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Regional governance is here

By Henry Lamb
web posted March 1, 2004

There are currently six Regional Commissions in place, or pending final approval, which impact states from New York to California; from Florida to Washington. Few people realize that these regional commissions even exist, or the growing influence they have over the lives of ordinary people, by providing the mechanism through which appointed individuals, rather than elected officials, develop public policy.

The Appalachian Regional CommissionThe Appalachian Regional Commission, created in 1965, was the pilot project, created to provide federal funding for the poverty-stricken counties throughout Appalachia. The Commission brought new roads and improved infrastructure to poor counties, and was widely accepted by local governments.

Next came the Columbia River Gorge Commission, in 1986, with a different objective, and a different organizational structure. This commission was mandated by Congress, and required the States of Washington and Oregon to create the commission as defined by the legislation. This commission has become a nightmare, beyond the reach of either state government, or Congress, short of repealing the Act altogether. This appointed commission has absolute authority over all land use within the designated counties, with the authority to override both county and state elected officials.

The regional governance concept began in earnest with the Clinton-Gore administration. On the heels of the President's Council on Sustainable Development, came the President's Community Empowerment Board, chaired by Vice President Al Gore, which included 26 federal agencies. Through these initiatives, the Delta Region Study Commission was formed to advance the work of the Lower Mississippi Valley Ecosystem Restoration Initiative.

Columbia River Gorge CommissionFor eight years, this study commission, funded by Congress, defined and catalogued every facet of economic, social, and environmental activity throughout the 240 counties in eight states designated by the commission. The study commission became the Delta Regional Authority, on December 27, 2000, when enabling legislation was attached to the Farm Bill in the lame-duck session of Congress. The bill also created the Northern Great Plains Authority, covering North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, and Nebraska. This Authority receives $1.5 million through the Farm Bill, but President Bush has not included it in his 2005 budget, nor has a federal co-chair been nominated.

The Delta Authority, or Commission, is governed by co-chairs, one appointed by the President, Patrick H. Johnson who has one-half vote; and the other co-chair with one-half vote, who are the collective governors of the participating states. All the governors together have one-half vote, which must represent the majority of the governors. One vote is required to approve projects.

Using the data collected over the years, the Delta Regional Commission directs federal funds to projects it deems to be appropriate, and which meet the principles of "sustainable development." Projects are developed by "stakeholder councils," and proposed through "empowerment zones," and "enterprise communities." These stakeholder councils are often the same people, and the same councils, that serve as "visioning councils" in communities where "Smart Growth," Heritage and Historic areas, scenic byways, recreational trails, and ecosystem restorations are being planned.

Two new Regional Commissions are awaiting final approval by this Congress: the Southeast Crescent Region (HR141), which includes seven states from Florida to Virginia, and the Southwest Border Region (HR1071), which includes California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.

While these quasi-governmental regional authorities have brought new federal dollars to many communities, they are also eroding the authority and accountability of local and state elected officials. Moreover, they are slowly transforming the processes of representative government.

The governors who sit as co-chair on these Authorities, are mere figureheads; the work is done by appointed staff on loan from state and federal agencies. Because these Authorities are multi-jurisdictional, they operate beyond the control of any county or state. They are controlled only by Congressional appropriation to the various agencies that supply money to the regional authorities. Since the Clinton-Gore years, virtually all federal agencies have worked to advance the principles of sustainable development, as set forth in Agenda 21, and by the President's Council on Sustainable Development.

Stakeholder councils are driven by activists at the local level, promoting their particular agenda assignment, such as: Heritage areas, Historic sites, open space, mass transit, watershed protection, wilderness restoration, and growth boundaries. Typically, these councils consist of representatives of special-interest, non-government organizations, and employees of local, state, and federal government agencies. Ordinary taxpayers are systematically discouraged from participating in these groups, although the councils are said to represent the public.

These are the groups that dictate public policy through the design of "sustainable" projects they know will be acceptable to the funding agencies. Local elected officials can either accept the projects, or be ridiculed for rejecting federal money.

Henry Lamb is the executive vice president of the Environmental Conservation Organization (ECO), and chairman of Sovereignty International.

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