Letter to the Editor

(from Maine Townsman, February 2008)
From Glenn Aho, Town Manager, Lincoln

I appreciate the opportunity I was given last month to be interviewed for a Maine Townsman article.  After reading the article, I realized that I had some thoughts on regionalism that were not fully discussed in the interview.  I asked Mike Starn, editor of the Townsman, if I could write a “letter to the editor” for the February issue. What follows are some of my thoughts on regionalism and municipal conglomeration that I wanted to share with Townsman readers.

As the appetite and need for government services continues to grow, is it any wonder the price for that service has grown to seemingly unmanageable proportions?  As we consider our options, we should be careful what we ask for.  Is regionalism really the answer?  With regionalism, where is the line between economies of scale and diseconomies of scale? 

Perhaps we should resist the “urge to merge” and first evaluate our existing governments and how they are managed.  Better management, and not regionalism and conglomeration, will yield more results and value than any other attempt to reform our state and local government. 

I am opposed to blindly pursuing regionalism and conglomeration without first considering managerial improvements of existing governmental structures.  The larger and more regionalized government becomes, the greater the likelihood is that it will experience a diseconomy of scale.  In such conditions, people become alienated from their government, workers become inefficient, progress and productivity go unmonitored, and communications become lost in bureaucratic red tape.  Local government offers the people the best and most accountable accesses to its own government.  With local access and accountability, the integrity of democracy is maintained and its people are more empowered and connected with its government.  This supports the very essence of democracy.

Regionalism is fueled by the thought that it yields efficiencies.  Though governmental efficiencies should always be a goal, again we must be careful what we ask for. If we want governmental efficiency at all costs and modeled after the private sector then technically it is more efficient for a single bureaucrat to decide for a people than it is for a people to decide for itself.  At its worst, the regionalism and conglomeration movement – for the sake of governmental efficiency – could potentially and unintentionally evolve into despotism or something similar to a political caste or class barrier where only the elite have access or can become involved with government.  There are reasons why the private sector is different than the public sector.  The very nature of the private sector is to be efficient while the nature of the public sector is to be effective.  Democracy is meant to be effective at representing the people, which is not necessarily always efficient. 

My solution, in a nutshell, would be for the Maine Municipal Association and the State of Maine to partner together to develop a curriculum of essential managerial theory and skills.  Training and certification of state and local employees in managerial positions would go far toward creating predictable and consistent managerial results.  The curriculum could be offered to towns and cities for adoption as a “Best Management Practices” model.  Such an adoption would signal the pursuit of the elected officials of wanting efficiently managed governments. 

Restricting the people’s access to its government through regionalization and conglomeration could make matters worse especially if it’s found managerial problems were the root of the problem all along.  Combining two poorly-managed organizations does not create efficiencies; it only makes a mess.  Regionalism does not necessarily improve management or the allocation of resources; in fact, it could have the very opposite effect. 

As imperfect and even inefficient as a democracy is, it still can be enhanced and improved with coordinated management and accountability.  I am not convinced that Maine’s tax burden will be alleviated through some political regionalization and conglomeration of local governments and state services.  Local governments are necessary for the people to remain connected to its government.  Regional efforts should be approached as a means toward improving state and local government, not as an ends, and only secondary to efforts of improved management.  I believe the path toward easing Maine’s tax burden is through improved governmental management and accountability, not regionalization.