The Myth of Regionalism

By Jock O’Connell

(This is the text of an article that appeared in the Forum section of the Sacramento [California] Bee on Sunday, August 25, 2002.)

Four years ago, Forum featured a commentary I wrote entitled "How Green Was Our Valley: A Cautionary Tale of 2020 Sacramento." It depicted a vision of the Sacramento region's future that readers variously found provocative, amusing, grim or grotesque.

Four years later, it is not at all apparent that the communities of the six counties - El Dorado, Placer, Sacramento, Sutter, Yolo, and Yuba - that constitute the capital region are any closer to a broad consensus on the kinds of policies likely to ensure the region enjoys a future more satisfying than merely one of growth without distinction.

There has been no lack of vision-mongering among civic activists eager to make sure that the region avoids the fate of becoming L.A. writ small. And a variety of organizations have been busily pushing the case for greater policymaking cohesiveness among the region's numerous political jurisdictions and special districts.

As evidenced by the fractious debate these past few months over a tax-sharing proposal by Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), those who wish to instill the habit of regional cooperation have a long way to travel. And somewhere along that path, they will also have to contend with the socially divisive impact of a new generation of otherwise nifty communications technologies.

There are no easy answers, even though a well-packaged Power Point presentation may lead otherwise thoughtful and sensible people to conclude there are. What prompted me to write the March 1998 article was the enthusiasm with which many leading Sacramentans had been uncritically joining the "civic entrepreneur" movement, a dubious but nonetheless fashionable social diversion, organized locally under the aegis of a group called Valley Vision, that had hit town roughly between the Three Tenors and the Irish step dancing craze.

The fundamental thesis (and lethal flaw) of the civic entrepreneur movement was its abiding conviction that a dedicated band of private citizens could - independent of the political process - conjure up a vision of the Sacramento region's future so appealing in all respects that the entire community would enthusiastically rise to embrace both it and, presumably, the specific measures needed to attain it.

As a policymaking enterprise, it sought to, in the words of Sacramento State University government professor Robert J. Waste, "bring off the political equivalent of the virgin birth." The civic entrepreneur movement largely grappled with regional needs through a cleverly marketed approach that flattered its adherents for their own purposefulness. Inevitably, the movement came unglued for reasons that were entirely predictable.

Its participants (mostly white and comfortably well-off) ultimately grew weary of interminable meetings whose chief accomplishment was to set the time and place for the next meeting. Even more debilitating to the movement was the realization that there were others within the region - most notably those who were not white or comfortably well-off - who harbored some very different ideas about the region's priorities. Who would have imagined that Land Park and Oak Park might disagree on how best to promote a healthy "quality of life" in the region? Who would have thought that organized labor might disagree with the chamber of commerce?

Gradually, the truth dawned on the civic entrepreneur crowd that sorting out a workable agenda for the region would have to involve dialogue and perchance even debate with other groups. What became increasingly clear was that the movement's primary appeal - that it seemed to furnish an opportunity for making public policy in a genteel manner above the hurly-burly of politics and the bureaucratic constraints of government - was a pipe dream.

Those who remained committed to purposeful action drifted into more narrowly focused causes like open-space preservation, farm land preservation or smart-growth policies.

Even the out-of-town consultants hired to orchestrate the vision-mongering process moved on. After all, like any good illusionist, a shrewd consultant senses when the audience begins to see through the smoke and mirrors of catchy slogans and meaningless neologisms.

Today, Valley Vision is still laboring to make the case for regional thinking. A new publication lays out the group's agenda: "Valley Vision believes that the time has come to begin working together to solve regional problems on a regional basis." Further elaborating the same theme, a recent report from the Capital Region Institute, a research consortium of local universities and colleges, observes: "Many of the issues essential to improving our quality of life cannot be achieved by communities, cities or counties acting alone."

The option of actually instituting a regional government is a non-starter, repeatedly hooted down in public opinion surveys. Still, there is a resilience to calls for greater region-wide coordination in wrestling with those transportation, air and water quality, economic development and land use issues that transcend city and county boundaries.

At issue, though, is whether the desired level of cooperation can be achieved solely through the force of a compelling idea or vision. If anything, the experience of this and other regions around the country strongly indicates that neighboring communities coordinate their policymaking only when federal or state government agencies require a regional plan before awarding the funds for major infrastructure projects.

Other than cheering for the Sacramento Kings or sneering at the deadly earnest political antics of Davis (the city, not the governor), there is little palpable evidence that the region's citizens believe they have all that much in common.

So how, exactly, do you coax people into seeing themselves not merely as homeowners in Woodland or Roseville or apartment dwellers in midtown or Citrus Heights but as citizens of a much larger community? Strategies vary, but most proposals eventually come around to the hope that the local media would assume a greater role in fostering a region-wide civic culture through more frequent and extensive coverage of regional affairs.

That may sound like an excellent idea, at least on paper. Yet it is not paper (or even newsprint) that is the primary source of news and information for two-thirds of the population. Instead, local television news currently supplies most of us with much of what we know (or think we know) about our community and the world.

So are Sacramento's local television stations up to the challenge? The answer is not encouraging.

There is a substantial mismatch between the six-county capital region and the local television media market, which also encompasses San Joaquin, Stanislaus and Solano Counties. (It also raises the prospect that, by 2020, Sacramento and Stockton may have more in common with each other than with their more immediate neighbors.) Then there are the well-documented shortcomings of local TV news broadcasts. It says much about the public affairs coverage of Sacramento TV that the region's most recognizable public official is not a mayor or city councilor or country supervisor or even a congressman, but John McGinnis, the ubiquitous crime scene spokesman of the Sacramento County Sheriff's Office.

Lamenting the abysmal quality of local television news may soon be a moot sport, though. For everything we know about the television industry is changing very quickly and dramatically. And it is not just that how and what we watch will be transformed. So, too, may be the very concept of "community." The Internet and especially e-mail permit us to annihilate distance and to establish virtual communities with disparate "neighbors." Now comes a new generation of digital recording devices like ReplayTV or TiVo that enable television viewers to search out and record whatever programs they wish, regardless of which network or channel is airing them. In effect, these systems invite viewers to create their own private and highly individual television stations.

Taken together, the Internet and digital recording devices are likely to have a profound impact on how society is organized. As David Hosely, the station manager at KVIE, put the question during a discussion of these new technologies last summer: "When viewers can watch whatever programs they want, whenever they want, regardless of where the programs originate, how do we define the community our station seeks to serve?"

Hosely's question might equally be posed in the context of efforts to foster a regional identity in the capital region. Our ability to use new communications technologies to connect cheaply and instantly with like-minded people anywhere on the planet is a powerful centrifugal force straining the cohesion of the physical communities in which we actually live. In the future, we may no longer be bowling alone. But that does not necessarily mean we will have any closer links to the real community around us.

The divisive forces of new communications technologies exacerbate the already daunting challenge of building a regional consensus on civic priorities. It is a task made more daunting by the region's overriding penchant for parochialism as well as by a bold commitment to banality demonstrated by nearly all of the area’s political and civic leaders.

Not surprisingly, the Capitol Region continues to be very much at risk of blending seamlessly into the ranks of those other mid-sized American metropolises that are as indistinguishable and interchangeable as their airports.

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