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Wichita Confronts Contanmination


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Wichita Confronts Contamination
Conlan, From Cooperative to Opportunistic Federalism
Case 3
February 12, 2014

This week’s case study concerns the discovery of a contamination problem in Wichita’s downtown commercial and residential area. The case discusses what steps were taken to remedy the situation that were the most efficient and cost effective. The content area addressed by this week’s readings and case are focused on intergovernmental relations. Intergovernmental relationship is important to public administration because different levels of government offices need to work together to fulfill objectives that benefit the public. It is more beneficial to everyone involved for administrations to coordinate and collaborate together to resolve problems. Federalism, in part, is the system where federal government and state governments work together to the same end.

The case takes place in Wichita, Kansas, in the summer of 1990. Acting for the Environmental Protection Agency, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment reported the downtown business district was sitting on an underground polluted lake, six square miles in size and fifteen feet below the surface. The area was called the Gilbert-Mosley site because the Gilbert-Mosley intersection was near the center. The lake was full of hazardous, commercial and industrial chemicals that caused cancer and other health issues.

This discovery was very problematic for the revitalization of the declining downtown region. Like many urban areas at the time, due to the nationwide real estate slump, downtown Wichita was stagnant. It was difficult to attract new business to begin with. Because of the contamination, banks stopped making loans to develop the area because they feared liability if the EPA ranked the area for Superfund.

A Superfund is a large fund set up to finance an expensive program or project. The Superfund is funded by Potentially Responsible Parties (PRPs) and is overseen and regulated by the EPA. When the EPA gets involved the cost of the project increases substantially. The EPA charges their cost to the Superfund and exaggerates the amount as part of the punishment to the funders of the Superfund. The funders are considered to be the cause of the issue. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment name 508 area businesses as PRP’s. Many of the businesses were not directly involved in the contribution to the contamination. Superfund law would make all the businesses contribute to the fund anyway. That is why the banks refused to finance projects, in many past cases banks were tapped to fund the Superfund because they were considered to have deep pockets.

The case has some elements of opportunistic federalism and cooperative federalism. I believe the opportunistic element comes from the point when Chris Cherches takes a different path to solve the contamination problem. The Opportunistic federalism system allows administrators and other people involved to “pursue their immediate interest”. When the city manager decided to try to go with his alternative plan, he was driven to achieve his goal to implement his plan to remedy the chemical waste problem. The plan he developed would work faster and not be tied so directly with the EPA. There was also a greater chance of the clean-up running smoother without the extra red tape and expense.

According to Conlan, cooperative federalism is a system where the national, state and local governments regard themselves, not as competitors for authority but as levels of government cooperating or complementing each other in meeting growing demands. Cooperative federalism actively encourages joint intergovernmental action and emphasized shared goals across the federal system. When different levels of government work together to reach their shared goals, intergovernmental relations are strengthened.

Opportunistic federalism is a system where administrators and other facilitators of resources are creating policy with their own interest in mind. The planners pursue their own goals with little regard of other planned uses of the resources. Opportunistic federalism puts local government, state government and national government at odds because all are looking out for their own objectives. Intergovernmental Relations are strained under an opportunistic federalism system. Different agencies do not work together. Some functions are duplicated on the different levels because they are not coordinating with each other to work more efficiently. It will take time and effort to establish the trust that was lost between different levels of government because of the opportunistic policies of the past.

In some ways, being opportunistic came make people think differently. The way City Manager, Chris Cherches handled the situation stood out to me because he thought outside of the box. He went in a different direction than the two options the KDHE recommended. Cherches came up with a third plan where the city took responsibility. He put together a plan to create tax increment financing (TIF) to fund the clean-up project. It stands out because it is a great example of how the role of the professional public administrator is so valuable. As we learned in the two previous cases, there is a level of involvement that is beneficial to be successful in the public administrator role. This case seems to illustrate how bureaucracy can work together. The EPA displayed cooperative federalism when they agreed to back Cherches plan for the clean-up. The EPA and all the other organizations, including the city manager’s office, the city council, the county commission, the school board, lenders, KDHE, the state and the governor all worked together on the project. A healthy federal system requires strong partners at all levels of government. Cherches may have been a little opportunistic with his plan, but the different levels all cooperated to get the plan in place.

I learned more about bureaucracy and how it can work efficiently. This case demonstrates how business (Coleman), city officials, state agencies and national agencies can cooperate with each other for important and beneficial results. One of the reasons bureaucracy has a bad reputation is due to opportunistic agencies disregarding other needs for valuable resources. I believe some of the regulations and requirements I have experienced in dealing with government agencies is because of their attempt to prevent opportunistic tendencies. I can also see a change that Conlan mentioned, many of the new grants require outcome measures. The proposals that have better chances of receiving funding have measurable results and plans to obtain the results included, in detail, in the grant request. Funders want to see performance and will hold agencies and administrators responsible for outcomes.

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