Governing Metropolitan Regions in Mexico: From Theory to Practice

Governing Metropolitan Regions in
Mexico: From Theory to Practice
No matter their geographic, demographic or economic size, municipalities
in the larger Mexican metropolitan regions are focusing their efforts on
two main objectives: building up a strong and competitive economic environment;
and improving the well-being of their population through the
provision of services. They are seeking to expand economic opportunities
for development and to improve their capacity to generate direct revenues
in order to control the pressures of urban growth and to respond to citizens’
needs by establishing and consolidating state responses. In fact, in the
country’s transition to full democratic rule, it has been recognized that
citizens tend to place their trust in the local authorities rather than in the
states or federal bureaucracy.
Municipalities, recognized by the 1917 Mexican Constitution as the basic
territorial unit of government, have always had a strategic political and
cultural role to play, despite their financial weakness. At present, municipalities
in metropolitan regions hold more than 50 percent of the total
population and concentrate almost 80 percent of the country’s Gross
Domestic Product. But local authorities in metropolitan regions face several
challenges. They tend to play a minor role in decision making both at the
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state level and in the metropolitan region. Their borrowing capacity is
extremely limited, as their main income sources are federally-conditioned
transfers in a context where public expenditure is decentralizing but
tax collection continues to centralize in federal
hands. Meanwhile, they lack sufficient administrative
capacity to mobilize stakeholders within
their jurisdiction and to control urban growth
in the context of a “culture of illegality” which
jeopardizes participatory planning and decision
making. Last but not least, they must attend to
a growing urban poor population in irregular
settlements, unable to pay for their increasing
demand for public services.
Global transformations are having a significant
effect on metropolitan regions, causing local
authorities to face issues that go beyond their
boundaries and their citizens’ direct, basic needs. But there are some
“good practices” to note, despite the lack of a legal framework to accommodate
possible cooperation between municipalities. Under Article 115 of
the Mexican Constitution, which mandates municipal provision of public
services, institutional efforts by the three orders of government have
resulted in the creation of metropolitan coordinating bodies, both multiand
single-purpose. One example is the case of the Mexico City Metropolitan
Area’s commissions in the last two decades. At the municipal level, Leon
and Silao, two intermediate cities in the dynamic Central-Western region
of the country, are responding to urban and industrial growth pressures
through cooperative initiatives between their municipalities. In another
example, municipalities from two different states in the La Laguna Metropolitan
Area are making efforts to consolidate a competitive metropolitan
economy in response to a stagnant maquiladora sector, based on the efforts
of politically aware and sensitive mayors.
In light of these and other examples, an increased interest in establishing
new metropolitan coordination bodies and reinforcing existing ones
seems to be implicit in the “inter-municipal development” proposed by
the new federal authorities in charge of urban growth. But institutional
metropolitan arrangements for administration and management must be
devised. What are the options? In theory, each municipality could decide
the quantity and quality of the goods and services it provides, and let
households “vote with their feet,” so to speak. Or a metropolitan authority
could level differences within the whole metropolitan area. Both solutions
would pose practical challenges. The question must be asked: how can the
interest in developing competitive metropolitan regions while at the same
time accomplishing equitable and efficient allocation of services to the city
population be achieved?
In the country’s
transition to full
democratic rule, it
has been recognized
that citizens tend to
place their trust in
the local authorities
rather than in the
states or federal
Mexico 29
There is a general recognition that no unique governing model is
available to apply to all metropolitan regions in the country, but that there
is a role for larger government units in controlling air pollution, water
supply and sewer systems, mass transportation facilities, and redistribution
of income to improve fiscal capabilities of lower income communities.
However, there are also many who would argue for the advantages of a
differentiated set of local governments instead of a centralized, regionwide,
bureaucratic metropolitan government. They feel that if each level
of government is autonomous within its sphere of competence, this provides
a space for politics and presents the opportunity to cooperate rather
than to compete. Decentralization, in terms of multiple concurrent
local governments in a metropolitan region, also seems like an efficient
and effective structure to provide a greater variety of services and satisfy
diverse consumers’ needs and a heterogeneous demand.
In a complex and uncertain environment, such as the metropolitan
region of Mexico City with its 20 million inhabitants, and the three other
metropolitan regions in Mexico in the 5 million range, standardization
and administrative remoteness can cause inefficiencies and leave some
areas and population groups with inadequate service levels while others
are provided with services they cannot use. Some would argue that there
is always the opportunity for a local authority to play the role of a “free
rider” and abstain from the provision of the “welfare of the poor” as a public
service. But others acknowledge that some services are more efficiently
provided by taking advantage of the larger scale of a centralized organization.
In addition, local authorities are always responding to pressures of
demand and are seldom active in promoting development or aware of
qualitative standards, given their limited financial, administrative and
human resources. So, is it possible that everyone would be better off in a
centralized regime?
In terms of administrative federalism, the alternative to fully centralized
and fully decentralized allocation of powers, the question of how many
and which citizens should be grouped together for provision of a collective
good, has not yet been answered in Mexico. A legal framework will be
needed to functionally divide responsibilities: the central government
could adopt legislation, while the lower level governments become the
administrators and managers of the provision of services.
But local governments in Mexico seem to face an additional burden.
The recent interest in the impact of climate change and the active role the
Mexican federal government wants to play in that matter begs perhaps for
an effort to also build up an awareness that environmental issues are characteristically
cross-sectional and scale interdependent, and thus involves the
global and the national levels but also reaches the local.