Stanislaus, Merced, SJ counties to explore regional planning

Mar 14, 2011

By Garth Stapley, Modesto Bee

MODESTO — For years, the San Joaquin Valley's historically neglected eight counties have wondered what political muscles they might flex if they quit humming eight tunes and began singing all together.

Consultants have produced an intriguing study that could move the paradigm-shift concept of regional planning past a talking phase.

But those most familiar with the effort acknowledge the inherent difficulty in persuading eight counties and 62 cities to give up local control.

"I can't foresee us making a leap, at this point in time, to a single agency," said Bill Spriggs, mayor of Merced and chairman of the San Joaquin Valley Regional Policy Council. "You'll see us do it in incremental steps."

On March 25, Spriggs will preside when representatives from throughout the valley discuss the new document, "Institutional Arrangements Whitepaper." Transportation leaders from throughout Stanislaus County will get a preview at Wednesday's meeting of the Stanislaus Council of Governments.

The study analyzes multicounty partnerships that typically attract state and federal transportation and planning dollars to other areas at the expense of valley agencies, which have yet to join in a meaningful way.

Spriggs' Regional Policy Council is an advisory body with no real authority over the eight counties — Stanislaus, San Joaquin, Merced, Madera, Fresno, Kings, Tulare and Kern.

The council has made recent strides, producing a valleywide planning goal in 2009 focused on increasing population density in urban areas and landing a $4 million smart-planning grant late last year.

The valley long has been jealous of clout wielded by multicounty partnerships joining agencies around Sacramento, the Bay Area and Los Angeles, which approach bidding battles for road and transit projects from positions of strength.

The new document, prepared by Mintier Harnish Planning Consultants and Carol Whiteside Consulting, examines those partnerships as well as others in Oregon, Washington and Colorado, and predicts how similar arrangements could work in the valley.

Possibilities include merging planning powers from two or three counties into valley "subregions," or combining all eight into one megapower.

That could join San Joaquin, Stanislaus and Merced counties into a Northern San Joaquin Valley subregion. With a combined population of more than 4 million, the latter could create the fourth-

largest partnership in California, said Bill O'Brien, a Stanislaus County supervisor and member of the Regional Policy Council.

"That automatically brings credibility," O'Brien said. "Our biggest complaint in the valley is that all the funds seem to go elsewhere. If we're the fourth-largest in the state, maybe we could attract some of those funds."

Spriggs said hiring one lobbyist to represent the entire valley makes economic sense. "You get a lot more done with a unified approach as opposed to each agency carrying its own agenda. There is definitely clout in numbers," he said.

But it's too soon to predict how officeholders will react.

"The hard part is giving up a little control," O'Brien said.

Spriggs said, "All of a sudden, you get parochial interests."

Smaller counties such as Kings, Tulare and Madera don't like the idea of being rolled by those with more residents. Medium-sized counties such as Stanislaus and Merced want to keep Fresno from political bullying.

"It's not about being opposed to consolidation; it's about making sure you don't lose local control," said Whiteside, a former Modesto mayor and founder of the Great Valley Center.

The Stanislaus Council of Governments Policy Board will discuss regional governance at a meeting scheduled for 6 p.m. Wednesday in the third-floor boardroom,1111 I St., Modesto. To see the meeting's agenda, go to www.stancog.org/pdf/policy-board/agendas/2011/pb-agenda-03-16-2011.pdf.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or 578-2390.

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