Regulation without representation
March 6, 2009
One nation, two states, five counties and one city have claims to land in the Lake Tahoe Basin. An estimated 56,000 people live here.
And, under the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, 15 people are designated to make decisions affecting them all.
The makeup of the planning agency’s guiding body ” the governing board ” has been a source of controversy since even before Congress created the agency in 1969 to curtail rapid development in the Lake Tahoe Basin.
The most commonly heard complaint from residents of the basin: That those who live at Lake Tahoe bear an undue burden from the agency’s policies and are not adequately represented on the planning agency’s board.
From restrictions on the amount of land property owners can build on to requiring homeowners to implement erosion control measures on their own dime, the agency’s policies undoubtedly have a greater effect on local residents than visitors.
“We’ve been wrestling with this issue for 40 years,” said recently elected South Lake Tahoe City Councilman Bruce Grego, who has sought to change the makeup of the governing board.
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From 1969 until 1980, locally elected officials held a majority of seats on the governing board. Six of 11 seats on the board were filled by elected representatives of basin counties and the city of South Lake Tahoe, with the remaining five seats filled by two appointees from each state and one presidential appointee.
When the compact was revised in 1980, four members ” two from both California and Nevada ” were added to the governing board, putting the locally elected officials in the minority.
Changing the makeup of the board to a locally elected body has focused on the eight seats that are filled by appointments from state agencies and governors, members who make decisions about the basin without ever being elected by the public.
The 1980 additions gave regional and national perspectives to planning decisions surrounding Lake Tahoe ” widely considered a national treasure, said TRPA spokesman Dennis Oliver.
“You want to balance development control in the basin so that no one entity has too much power on the governing board,” Oliver said. “No one can buy this board.”
But Grego contends the current configuration creates a situation where the board is not accountable to basin residents ” those who will be most affected by the board decisions.
“My feeling is if the board was elected they would be more considerate of local needs,” Grego said.
The attorney by trade has also questioned former board members’ qualifications to serve on the board and the appointment process by which some new board members are seated.
A traditional opponent of changing the board to include all locally elected representatives has been the League to Save Lake Tahoe.
“We think this is a terrible mistake,” said Executive Director Rochelle Nason. “Lake Tahoe benefits greatly from the level of national and state interest in its environment.”
“Tens of millions” of dollars in state and federal funding could be at stake if those bodies no longer had representation on the board, Nason said.
Local residents would be better served if the quality of elected representation was increased rather than the quantity, Nason said.
“We think the current board makeup is a positive for the region,” Nason said.
Longtime basin resident and former League to Save Lake Tahoe Executive Director Laurel Ames also noted that when the TRPA’s board had a majority of locally elected officials, it was no more effective at regulating development in the basin than when the agency didn’t exist.
TRPA Executive Director John Singlaub also defended the current makeup of the board in a May 2007 guest column in the Tribune.
“I often hear the misperception that our Governing Board members aren’t accountable to local residents,” Singlaub said. “Considering that six of the 14 voting members on our board are locally elected officials, and that all but one are appointed by elected officials from each state, this is simply not true. While TRPA board seats don’t show up on any ballots, they do become election issues in county and city of South Lake Tahoe races.”
Since approval of the new compact in 1980, the idea of making the board all locally elected has come up in the California Assembly Committee on Natural Resources at least once ” in 1995 ” but did not gain the necessary traction to become a reality.
Through the introduction of a strongly worded resolution to the South Lake Tahoe City Council on Tuesday, Grego re-ignited ” if only briefly ” the issue of a locally elected governing board.
“Citizens of the Tahoe Basin have been deprived of their civil rights by non-elective government, deprived of their right to referendum or recall and deprived of their accountability by the present TRPA board despite being directly affected by the TRPA’s decisions,” the resolution said.
The makeup of the board is in “contradiction with the history of these United States” and demands the compact be modified so the board be made up of members “solely elected by the citizens of the Tahoe Basin,” according to the resolution.
Grego said he had hoped approval of the resolution would allow him to go to the basin’s county boards and gain support for changing the composition of the governing board.
Changing how the members of the board are seated would involve changing the TRPA’s compact, which is an exhausting process, requiring approvals from the legislatures of California and Nevada, the governors of both states, the U.S. Congress, and the president.
“I think it’s an uphill battle, but I think it’s worth fighting,” Grego told other council members.
The other four City Council members disagreed on Tuesday, and Grego’s resolution died for lack of a second.
Councilman Bill Crawford said he agreed that “sometimes TRPA just doesn’t get it done,” but said the task of organizing all of the basin’s counties is a daunting one.
“I’m almost tempted to vote for this so Mr. Grego can spend the next 31⁄2 years dealing with these other agencies,” Crawford said.
Crawford also thought the resolution should have specifics regarding how elections would be organized to adequately represent all of the basin’s residents.
“I think specifics need to wait until we have support,” Grego said.
Councilman Hal Cole ” the council’s representative on the TRPA board ” suggested that having one of the six locally elected TRPA board members serve as the governing board chair would be a way local residents would have more input into the agency’s decisions.
The change would not require changing the TRPA compact, Cole said.
Although Cole said he was in favor of the concept of a locally elected board, he compared trying to change the governing board’s makeup to Spanish literary character Don Quixote’s misguided attempts at chivalry.
“I just don’t think we’re going to get anywhere with this,” Cole said. “This is a fight I know I’m not going to win.”
Grego, who said he was surprised at the council’s lack of support, has said he will continue to push for an all-elected board and may reintroduce the resolution in the future.
“(TRPA) is not a functioning entity,” Grego said. “We will continue to have problems with this agency until we reform it.”