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Lessons Learned: The League’s Expanding Role In State Public Affairs

The League strongly supported the package of infrastructure measures on the November ballot: Propositions 1A–1E and 84. As I wrote in my October column, these measures carry funding that will make a difference in all California cities. 

Another measure that we worked very hard to defeat was Prop. 90, “the taxpayer trap.” Early on, the League supported the opposition campaign to defeat this cynical attempt by outside interests to undermine the ability of communities to build new infrastructure, protect consumers and the environment, and build the housing that our state so desperately needs. The League played a significant role in helping to build the truly remarkable coalition that came together to defeat this harmful measure: environmental groups, realtors, chambers of commerce, labor, Indian tribes, taxpayer protection organizations and many others.
Ten years ago, the League’s role would have been marginal in shaping the outcome in November. That’s changed. The League is a markedly different association today than it used to be. While always a respected organization, the fact is that we are doing many things today that we simply didn’t do a decade ago.
I think it’s useful for us to reflect on what those changes are and why they are so important to our efforts if we are to fulfill our mission: “to restore and protect local control for cities through education and advocacy in order to enhance the quality of life for all Californians.” 
 
Sharpening Our Focus
In the not-so-distant past we sometimes didn’t do a good job of focusing our energies on the big stuff — the issues that truly would impact all cities and significantly affect our ability to shape our own communities.
Your League board of directors gets together every November with the officers of our departments, divisions and caucuses to set our strategic priorities for the year. We’ve learned to focus on only a few issues, but they are large issues that affect all cities.
Focusing helps us remember that we can’t work on everything with the same intensity. It also helps us bring our best strategic thinking to work on those key issues. We saw this with the passage of the League-sponsored Prop. 1A in 2004, which ended the state’s ability to raid local revenues and brought stability and predictability to our city budgets for the first time in 14 years.
We saw it this year with the placement on the November ballot of a package of infrastructure funding measures, a key League priority.
 
Fight Hard, Then Shake Hands
In recent years, we’ve had to push hard to promote or defeat a bill on housing, telecommunications reform, flood control and other issues. We’ve succeeded to varying degrees in protecting cities’ interests in each of these areas, even as we (like most organizations) don’t always achieve everything we want.
We’ve seen again and again, however, how the interests with whom we disagree today can be important allies on another issue tomorrow. Your League officers, board members, executive director and other League directors are all increasingly working to build alliances with the interests and organizations whose partnership is crucial to us in other battles.
We’ve seen the benefits of this in numerous ways. For example, the support of the California Professional Firefighters was incredibly valuable in helping to win passage of Prop. 1A in 2004. Firefighters literally became the “face” of the campaign in our television ad, and they joined other public safety officials in press conferences and other earned media work. They worked with us on this measure even though we had recently successfully fought all the way to the State Supreme Court to pre-vent implementation of legislation they sponsored that sought to impose binding arbitration on all cities when determining public safety employment benefits.
This year the No on Prop. 90 effort benefited tremendously from the financial support of AT&T, Verizon and other telephone companies, even though we had strongly opposed their bill to establish a statewide franchise for providers of telecommunications services.
The list could go on. But the point is clear: Our challenge is to continue to nurture relationships and partnerships, even when we sometimes disagree on key bills. Our strength is that we are achieving that.
 
California Civil Leadership Institute (CCLI)
The CCLI program provides another ex- ample of how we are strengthening our leadership role and the League’s stature in the state Capitol. This program was conceived as a forum to help cultivate local leadership and promote collegiality and collaboration among the rising stars of local government. Today, the CCLI serves as an exclusive and selective program to discuss public policy in California and educate prospective legislators on the pressing policy issues facing the state.
The CCLI class of 2006 included 12 male and nine female city officials from different ethnic and geographic backgrounds, with varying political ideologies and a breadth of experience commensurate with the goals of the CCLI program. Our hope and expectation is that as these leaders move into new roles, they will do so with a deepened understanding and appreciation of the need to retain the spirit of bipartisanship and collaboration that is the hallmark of the best work one sees in city hall.
 
The Grassroots Network
If you’ve only recently become involved with the League, you probably have no idea how the Grassroots Network has transformed our ability to play a leadership role in statewide events. Adopted in 2001 by a membership vote, the program reflected the strong desire of city managers and other members to offset the League’s competitive disadvantage relative to many other privately funded membership organizations. State law prohibits the use of taxpayer-derived membership dues (such as those cities pay to the League) for campaign contributions or to pay for ballot measure advocacy. The city managers felt strongly — and convinced other elected and city officials as well — that mobilizing League members to participate in grassroots activities was essential to help draw media attention to local concerns and hold legislators accountable.
The regional reps began proving their value to the League almost immediately. In early 2002, they went to work organizing earned media coverage and building coalitions to help pass Prop. 42 (transportation funding), using League non-public funds. After this measure passed in March 2002, they went on to successfully mobilize city officials and coalition partners to defeat several punitive housing bills.
In 2004, the reps played a pivotal role in the success of the League-sponsored Prop. 1A and worked on League legislative priorities. This year, the reps did an outstanding job of building the highly unusual coalition that came together to defeat Prop. 90, and raising the funds for CITIPAC that proved so crucial in that fight.
Today, city officials often express appreciation and support for a heightened sense of connection to the League. The Grassroots Network has also won admiration from legislators and other organizations, who now seek out partnerships with the League in part because of our demonstrated ability to mobilize local support or opposition for key issues.
In 2007, we will have an opportunity to vote on whether or not the League should continue the Grassroots Network. First, the League will conduct the last of three professional surveys of our members to document satisfaction levels with the program. Later in 2007, members will be presented with an opportunity to vote on whether to continue this landmark program.
 
CITIPAC
No discussion of the League’s growing leadership role would be complete without mentioning CITIPAC, the League’s political action committee. Established in 2003 by the League board of directors, this growing source of private funds has proved invaluable to the League’s ability to participate in ballot measure advocacy (which cannot be funded with public money). CITIPAC played a vital role in raising the private funds needed to support the League’s successful effort to pass Prop. 1Ain 2004 to protect local revenues from further state raids. And this year, it has proven crucial to the efforts to defeat Prop. 90.
 
The League’s Expanding Leadership Role
The League’s fundamental focus and purpose has not changed since 1898. Our League exists to advocate for cities’ concerns and provide the training city officials need to effectively serve their communities. But our ability to achieve these goals has been dramatically improved by these programs and activities. We’ve learned that city officials can assert their appropriate partnership role with the state when we exercise the creativity and vision that leadership demands. I’m proud to be part of this challenging, progressive organization and to partner with our members in our expanding role on behalf of our cities, our state and all Californians.