The Vague Advantage of COGs

Posted by: Rick Bishop, Executive Director, WRCOG on Sunday, July 29, 2018
Rick Bishop, WRCOG Executive Director
 
I recently came across this former City of Riverside Mayor Ron Loveridge quote from his address to the National League of Cities during his tenure as that organization’s President:
 
“Cities and towns cannot solve, by themselves, major economic, social, and political problems. We are not walled places. We compete and succeed in a regional, national, and global market place. Many of our problems require us to cross boundaries.”
 
It’s a practical and compelling observation. Issues running the gamut from transportation to air quality to economy cross local jurisdictional boundary lines, and individual approaches for addressing them aren’t always ideal. 
 
Due to their multi-jurisdictional composition and geographic coverage, Councils of Governments (COGs) are well-positioned to provide cost-effective regional approaches to issues impacting individual localities. As the saying goes, “There is strength in numbers;” bringing multiple agencies together in a single forum to discuss issues and develop solutions has its advantages. 
 
Because of the way COGs are designed through their joint powers agreements and/or bylaws, they can be flexible and adaptive to issues and needs identified by their members. For example, WRCOG’s JPA is particularly vague when it comes to specific assignments, responsibilities or requirements, most likely a purposeful move by its founders to allow for flexibility in addressing unknown future issues.
 
This vagueness is what separates COGs from other regional agencies, especially single purpose entities. COGs task members to ask themselves what they want to achieve rather than what they have to do. They provide a forum where members can work together to respond to challenges that are not unique to a particular jurisdiction and do not neatly fit into the purview of local jurisdictions or single-purpose entities. 
 
The diversity of programs undertaken by COGs reflects this. For example, WRCOG’s Transportation Uniform Mitigation Fee (TUMF) Program responds to the basic premise that traffic impacts resulting from significant new growth, can be better addressed at a scale that is larger than the local jurisdictional level. WRCOG’s voluntary PACE programs, which provide financing for energy and water conservation improvements to homes and businesses, have resulted in thousands of properties becoming more efficient, making a dent in reducing greenhouse gas emissions without the need for more state-imposed regulation. The new Regional Streetlight Program, which is helping jurisdictions acquire nearly 50,000 streetlights for the purpose of retrofitting them with LED lamps, will result in an estimated savings to municipalities of more than $60 million over 20-years. And efforts to establish a Community Choice Aggregation Program will allow for local jurisdictions to purchase energy for constituents at lower costs. Streetlights, roads, energy. Three issues that are not unique to any particular place. Three issues that can benefit from larger-scale attention.
 
These are interesting times for local agencies, where policies and mandates change frequently, can come without requisite funding, and can conflict with and challenge local goals and objectives. Add to that the rapid growth occurring in virtually every jurisdiction in Western Riverside County and it becomes readily apparent that working together can, in many instances, be better than going it alone. No one said it would be easy accommodating the next million people who will make Riverside County “home” in the same manner as we have the last million. But Councils of Governments, with their purposeful vagueness, are uniquely qualified to help local officials identify, study, and solve big issues that are important to improving the region’s future quality of life.
 
How can COGs succeed? These factors are critical:
 
1.   Elected official leadership that understand the benefits: It starts at the top. Any organization needs direction and leadership from those who believe in the mission and are committed to working together and have a mindset that understands the benefits of regional approaches to certain issues. 
 
2.   Find niches that serve member agency needs: COGs need to seek to implement projects that 1) are not peculiar or distinctive to individual communities, 2) are not already being done, and 3) bring a beneficial return on investment (cost effectiveness) to members. One of the biggest criticisms of COGs is that they duplicate work already under way.
 
3.   Keep focused and stay true to the mission: The interface between a COG and local jurisdictions can get murky if the COG loses focus on issues that are multi-jurisdictional.
 
4.   Bring your ideas; be the sounding board for the exploration of regional governmental issues: This is a critical advantage for a COG that does not readily exist with local entities and/or regional special districts. Bring your ideas.
 
5.   Take a few risks: This is a tough one, especially for government, where public perceptions are already negative and can exacerbate aversion to risk. Charles Kettering once said, “99 percent of success is built on failure.” Calculated risks need to be on the table for consideration.
 
6.   Embrace ambiguity: Initially awkward, the vagueness of the COG make-up is a distinct advantage. COG members are not constrained with what they can or cannot do. It all comes down to this: What do they want to accomplish?
 
Editor's Note:  This piece originally appeared in WRCOG's eCommunicator newsletter under the title "A Vague Advantage: How do Councils of governments fit into the regional picture?"  Although written for Riverside County, the message applies to COGs across the state and nation.  Thanks for sharing Rick! Sign up for WRCOG eCommunicator newsletter here.  

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