polls would show that 20% of WNYers agreed with him, while 70% hated bunnies and sunshine, and a further 10% didn’t know.

But as wrong as Joel Giambra was about a lot of things, he was right about one – that western New York needed to seriously consider the implementation of regional, metropolitan government. The champion of this idea was Kevin Gaughan.

Gaughan recognized that regionalism – a concept whose entry in the regional socio-economic-political discussion began through a forum held in 1997 at the Chautauqua Institution – was a non-starter due to its support from, and association with the toxic Giambra.  He turned his attention to another crusade – the “Cost“, which studied and determined that we ought to remedy a symptom of too many governments in WNY – i.e., too many politicians and appointees – and begin eliminating villages and downsizing town boards and other legislatures.  That has been met with some success, more failure, and bypasses the disease itself.

Yet those familiar with the internet’s Way Back Machine can still access Gaughan’s arguments for regional metropolitan government.

One of the opinions I’m most known for is the idea that county government ought to be abolished. It was done in 1997 in Massachusetts, which recognized that county government largely adds no value to the work already done by cities, towns, villages, and – most importantly – the state.

We have so many redundant and needless governments in western New York that the regional is factionalized and fragmented.  The Balkanization of western New York helps ensure that there is no unified plan – with a set vision, and a series of distinct goals – for moving a region into a 21st century reality.

We rely on the Sabres and the Bills to keep convincing ourselves that this is a major league city. It isn’t. Our infrastructure planning assumed that the City of Buffalo and Erie County would grow to a population of over 2 million people. It hasn’t; it’s shrunken. People clamor for change, yet moan about its actual implementation. As if by abolishing a village government you abolish the village itself and displace its people.

We are the ultimate hoarders; hoarders of pointless governmental entities that add no value to the civic equation. Why? Could it be as simple as my hypothesis – that there are too many people dependent on the maintenance of the status quo to permit change to be implemented?

It’s time for us, the people of Erie County and western New York, to start talking again about looking forward.  The governmental number and structure of the 50s needs to change, or this region will continue to decline.  The age of industry has given way to the age of knowledge and information.

The city of Toronto, Ontario is a municipal entity comprising over 2 million people. It has a directly elected mayor and a unicameral legislature made up of 44 councilmembers representing a geographical constituency. In 1998, Toronto and six surrounding municipalities joined, making up the amalgamated Metro Toronto. Buffalo also has a changed demographic reality, one that could do with some radical change.  You mean to tell me that 45 elected officials to handle a population of 900,000 isn’t doable? Western New York has 45 separate and distinct governments, comprised of well over 300 elected officials.

This is the first in a series, and it’s my hope that we can re-spark this discussion and come up with ways to implement and design this new reality for western New York. I sincerely think that by making this switch to metropolitan government is the best chance for lurching us out of a 50s growth & infrastructure mentality that has been an anachronism for decades. This is an idea that will be fought tooth & nail by those who benefit from our stagnated status quo, but some of their points will be valid and need to be addressed.  I hope to conclude with an action plan that will enable people to lobby, advocate, agitate, and cajole for this idea.

Downsize? Let’s downsize from 45 to 1.

Sometimes, old forgotten ideas are worth reviving.  Let’s do that.

The foregoing article was first published on March 8, 2011. Unfortunately, it didn’t really become a “series”, and that’s my own fault. Maybe by re-publishing it here, thanks to the archives of my old 2006 – 2011 posts that is now back online, I’ll remind myself further to pursue this line of thought and debate. 


  • Jesse Griffis

    I’m confused by the goal here – is it to try and eliminate county government in favor of a single municipal “Greater Buffalo”?

    I love the idea, if that’s the idea. It’s stupid to have such a huge pile of independent organizations all acting as if no one else exists.

    So what’s next then?

  • Max Planck

    While the lords of the 45 respective fiefdoms will balk, perhaps the rising cost of providing duplicitous administrative oversight and  services will force their hand when  taxpayers balk at increased taxes to fund them.

  • BlackRockLifer

    The problem with regionalism is not just the entrenched politicians but the selfishness of the entitled class. The wealthier and whiter outer suburbs will not cooperate, they have all the advantages under the present design and will fight tooth and nail to keep it that way. The sad part is the older inner ring suburbs will also go along believing they too benefit from the present state when in reality they are only a few years away from experiencing the same problems that have decimated the city.
    Regionalism would certainly save dollars, be the environmemtally responsible thing to do, and in turn would help the region prosper. I believe it would also result in the incentive to address the poverty and inequality that plaques WNY. It is just too easy to ignore those poor people when they are out of sight and out of mind.

    • This theme needs to be more thoroughly discussed and examined. BRL states a piece of conventional wisdom that history has proven untrue: that the (white/rich/entitled) suburbs will never cooperate on regionalism. But Toronto has rich white suburbs, and they joined the party. So too many cities in the United States. Why would rich white people in Toronto sign on with the poor minorities, but rich white suburban WNYers would not? Whatever the answer turns out to be (different applicable laws, different referendum statutes, different political views, etc), it needs to be investigated and debunked, so we can more correctly identify the actual hang up, if there is one.

      • TheBuffalover

        I don’t think its fair to assume that the demographics or income and race are comparable enough between these different areas to posit that challenges that may (or may not) have existed in Toronto and other ares would (or would not) also exist here. Definitely needs more looking into, as you suggest toward the end, before any one has an idea one way or the other.

  • Cynthia Van Ness

    While right on nearly every point, I think Alan has it wrong on one essential detail: the abolition of county government.  The county has the unique opportunity to be the unifying leveler: picture one county school system instead of how many?  One county water system, one county public works department.  

    Back in the 1950s, we merged three libraries (the Buffalo Public, the Grosvenor, and the emerging Erie County libraries) one county-wide library system.   The Library achieved this 50 years ago and it has never been recognized, studied, or appreciated by regionalism advocates.

    Abolish the county and you empower redundant districts, authorities, towns, and villages even more.

  • Jamil Barton

    I KNEW I recognized this post. Read it the first time and loved it then.

    Knowing that other regions have implemented the concept successfully, it only makes sense to figure out how and why it worked there. And then, after taking a look at how WNY is similar and different, responding accordingly. Getting the buy-in and implementation are among the greatest challenges. We couldn’t even get the buy-in part the first time around. And the fact that the post can only name 2 people who have seriously taken up this banner in the last 15 years suggests that WNY has not really given this an honest shot. I don’t see that changing in the near future but, its worth looking into.

  • TheBuffalover

    I KNEW I recognized this post. Read it the first time and loved it then.

    Knowing that other regions have implemented the concept successfully, it only makes sense to figure out how and why it worked there. And then, after taking a look at how WNY is similar and different, responding accordingly. Getting the buy-in and implementation are among the greatest challenges. We couldn’t even get the buy-in part the first time around. And the fact that the post can only name 2 people who have seriously taken up this banner in the last 15 years suggests that WNY has not really given this an honest shot. I don’t see that changing in the near future but, its worth looking into.