OC Cities Exit Leftist League Of Cities

FEB. 14, 2011


In California, a state gone left and wrong, a conservative searches desperately for signs of intelligent life and finds few reasons to be optimistic. However, a recent development in Southern California provides a glimmer of hope amid the Golden State’s gathering gloom.

On January 19, after months of preparatory work and in a move reportedly dismissed by California Gov. Jerry Brown as “a parade to nowhere,” the board of directors of the Orange County Division of the League of California Cities voted to withdraw from the state league and reconstitute themselves as the Association of California Cities – Orange County (ACC–OC).

In essence, 21 of Orange County’s 34 cities declared their independence from an organization that had drifted left of center and began to charttheir own course.

The cities are Anaheim, Buena Park, Costa Mesa, Cypress, Dana Point, Fountain Valley, Garden Grove, Huntington Beach, Laguna Hills, Laguna Niguel, Lake Forest, La Palma, Mission Viejo, Newport Beach, Rancho Santa Margarita, San Clemente, San Juan Capistrano, Seal Beach, Tustin, Westminster, and Yorba Linda.Orangehas since joined,bringing the total to 22, and other citiesare expected tofollow.

According to a posting by this fledgling association on Facebook, its mission is “to enhance the quality of life in Orange County by protecting and expanding local control for its cities.”

Local control is what ACC–OC is all about. Previously, these cities paid almost $500,000 in dues each year to the League of California Cities, which tightly controlled both state and local division monies. Now, the association will control the lion’s share of these dollars.

“We in Orange County will no longer be sending our dues to the state and have our dollars used against our goals,” explains Mission Viejo Mayor Pro Tem Frank Ury, who is a director at large for the new association.

The venerable League of California Cities was founded in 1898. According to a brief history posted on that organization’s Web site, the league’s first president, San Francisco Mayor James D. Phelan, noted in his inaugural address that California’s cities were “called upon to meet the same demands and pursue the same purposes” yet were “for the most part, isolated.”

Phelan identified the need these cities had to learn from one another how best to construct roads, dispose of sewage and garbage, provide proper sanitation, operate “water works and lighting plants,” and “minister to the general well-being of our citizens.”  Citing the benefits that could be found in the associations “of all classes of professional men,” Phelan spoke confidently of the good that would “undoubtedly result from the association of municipalities.”

For cities, it was an age of transition. Scientific discoveries and inventions were changing the way things were done. Machines were replacing muscle; engines were replacing horses. In the wake of Thomas Edison’s successful effort to produce a longer-lasting, practical electric light bulb, there was the burning question of how this device might be used to illuminate cities.

“We are all experimenting with these various matters, seeking solutions to the problems confronting us, without system and without direction,” Phelan continued. “We should come together at least once a year to formulate our needs and relate our experiences for the benefit of all.”

Thus, the League of California Cities was initially viewed as a forum through which members would share best practices. Because several cities suggested the group might wish to encourage legislation that would benefit cities, the league also became involved in legislative advocacy.

According to the state league’s Web site, this organization aspires “to be recognized as the leading advocate for the common interests of California’s cities.” But Ury points out that for years the state league has “gone through the motion of asking the local divisions (not just Orange County) for their views on policy issues, only to override what the local leaders want.”

Significant city differences with state league policy surfaced as along ago as 2005. In June of that year, a sharply divided U.S. Supreme Court, considering the case of Susette Kelo and her New London, Conn., neighbors, gave its blessing to the use of eminent domain to further economic development.

In the process, the court significantly expanded the meaning of “public use” by affirming the authority of local governments to take private property and turn it over to private developers for their economic gain in the hope of boosting local tax revenues.

Response to the ruling was swift and widespread. Over the next two years, 39 states enacted laws or passed ballot measures to protect residents from eminent domain abuse. Elected officials in Orange County cities similarly hastened to reassure residents that their homes would not be seized by local government to make way for a pharmaceutical plant or another big box store.

Yet the National League of Cities applauded the Kelo decision, and the California league’s initial response was lackluster. The latter assured its members that “the Kelo decision did not grant new powers to California public agencies regarding the use of eminent domain.”

Another area of policy disagreement between the state league and city members was Propositions 1A through F, which had been placed on the May 19, 2009, special election ballot by former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Most Orange County cities viewed this package of propositions as a tax increase deceptively wrapped as budget reform and believed the state league should oppose it or, at a minimum, take no position, but the league’s board of directors sided with the governor and trumpeted their support.

A third area of disagreement was AB32, Governor Schwarzenegger’s global warming bill. Cities throughout the state saw this bill as a job killer. Because statewide unemployment stood at 12.2 percent, the highest level in 70 years, they wanted the governor to suspend its implementation until this percentage dropped significantly, and they asked the California League of Cities to support their position.

But, as Ury explains, “The state executive board was so enamored with ‘having a seat at the table’ with Schwarzenegger that they abandoned the policy issues of their members” and stubbornly maintained “no position” on this issue. Thus, instead of being the “leading advocate for the common interests of California’s cities,”the league hadbecome a willing ally, or accomplice, of the state’s governor.

“As California has tilted toward bankruptcy,” Ury adds, “the state league has been either ineffective or a willing partner in most policy decisions. The clear message is that the state league has left local government,” which is what prompted a group of 20-some Orange County cities to declare their independence from the state league.

At the time of the state league’s formation113 years ago, California had about 100 cities. Thirteen of them sent delegates to the first meeting, which was held at Pioneer Hall, on Fourth Street, in San Francisco, on December 14, 1898. They were a small group preparing to tackle big problems and believing they could do so better together than alone.

In many ways, it is to these roots that the Association of California Cities–Orange County Cities has returned. Members see an opportunity to focus on good public policy and, in doing so, to solve some of the problems that the League of California Cities, with its 474 municipal members—either because of its size or because of its politics—has been unwilling or unable to address.

In a state gone left and wrong, the Association of California Cities–Orange County is something gone right.

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