ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT QUARTERLY / November 2001
Cadillac, and Romulus, Michigan; Coshocton, Fairborn, and Kettering, Ohio; and, Cornwall, Gloucester, and Oakville, Ontario.
A uniform script of questions was asked in each of the nine cities although the particular order and emphases varied by the exigencies of individual actors. A uniform set of groups or actors was targeted for face-to-face interviews although this too varied somewhat, depending on each city’s economic development arrangement and governmental structure. Interviews focused on economic health, history of politics, perceived competition, locus of power, business input, citizen input, planning and evaluation, nature and effectiveness of development policies, intergovernmental rela- tions, racial diversity, policy orientations of decision makers, and local goals/vision/symbols. The actors interviewed included the chief executive (mayor and/or city manager/administrator), eco- nomic development director or individual responsible for economic development, representatives from city council, representatives from the planning and zoning board/commission, planning director, downtown development authority director, chamber of commerce representatives, and regional/county economic development director. From 7 to 10 individuals were interviewed in each of the nine cities, typically over a 2-day period.
QUESTIONING THE CONVENTIONAL WISDOM
In the wake of Peterson’s City Limits (1981), much of the conventional wisdom has been devoted to making and supporting the argument that politics matters in local policy making gener- ally. Politics has been defined a number of ways but typically includes the form and operation of local government as well as the governing regime. The latter, distinct from the formal structure, operates to form the coalitions and resources necessary to govern (Stone, 1989). Defined in either manner, the preponderance of the conventional wisdom says that local government structure mat- ters in shaping policy processes and determining policies (Jones & Bachelor, 1993). Although a strong argument, it raises two primary concerns—one related to structure and the other to governance.
Local government structure matters. Yes, but . . . putative structures do not necessarily represent real dynamics. There are strong mayors, and there are strong mayors who are not really influential. Ward elections can be divisive in some cities but “public-regarding” in others. Nonpartisan elec- tions often mean just the absence of a label on the ballot because most voters know each candidate’s partisan pedigree. These facts may seem obvious but are often disregarded in the many studies focusing on relationships between formal structure and policy outcome.
This point was well made in analysis of both survey and case study data. First, arguing that structure matters almost presupposes coherent structural forms—that is, local governments are either reformed or unreformed. Correlational and regression analyses clearly reveal wide variation in structure and little pattern of reform. Neither partisan nor nonpartisan elections are related to type of executive or to whether council seats are filled by a district or an at-large election. Only the nature of the city council elections appears significantly related to economic development policy choice; ward elections are associated with greater use of loan packages, whereas at-large elections are related to more Type II or redistributive policies. These two relationships, however, represent the extent of correlation between any structural variable and economic development policies.
The general lack of relationship between structure and policy could result from two causes: Either structure simply doesn’t matter, or structure is important, but cross-sectional survey research is not the best way to identify the effects. Case study analysis strongly suggests that the lat- ter is more accurate. However, it highlights further complexities in examining the role structure plays in local policy making. Very simply, form of government seldom reflects actual operations. For example, Coshocton, one of the case cities, has a strong mayor form of government set by city charter. At the time of the interview, however, it was clear that the mayor was not a strong executive. Instead, the safety services director was serving as a city administrator, department heads had a great deal of discretion, and economic development was conducted by an external private body.