The Grassroots Network: Building a Better League
by Maria Alegria
How long have you been involved with the League? If it’s only been a few years, you may (understandably) be inclined to take a few things for granted.
For example, you were probably pretty happy in 2004 when Proposition 1A passed with 84 percent voter support. Finally, an end to state raids on your city’s local dollars! But you may have had no idea of the transforming steps the League had to take in the preceding years before it could sponsor a measure on the statewide ballot.
You may also have breathed a huge sigh of relief last November when voters turned down Prop. 90, the “taxpayer trap” measure on the state ballot. The defeat of this destructive measure protects your ability to engage in zoning and other crucial quality-of-life activities in your city.
Many city officials were also very pleased with the passage of the $39.8 billion infrastructure package placed on the November 2006 ballot by the Legislature, along with the $4.5 billion coastal protection and environmental bond. These League-supported measures create important new funding opportunities for cities throughout our state.
For example, what are your city’s plans for the minimum $400,000 for local transportation projects that every California city will receive from Prop. 1B as a result of the League’s successful lobbying? Have you programmed your share of the sales tax on gasoline you will now receive annually for local streets and roads as a result of the passage of Prop. 1A, which guarantees that this revenue will be dedicated to transportation? Other portions of the infrastructure package provide funding opportunities for housing, flood control and schools as well.
Cities everywhere will benefit from the successes mentioned above, and many of you know that your League played a significant role in the outcome of each of these measures. But getting our League to this point occurred because of significant changes it has undergone in recent years.
League Reinvents Itself to Respond to New Challenges
What are these changes? One is that we’ve learned to raise private funds so that we can participate in statewide ballot measures. We’ve also learned to build coalitions with other organizations - groups that we don’t always agree with, but with whom we know we must work together on issues that unite us.
We’ve strengthened our relationships with companies and organizations that participate in the League Partner program. And we’re finding ways to work on task forces with other organizations to develop legislative solutions to common problems.
Over the next few months, you will be hearing about another League innovation; one that arguably has had the greatest transformational effect on our organization - our Grassroots Network.
Grassroots Network Transforms League Advocacy
The Grassroots Network was established in 2001 by an overwhelming majority of our members, who adopted a bylaw authorizing the League to raise total member dues by roughly $1.6 million a year. The funds were earmarked to hire regional representatives who would work with city officials as grassroots coordinators on lobbying activities in each of the League’s 16 regional divisions.
The goal of the new Grassroots Network was to increase the effectiveness of the League’s legislative advocacy program. It was a concept that grew out of the board of directors’ desire to find new ways to support and strengthen the advocacy capabilities of California’s local elected officials.
The board’s proposal was strongly supported by the League’s City Managers Department and many elected and appointed city officials, all of whom were tired of playing the 98-pound weakling to the Legislature’s 800-pound gorilla. Particularly galling to most city officials was the Legislature’s ongoing ability to “borrow” property tax funds from local agencies to cover state budget problems - a practice that began in the early 1990s and continued in both good budget times and bad.
Most of the regional representatives were hired and on board by late 2001. And by spring 2002, they were already proving their worth. They were the on-the-ground field team that helped pass Prop. 42, the initiative that designated the sales tax on gasoline to pay for transportation projects, including local street and road repairs.
The reps went on to play important roles in successfully organizing city officials to oppose punitive land use or housing measures and other bills. And in 2004, they helped get the signatures to qualify the League- and LOCAL coalition-sponsored measure for the ballot that ultimately became Prop. 1A, ending state raids on local funds.
In 2006, the League regional public affairs managers (whose title changed last year to more accurately reflect their duties) had a spectacular year. They played a major role in helping the League achieve our strategic goals of expanding funding for state and local investment in physical infrastructure, expanding housing supply and affordability, and protecting critical redevelopment funding and authority.
For example, the regional managers served as the primary ground support for the No on Prop. 90 campaign. They made numerous presentations to business, community, labor and environmental groups and editorial boards, helping to secure more than 400 endorsements from organizations representing business, labor, homeowner, taxpayer, consumer, agriculture, environmental, good government, local government, public safety and ethnic groups. More than 80 news outlets editorialized against Prop. 90.
Regional managers also actively engaged in fundraising activities in support of Citipac, the League’s political action committee. Working with city officials (on their own time using no public resources), they held fundraisers in several regions throughout the state, raising nearly $450,000. Additional funds were also raised and contributed directly to the No on Prop. 90 campaign.
Grassroots Push Helped Put Infrastructure Package on the Ballot
When partisan differences in the Legislature threatened to stall progress on an infrastructure bond package, the League and our regional managers put a spotlight on local infrastructure needs around the state by organizing several widely publicized news conferences. Along with the California Infrastructure Coalition (CIC) - a group of local government organizations, business, community and environmental leaders - these events helped to break the partisan gridlock and build support for the infrastructure bond proposals.
The efforts had their desired effect when the Legislature and the governor worked together to pass a $39.8 billion bond package for the November 2006 ballot.
The regional managers also worked successfully with the League’s lobbying team to achieve important amendments to protect cities and consumers in the debate over AB 2987, the telecommunications reform. As a result, while AB 2987 will put into place a state franchise system for video and Internet service, the measure contains some of the strongest protections for local agencies and consumers achieved in any telecommunications reform measure adopted thus far.
These are huge achievements. But in addition to the “wins,” our grassroots capability has given the League heightened visibility and respect in the state Capitol from the administration, the Legislature and various organizations and interest groups that shape public policy in California. Today, affiliation with the League is sought by various groups that want to tap into the grassroots resources we have developed. This in turn has tremendously strengthened our position in all our legislative and regulatory advocacy activities.
Continuing the Grassroots Network: A Membership Choice
The board of directors’ oversight of the Grassroots Network during the past five years has included hiring a professional polling firm to conduct two membership surveys to set priorities for the network and determine whether it is achieving its goals and objectives. This year, we will conduct another survey to update our information about members’ satisfaction levels with the League and the network. Some mayors, council members and city managers, randomly selected from the League’s database, may have already received a letter from Executive Director Chris McKenzie asking them to complete the survey online. (Those of you who are not part of the randomly selected sample can still participate through the League website.)
We will publicize the results of the survey later in the year. Then, as required by the bylaw change that established the program, member cities will have an opportunity to vote on whether or not to continue the network. This vote will likely occur at our Annual Business Meeting in September at the League’s annual conference
I very much look forward to the focus that 2007 will bring on the Grassroots Network because I believe - as the successes identified in this column indicate - it has played a major role in our biggest successes.
As you consider the benefits of your League membership over the past few years, I urge you to remember the role the Grassroots Network has played in the League’s truly remarkable achievements. You’ll have a chance to decide later this year whether you want that kind of success to continue when your city will be asked to vote on continuing the Grassroots Network.
If you don’t know your regional public affairs manager, I encourage you to get acquainted with him or her. You can find them on our website at www.cacities.org/regionalmanagers. If you aren’t yet involved with our grassroots advocacy activities, your regional manager can help get you plugged in.