Saturday, June 1, 2013

Why scholars like special districts

A couple weeks ago, in response to Bill Fischel’s comment on this blog about school districts and special districts, I invited comment as to why scholars are so interested in special districts.  Prof. Christopher Goodman, a professor at Rutgers-Camden, provided a nice commentary on why he is interested in such special districts:

I think most scholars, myself included, are obsessed with special districts (and single purpose governments at large) because their competitive model is so completely different from general purpose governments. Rather than a Tiebout-like model, single purpose districts compete vertically against other single purpose governments stacked on top of them. Imperfect Union by Chris Berry ( is a great starting point for this.

Also, spurred partly by your original posting on the subject and my own research, I've started an entire series on local government fragmentation on my research blog ( I think it helps to visualize these data.

I think Chris’ comments have a lot of merit.  Here are several reasons why I find special districts of interest.

Bill Fischel mentioned the unusual nature of water districts in the west.  As I have spent most of my adult life in the west, I thought that was an interesting idea.  I also wondered, though, if maybe it wasn’t just about water districts, but also about the west’s proclivity for strong taxpayer revolts, such as in places like California.  Many western states have imposed strict limitations on local governments raising money through property taxes, and I have seen the use of special districts in these states as an alternative means of funding locally valued projects.  I think that is one reason that they are of particular interest to me.  Perhaps that interest trends more western, where more states have imposed tax revolt property tax limitations.

I am also interested in special districts because I believe they are valuable tools for helping sub-local governmental entities as well as cross-jurisdictional governmental entities obtain funding they could not otherwise obtain at the local government level.  On the other hand, I suggest that most legal scholars look at these special districts and view them negatively for at least three reasons.  First, these special districts operate “below the radar” of most of the electorate.  The special districts, even when elected and holding public meetings, still often manage to operate in “stealth mode,” and this worries many scholars as to transparency.  Second, that lack of transparency leads many scholars to also worry about a lack of accountability.  Third, many scholars worry about representation within such sub-local groups.  All of these are legitimate issues.  As a matter of personal experience, though, I have seen special districts operating effectively and providing services that would not otherwise be provided, and this has led me to write for the expansion of special districts and sub-local funding structures.

This has been a fun colloquy on special districts, and I welcome more feedback from the blog readership.

Stephen R. Miller

June 1, 2013 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, May 27, 2013

Memorial Day & Land Use

The U.S. tradition of Memorial Day has a long and complex relationship with land, history, and memory.  This post has some thoughts on the subject from last year.

Today was Memorial Day in the US.  There are lots of land use issues that we can associate with Memorial Day, which, stripped to its essence, is designed as a day to remember the military members who died in service to the nation.  There is the obvious land use issue of cemeteries, and the related legal and cultural norms governing how we memorialize the dead (check out any of the interesting blogposts or scholarship by Al Brophy and Tanya Marsh on cemeteries).  It gets even more relevant when we start talking about government-owned national or veterans' cemeteries, and the attendant controversies about First Amendment and other issues.  [The photo is from last year's Memorial Day ceremony at Houston National Cemetery, which my daughter attended to honor fallen Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Sauer Medlicott.]  Of course, there are always land use and local government issues involved with things like parades and public ceremonies, and in many communities there are specific rules that govern the "summer season" informally commenced on Memorial Day weekend.

Check out the whole post for some info about a couple of little-known and interesting events from the early history of Memorial Day and land use, including what may be the first Memorial Day celebration, by African-Americans in Charleston on the former planters' racecourse, and a U.S. Supreme Court case about eminent domain for historic preservation on Gettysburg National Battlefied.

We hope you had a safe and happy Memorial Day.

Matt Festa

May 27, 2013 in Eminent Domain, Federal Government, Historic Preservation, History, Property, Race, Scholarship, Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)