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Inspiring Leadership: Challenges for the Next Generation of Leaders

Eva Spiegel is communications director for the League and can be reached at espiegel@cacities.org.

Public service, especially at the local level, faces a monumental challenge as the Baby Boomer generation (born 1944-64) begins to retire and the next generation steps up to fill those jobs. At 80 million strong and with values based in giving back and improving society, the Boomers leave big shoes to fill. Furthermore, there are just 50 million of the next group, Generation X (born 1965-78), to do it.

 

This tidal wave of change is hitting local government on two fronts: staff retirements and elected leadership. The next generation of public servants must be cultivated, mentored and motivated to step into the pending vacancies. It can be more difficult for a young person -- who is early in his or her career, perhaps has a young family and may still be paying off student loans -- to consider running for city council than for an older person. With age usually come greater personal and financial flexibility, making it possible to devote a substantial amount of time to elected office.

Most council members are either retired or established in their careers, with very few people younger than 35 running for local office. An informal survey of the League’s Orange County Division found that of the 174 council members in its 34 cities, only six are younger than 35.

To find out what motivates younger citizens to run for office and learn about the special challenges they face, Western City talked with some younger California city council members and mayors. The oldest person interviewed was 38 (she first ran for office at 34), and the youngest was elected in November 2007 at age 21.

The council members interviewed include: Angel Carrillo, age 32, mayor pro tem, Azusa; Ryan Coonerty, age 34, mayor, Santa Cruz; Catherine Driscoll, age 38, council member, Los Alamitos; Matt Garcia, age 22, council member, Fairfield; Jill Hardy, age 36, council member, Huntington Beach; Louie Lujan, age 31, mayor, La Puente; and Holly Madrigal, age 31, mayor, Willits.

What motivated you to run for office?

Ryan Coonerty: I decided to return to Santa Cruz to be part of my home community. It’s one thing to be involved in national policy (I worked in Washington, D.C.) where you can move big things a few inches, but in Santa Cruz, you can move things a couple of feet. One main reason that I ran was to see a younger viewpoint represented.

Matt Garcia: I ran at such a young age (21) because most of the crime in my city (Fairfield) is youth driven. I want to show young people if you do positive things, work hard and have a goal, you can accomplish anything. My biological father was a gang member, and I could have chosen that direction, but I didn’t.

Jill Hardy: I am a fourth-generation Huntington Beach resident. In my family, over dinner we always discussed the city. Nobody was in politics in my family, so I was the one who decided to do something about the dinner table conversation.

How do you mentor younger people to motivate them to run for office?

Angel Carrillo: If you come to city hall looking at it as a stepping stone, you’re running for office for the wrong reasons. I would encourage people to serve because they truly want to make a difference in their own community.

Ryan Coonerty: I get young people involved with commissions first, I have them work on local campaigns, and we talk about the issues.

Matt Garcia: In the next five to 10 years, we -- the younger generations -- have to step up to the plate. We are the future leaders. If you have a passion to do right for the community, use your voice and energy to do wonderful things.

Jill Hardy: We have a youth board, and I’m the council liaison. One of my fellow members is very involved with Boy Scouts and the military, so that is how he mentors.

Louie Lujan: When handled properly, government is truly a mechanism to improve people’s lives. We have to instill that value in youth. Many see government as the problem, not the answer. Right now we need good leadership, so we have to instill the value that government is the solution.

Holly Madrigal: I always try to spark the idea of leadership -- many young people may not realize they have the ability to
be leaders.

What advice do you have for younger people who run for office?

Holly Madrigal: It’s really important to temper your enthusiasm with the wisdom of the council and city staff. When they’re first elected, people think they can change the world, but they need to be respectful of the council and staff who are already there. You can’t get stuff done without working with your colleagues. It has to be a communitywide goal, not just a personal agenda. Temper enthusiasm with reality.

Catherine Driscoll: I truly recommend to young council members, get involved with the League. Get involved with your mentors and colleagues in your county. Reach out, don’t be shy and get to know people. I did this my first year; I went to a conference and grabbed everyone I could and asked questions.

Ryan Coonerty: You need to have a certain level of patience on the council - and that can be hard when you’re young because the government process is slow. Change is going to take a long time, a lot of meetings. It took me a while to come to terms with that.

Jill Hardy: I talk to high-school students who want to get involved and ask them, how will they pay the bills? I tell them to get involved anyway, to find something that interests them that accommodates their free time. If it’s an issue that inspires you, get involved.

What are some of the unique challenges younger council members face?

Angel Carilllo: The job of council member was designed for someone who is retired. It’s very challenging balancing time with work, family and council. This puts a financial constraint on my family and me. I am willing to make this sacrifice now, but not forever.

Jill Hardy: It’s hard to go into a new job and ask if I can take long lunches for a committee meeting or be off every other Monday afternoon.

Louie Lujan: Time management is essential. I force myself to turn off the phone on weekends and at 7 p.m. and put away my BlackBerry. I create clear boundaries between personal time and business.

Holly Madrigal: I had a vacation from work, and during my time off I worked on all sorts of council business, because that’s when I had the free time.