For some time now I have read with interest articles in Style and other area publications commenting on regional cooperation in metro Richmond. When that conversation turns to Chesterfield County, suddenly the tone shifts -- Chesterfield, it is often said, isn't a "regional" player. From my perspective, as a Chesterfield resident and former elected official, these critics are misinformed.
For instance, recent observations were made that Chesterfield is working on securing a minor league baseball team to replace the Braves, instead of working with Richmond to find a new location within city limits. Nonsense. Chesterfield is struggling to deal with serious county issues such as education, transportation and fast-paced residential development. I do not believe that going it alone to land a baseball team is on the county's hot list.
There has been some criticism of Chesterfield for trying to get more proportional representation on the Richmond Metropolitan Authority, which built and operates Powhite Parkway, Chesterfield's gateway into the city. In spite of the current population distribution and the fact that Chesterfield residents pay a disproportionate amount of the tolls that pay for the roadway the makeup of the RMA board strongly favors the city of Richmond. It seems only reasonable that the RMA board should more closely reflect the population of the region.
These are just two examples on a long list of so-called "anti-regional" positions that critics link to the county. But the fact is, in metro Richmond, Chesterfield is anything but. Annually, Chesterfield contributes more than $12.9 million and thousands of hours of administrative staff time to support regional projects.
These regional initiatives attack crime, educate children, operate the Greater Richmond Convention Center and Richmond International Airport, manage The Diamond and the regional toll roads, and promote regional economic development through the Greater Richmond Partnership. (In fact, it was Richmond, not Chesterfield, that threatened to pull funding from the regional partnership three years ago.)
The list of ongoing cooperative initiatives is extensive, the investment of funds is significant, and the commitment of time is substantial. However, few of these projects make headlines. They are not initiatives that demonstrate government leaders literally working together hand-in-hand to solve common problems. Nonetheless, they represent good government striving to improve.
Chesterfield also works with communities to the south on matters of regional interest. Again, money and talent are significantly invested more than $13.9 million and thousands of hours of time by elected officials and county staff.
With all this regional cooperation going on, what more can be done? Can we get elected officials working on issues that have many in the community concerned such as regional transportation or education? The answer to that seems to be yes, but
The problem is we have no agreed-upon regional goals and objectives. How should the region set priorities? When we decide on a new initiative, how will we pay for it? Who will be accountable for these regional issues?
Don't look now, but citizens in the city and the counties generally concur with their respective governing bodies that more needs to be done by way of regional cooperation. We share some of the same problems by way of transportation, education and community planning. Yet there is virtually nothing on the table that cuts across jurisdictional boundaries.
The lack of regional goals and objectives is the crux of the problem. Until there is broad agreement among the regional governing bodies on the nature and priority of regional issues, there can be no comprehensive regional strategy.
What are the priorities? How will the region fund the work? Who will be held accountable for the timely completion of the project? These are tough issues that require a measure of teamwork and trust that, right now, simply is not being demonstrated by local elected officials.
Members of City Council and the boards of supervisors must begin building the trust between each other that will allow them to come together and agree on tough challenges. Members of governing bodies need to demonstrate that they will follow up on regional issues and ensure that regional priorities are locally adopted, promised funding is delivered, and project managers are held accountable.
Consider the current challenges. There has been a significant shake-up on the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors, which has four of five new members. It will not be clear for a while where Chesterfield is headed. Richmond City Council, the mayor and the School Board are in a major struggle regarding priorities. Until that struggle is sorted out, it will be difficult for the city to reach consensus with its suburban neighbors on matters of regional significance.
But there is hope. Despite the political instability, the citizens are interested in regional cooperation and opportunity. And there is much that can be done right now. It's time for people to encourage their elected officials to begin to build relationships of trust with council members and supervisors from around the area.
Elected officials should begin substantive and serious discussions regarding multi-jurisdictional cooperation. Elected officials should begin selling to their constituents the idea that regional cooperation can benefit us all, not one or the other.
Believe it or not, metro Richmond has a good foundation for fostering regional cooperation. Given this strong beginning, it's time to start dealing with the tough challenges. If elected officials took a regional approach to one major problem a year for each of the next four years, we could begin to see significant improvements in the challenges facing the entire metro-Richmond area. SJack McHale, a former member of the Chesterfield Board of Supervisors (1992-2003), is a retired vice president and general manager of a computer services company, and retired U. S. Army Officer.
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