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2009 Annual Conference Review

More than 1,500 city officials attended the League of California Cities 2009 Annual Conference and Exposition held Sept. 16-18 in San Jose. Dozens of sessions and workshops focused on timely…

Special thanks to the following members of the California Association of Public Information Officials (CAPIO) who contributed to the on-site conference newsletter and this article and helped staff the conference media room: Ann Erdman, City of Pasadena; Astra Freedman, City of San Jose; Cathy Kenny, City of San Jose; Tom Manheim, City of San Jose; Kathie Martin, Town of Apple Valley; Mark Mazzaferro, City of Vacaville; Sue Schlerf, City of Reno; Scott Summerfield, consultant; David Vossbrink, City of San Jose; and Cheryl Wessling, City of San Jose.

More than 1,500 city officials attended the League of California Cities 2009 Annual Conference and Exposition held Sept. 16–18 in San Jose. Dozens of sessions and workshops focused on timely topics, and opportunities to share solutions abounded. Attendees also toured the Expo, where more than 200 companies showcased products and services designed to help cities increase efficiency and save money. On Friday, Sept. 18, city officials gathered at the League’s Annual Business Session to vote on proposed changes and additions to League policy, and the new 2009–10 board of directors was sworn into office. The following items highlight just a few of the many speakers and presentations that made the conference a success.

The New World of Social Media

Social media offer the newest ways to reach our residents and businesses but, according to keynote speaker Charlene Li, there are some important lessons to learn. First, let go of the control you never had and get engaged.

“Go to where your citizens are living online,” explained Li, an expert on emerging technologies, interactive media and marketing. “Engage them on their turf. Don’t force them to come to your website.”

Li suggested starting small but starting now, mixing Facebook, Twitter and other examples of social media. Establish goals, monitor what others are saying and then plunge in. Offer help for problems, share their excitement about a city program and, most important, put a human face on your agency.

“It’s about relationships, not technology,” said Li. “Social media is not just another bullhorn for blasting your message.”

She offered cities these recommendations: Be transparent — let people know the person behind the messages. Be conversational and human. And develop a social media policy, recognizing that in the world of social media, there is a little black and white with a large gray area in the middle. Remember, your city’s residents and businesses are going to talk about you — now use social media to let them talk with you.

Surviving the Financial Crisis

“A crisis is a terrible thing to waste” was one of many nuggets that former Indianapolis Mayor and keynote speaker Bill Hudnut shared with city officials. Rather than focusing on the obvious and painful solutions of cutting services and raising taxes, Hudnut exhorted city leaders to respond to the fiscal crisis by developing new revenue in several ways:

  • Economic development. Consider how to expand your tax base. For example, Palm Springs is polishing its historic corridor to draw new tourists, while San Francisco is redeveloping a seedy part of Market Street to pilot a new world-class boulevard;
  • Market-based user fees. Parking meters, toll roads, development fees and library fines can raise money. When people pay for a direct benefit, it’s more palatable than a broad tax increase; and
  • Asset monetization. Selling off municipal assets, such as parking lots, is another option, but be careful not to privatize critical functions that are better provided by government. 

Saying the time to pursue reforms is at hand, Hudnut pointed to three critically needed changes and urged local elected leaders to take action:

  1. State constitutional amendment. Support the League proposal to protect local funding with a constitutional amendment on the November 2010 ballot;
  2. Reform state governance. Advocate for solutions to address the profound dysfunction in California’s system of governance; and
  3. Restructure local governance. Look for ways to shed duplicative programs and share services. 

Referring to the state’s penchant for taking local revenues, Hudnut said, “Thou shall not crucify local government on your flimsy alter of fiscal irresponsibility!” and received a rousing round of applause.

Cautious Outlook Advised for Future Budgets

Cities must plan their budgets and operations to be “lean, mean and conservative,” according to Carol Rodoni, Wall Street Journal columnist and owner of Bamboo Consulting. “We are in a different world economically,” she told city officials. “We’re in an economic revolution.”

Following a tremendous adjustment in housing prices, some areas have seen a 60 to 70 percent drop in property values. The real estate business, which used to be locally driven by supply and demand, is now controlled by banks, Rodoni noted, and the banks are controlled by the federal government. As a result, she explained, the free market is not so free anymore, and that’s by design as the government works to level off wild fluctuations in revenues.

“The government figured out there were too many highs and too many lows, and they are trying to mellow that out and bring stability to the market,” she added.

The result should give local and state governments the ability to match expenditures to revenues, bringing more stability. But even with these controls in place, she says the recovery will arrive at different times in different places.

Rodoni predicted that for areas with high foreclosure rates, the recovery could take until 2013 or 2014. But she noted that the news isn’t all bad, saying “I think we’ll be break-even or even see a little growth in the economy by the end of the year.”

Grassroots Approach to State Reform

The message was clear at a session of the Cities, Counties and Schools (CCS) Partnership: If the problem with state government is going to be repaired, it’s unrealistic to expect leadership in Sacramento to do it.

“The system is broken,” said Jim Madaffer, a former San Diego city council member and League past president. “The people in Sacramento are good people who want to do well, but they are trapped in a system. This is something that’s going to have to be fixed.”

The CCS Partnership, a coalition of city, county and school officials, was formed in 1997 to tackle issues such as childhood obesity and foster care. According to Madaffer, with so many failures at the state level, the CCS Partnership has refocused its efforts on state reform.

“Our three groups represent almost 8,000 elected officials,” Madaffer said. “We are the voice of 30 million Californians.”

Panelists agreed that the only way for those voices to be heard is to start at the grassroots level. Gary Wyatt, president of California State Association of Counties, observed that it’s already happening. “Cities, counties and schools are starting to come together. We’re just getting started in moving toward fiscal reform in California,” he said, referring to a July 2009 summit attended by more than 500 local officials. “I believe we have enough momentum to change the city-state landscape.”

Only through collaboration and working together can the fiscal and budget reform that’s needed become a reality, noted Paula Campbell, president of the California School Board Association. “There are so many things we have in common,” Campbell said of the CCS membership. “Together we have an enormous voice and power in Sacramento.”

Information on what can be done at the local level, including a toolkit for local agencies, is posted at

This article appears in the December 2009 issue of Western City
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