Article Executive Director's Message Chris McKenzie

The League at 110: Focused on Local Control – and Always Looking Ahead

As I write this column, I’m flying home from visiting my 95-year-old father in Kansas. I was thinking about the fact that Dad was born in 1913 — and 15 years before his birth, the League was established in 1898. So the League is 110 years young this year, and it seems appropriate to recognize some of the ways it has changed since its 100th birthday in 1998 and some of the ways it remains timeless.

While the League is perhaps best known today as an advocate for restoring and protecting local control for cities, one of the reasons it was formed was to help city officials share information about best practices in delivering municipal services. City clerks saw the value in cities exchanging information about government efficiency (or lack thereof) so they could better serve the public, and the idea of having a statewide organization to help with that task was born. Shortly thereafter, coordinating cities’ lobbying activities so they could make an important collective mark on state policies was added to the League’s portfolio of purposes.

The Not-So-Good Old Days

The first 40 years of California statehood was not a good time for local control because the state government had amassed almost exclusive control over raising and spending tax funds in the state. If that sounds strangely familiar, it was actually far worse than today. Although city councils set local property tax rates, after statehood commenced the Legislature gradually began adopting legislation to mandate how cities spent local revenues.

To add insult to injury, cities were virtually powerless to do anything new without the Legislature’s prior approval. This began to change with the first grant of constitutional home rule powers to San Francisco initially in 1879, but the Legislature jealously guarded its powers and did not give them up easily. Some authors of early legislative history chronicle tales of hundreds of bills necessary for purely local purposes. The Legislature had in effect become the local city council, and it was anything but efficient and responsive.

When San Francisco Mayor James Phelan (the godfather of the League in a sense) gaveled the League’s first annual conference to order on Dec. 14, 1898, in Pioneer Hall in San Francisco, the tide was just beginning to turn. More and more cities were seeking to become “charter cities” and exercise a greater level of control over their destiny. The League was there to assist with this early venture in local democracy.

California prospered over the next 100 years as the destination for many people seeking a better life, and local control was one of the keys to that success. From locally governed schools to locally managed police and parks departments, the genius of the California dream seemed to depend, at least in part, on the ability of local elected and appointed leaders to innovate, challenge and succeed. Building freeways, a water supply network and a university system that became the envy of the nation, the state government saw its job as complementing what local governments did best.

Protecting Local Control

Through two world wars, the civil unrest of the 1960s and ’70s, and the financial uncertainty brought on by Proposition 13 in the late 1970s and ’80s, the League fought effectively to protect and expand local authority and revenues to match the ambitions of its cities and their leaders. The League’s focus remained steadfast: to give city leaders options in how they finance and run their city governments. This approach has resulted in great diversity and innovation among California’s cities. The League has always fought for local choice in land use, public works, public safety and municipal finance — all within a system, however, that increasingly depends on state subventions and shared revenues.

By the time the League celebrated its 100th birthday in 1998, some city officials believed that the League had not been able to stop an onslaught of state legislation through the 1980s and 1990s that robbed cities of their revenues and local control. While some may disagree with that characterization, there’s no doubt that when the state began stealing local property taxes in the early 1990s — so it didn’t have to raise taxes to meet its obligation to fund schools — things really couldn’t have gotten much worse. An out-of-control state government was growing bigger at the expense of local services, and schools didn’t benefit from this — other programs actually did.

Between 1998 and 2008, the League’s board of directors and membership put in place a number of reforms and innovations to stem the tide of growing state dominance. In the process, the members of the League exercised the formidable power they have to build stronger cities and a stronger state by restoring the balance between state and local governments.

Building Strength Locally

Perhaps the most important innovation of the post-1998 era was the creation of a new regional public affairs manager program that to this day is unparalleled in California and throughout the nation. Premised on the belief that the political strength of the League is located at the community level (“All politics is local,” as Tip O’Neill said), the members of the League dramatically increased their dues to assign 15 field staff members throughout the state to help mobilize that political strength. Working with elected and appointed city officials, these politically savvy staff members prepare city officials to do battle for local control, help build coalitions that advance the goal of local control and enhance communication between the League offices in Sacramento and its members.

The regional public affairs manager program has been so successful that League members recently made it, and the dues increase that supports it, permanent. Moreover, it soon became the platform on which the League launched its second venture: ballot measure advocacy. Capturing the strength of the regional network, the League’s membership and leadership has now provided critical support for ballot measure campaigns to protect local revenues in 2004 with Prop. 1A, to defeat Prop. 90 and pass Prop. 1A in 2006, and to defeat Prop. 98 and pass Prop. 99 in 2008.

There is simply no way the League could have succeeded in meeting these critical objectives without the capacity of the regional public affairs manager program. It has also been critical to our success in raising funds for our ballot measure political action committee, CITIPAC, which allows us to act quickly to defend city interests at the ballot box.

Flexibility Is Key in SB 375 Discussions

League leaders have learned along the way that protecting local control can also require being flexible and responsive to the needs and desires of the electorate on issues that demand substantive, thoughtful public policy — without sacrificing local discretion and influence. This happened with eminent domain in connection with Props. 98 and 99, and it happened recently when the League board decided to engage in a conversation about the policy issues that arise from the intersection of climate change, transportation and land use.

Many will recall that Wayne Gretsky, the famous hockey player, used to attribute his success to “skating to where the hockey puck is going — not to where it is.” For the past two years the League has been employing this technique in helping craft new global warming legislation that actually expands local land use authority. This legislation, SB 375, was authored by Senator Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) and is designed to establish an incentive-based reward system for tangible plans and projects that help reduce the carbon emissions from motor vehicles by reducing the number of vehicle miles traveled.

Until recently, the League opposed SB 375, but we were mindful that the California Air Resources Board (ARB) could impose far more intrusive and mandatory regulations on local land use decision-makers as a result of the passage of AB 32 two years ago. So the League board of directors chose to work with Sen. Steinberg to refine and improve SB 375 into the incentive-based legislation he wanted it to be rather than take a chance that the ARB would shape regulations the League would support.

Joined by homebuilder, environmental, local government and planning representatives, the League helped transform SB 375 into legislation that does not remove an ounce of local land use discretion but instead expands it by offering a number of exemptions from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) for eligible projects. SB 375 also reduces the frequency of state intrusion in local decisions by increasing the duration of local housing elements in General Plans from five to eight years, which is a welcome relief to city officials who spend much of their time updating their housing elements. Moreover, the League was successful in securing amendments that will prevent the ARB from adopting unreasonable regional targets for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

As a result of discussions with key stake-holders and the author, the bill now contains what is believed to be a much more workable framework for reducing GHG emissions from cars and light trucks than what would have resulted through ARB rule-making without SB 375. In the process, most cities also got some long- overdue relief from housing element and CEQA mandates. The bottom line is we helped shape a process for providing incentives to reduce GHG emissions, which is a key League priority, while protecting and partially enhancing local control. One could say, “Not bad for two years’ work.”

A Stronger Force for Cities

Today the League is far from invincible, but as state and city officials know, it is much stronger today than it was 10 years ago because:

  • Its members invested in collective action;
  • Members support having a League that advocates for the common interests of all cities rather than just a few; and
  • It has and cultivates the ability to engage in the debates about major policy challenges facing our state so it can protect the maximum measure of local control.

As the League celebrates its 110th birthday, I believe our predecessors would join us in applauding the organization’s significant measure of success in promoting local control over the past decade. There is so much more to do, but the League of 2008 is prepared to handle many challenges.

Thanks for your contributions to making the League a strong statewide voice for the common interests and needs of city governments. It could not be done without you.

This article appears in the November 2008 issue of Western City
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