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Advocating for Your City in a Term-Limited Era

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Bismarck Obando is public affairs director for the League and can be reached at bobando@cacities.org.


In 1990, California voters passed Proposition 140, which set term limits for legislators in the California state Senate and Assembly. Although this measure’s intent was to create a new breed of citizen legislator who was more responsive to the needs of local constituents, term limits have dramatically changed the way local government officials advocate for city issues in Sacramento.

Term limits have provided tremendous opportunities for city and county officials to successfully win seats in the Assembly and/or Senate. For example, more than 50 percent of the 2011-12 Legislature came from local government. In the Senate, 22 of its 40 senators were former local government officials, as were 41 of the Assembly’s 80 members. With this much local government experience in the Legislature, you might expect more empathy in terms of how the state deals with cities on issues like the budget, housing and land use, employee relations, environmental quality, and revenue and taxation issues. The unfortunate reality is that legislators face tremendous pressure from the speaker of the Assembly, the Senate pro Tem and special interest groups that channel campaign dollars into the coffers of the members, who are always  thinking about their next campaign. The result is that legislators often make tough decisions and cast votes that negatively impact cities and their constituents.

An Arrow in Your Quiver: The League’s Grassroots Network

Over the past few years, California cities have celebrated a number of significant achievements in the legislative arena and at the ballot box due to the League’s Grassroots Network. Founded in 2001, this program placed 16 regional public affairs managers throughout the state to bring cities’ presence and impact to the legislative and initiative processes. The Grassroots Network’s regional public affairs managers work with city officials and the League’s regional divisions to promote the organizations mission and legislative priorities to legislators, local media, and regional stakeholders who had a vested interest in protecting vital local resources.

Since its inception, the Grassroots Network has delivered ballot-box victories with Prop. 1A (2004), No on Prop. 90 (2006), No on 98/Yes on 99 (2008), and Prop. 22 (2010). In the legislative arena, the League — through its regional public affairs managers — consistently supported and defeated legislation that protected your city’s ability to govern its own affairs:

  • In 2006, the League helped secure $1 billion in funding through Prop. 1B for local streets and roads, which provided cities with critical infrastructure funding;
  • In 2007, the League successfully lobbied for the release of $550 million of the $1 billion in Prop. 1B funding that provided cities access to additional maintenance funds in early 2008; and
  • In 2009, the League successfully lobbied to prevent any borrowing of local property tax and Prop. 42 funds to close the state’s budget deficit.

Making Your Case to Legislators in 2012

Many new legislators go to Sacramento with the intent of remembering and being true to their local government roots. However, the intensity of Sacramento legislative life — along with term limits, powerful interest groups and budget fights — has changed the playing field for advocacy in Sacramento. As a city official, you can no longer rely on your former colleagues’ sympathy to city issues. Instead, it is your responsibility to continue reminding your former colleagues of the importance of League priority legislation and the impacts at home in their district.

Here are some things you can do.

  • Serve as a League advocate. Contact your local regional public affairs manager to volunteer to serve as an advocate. Find out who your regional manager is at www.cacities.org.
  • Familiarize yourself with the issues. The legislative staff and regional public affairs managers will work together to ensure that you are informed of key issues and positions. As you get familiar with these issues, create your own fact sheets about how state-level fiscal decisions affect services in your city.
  • Build new partnerships with regional and local stakeholders. Connect your stakeholders with our regional public affairs managers. As city officials, you have the support of community-based organizations (CBOs) and third-party stakeholders that helped you get elected or appointed. These same CBOs and third-party stakeholders have constituents that can help advocate for you, your city and the League on key legislative issues and ballot initiatives. Connect these groups with the League’s regional public affairs managers to work collaboratively in advocating to legislators, serving as media spokespersons, conducting and attending press conferences, and helping our coalition efforts grow.
  • Respond to Legislative Action Alerts. In an era where the legislative calendar on important hearings or votes is unpredictable, as a city official you should prepare for quick responses to the League’s Legislative Action Alerts. Throughout the legislative session, issues will emerge, key hearings will be held and critical votes will be taken. The League’s legislative staff will work closely with the regional public affairs managers to ask for your help in our advocacy efforts.
  • Be sure your city meets regularly with your legislators both in Sacramento and in the district. Don’t wait to meet with them until there is a problem or you want something. Throughout the year, brief them on the League priority issues, topics of importance at the local level and how much their support of local control means.
  • Hold your local legislators accountable. Have a conversation with your legislator about the 2011 legislative and budget session; include their vote record on redevelopment and SB 89 as part of that discussion.
  • Praise in public, criticize in private. If your legislator has a good record on local control, thank him or her. If he or she has a less than stellar record, ask why. Just remember to think carefully about how you and the League work with your legislator. Before you burn any bridges, consider whether this is the best way to make your case.
  • Keep in mind legislative endorsements. As a result of redistricting and the new open primary election process, some Assembly and Senate seats are going to be very competitive. Your endorsement of a candidate can either help or hinder their election success. Review the candidate’s votes on city-related issues and consider whether or not the legislator merits your endorsement.

For more information on priority bills and legislative advocacy, visit www.cacities.org