Wherever you live in California, your county probably doesn’t fit you.
Many counties are too small; 25 of the state’s 58 have populations of less than 140,000, the population of my hometown, Pasadena. Some counties are too sprawling; it can take three hours to get across Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
And in the big metropolitan regions where most of us live, counties divide our communities, instead of uniting them. The Bay Area is sliced up between nine counties. The capital region around Sacramento includes six. Greater Los Angeles is a mash-up of five counties, with no clear geographic divides between them.
It has become commonplace in California to complain that our state is simply too big and to suggest, via ballot initiative (as in Tim Draper’s “Six Californias” scheme) or petition to the Legislature (as north-state counties are doing), that we be split up into a number of different states.
But creating new states would require congressional approval, an unlikely prospect. Instead, we could redesign our counties all by ourselves, without Washington’s permission.
The heart of the problem is that California’s antiquated design, with its 58 counties drawn haphazardly more than a century ago, doesn’t make sense today. The divides produced by our counties are part of a larger fragmentation in California, which has more than 6,000 governments, with 480 cities and thousands of special districts that few Californians know anything about.
This fragmentation is not merely a problem of untidy maps. Research shows that regions that are split up among many governments have less affordable housing and more sprawl, congestion and segregation than those with more consolidated regional governance.
“The excessive competition triggered by political fragmentation encourages local jurisdictions to pursue socially and economically undesirable policies,” wrote the University of Minnesota’s Myron Orfield and Baris Dawes in a paper delivered last month at Chapman University in Orange. “Cities steal malls and office parks from each other, fight tax incentive wars for auto malls, and zone out the poor for fiscal advantage in a process rife with haphazard planning and NIMBY biases. …With jobs scattered like buckshot, transit, a cleaner environment, and basic opportunity for lower-income Americans become harder, not easier, to accomplish.”
The good news is that there has been recent thinking in California about how to remake local governments, including counties. The best of this thinking is summarized in retired Silicon Valley executive Thom Bryant’s book, “California 2.0.”
It shows how our biggest problems are regional: environmental systems, infrastructure, economic development, transit and housing.
But our counties don’t match up with these regions. So Bryant argues for consolidating counties so that each region of the state would be one county. There would be 19 in the author’s ideal structure, though he suggests that even the old Spanish military’s 10 territorial districts would fit California better than today’s 58 counties.
Such regional counties would need more power to devise solutions to the state’s most pressing problems: schools, traffic and housing. And, as “California 2.0” argues, they’d require expanded boards of supervisors and elected county executives to improve democratic accountability.
If California politicians are to be taken seriously in their one-state war on climate change, they’ll need to embrace truly regional counties. Today’s state climate regulations are unlikely to make big progress because they require coordination between our fragmented local governments. But if we had counties that actually fit our regions, California might have a fighting chance of saving the world.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.