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Richard "Bud" Carpenter: A Man for All Seasons

There are many reasons why cities in California enjoy an international reputation for innovation and leadership, and among them are the contributions of a man who served the League for more than 50 years in numerous capacities, including as executive director from 1951-73. Richard "Bud" Carpenter was that extraordinary individual, and he passed away Oct. 1, 2007. His accomplishments are known by a declining number of city officials, so I’m dedicating this column to Bud and his legacy.

Bud’s service to the League started with his appointment as assistant legal counsel in 1939. He was eventually promoted to general counsel (1946) and later selected to be the League’s executive director (1951). After his first retirement from the League in 1973, Bud stayed on for two years as director of legislative affairs, retiring for the second time in 1975. His third and final stint with the League as director of employee relations was from 1977-90. During that time he made significant contributions to the development and refinement of modern personnel management systems in California cities.

A Lobbying Legend

I first learned about Bud before moving to California in 1999 to work for the League. After applying for the position of executive director, I borrowed a book from the library on the history of the California Legislature. Reading the book, I came across a number of references to Bud’s lobbying prowess, indicating that he was so respected by legislators that they treated him as an ex officio member of their committees. The author claimed that on more than one occasion, a committee member who was opposed to a particular bill simply had to ask Bud a question, and he could itemize and illustrate the bill’s flaws for the committee.

Generosity of Spirit

While I knew from my pre-employment research that I would be following a legend (and another who immediately preceded me, Don Benninghoven), it was Bud’s incredible kindness and humanity that was unexpected. Shortly after I started work as the League’s new executive director, he wrote me one of his very kind notes that I still treasure. In it, he gave me his best wishes for my success and happiness in a position he under stood only too well.

Over the next few years, I would get more cards and notes from Bud, commenting on the importance of the League’s efforts to stop state government from diverting local property taxes to benefit the state budget at the expense of cities, counties and special districts. His notes grew more praiseworthy as we neared our goal of having a statewide ballot measure to constrain state revenue grabs, and he was never happier than when we began the campaign in earnest in fall 2004. I knew we had captured Bud’s full support and enthusiasm when he sent me a check to help support the Proposition 1A campaign - some 65 years after he first came to work for the League.

Significant Achievements

Bud’s accomplishments as executive director are legendary, but among them he counted achieving greater revenue diversity for cities, including the local sales tax, the local cigarette tax, the increase in the state’s motor vehicle in-lieu tax program, and local participation in state highway revenues. He was rightfully proud of the League’s leadership and support in the Legislature’s enactment of the state water pollution control program and opening up the California Public Employee Retirement System (CalPERS) to municipalities so city employees could participate in a well-managed and actuarially sound defined-benefit retirement system.

Bud was also a powerful force for good government in California. After a series of articles broke on some secret meetings involving city officials, he teamed up with the newspaper publishers and other groups to write and lobby for the enactment of what is now known as the Brown Act, regulating local government open meetings. While many people, including city officials, take its procedural protections for granted as a part of the texture and culture of city government, it is important to remember that this was not always the case. Bud’s involvement in that venture was no doubt based on the time-tested belief of lobbyists that it is better to plan your own reform than have others do it to you, but it also seems totally consistent with Bud’s sense of personal ethics and how government ought to operate.

Inspiring Others

As colleagues have reflected on their impressions of Bud, it’s clear that his mere presence caused people to reach higher and do their best. League Deputy Executive Director Dwight Stenbakken worked for Bud years ago, and said, "Bud was the kind of leader who made you want to roll up your sleeves and work for him. You didn’t want to disappoint him. I’m sure that Bud’s expectations for you weren’t nearly as high as the expectations you put on yourself, wanting to do the best job you could for him. That’s the essence of leadership to me."

Former League Executive Director Don Benninghoven, who succeeded Bud and worked with him as a staff lobbyist, spoke at Bud’s funeral about the unique ability Bud had to attract people to him - from governors to legislators to opponents. He told a number of stories about Bud’s impressive ability to persuade legislators that they should agree with him, includ ing this one about the chairman of the Assembly Committee on Local Government: "The chair of the committee was so taken by Bud’s opposition to one of his bills he suggested a full debate between the two of them on the floor of the Assembly. This was the first (and probably last) time that will ever happen. For one thing, Bud’s arguments prevailed and thus the Assembly voted against its own member - not normal at all."

Taking the High Road

Don also told heartwarming stories about the many nights he shared a room with Bud and his chronic snoring (which led them to ask the board to approve funding for a separate room for Bud), his warmth and friendship that lasted over decades, and the impact he had on others. Don spoke with great feeling about Bud’s most significant contribution to the League when he said, "Probably the greatest impact Bud had on the League was his un relenting ethical conduct. Bud’s favorite role with newly elected city officials at the League’s training conferences was his legal and practical discussion of potential conflicts of interest, saying if you felt like you might have a conflict with one of your actions, you probably do? That high sense of right or wrong permeated everything we did in the League and has been passed down from staff member to staff member ever since."

I now understand the strong culture of ethical conduct at the League. I know from experience that something like that doesn’t develop overnight. It takes many years of nurturing and effort to grow and flourish. Bud was clearly the chief cultivator of that culture, and we are all beneficiaries of his leadership.

A Lasting Legacy

Bud Carpenter’s indelible impact on good government in California is his legacy. His friendship to so many was a gift that will continue to bear fruit. His leadership made us all better citizens, leaders and servants of the public interest. Thank you, Bud. You made a tremendous difference.