Do Cities Need More Autonomy?

Cities have become an indirect beneficiary of the federal government’s ever-growing reputation for dysfunction. This year, the Brookings InstitutionBenjamin BarberThomas Friedman and David Brooks have all argued that city governments are now setting the standard for effective policymaking across the nation. Some believe that cities’ recent record justifies devolving more responsibilities to the local level, or at least reining in burdensome state and federal mandates. Already free from the incompetence and partisanship that continues to paralyze the federal government, perhaps cities deserve more autonomy to do more, and if we grant it to them, the nation as a whole would benefit.

But before asking them to do more, we should carefully assess how well cities are meeting their current obligations. The results are not, in every respect, encouraging. A recent Wall Street Journal series highlighted city governments’ fiscal woes, which still persist over four years after the recession ended, and have sometimes resulted in insolvency. Weak leadership and management are far-too common, especially among the nation’s many small and mid-sized cities. Some cities, in some areas, may be achieving great things. But it could just as easily be argued that, generally speaking, local governments’ problems and need for reform merit more attention than their achievements. And it’s far from clear that liberation is the most promising path to reform. More oversight, by state governments or federal bankruptcy judges, has certainly proved to be unavoidable in the case of Detroit and other fiscally-distressed cities.

So do cities need more autonomy?

Aaron M. Renn

Aaron M. Renn

Aaron M. Renn is a writer, speaker, and consultant on state and local affairs. His web site, started in 2006, has emerged as one of America’s premier destinations for serious, in depth, non-partisan, and non-dogmatic analysis an...Read More »

Stephen Lisauskas

Stephen Lisauskas

Stephen Lisauskas is a Senior Fellow for Urban Revitalization at the Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research. During a 15-year career in local government, he held key management positions for Natick, Newburyport, and Haverhill, MA. More recen...Read More »

Day 1 – Opening Remarks

Aaron M.:

Since Republicans have had much success at the state level but little at the municipal one, disempowering cities can be politically appealing as a way to halt liberal policies. Democrats have always loved regulations and imposing mandates.

But this is a mistake. Local governments need more, not less autonomy. What’s more, micro-managing localities is hypocritical because states never cease to complain about federal mandates and meddling. It’s do unto localities as you hate the federal government doing unto you. Daddy does not always know best.

It’s the nature of laws to create uniform approaches. To the extent that states dictate policy, it’s likely to be one-size-fits-all. But the landscape of local government is extremely diverse. The needs of a major city vs. an inner suburban one vs. a small town, etc. are radically different. Existing rules that differentiate based on population classes of cities provide only a crude means of addressing this distinction.

The locus of the new economy is metropolitan areas. These are vast mosaics of jurisdictions that need to work together better, but each piece needs the freedom to differentiate itself. It’s axiomatic that specialization helps a football team to function as something greater than the sum of the parts; similarly each city in a region needs to develop its own role on the team and bring its “A-game.” Today’s marketplace is more segmented than ever, so cities need the freedom to target segmented markets in order to find ones where they may have a competitive advantage.

As Harvard’s Michael Porter put it, “Competitive strategy is about being different.” This requires freedom to chart a unique course. One way to accomplish this is through broad latitude for cities to obtain a self-amendable home rule city charter.

Cities also need relief from state mandates that hinder their ability to deliver services efficiently and effectively, especially legislation favoring public sector unions over residents. Its citizens, not its employees, should be a city’s constituency.

While state oversight and some limitations on taxation and the accumulation of unfunded liabilities is clearly warranted, in general cities need more, not less flexibility to be able to respond to market conditions.


Improving local government does not require more autonomy. Rather, we need (1) good management that (2) engages and informs the electorate in an open, transparent manner, which in turn (3) demands good government from its elected officials who then (4) create the context for even better management to thrive. Granting additional authority will not address these essential components of responsible governing. Absent good management, additional autonomy only papers over waste and dysfunction. It only accommodates it and allows it to grow into the space provided by the new authority. 

In 2004 to 2005, the state-appointed Springfield Finance Control Board revamped the finances of the City of Springfield, MA. The City had posted deficits for 18 consecutive years. In its first year, the Control Board eliminated the City’s deficit and posted a $6.7 million surplus. In subsequent years, the Control Board broadly reformed the structure and operations of the City, but in all instances only exercised the City’s own powers. State government’s involvement in Springfield’s affairs was critical. But no changes to the city’s powers needed to be made to stabilize Springfield’s finances. A failed city government was reformed using the powers inherent in that city, but using them in a more progressive, thoughtful and responsible manner.

It may be necessary to expand local authority in specific cases to address certain unique situations. Perhaps, for example, a city should be granted the power to permit ward representation on its legislative body or lengthen a mayor’s term. By and large, however, expansion of local authority is not needed to effectively conduct the business of local government. The efficiency and effectiveness of local governments can be dramatically improved, not with additional autonomy, but with a focus on improved management and fostering the political context that permits it. Both of these can be driven by engaging the community in a truly democratic process that informs and involves the electorate in their government.

If cities like Springfield that approach fiscal collapse are most often restructured by exercising only their existing municipal powers, along with a temporary intervention by state government, it stands to reason that other, less distressed communities can also improve their efficiency and effectiveness using only their existing authority.

Day 2 – Rebuttals

Aaron M.:

Stephen calls for a culture of good governance and an engaged citizenry. Who could be against that? However, these items are largely unrelated to how many powers a government is allowed to execute.  It’s also worth noting that emergency managers, control boards, and such do sometimes have extraordinary powers not available to city government. And that many localities have become captured by labor interests precisely because of the way state mandates empower them to all but forcibly collect dues for political activities.

However, this brings up a vital point in that autonomy can be measured in two dimensions: the degree of freedom from oversight, and the number and extent of permitted powers. These are distinct. A local government can be subject to little to no oversight from the state and yet have few powers as well. Similarly, broadly empowering local government is not inconsistent with a strong oversight function. In fact, providing such state oversight is important since constitutionally localities, unlike states, are not sovereign entities.

There are two ways to deal with the risk of bad governance. One is to limit the damage bad governments can do by minimizing their powers. This is, as they say, letting the bad apples spoil a good time for everyone.  (It’s also the standard, all-purpose justification for regulation of business as an over-reaction to abuse).

Another method is to have a strong oversight and review function. Having strong state oversight of cities – such as by ensuring they are not accruing large unfunded liabilities – actually enables those cities to be empowered to do more, precisely because someone upstairs is watching. As long as the state oversight entity operates in a timely manner and is limited to matters of bona fide abuse such as financial mismanagement, not being a daddy-knows-best second-guessing function or way for the governor to impose his ideology on every locality in the state, I think this is actually the best way to safely enable localities to be trusted with greater powers to conduct their own affairs.


Specialization helps a football team excel, yes, but there are rules to a football game, and the players perform duties required of them by a central authority (the coach).  Players are not free to do whatever is best for them or their fans.

Cities and towns do need to specialize to truly thrive economically, but this specialization is the tip of the iceberg.  Success is built on a foundation of good government, of local services being delivered well, regardless of the region’s economic specialty. 

Municipalities play critically important roles in our society.  From public safety to education, public health, land use and transportation, cities and towns provide the conditions within which people and economies can succeed.  These services, delivered effectively, are the most important precursors to economic growth.  Focusing on the need for autonomy so municipalities can differentiate themselves largely misses the point.  It also misses the point that this autonomy currently exists.

Think of Boston, a city in a state which grants comparatively little autonomy to its cities and towns. Boston has had a specialized economy for centuries, with current specialties in higher education, biotechnology and financial services.  These areas of focus were developed over time and are possible because the region, though expensive, provides excellent core municipal services, with safe streets, good education and a high quality of life.  The region has not selected this strategy.  The market recognized the region’s strengths, was willing to live with its higher costs, and local governments – working with the Commonwealth – took advantage of these opportunities.  All this was done in a region with comparatively little local autonomy.  It can be done elsewhere as well.

But how have we done this with so little autonomy?  We have done it by doing the “day-to-day” of local government effectively, by focusing on the iceberg, not the tip.  We have not done it universally or well enough, but we have done it well. 

Municipalities do not need the autonomy to pick winners and losers for our economy.  Private investors – with much more information, expertise and motivation (read: money at stake) – pick wrong all the time.  Focusing on the proper administration of local services will create the conditions for the market to differentiate itself based on the strengths in a particular community and its region.  Many cities and towns do this today.  We must continue to do it better and more broadly.  

Day 3 – Questions from the Moderator

Stephen-Please speak directly to the union issue. Local government is the most heavily unionized “industry” in the nation. In blue states, where most of the recent cases of fiscal distress have been found, state laws on collective bargaining, binding arbitration, pensions, etc., plainly elevate the interests of unions above localities and their managers. Such laws restrict good management, and enable bad management, by giving managers an excuse to put off reform. Are you in favor of weakening pro-government union laws, to give local managers more flexibility, and, if so, does that not make you a proponent of local autonomy after all?

Aaron-Let’s talk about functions. At present, cities are responsible for public education, public safety, land use decisions, some infrastructure, and quality-of-life services such as parks and libraries. In making the case for more local autonomy, are you saying that cities should take on more functions—ones which are now performed by the state and/or federal government? Or is your point that they should simply face less regulation over those functions they currently perform? Please be specific.

Aaron M.:

Because the structure and powers of local governments vary so widely across the country, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. However, in general, my belief is that local governments generally do not need to take on totally new functions. Rather, they need to be given the power, freedom, and funding to better manage existing functions.

As studies in places like Atlanta, Indianapolis, and Louisville have shown, urban core type areas routinely operate at a tax deficit in their states. The state takes in more money from them than it returns in spending.  This becomes a problem when it makes it difficult for cities to take care of their own business.

Consider transportation. The feds collect money and return some of it to the states with various special-interest-backed strings attached. The states keep quite a bit of the remainder, plus raise funds of their own, which are disproportionately spent on rural boondoggles. For example, Ohio’s largest road project is a $440 million bypass of a town of 20,000 people.  Comparatively little is suballocated to localities as of right, and those localities have few levers other than general taxation (property taxes) to raise transport funds. What’s more, if they do get money from on high, they must go through an onerous and expensive process to obtain it, and comply with design standards that are frequently inappropriate to developed urban areas. It should come as no surprise that our urban infrastructure is in such poor shape.  

Core cities are also subject to financially-crippling unfunded mandates. For example, the largest public works project in most places today often flies under the radar. It is an EPA-mandated remediation of combined sewer overflows. This can be a multi-billion dollar expenditure. For the most part, combined sewers exist for historical reasons and were environmentally-friendly solutions at the time they were introduced. (In an era of horse-powered transport, dilution was the solution).  Cleaning up our water is a good thing, but there is absolutely no cost-benefit analysis for this, and generally no funding provided. It is an absolute mandate that hugely disadvantages cities that have the misfortune of being older and which are already struggling with legacy costs.

The very administrative structure of cities, and their various revenue funds and how money must be allocated are often specified as well.  In the Comments below, Chris Barnett gives a perfect illustration of this kind of state micromanagement in Indianapolis.

In short, funding levers and control should be devolved (at least partially) in many cases, unfunded mandates significantly curtailed, and cities should be able to control their administrative structure, form multi-jurisdictional compacts, etc. without having to get permission.


While I agree that state laws regarding collective bargaining can elevate the interests of employees above those of taxpayers, this is not a necessary result of these laws.  I have seen – and experienced – these laws being used effectively by good managers and leaders to do the “impossible”: to discipline and terminate employees, adjust the cost of public services, and cut benefits.

The real issue is what I referenced previously – management and politics.  Collective bargaining laws establish rules that management and labor must follow to establish compensation levels and working conditions.  This is not inherently a bad thing.  As we find in many areas of government, however, these laws create vested interests, and vested interests work to “capture” the government to promote their ends.  In the same way that pharmaceutical companies push for government action – or inaction – that benefits them and defense contractors convince members of Congress to fund defense systems that no one wants, unions are a vested interest. 

Politics allows labor to too-strongly influence the management side of the bargaining table.  The ability of labor to vote and fundraise for specific candidates provides them control not afforded to residents and taxpayers, whose interests we assume are being pursued but, lacking lobbyists or bargaining agents, are too often given subordinate consideration.  The problem is not collective bargaining per se, it is the political problem of vested interests.

Good management provides residents and taxpayers active representation in their government by actively involving them in it.  “Adult discussions” are held regarding trade-offs about revenue, spending, capital needs, and the costs and benefits of each.  Are wages and benefits too expensive to allow us to fund a desired service?  Should we raise more revenue, reduce compensation and benefits, outsource a service, reduce our workforce, or not provide the service at all?  These discussions will help develop the political will to take prudent action.

There are instances of gross unfairness and many instances in which unions pressure elected officials for higher compensation and more benefits, only to turn around and fight against funding these benefits in order to hire more employees.  This compromises the fiscal stability of the government.  This is a problem, but one that required management to agree to it, originally.  These problems are not necessary outcomes of collective bargaining laws; they are outcomes of poor management and/or poor politics conducted without sufficient disclosure to the public.

Am I a proponent of local autonomy?  Absolutely.  But I also believe that management needs to better use the tools they currently have.  I and many others have used existing powers to put the interests of residents and taxpayers first.  Changing laws to eliminate collective bargaining could help, but is not absolutely necessary.  It will also fail to prevent the same problem from occurring in every other area of government where vested interests seek to take advantage of taxpayers.  

Day 4 – Closing Remarks

Aaron M.:

Clearly it is difficult to isolate the matter of local government autonomy from all of the various surrounding factors that lead to civic success or failures.  Items such as regional vs. fragmented jurisdictions, unitary governments vs. special purpose districts, good governance, and so much more all play a role.

But cities, predominantly larger cities and regions, do need more empowerment.

They have the staff capacity to do it, are generally net tax donors, and crucially have major media outlets that hold mayors and such accountable.  They also have a need to invest heavily in infrastructure to remain competitive. Among the powers they should receive are the abilities to reorganize administratively (such as by a self-amendable city charter), forcibly consolidate non-general purpose entities in their jurisdiction (e.g., mayoral control of schools), and have much greater funding leverage devolved for transportation and infrastructure spending. There should be an end of unfunded mandates and pro-union laws as well.

Generally today larger cities already have more power due to the “classes” of cities. But they often have limited financial power compared to their states. Virtually all income, sales, and gas taxes flow first into state coffers, and a lot of federal aid is likewise routed that way.

In return, there should be caps on debt and taxation levels, with exceptions requiring the approval of the voters. States should be able to review and disallow financing transactions such as complex derivatives, cash out refinancings (which is how Indianapolis owed more on the Hoosier Dome when it was demolished than it cost them to build it in the first place), or interest-only types of debt.  Keep in mind, however, that in some cases cities resort to these gimmicks precisely because they are limited in other ways to raise funds.  For example, Indianapolis sold its water system to raise funds for infrastructure at the same time state was spending untold billions of dollars on a number of highways that are of marginal value at best.

To pick an area to start, I suggest transportation, where significantly more funding should be suballocated to localities instead of the state DOT. The Metropolitan Planning Organization in urban areas provides an existing entity that already operates at regional scale through which to start doing this. Urban center areas should be exempted from highway design standards created for greenfields. Do these two, and then expand from there.


The responsibilities placed on cities and towns are broad and significant, directly impacting the lives of every resident in every community.  Given the dysfunction we find in our federal government, there is a natural tendency to ask those who do well to do more. That would be a mistake.

Providing more autonomy to cities and towns to work in new areas risks compromising their ability to focus on and deliver core services well.  In communities that are functioning poorly, more autonomy is the last thing they need.  In all instances, we should focus on providing the most effective, efficient services possible to the public, and that should be the focus of all governments, regardless of how effective they currently are.

Even in the worst-governed municipalities, experience shows that the vast majority of the public wants an effective, efficient government.  Experience also shows that the level of public safety and public education in a community are core drivers of that municipality’s success.  Regional issues may eventually be implicated but those are often problems of already-successful cities and towns. 

We should focus on helping all of our cities improve services, not on diluting their effectiveness by providing them more autonomy to compensate for the fact that other governments have become less effective.  That would not solve the real problem – dysfunction at other levels of government.  Those problems should be solved by solving them, not by shifting responsibility to another level of government, all while risking the success local governments are achieving today, with only the hope that dysfunction does not spread to them as well. 

Where additional autonomy is needed, it should be considered on a case-by-case basis.  There is not a broad need for more autonomy, nor is there a call for it.  There are numerous examples of cities that succeed greatly using their current autonomy.  How have they done this and what can we learn from it?  There are exceptional examples of states and cities partnering to address specific needs and opportunities – education reform in Massachusetts; Albany-area nanotechnology development in New York.  Instead of focusing on providing broad new autonomy to cities – some which will use it well, some which will sacrifice management and leadership focus in other important areas to pursue it, and some which may misuse it – we should renew our focus on doing the day-to-day well.  At the same time, we can work to develop consensus on the need to address the specific issues that need to be addressed regionally.  This is how every regional solution has been developed – there was a need identified, negotiation and discussion occurred, and a solution was reached.  It takes hard work, but that’s governing.

Aaron M. Renn

Aaron M. Renn is a writer, speaker, and consultant on state and local affairs. His web site, started in 2006, has emerged as one of America’s premier destinations for serious, in depth, non-partisan, and non-dogmatic analysis and discussion of the issues facing America’s cities and regions in the 21st century. He has been featured by the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Economist, and his writings have appeared in Forbes, the New York Times, and City Journal. Aaron’s insights are rooted in a 15-year career in management and IT consulting, where he was a partner at Accenture. He is also the founder of civic data analytics firm Telestrian.

Stephen Lisauskas

Stephen Lisauskas is a Senior Fellow for Urban Revitalization at the Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research. During a 15-year career in local government, he held key management positions for Natick, Newburyport, and Haverhill, MA. More recently, Stephen served as Executive Director of the Springfield (MA) Finance Control Board, and helped move that city from 18 years of deficit to five consecutive years of surplus, leaving more than $64 million in reserves upon the departure of the Board. He has led or participated in four municipal turnarounds, including the bankruptcy restructuring of Central Falls, RI. He holds two degrees from Syracuse University, a BS in Political Science and an MPA from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.

Comments (26) Add yours ↓
  1. Jim Russell

    Cities do not need more autonomy. I’m skeptical that more autonomy, particularly given the fragmented polity of the metropolitan area, will do much good. Given the choice between state or municipal oversight, I’ll side with the state. Cities impact rural areas, even those outside of the MSA. The state is in a better position to weigh those interests.

    Chicago is a good example of city power run amok. The core thrives while the rest of the city rots. That’s not a problem of lacking autonomy. That’s a result of the abuse of autonomy.

    November 11, 2013 Reply
    • Aaron M. Renn

      I would actually consider the post-child in the other direction. As corrupt and mis-managed financially as the city has been, the state of Illinois is even worse, with three governors in recent years going to prison, massive unfunded liabilities, gridlock, etc. Plus in any state with a “four horseman” style legislative system, one or two people from tiny districts (like Mike Madigan and John Cullerton) basically control the state. At least all of the citizens of Chicago vote for me.

      In practice, states also tend to be gigantic welfare redestribution engines on behalf of those rural areas. Most cities that have been studied send far more in taxes to their state governments than they get back. Rural mega-highways are the favored economic development too, etc.

      I can see looking at a highly fragmented place like Pittsburgh why one might take a different view though. Perhaps it depends on the particular dynamics of the places we know best.

      November 12, 2013 Reply
      • Jim Russell

        Mismanagement and misuse of power happens at all scales of governance. But more autonomy for cities won’t solve that problem. If anything, the best argument is for more federal oversight of cities with so many metros impacting the economies of multiple state jurisdictions. Neither cities nor states are sovereign economic containers. The status quo political geography is a convenient fiction for the power-hungry.

        November 12, 2013 Reply
  2. Pete Saunders

    Cities haven’t always demonstrated the ability to handle more autonomy. For every fiscally sound city on the leading edge of innovation there’s at least one fiscally distressed city dealing with its legacy issues. True, good-government cities would benefit from greater autonomy. But old-school, personality driven power plexes would only sink faster with the reduced oversight.

    In fact, the real issue at the local level is not one of autonomy, but of capacity. Some cities have been blessed with visionary leadership at various times, leaving behind a legacy for future leaders to emulate. Others have not. Some have had pragmatic dealmakers who’ve created great cities almost by accident. Others have only known shortsighted, partisan hacks for large parts of their history and continue to pay the price for it. If someone, at some level (state, or even regional) is not pushing local leaders to build their own capacity to address local matters that have broader origins, where will the impetus for better governance come from?

    November 11, 2013 Reply
    • Stephen Lisauskas

      Stephen Lisauskas

      You make an excellent point. With any organization – particularly one we know will exist in the future – there are important questions of “the next guy/gal.” Providing more autonomy may be tempting today, but what will that mean in the future when a new person is at the helm? What will that mean in a different economic context?

      As a municipal manager, I bridled at the Progressive Era limitations on municipal autonomy. I sure was glad they were there, though, when the recession came upon us and markets dropped significantly. Sure, Detroit had the autonomy to issue derivatives, but they certainly paid for it.

      November 14, 2013 Reply
  3. Carl Wohlt

    The rise of globalism has exposed American cities to public and private sector competitors with enormous resources. I’m not sure how becoming more autonomous is going help our cities – especially medium and small sized cities – compete more effectively. Yes, they need to have the regulatory and political flexibility to adapt quickly to changing economic conditions, but at the same time there is a need to stay strongly connected to larger scale political entities that can provide resources (think of the Gulf Coast cities after Katrina and the BP spill) that cities can’t generate themselves. What is worth pondering more deeply is how cities can partner with other cities within their region to strengthen competitiveness, especially in areas where state boundaries are leveraged by the private sector to facilitate an economic race to the bottom. Cities need a certain level of political autonomy from their home states to form interstate alliances with other regional cities, while at the same time working with others at a regional levels requires sacrificing some autonomy in order to play well together.

    November 11, 2013 Reply
  4. Chris Barnett

    Ours is a nation of metropolitan regions with medium-to-large cities at their cores.

    It seems rather clear that cities and metros of a certain population, physical size, and complexity are often the economic engines of their respective states, while they are also home of some unique needs. “One-size fits all” state policies can be grossly inappropriate for metropolitan areas and their core cities.

    Most states redistribute revenue from metro areas to smaller cities and rural areas with state-level over-taxation. (Most large metros are net donors to their states.) In the worst cases, this over-taxation is used by state government as justification for allowing only a restrictive bundle of local tax options. Few cities have the choice to levy all three main kinds of taxes: property, income, and sales. In some states, cities can’t cooperate with other local governments by compact (to share costs or revenues) unless specifically granted such powers by the state legislature.

    Now…is it really a state matter if (say) nine or ten Central Indiana counties form a Regional Transportation Authority without state approval? Or if those counties choose to tax and spend for bus or rail transit? Public hospitals? What if two or three suburban cities elect to join the Indianapolis Public Library system to give their residents more service, choice, and access to facilities and materials? This list could conceivably include every type of tax-financed local service that benefits from scale. Do any of these things really supersede legitimate state function or interests? Does any of these inter-local arrangements “hurt” another municipality in the state?

    This is one reason HUD grants some funds directly to “entitlement cities”, to avoid state-level redistribution of federal grants intended as aid for mainly “big-urban” problems.

    November 11, 2013 Reply
  5. Daniel Hertz

    What I’d love to see states do for cities–some other people have mentioned this–is give them some kind of rational jurisdictional boundaries. That is to say, make it easier to have some kind of regional governance. In places like metro Chicago, giving municipalities more power is essentially hyper-decentralization, and is likely to promote even more myopia and provincialism than already exists. There’s some muttering about that here–Gov. Quinn’s commission looking into regional transit governance seems inclined to recommend giving more power to the metropolitan-level RTA at the expense of suburban Metra and Pace and city-based CTA–but mostly things seem kind of hopeless on that front.

    November 11, 2013 Reply
    • Stephen Lisauskas

      Stephen Lisauskas

      This issue is perhaps best seen more broadly in fire departments. In many older communities, fire departments were formed before the internal combustion engine was developed, yet fire stations are still located where they were when horses pulled fire wagons, before “new” bridges crossed rivers, etc. These fire stations may protect a portion of an interstate highway, only to hand it off to another department when the municipal boundary is reached (perhaps requiring department #2 to enter the highway going west, travel west to the first exit, turn around at the first off-ramp, re-enter the highway and travel east to get to the accident). The same things happens with isolated sections of a community that could better be protected by a fire station in another community, yet we need to have our own fire station to protect our people.

      In this instance, local autonomy, combined with a lot of history, creates a problem. For these older communities, a re-envisioning of services – perhaps every decade – would help provide a touch-point to make sure services are provided in the most effective, efficient way possible.

      November 14, 2013 Reply
  6. Robert Munson

    I’m glad this discussion is happening. Thanks. I think both sides make helpful points. And in the Comments, I particularly want to highlight the point that cities within a sub-region should be collaborating to solve problems that they cannot solve themselves .

    My initial take is this debate may not mimic the content of the federal vs. state authority debate, but the difficulties in clarifying the debate seem similar.

    Being impatient, I reconcile myself quickly to the conclusion: “Just test something and see if it solves the problem.”
    Politics today certainly would benefit from this non-ideological approach… and we might even get a few policies that work.

    Unfortunately for my neat little world, we do not write laws so they are flexible and can solve problems in different ways. Until that innovation is widespread, solutions are restricted by a few people (usually men who grew up in a different era) compromising the brains out of proposed legislation so we end up with something too rigid to solve problems of this new era.

    The way to breakthrough this dilemma is to ask to basic questions.
    First: “What is the deal we are asking citizens and taxpayers to buy into?” In brief, get the consent of the governed.
    Second: “Is government clean enough to deliver on its promised deal.”
    Clearly on the federal level and in many states, both those questions cannot be answered affirmatively and they should devolve their powers to local and regional levels.
    My principle is the cleanest level of government should have the most authority to solve problems.

    November 11, 2013 Reply
  7. Randy A. Simes

    I would actually take the discussion in a slightly different manner. I believe regional governing structures need to replace the way we manage our cities today. In many cases around the country the primary “city” crosses many political jurisdictions. In Cincinnati, for example, just the downtown area alone sits in two states, three counties and five cities.

    The lack of a strong regional governance has also reared its head in New York City where politics in New Jersey blocked a project that would have clearly benefited not just New Jersey residents, but also New York City businesses, while also improving travel times into and out of Manhattan. Infrastructure investments are rarely local issues, and therefore require regional governance to ensure that they are done for the betterment of the region.

    With all of that said, if we are deciding where to assign governing power over cities, the state and federal levels are terrible places to imagine. In no way shape or form can the state or federal government be agile enough to handle localized issues that require very specific and very swift resolutions.

    More autonomy should be given to the local level, but it should be reformed to be more regional in nature so that arbitrary political boundaries do not get in the way of addressing regional issues.

    November 12, 2013 Reply
    • Stephen Lisauskas

      Stephen Lisauskas

      From the standpoint of development/infrastructure projects, you make a valid point. What I consider, however, is that local government is so much more than development/infrastructure projects. These certainly grab a lot of attention, but I believe there is sufficient autonomy granted to cities and towns today to administer their core functions. Do we need to change the fundamental character and nature of local government to address specific projects (few in number) at the risk of further separating local governments from the people they serve? That closeness to the people you serve is an incredibly valuable aspect of local government that shouldn’t be underestimated. There are trade-offs in every situation. It may be that requiring a heavier regional “sell” to get a project approved is a price we pay for having more functional local governments with clear and robust accountability to citizens.

      November 14, 2013 Reply
  8. Rod Stevens

    What’s missing in this discussion is “why?” Why do we care that cities perform? What are the goals of a functioning city: public services, economic growth, or a balanced budget.

    To me, the argument that good public involvement will turn things around is naive, for why should the public want to be involved? What purpose will draw people out? If the city is being run for the benefit of a elite, either private interests or public employees, then you can’t expect this.

    Simply devolving power won’t change things, either. As long as the status quo is served, why change things? This is something Erin has argued about economic development.

    The larger issue then becomes, “how do you want to change behavior?” If it’s economic development, then you have to change the base conditions. That probably means cutting out grants from above, making the cities truly dependent on themselves so they become city states. That’s what Vancouver and Toronto have become, and, to a lesser degree, Portland and San Francisco. And that’s where the regulatory change comes in. If you want Pittsburgh to act as a region, you have to eliminate the Balkanization of political power.

    But, if you want these metropolitan regions to truly compete for money and talent, then you also have to remove the outside influences that lead to bad decisions, like pork barrel federal politics that make new freeway construction cheap, when the real emphasis should be on an alternative form of transit, or perhaps a different public good, like education. This all assumes, again, that the end goal is a place that makes and sells something to the world, and that quality of life is key to sustaining that places’ competitive edge.

    Obviously I don’t have a lot of faith in the ability of regions to heal themselves. I do think competition between metropolitan areas will lead to some reform. It’s simply minded to reduce this to new financial mechanisms, higher state standards, or better instruments of public involvement. We need all of those things. Perhaps most importantly, however, we have to decide what goals we are trying to achieve, and whether federal money is distorting how communities pursue those goals.

    November 12, 2013 Reply
    • Stephen Lisauskas

      Stephen Lisauskas

      Again, a great discussion. I find your comment about naiveté to be fairly far from the mark. I, for one, came to the centrality of public involvement in government as the key driver of change after having turned around four failed municipalities. I didn’t start there for sure, but it was an inescapable conclusion given what I have seen in both effective and ineffective municipal governments.

      In each failed city, I – and others who have done this work – have found cities that do not represent the people they serve in any meaningful way. They are elected to represent them but they do not. This quickly leads to interest group domination and control. Where residents are engaged and involved and where the municipality welcomes and solicits that, you get a much better product from government. You don’t need all that many people to be involved – maybe 100 across a city of 150,000. People want to be involved because their governments work on important issues, because they spend thousands of dollars a year on property taxes, and because people like to be asked.

      November 14, 2013 Reply
  9. Rod Stevens

    To clarify my earlier post:

    The basic issues are expectations and performance. We won’t get better city management simply by wishing it into place. Nor, if management is the issue, will simply “enabling” more tools necessarily lead to better performance. There has to be the will there to do more. Too often, the argument is simply “give us more money”. The real innovators are looking for new ways to do business, but how many of these have really exhausted all of their options?

    November 12, 2013 Reply
  10. John Stegall

    We live in a world that is increasingly unified by the distributed, broad-scale impact of economic, cultural and environmental issues. At the same time, nation-states and their sub-federal jurisdictions appear increasingly ineffectual, outmoded, and incapable of responding to, and reasonably addressing, these very same concerns. Witness, for example, our own government shutdown here in the US, as well as our inability to effectively conduct and execute long-range sustainable resource and infrastructural planning at the national level. These ongoing failures and their cumulative implications illustrate all the more glaringly the need for functional and effective government over the politically gridlocked and narrowly-focused mess that currently passes for it.

    There is evidence of existing and emerging metropolitan city-states both here in the US and elsewhere around the world, however, that have been able to respond to these same economic, cultural, and environmental issues more effectively, at least to the extent of autonomy maintained from their parent nation-state. This alone merits additional study and exploration of the autonomous metro city-state as the potentially most responsive and appropriate unit of government for our times, and should lead to consideration of models that could become more widespread in use. It is valid to consider here in the US that the founders had no frame for such political entities as we know them today when setting up our national government, hence no such designation for them in the Constitution. New York City in 1790 had a population of less than 50,000. More than two centuries later, we live in a very different world. We are long overdue for a rethinking of our approach to government at all levels in a way that reflects our current global context.

    November 12, 2013 Reply
  11. Eric M (American Dirt)

    It’s hard not to form any conclusion without referencing the 800-pound gorilla in the room (and my current home): the City of Detroit. Incidentally, America’s largest bankrupt city hasn’t suffered from the same legacy of profligate executive management that one might expect, given its current conditions. Yes, it’s had degraded bond ratings for many years, but during the lengthy and polarizing Coleman Young administration, the city was largely running in the black, thanks to his emphasis on cutting public sector jobs and raising the taxes (which in turn left an annihilated tax base in his wake, as people continued to flee the city). Fitzpatrick, conversely, was reckless in every sense of the word. And now the collection agencies are saying, “Cough up.”

    But where does this leave the metro? All I hear is how fragmented it is–how territorial individual municipalities are. I haven’t studied this in much detail, but it appears the State of Michigan already constitutionally facilitates the transformation of formerly rural charter townships into heavily autonomous cities, which is how big, square, affluent Detroit suburbs like Troy, Rochester Hills, and Sterling Heights emerged in the peak of white flight. Even within the municipal boundaries of this huge, emptying Motor City, I routinely hear references to the West Side, East Side, or Southwest, implying a guarded territorialism that might supersede all efforts of the Emergency Manager, or the recently reintroduced (first time in a century) council districts.

    One could argue that Detroit is a solid example for assessing how reduced municipal autonomy plays out. But does anyone really see the ailing city as a model, considering it reached this condition despite having a history of leaders that performed no worse (and quite possibly better) than similarly racially segregated major cities? Clearly I don’t have much of an answer to offer, but I guess we can use the Massachusetts example from above, juxtaposed with Renn’s shrewd counter-argument, to say cavalierly that “incompetently managed cities need less autonomy; smart cities with a well-articulated vision need more”. Since we lack a disinterested political entity to distinguish competent from incompetent, that doesn’t really get us anywhere besides reflecting on states as the Brandeisian “laboratories of democracy”–and then cities may be individual cubicles nestled within those labs.

    November 12, 2013 Reply
  12. Jon Seisa

    It really depends on what type of autonomous municipal powers you are speaking about. There are four known categories of urban autonomy powers, in which two are negative and the latter are positive. Having increased power under the two negative forms can be reckless and damaging to the disadvantaged class and powerless sector of the community, as well as to economic growth sustainability and the city’s future. So awareness of these four categories is highly critical to avoid a detrimental direction.


    1) Pseudo Autonomy – is when a city is empowered by a national and/or state government but is constrained in its authority by debilitation of resource availability through bureaucratic red tape and government over-regulations and mandatory qualification restrictions, depriving the city management and leaders of financial powers and preventing generation of funds for municipal projects, strategic planning, economic growth and infrastructural upgrades in a timely and efficent fashion.

    2) Cartel Autonomy – where powers are entrusted to a select and isolated municipal elite leading to monopoly abuse and negligence of power in collaboration with revenue generating associations, i.e. welfare entities and unions, that grow in political power to thwart the less affluent, poor and common who are regulated out of any participatory municipal process and whose voice is de-influenced and their lack of significant position is unable to make contributions to attain their community vision or facilitate their living interests. This is similar to the oligarchy autonomy powers of early Europe’s post-vassal city-states controlled by merchant guilds and associations that lead to rapid economic and financial growth but ultimately produced a reversal of growth decline leading to inertia and economic stagnation, a crash-and-burn process. Detroit is a perfect modern example of this process of the marriage of elite greedy unions and a controlling oligarchy municipal cartel where their one-sided self-imposed vision was foisted upon the city community at large; and ultimately ended in economic decline and stagnation.


    3) Joint-Optimization Autonomy – in which networking and cross-leveraging knowledge, expertise and know-how between groups, areas or divisional branches are synergistically empowered for mutual joint-optimizing benefits that produces shared-risks and shared-advantages, resulting in enhancements for the greater good and wellbeing for all concerned in the community. Such as community groups sharing knowledge and experience to drive campaigns for more schools, better housing and services, improvements in livelihoods, increased workplace safety, and creation of safer neighborhoods; or the sharing of expertise with the support of city authorities to drive local action for a nationally sanctioned cause circumventing federal agencies or involvement in order to activate the initiative within the city, undaunted by federal and state restrictions, and executed in a more timely fashion.

    4) Dissemination Autonomy – in which powers are delegated and devolved with systematic coordination and in a strategic planned mode and manner. This can include municipal participatory budgeting where the community is educated, empowered and equipped with skills to determine and establish city budgets, policies and integral priorities, producing “reversal prioritization” in which the primary agenda is determined from the community, from the bottom up to the municipal leadership. As a result, the most important and critical issues and needs to the community are developed and met, instead of bureaucratic financial waste on visionless boondoggle white elephants that are typically manifested, those “Bridges to Nowhere”, to self-adulate some bureaucrat’s puffed up ego on his or her tenure watch, solely for their personal legacy. Dissemination autonomy powers increases citizen’s involvement in their city and in decision making.

    Localism of cities (and states) should control and subvert intrusion of federalism, because big national government by its very behemoth nature, mired in a propensity towards endless over-regulations and restrictive mandated policies, always has a tendency to thwart innovation, industriousness, entrepreneurialship, individualism, productivity, free-market competitiveness, private sector dynamics, and economic development that is best understood, regulated and more effectively facilitated on the local level. Municipal leaders and city mayors are more connected with the pulse of their local economies and can implement more concise and pragmatic action than the national ideologues in D.C. So in that sense I see the need for cities to be independent masters of their own destinies, and to take control away from the federal government via the implementation of Joint Optimization Autonomy and Dissemination Autonomy powers that will precipitate significant improvements in resource efficiency, generate shared assets, enable participation across the board, increase potential for change, economic growth and improved lifestyles. Cities are a concentration of diversified nerve cells interconnected through the synapses of human ingenuity, and rich in opportunity for change due to the synergy produced by the scale of numbers that can transform the entire world in a positive manner, particularly in this critical yet technologically cultivated period of the Neo-Global Culture and emergent Knowledge Economy. Thus, in my assessment it is vital cities be empowered adequately, but empowered arightly.

    November 12, 2013 Reply
  13. Aaron M. Renn

    Thanks for the comments. I appreciate the question about metropolitan scale governance. With my familiarity with Indianapolis and its Unigov system (which was effectively a metropolitan government when it was first created), I see the pros and cons of this. Some pros are scale (and the resulting “capacity” that Pete talks about) and less location decision making made on simple tax arbitrage or implicit subsidies. Some cons are reduced minority voting influence as well as an ignoring of small scale or fine grained concerns generally (e.g., downtown vs. neighborhoods, big business vs. small business).

    In any case, everything about the way metropolitan regions are governed – or not governed as the case may be – is dictated by the state. Has the current way of doing business, which produced many clapped out inner suburbs and blighted inner city regions – in effect, creating a pattern of “disposable” communities in which the moderately affluent progressively migrate over generations to a new preferred greenfield suburbs, leaving only a few truly elite places to sustain themselves over the long haul without serious problems, actually worked well? In some places perhaps. But I’m not convinced this is the best we can do.

    November 12, 2013 Reply
  14. Rod Stevens

    The common goal here seems to be better management: how do we get more performance from our existing structures. Aaron argues for a liberation from strictures, in return for some kind of increased oversight at the regional or state level. Stephen seems to be hoping for a civic activism akin to the hopes for shareholder activism. I’ll go with the former, but it’s tricky. Remember that in the 1980s, we thought we could unlock corporate value by tying managerial comp closer to the stock price, but that this led to a lot of accounting games.

    How does a municipal manager win? Usually there’s a very simple metric: the size of the city he rules over, to which is compensation is generally tied. The question, then, is how you influence someone who already has the job to do better. Perhaps through growth, so that his jurisdiction would become even larger? The corporate equivalent would be mergers and acquisitions. The urban or municipal equivalent of this would be one city taking over the services of another because it could do a better job. This would be fraught with peril, the usual kind of gaming, but it would lead to the kind of “metropolitanism” that the Brookings Institute has been pushing. And, as we’ve recently seen in the case of Toronto, you would need to rejigger the governance system along the way.

    November 12, 2013 Reply
    • Stephen Lisauskas

      Stephen Lisauskas

      As a former municipal manager – and as someone who knows scores of them well – I have to disagree that they are motivated by the size of the municipality they manage or the compensation. If they managed a comparable private organization – or even a small business – they’d make twice the money and have fewer bottom lines to satisfy.

      Do not underestimate the desire of public servants to do a great job, or the power of standards to help make that possible. In Springfield, MA we implemented a robust performance management system (CitiStat) using existing municipal autonomy that saved $6.70 for every $1 we spent on the system. The reductions in violent crime, quality of life violations and other problems in neighborhoods we “deep dived” into were extraordinary. This experience has been replicated in many other communities that adopted similar programs for performance management.

      These things didn’t come about because someone increased the autonomy of the city, they came about because someone cared enough to do them. How do you replicate this? Require it statewide or help people care more about it. The latter requires a new politics, which requires the public to demand it.

      I’m not arguing for shareholder engagement per se, I’m saying that our problem is politics, and politics responds to public involvement.

      November 14, 2013 Reply
  15. Chris Barnett

    Rod wrote: “The urban or municipal equivalent of this would be one city taking over the services of another because it could do a better job.”

    Exactly. And this is the sort of flexibility that is absent for most cities and regions. Even when it makes sense and the benefits are obvious, it’s out of the hands of local elected officials.

    Post-Unigov combination of the Indianapolis Police and Marion County Sheriff’s departments required, yes, a state law to enable. And then a change in state law to make the Police Chief an appointee of the Mayor instead of the (separately elected) Sheriff. And another state law to straighten out the pension mess created by merging a FICA-exempt department with a FICA-paying department. Yadda, yadda, yadda. Important to note is that Unigov was severely restricted by the legislature when enacted; many laws pertain only to “first class cities” or have sections that are different for them. (Indiana has one first-class city.)

    What is grating is that the biggest concentration of legal, tax, and governance expertise in the State of Indiana is in the Indianapolis metro area. That rural and small-town legislators instead have free reign to push their own agendas when changes need to be made In Indianapolis’ governance or structure is a really good case for more autonomy, probably under a “charter city” provision in the State Constitution.

    Just this year the (Republican) state legislature and governor removed the four at-large council members from Indiana’s first-class city (Indianapolis), but from no other city or town council. Now, if at-large council members are problematic in one city (because Indiana has only one “first class city”), how are they not also problematic in dozens of second and third-class cities and towns? Answer: in Indianapolis, those at-large councilors are currently all Democrats. Here is an example of state-level interference, mandate, partisanship, and all-around bad intervention in local governance.

    November 12, 2013 Reply
  16. Carl Wohlt

    Isn’t the real question “autonomy from whom?”

    With the ever increasing push for privatizing former publicly managed services, and with transnational corporations now controlling the levers of power in the U.S. and other nations that matter the most economically, it’s not really state and the Federal governments that inhibit cities. It’s a global elite that no longer have ties to sovereign nations.

    What American cities need is autonomy from billionaires.

    November 13, 2013 Reply
  17. Robert Munson

    In reading through these 18 Comments, I think the most insightful ones tried to tackle a specific problem and whether its solution required more autonomy, or a different type of autonomy. I imagine that the shift in government powers in the next decade will occur mostly in two areas: fiscal health; and the nexus of transit and land use.

    For fiscal balance, clearly the state must have more oversight to sort out these problems which, ultimately, will require substantial good government reforms so that priorities can be remade to represent the whole.

    For the nexus of transit and land use, state authorities have failed most metropolises and this will get worse; strengthening many of the Commenters call to shape regional governments.

    While I admit my personal bias that I focus on these two strategic issues facing local government, I think this discussion would benefit next time by exploring authority and autonomy within the context of solving one specific, pressing problem.

    November 13, 2013 Reply
  18. Chris Barnett

    Stephen’s “technocrat” solutions defy the realities of political structures and elections. Yes, in a small city, 100 leaders probably can affect things. In a major city, it probably takes 1,000.

    Further, there is absolutely no incentive for a mayor or council on a 2-year or 4-year election cycle to think one day beyond their term; this is a structural failing of our system. The typical state-level “control” on this is to tightly restrict municipal powers, a consequence of the structural short-term view taken by local politicians.

    I am, as others, less sanguine about the dedication and competence of professional municipal managers than Stephen. I think that it is a real attribute of such folks that once they’ve managed or turned around the city of 50,000, the next challenge (and higher pay) comes from the city of 150,000. Regardless of the pay level, the career track is clearly from smaller to larger municipalities.

    At some point, the complexity and politics and history of a larger municipality will vex even the best professional turnaround manager. What worked in Springfield probably won’t work in Detroit.

    I can’t vote for the rural, small town, and suburban legislators in Indiana who think they are the “upper house” of local government. But I can vote for the mayor and district councilor (and until now, the at-large councilors who can tip the whole council one way or the other despite gerrymandering) and believe that is where matching levels of authority and responsibility for daily services should be vested.

    I haven’t so clearly made the argument as Aaron, that there are lots of government services cities are delegated by the state (or expected by citizens) to provide, but which they lack the fiscal and legal authority to provide in the most efficient manner possible. That Stephen was able to impose proper management upon Springfield using existing local legal authority (while occupying a state-imposed turnaround office!) does not sufficiently make the case against expanding local powers to self-manage.

    I also agree with Robert: a debate about a specific instance might be more illuminating. Perhaps Detroit. Or any of a number of City-County unifications.

    November 14, 2013 Reply
  19. Stephen Lisauskas

    Stephen Lisauskas

    I look forward to a discussion about more specific topics as you suggest, Chris.

    When you indicate that the technocrat solutions, as you characterize them, “defy the realities of political structures and elections”, are you speaking from experience or conjecture? I, for one, have worked extensively within political structures and these solutions have not only helped cities, they have been darn good politics. This applies not only to control boards, but also to the mayors and city councils I served. It also applies to the thousands of professionally trained public administrators out there who are applying “technocrat” solutions in political environments every day.

    You also observe that “At some point, the complexity and politics and history of a larger municipality will vex even the best professional turnaround manager. What worked in Springfield probably won’t work in Detroit.”. Again, this seems to be speculation. The techniques that turned around Springfield came directly from…….. New York City’s turnaround. There is no larger city or more complex municipal bureaucracy. Same tools, same excellent results. How do I know this? The man who led New York City’s turnaround is my mentor. He trained me The tools are exactly the same.

    We find some agreement in your statement that, “That Stephen was able to impose proper management upon Springfield using existing local legal authority (while occupying a state-imposed turnaround office!) does not sufficiently make the case against expanding local powers to self-manage.”

    The benefit of being a state office-holder is the distance between your future employment and local politics. But any successful turnaround must work through and with the local politics to INSTILL proper management, not to impose it. That which you impose disappears the moment you leave. A true turnaround is not done by fiat. It is done through teaching, leading and managing, all while working through the political context you are trying to change. That’s what makes the work so difficult and interesting. If it were just imposing technocratic solutions on an organization of moderately talented people, as appears to be the assumption, anyone could do it, quickly and cheaply.

    November 16, 2013 Reply

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