The 80th Winter Conference of Mayors just wrapped up in Washington, DC. At this conclave of city leaders (pop. 30,000+), our own Beverly Hills Mayor Barry Brucker sat at the dais, where Mayors from across the country pow wow to try to put urban policy back on the DC radar. Scanty federal appropriations these days means that cities take it on the chin, and the Conference is where elected leaders scheme to hold their own against special interests wooing Congress despite an austerity agenda.
It’s tempting to look at the Conference as another junket to a convention town. But this Winter’s event in Washington DC (in winter!) and the Conference’s summer event in Orlando (in summer!) suggests otherwise as the Mayors are more likely to work on a policy agenda rather than spend too much time outdoors. Either somebody got the bookings wrong, or this organization really is focused on results.
In brief, the US Conference of Mayors promotes national urban & suburban policy. But it also functions as a forum where Mayors meet to share ideas, collaborate to define city-centric policy platforms, and share management best practices. Now, Beverly Hills views itself as a ‘smart city.’ Former mayor Delshad made that his credo, and we have a shiny suite of computer servers and a new iPhone app to prove it. Likewise, Mayor Brucker took the lead in 2009 on sustainability, and now we’re putting solar on city garages. While we have sharp electeds and commissioners, City Hall is really run by well-paid managers overseeing a dwinding services cadre.
So I’m not certain that Beverly Hills is pioneering management innovation. A search of the 1,600 entries in the US Conference’s ‘best practices collection’ turns up only two mentions for Beverly Hills, and both relate to scheduled events – not ‘best practices.’ My guess is that among US or California cities we’re dead-middle in management innovation owing to 1) our reluctance to change; and 2) our ‘hollow state’ approach where contracting out is the virtue. That seems to have left our city as a shell with even some planners now on contract.
Worse, I don’t believe that we’re setting the issue agenda either. It’s not for lack of attendance: we’re represented in body at the US Conference of Mayors, but we’re not represented in the agenda-setting leadership. For example, we’re not represented on any of the Conference’s 15 task forces (though four California cities are represented) nor on any of the 11 standing issue committees. (Fun fact: Paul Soglin, Mayor of Madison, Wisconsin, is the Vice Chair for City Livability/Bicycling on the Transportation and Communications Committee).
Our Mayor is not represented among the US Conference’s 13 Trustees or its 29-Mayor advisory board. Nor do we have representation on the Executive Committee. Looking backward over 67 past presidents, we’ve not occupied the throne. Presumably we attend every year – or even twice per year – and our annual dues are $3,500.
This is not an anomaly. We’re also attending the League of California Cities, the Westside Cities COG, SCAG and many other representative organizations. But we’re just no stepping up to voice our concerns or to drive the policy agenda despite the fact that we punch above our weight (35,000 pop.) in terms of significance, both in brand awareness and importance in the region (as in mobility). (Good news: our Councilman John Mirisch was recent appointed to the Southern California Association of Governments standing Policy Committee.)
Now, the US Conference of Mayors is a club of heavy and middle-weight hitters. LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is the current President, and he swings some influence as executive of the nation’s second-largest city (by population and area). Other large cities are well-represented too among the leadership, presumably because the stakes are proportionate to population. But those cities have more pressing social needs for which federal appropriations come in handy, so they should step up. But why is Beverly Hills the wallflower?
We could be doing much more to lead on issues that we, ourselves, would benefit from advancing, if only in the region. Green building: we have a law but we’re not setting the standards – Santa Monica is. Non-motor transportation: we’ve been awarded a high ‘walk score,’ true, but we’re pioneering no advances in pro-pedestrian or pro-bicycle planning – Long Beach takes the prize. We’re a small city that’s relatively more manageable than many others, and we’re well-resourced too, but we can’t seem to improve our library to standards set by peer cities, to move forward on a major park renovation, or to improve our hazardous intersections that rival the worst of Los Angeles.
On so many of these issues we could take the lead, at least regionally, but we yield leadership where it counts – the organizations that our city works though to move really big issues. I’d love to see our representatives to the US Conference of Mayors, to the Westside COG, to SCAG and others step up and show the greater Westside, the region, and the nation that we’re not only about legion traffic congestion and Metro fights, but answers, too.