Getting to “Yes” in Intergovernmental Disputes

The complexities of the problems and challenges facing local officials in cities, counties and special districts mean that from time to time they find themselves in a dispute with each other.

Several types of intergovernmental dynamics can lead to tension and conflict. Here are some examples related to the issue of development:

  • Lack of regulatory authority when approving a development creates adverse impacts on schools, but the public agency approving the development lacks authority to do much to mitigate those impacts;
  • Issues related to property ownership arise when an agency wants to locate a facility within another agency’s boundaries and need not submit to its land use planning jurisdiction; and
  • When one agency’s action in approving development causes another agency’s costs to increase or levels of service to deteriorate because of the new development’s “spillover” effects, border issues can become a problem.

When local officials disagree about what is in the public’s best interest or what the law requires, how are such disagreements resolved? What is the best way to resolve a conflict between local officials who must continue to work together?

Interagency disagreements and disputes are usually resolved informally. However, informal processes sometimes aren’t enough. Litigation is one option, but it’s costly. As former mayor and current San Diego County Supervisor Greg Cox observes, “Litigation should always be a last-resort attempt to settle differences between parties. Local government jurisdictions have the most to lose in litigation — and the most to gain — by selecting a workable alternative to expensive court action. Taxpayers and residents are the big winners when disputes between local governments are resolved as amicably and inexpensively as possible and a new, impartial and broader perspective replaces a divisive situation regarding public policy.”

Resources for Resolving Disputes

In 2008, the Institute for Local Government (ILG) launched a program to give local agencies information about options, short of litigation, for resolving disputes.

As part of this effort, ILG recently published a brochure explaining the alternative dispute resolution (ADR) processes that are available and how to find someone to help. Titled A Local Official’s Guide to Intergovernmental Conflict Resolution, the brochure is available online at A second brochure examining legal issues associated with ADR for local agencies is currently in production. The law firms of McDonough, Holland and Allen and Renne Sloan Holtzman Sakai, respectively, provided funding for these brochures.

ILG’s Intergovernmental Conflict Resolution Program plans to offer additional resources on this topic through its website and future publications. It is also exploring the development of an online roster that would list mediators experienced in resolving interjurisdictional disputes through ADR processes. Such a roster would be a ready resource for local of ficials seeking a neutral party to help them devise a strategy for getting to “yes.” ILG is also considering whether to offer training for mediators on some of the unique aspects of public sector disputes that affect the mediation process and substance.

ILG’s efforts are supported by funding from the California State Association of Counties, the League of California Cities and, most recently, a grant from the JAMS Foundation ( ILG welcomes your suggestions on how to make this effort a success; contact ILG staff at (916) 658-8208 or

This article appears in the January 2009 issue of Western City
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