Friday, February 04, 2005

Columns 17 & 18 - TRPA

TRPA Part One: The Nature of Bureaucracy
by Ed Gurowitz

I moved to California in 1981, when the state was just coming out of one of its periodic water shortages. Shortly after I got there it began to rain, and it rained hard and long. Yet no matter how much it rained, I never saw any government official say that the drought was over. Their statements were more on the order of “things are better, but we still have a long way to go.” Even when trees and homes were being washed off hillsides, their story never changed. Then I noticed that all those officials had the word “drought” in their title – and I realized that if they were to declare the drought over, they would be declaring that their job was unnecessary,. This was an epiphany for me about bureaucracy.

Bureaucracies are formed as a means to ensure the continuity and smooth functioning of the government. Nominally, these bureaucracies are there to implement and execute the policies made by elected officials, but bureaucracies are not elected, and therefore not accountable directly to the public. They are only as accountable as the system is structured for them to be, and in a unionized or protected civil service system, that means not very accountable at all. Oftentimes they are viewed by the elected officials as indispensable, since they carry with them vast stores of knowledge and historical lore.

TRPA was founded with all the best of intentions – to safeguard the water quality and clarity of the lake. It was set up as an interstate compact, under Federal oversight, with a board representing both states. This was in 1969. In 1980 TRPA’s charter was revised, and remains in effect. In both the conception of TRPA and in the revision of the charter, the governing bodies tried to specify the agency’s purview in the broadest possible terms rather than defining it so narrowly that it could not function on its own. This led to some language that has proved problematic:
• Maintenance of the social and economic health of the region depends on maintaining the significant scenic, recreational, educational, scientific, natural public health values provided by the Lake Tahoe Basin.
• In order to preserve the scenic beauty and outdoor recreational opportunities of the region, there is a need to insure an equilibrium between the region’s natural endowment and its manmade environment.
• The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency shall interpret and administer its plans, ordinances, rules and regulations in accordance with the provision of this compact.
Unobjectionable by themselves, these three phrases taken together become lethal, mainly because of the inclusion of scenic in the list of values – I would guess that anyone reading this column could take a pretty good stab at defining recreation, education, science, and public health, but scenic, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Combine that with the “need to insure an equilibrium between the region’s natural endowment and its manmade environment,” and the authorization in the third phrase for the Agency to make its own rules, and you have the makings of a free society’s nightmare – a bureaucracy with a license to run amok.

The counterbalance to this license should be the Board, but the TRPA Board is not elected, it is appointed by the Governors, the County Boards, etc. This places Board members at least one step removed from the people their decisions affect. Secondly, there is no qualification for Board members other than that they be appointed, and the Compact specifies that a majority of the seats to be held by citizens from outside the Tahoe Region, so that statewide and national viewpoints count more than the voice of those of us who live here. This has the added effect of the bureaucracy not seeing or interacting with the Board on a day to day basis, with a majority of the Board members located far from here.

Next week we will look at the results of this setup.

TRPA Part Two: Bureaucracy Run Amok

TRPA Board Members, speaking in private, often complain that the staff (a) fails to implement direct instructions from the Board if they do not agree with the Board’s decision and (b) usurp the Board’s authority by taking actions that should be reviewed by the Board without the Board’s direction, i.e., they make their own policies.

What we have here is a case of multiple non-accountability. The Board Members are barely accountable to those who appointed them, and the bureaucracy seems not to hold itself accountable to the Board. In the case of the Board Members, I have yet to hear of any Board member reporting to or being held to account by the Governors of Nevada and California, the County Commissioners, or anyone else, and I doubt very much that Mr. Yount, the President’s non-voting appointee, is in close communication with the White House, though in fairness, he has proven to be one of the more responsive Board Members, and he does live here at the Lake.

In theory at least, these people are all accountable to the taxpayers and fee payers whose remittances pay their salaries and cover the costs of running the TRPA. In the past year or so, and to its credit, TRPA has had a presence at the Tuesday morning forums held by the Bonanza. More often than not, it is represented by its public relations arm, Julie Regan and more recently her new assistant, who is an Incline native. This is well and good, but it does suggest that TRPA considers the low esteem in which it is held in this community and the degree of animosity toward it a PR problem, rather than a problem rooted in its policies and actions. Once in a while a Board Member (usually Mr. Yount) will attend, and the new Executive Director John Singlaub has been there on occasion, but I, at least, have seen little effect from the conversations we have had with them.

The recent dispute between TRPA and the Nevada and California Transportation Departments are a good example of the problem. TRPA decided that highway guard rails on 267 over Brockway Summit (a good 5 miles or more from the lake) and guard rails and rumble strips on 50 between Spooner Summit and Zephyr Cove are somehow within its purview. How? It can’t be scenic – the guard rails are not visible from the lake – and it cannot be environmental, so how? Only TRPA knows. My suggestion is that this is one more opportunity for scopecreep. If they are successful against the resistance of the DOT’s, then TRPA will have extended its authority that much farther and will be that much harder to get rid of.

You see, the true, never-stated purpose of any bureaucracy is to ensure its own growth and survival. The more TRPA can extend its scope, the harder it will be to kill. Just as no drought official can afford to have a drought be over, TRPA cannot afford to have anything within a mortar shot of the lake be outside its domination. Some have suggested that Nevada withdraw funding from TRPA as a way of bringing them to heel, but that won’t work – all they will do is use the decreased funding as an excuse to refuse permits on the Nevada side. In the long run, I believe that the only recourse we have is for Nevada to secede from TRPA and regulate ourselves, but politically that is problematic. Failing that, I suggest that everyone who cares about this issue keep up unrelenting pressure on our US Senators, State Legislators, Governor, County Commission and on TRPA itself, demanding that it be accountable and responsive to the people it was created to serve.

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