Living in an unincorporated area and the role of the Municipal Advisory Council (MAC)
While it’s fairly easy to surmise that the majority of California residents live in an incorporated City, a large percentage of residents do not, and rely on the local County governmental structure to provide basic municipal services such as police, public works, building/development and libraries. The same holds true in Alameda County that has 1.5 million residents, of which roughly 10% live in unincorporated areas.
Most folks are fairly familiar with how a city is run – a City Council/City Manager at the top with various departments providing services to its residents – yet many are unfamiliar with how an unincorporated area is governed. In Alameda County with its sizeable population residing in unincorporated areas, a system of governance has evolved over the decades in response to growing community involvement, and a sense that the best decision makers for important local issues are local residents, those who work, live and raise their families in these communities.
Unlike a city whose residents simply march down to the local city council meeting to raise a particular concern or support a city sponsored initiative, residents of unincorporated areas must rely on their County Supervisor to serve as their elected representative. In Alameda County none of the Supervisorial districts include only unincorporated areas, but are a mix of cities and unincorporated communities.
True or not, this has led to a perception that local decision making is not at the level some would like in order to achieve complete local governance. In fact, some would believe complete local governance is not possible under a County system, simply based on how County Supervisors are elected.
This is where the role of a Municipal Advisory Council (MAC) comes into play. Empowered by state law to represent unincorporated areas, each of California’s MACs advises its county supervisors on a broad range of issues concerning the area served by the MAC. In their development, MACs have become a valuable means of communication for both local official and MAC communities. Moreover, a MAC, empowered to advise on a whole range of local issues, can provide the coordination necessary to make community-level government more efficient and less expensive. MACs can be appointed or elected, although in Alameda County they are appointed by the elected County Supervisor representing the community of concern.
Once formed, MACs possess a formal structure through which the county board of supervisors can receive and consider community views, presenting the board with a single recognized voice. The divergent views of the community can be heard by a MAC and a consensus carried to the board. The MAC can thereby save the board time and relieve it of the difficult political task of determining who represents the community. Instead of judging local wishes by the loudest voices, the board can leave the process of building a consensus to the MAC.
MACs in Alameda County
The above description is very much the case for Alameda County’s first and largest MAC, the Castro Valley MAC (CVMAC). The CVMAC has provided County leadership (both District 4 elected and staff) with a broad range of advisory recommendations on issues such as general plan land use, recycling services, development permits, economic development and public works projects. While the list is too long to provide here, suffice it to say the Castro Valley community is well served by its local MAC, and the MAC has a longstanding and respected role in the local community. Meeting 2-3 times a month, the MAC board (consisting of 7 appointed volunteers) provides that crucial voice so that the concept of local governance is attainable. Agendas are usually split between general purpose items and land use so that advisory votes can be rendered quickly
The other MAC in Alameda County is the Sunol Area MAC, also appointed by the elected
Supervisor (District 2) representing the community of Sunol. Given it’s a much smaller area, the Sunol MAC (actually called the Citizens Advisory Council but has same functions/powers of a MAC) meets less frequently and its agendas cover a broad mix of issues of concern to the community.
There is some movement towards creating additional MACs in the unincorporated areas of Alameda County which has several other “county towns” that are not covered by a MAC. Through a process called the Eden Area Livability Initiative (EALI), a community wide discussion has considered creating new MACs – as of this writing the pros and cons of doing so are still being discussed.
MAC as a step toward incorporation
Through its operations, a MAC can help to train local citizens in county politics and government, thereby helping to develop local leadership. Where this occurs, the MAC experience will prove of great value. Trained in county government and with experience in administration and plan development, MAC participants can easily make the transition into self-government. This is especially true in Castro Valley where incorporation remains a goal for many of its residents. By focusing on economic development and attracting new commercial development to its downtown, the activities of the CVMAC may make incorporation possible in the future. In Sunol there has been little push for incorporation, and likely given its size and location the Sunol MAC will remain in its role as the local community voice for the foreseeable future.