Established with varying levels of authority by the state legislature, their governing bodies may be appointed, elected or borrowed from its local government ranks. These entities engage in regional growth planning and technical assistance provision across a wide variety of programs: transportation, economic and workforce development, environment and social services. They deliver a variety of federal, state and local programs, and as such, are effective partners for state and federal governments. Notably, they vary widely in scope and power, usually determined by pre-existing government structures and the size of the region. Their funding also varies, as they may be financed by the state, specific taxes, or from their local government members.
Metropolitan councils were conceived in the mid-1960s. The two decades prior are characterized as an era of voluntary cooperation, with approximately 175 regional groups. Over the next two decades, metropolitan councils were driven by national requirements as a precondition to receiving federal funding and state mandates for creating sub-state regions. Since the 1980s, the councils have made a number of changes to respond to reduced national and state funding. They have shifted their focus from regional comprehensive planning (for which there is little funding) to meeting the local service delivery needs of their members (which includes pursuing national and state funding allocated for this purpose).
The role of metropolitan councils continues to be shaped by the changing dynamics in federal, state and local government relations. Some states, like Georgia, have passed legislation that grants metropolitan councils regional authority, relying heavily on them to assist in service delivery. In Minnesota, the councilmembers are appointed by the governor, and the council’s powers can supersede decisions and actions by its local government members. Of the 39,000 local governments in the United States, more than 35,000 are served by metropolitan councils.
The Metropolitan Council of the Twin Cities Area in the Minneapolis/St. Paul region is comprised of 7 counties, 25 cities, 105 villages, 68 townships, 77 school districts and 20 special service districts. The council was created in 1967 in response to an expanding population, changing population patterns, scattered and uncontrolled growth, and the accompanying need for related infrastucture. Like most regions, no single municipality had the funds or the authority to legally address these expansive issues. The services previously provided by a patchwork of special purpose districts, like airports, are now consolidated to one.
Metro, the regional planning association in the Portland, Oregon area is comprised of local elected officials and representatives of regional service delivery agencies and state government. Metro has been mandated by state legislation to develop regional growth compacts since the 1970s in a process that has extensively involved the public, private and civic sectors. Like the Minneapolis council, Metro oversees all regional transportation and land-use planning and reviews local plans for consistency with regional plans. Both organizations also provide some regional services, such as the zoo and convention center in Portland, and the transit and sewer systems in Minneapolis.
Green River Area Development District (GRADD) provides leadership in planning and implementing programs to eight counties in its region of Western Kentucky. Like the other 14 Area Development Districts in Kentucky, GRADD partners with numerous state and federal agencies in order to apply for and administer grants and loans. It is governed by a volunteer board of directors composed of local elected officials and leaders in business and the community. GRADD administers many of the programs offered by the cities and county, including transportation, workforce development, and homeland security programs. While its focus is regional, GRADD also enjoys a partnership with a “sister region” in the Czech Republic. During regular visits to the other one’s region, representatives exchange ideas and research in the fields of governance, tourism development and culture.
East Texas Council of Governments (ETCOG) in Kilgore, Texas provides programs, either directly or through contractors, to seniors, jobseekers and employers within its 14-county East Texas region. ETCOG also created the region’s emergency call delivery system and provides environmental grant funding, grant writing services, rural transportation services and business finance programs. With new executive leadership, ETCOG is streamlining its operations, including slimming its own employee benefits and moving transportation services from a singular para-transit focus to an expanded multi-modal focus.
Dodge, William. Regional Excellence: Governing Together to Compete Globally and Flourish Locally. Washington, DC: The National League of Cities, 1996.
Dodge, William. The Triumph of the Commons: Governing 21st Century Regions. Mountainview, CA: The Alliance for Regional Stewardship, 2001.
Kemp, Roger L. Regional Government Innovations: A Handbook for Citizens and Public Officials. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 2003.