Reconstructing Regional Politics: Special Purpose Authorities and Municipal Governments GCP-03-01

Dennis R. Judd
Professor, Department of Political Science
University of Illinois at Chicago

As Alan Altshuler and David Luberoff have noted, “Theorists of urban politics have paid scarce attention to mega-projects,” because “mega-projects are usually constructed by regional and state agencies” and not by municipal governments. I argue in this brief essay that the tendency of scholars to focus on city governments has meant that urban scholarship has missed the most dynamic politics driving urban development for decades – the emergence of institutions that often dwarf the fiscal, administrative, and political capacity of general-purpose governments. Unless these institutions are taken into account, most of the development occurring within urban regions cannot be explained or even accounted for. Any discussion of regionalism and regional policies must go beyond discussions of municipalities and their cooperative arrangements and must also go beyond a discussion of regional governmental authorities that pool taxes and administer services.

Development politics in the New York and Los Angeles regions from the 1920s to the 1960s, as described vividly in Robert Caro’s book about Robert Moses and in the films Roger Rabbit and Chinatown (and elsewhere) should have alerted scholars long ago to the overwhelming power that regional authorities have exerted in shaping patterns of metropolitan development – and theories of urban politics should have taken these institutions into account. In the past thirty years the problem inherent in focusing on municipal governments has become even more apparent. Since the early 1980s public/private institutions established to finance and manage the large facilities of tourism and entertainment such as convention centers and sports stadiums have grown up alongside older regional institutions such as airport and transit authorities.

As observed by Peter Eisenger, local priorities have shifted to policies favoring tourists and middleclass users entertainment spaces because public officials have become adept at bypassing the public.3 The deals that public officials must strike with private developers to assemble land, provide public amenities, and guarantee sufficient profits are so complicated that it would often be impractical to consult the public.4 As large-scale public planning has given way to deal-making, the most important development decisions are made in behind-the-scenes day-to-day negotiations.5 In addition, new public/private institutions of urban development have been created that are not bound by rules normally applied to municipal governments. As a consequence, the politics of urban redevelopment is rapidly moving from the arena of electoral and municipal politics into an expanding number of institutions that operate with little public accountability. It is imperative that the consequences of these developments for local democracy and for regional governance be explored.

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