Annual Conference and Expo featured diverse speakers and solutions to major challenges; cities and state lawmakers honored with top awards

Sep 29, 2021

Breakout sessions focused on priority city issues such as housing, climate change, equity, broadband, and the post-pandemic recovery.

City officials from throughout the state gathered in Sacramento last week for the League of California Cities Annual Conference and Expo. The three-day event attracted nearly 1,900 local leaders, with opportunities to learn, collaborate, celebrate, and share solutions about challenging, city-specific issues. During the conference, Cal Cities leadership also announced the winners of several prestigious awards, as well as the new Cal Cities board officers and members.

Current and past lawmakers receive top Cal Cities awards

Assembly Member Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, Senator Lena Gonzalez, and Senator John Laird were awarded the Distinguished Legislative Leadership Award for their dedication to local communities. Assembly Member Aguiar-Curry and Sen. Gonzalez authored AB 14 and SB 4 respectively, two measures instrumental to providing fast, reliable internet services to unserved and underserved communities and closing the digital divide. Sen. Laird was honored for his work on SB 619, a key piece of legislation that will help cities implement SB 1383 organic waste recycling regulations.

The Honorable Willie L. Brown, Jr. received this year's Past Presidents’ Lifetime Achievement Award. Widely regarded as one of the most influential African American politicians of the late century, Mayor Brown has been at the center of California politics, government, and civic life for four decades. The famed politician reminisced on his time as mayor of San Francisco, noting that he would still be there if there were no term limits. “Many times, people are honored when they have passed on. I’m excited about this...Next time someone introduces me, they’re going to close it by saying he was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by all the cities of California.”

Cal Cities also revealed the winners of the 2021 Helen Putnam Award for Excellence. Each city was chosen for its outstanding efforts to improve the quality of life and services to its residents. The award is given annually in 12 categories, with the city of Irvine winning in two categories this year. The winning cities are listed below with a link to a video featuring their initiatives:

In collaboration with the League Partners, Kaiser Permanente, and Keenan and Associates, Cal Cities also awarded $5,000 grants to Chula Vista, Daly City, Napa, Madera, and Whittier to improve their workforce health programs. These cities already have a foundational workforce health program in place and have demonstrated a readiness to further develop the program.

40 breakout sessions and 60 speakers focus on major challenges for cities

This year’s breakout sessions focused on the most pressing issues facing cities — fiscal uncertainty, climate change, lack of affordable housing, increasing cybersecurity threats, and the need to create more equitable communities.

In a session on climate change adaptation and wildfire mitigation, Orange County Fire Authority Fire Chief Brian Fennessy stated, “Climate change is real. I experienced very defined fire seasons in the 70s and 80s. You could set your clock to fire season...since the early 90s, we’ve had this phenomenon of fires getting larger... It’s not the new normal: It’s the normal.” Fennessy and others noted that a year-round fire season requires new levels of collaboration, a sentiment shared in another session, where officials spoke about their efforts to form the Marin Wildfire Prevention Authority.

Other speakers focused on another longstanding challenge for cities: a statewide affordable housing shortage. Los Angeles officials and development partners highlighted how they used CARES Act funding to create interim housing (232 beds) in just six months. “Anyone in the industry will know we pretty much had every obstacle in front of us,” noted one speaker. Speakers in “Workforce Housing Solutions: Multifamily Financing, Construction, and Design Innovation Trends” shared similar success stories, noting that cities can accelerate production by being flexible, creative, and aligning housing goals with state funding programs.

The post-pandemic recovery was top of mind for many speakers. State Controller Betty Yee said that California is expected to recover faster than any other state and that the long-term economic outlook is positive. However, she predicts several bumps along the road, mostly due to climate change, reduced state and federal spending, and reduced international travel, as well as the potential for inflation and new COVID-19 variants. A lack of affordable housing, reduced access to childcare, and stagnating wages may also drag the economy down. “Workers are becoming more discerning about where they work at,” said Yee. “There’s been a major divergence between productivity — which shot through the roof — and wages, which stayed flat.”

The transition to digital city services was accelerated by COVID-19. However, the change brought new challenges. Attorney Leeann Habte outlined strategies for addressing cyberattacks, which have risen sharply in recent years. Cities must invest in IT solutions and strategies before issues become more complex. Losing information or vital systems can be catastrophic; for some departments, a downtime of only a few minutes can create serious problems.

Creating more equitable communities was front and center in almost every conversation. Speakers from San Luis Obispo, a predominately wealthy, white city with a population of 47,000, outlined their experience creating a diversity, equity, inclusion task force. “You have to be ok with a narrow scope, even when it feels like there are a thousand needs,” they noted. “It’s not about doing it all but doing specific things in a specific way.” 

In “Building API Solidarity and Safe Communities,” Asian American officials spoke about the continued challenges facing their communities, particularly the sharp increase in hate crimes against Asian American women and elders. “We know what to do. We’ve done this before,” said speakers from Asian Americans Advancing Justice. “Solidarity in communities in California is nothing new. We know how to take care of each other.” Although the solutions were unique to each city, speakers agreed on one thing: Passing a resolution is just the first step. It’s meaningless and perhaps counter-productive if officials are not prepared to take action and include equity in all decision-making.

Additional information about breakout sessions can be found under the “Session Materials” tab on the Annual Conference and Expo webpage or in the September issue of Western City.

Keynote speakers reflect on the importance of resiliency and new opportunities for cities

This year’s conference featured host city mayor Darrell Steinberg and several high-profile speakers, including, Bonnie St. John, National League of Cities CEO and Executive Director Clarence Anthony, and Richard Montañez. In his welcoming address, Mayor Steinberg stated that the past few years have been difficult for city officials and that the role of local government in California is changing. “This creates new challenges,” he stated, “but also new opportunities.”

Similarly, after reflecting on the collective achievements of Cal Cities and NLC, Executive Director Clarence Anthony stated: “This is our moment to stand strong and say if we work together, we can make a difference in our communities. This is our moment to say we don't care if you are Democrat or Republican. We stand for cities. And we stand for the people who live in cities.”

Bonnie St. John — a former Paralympic skier, author, consultant, and White House official — drew comparisons between the past year and her athletic career. Noting the need to create a mindset of sustainable resilience, she imparted practical tools for managing stress and encouraging collaboration. “So many of us have pushed ourselves so hard during our lives, especially in the pandemic, and it’s just so hard. This challenge is so universal. And these are not Wall Street salaries. You push yourself hard for the communities you serve.”

Richard Montañez, a former Vice President at PepsiCo North America, spoke about the value of inclusive leadership, serving others, learning from one’s past, and cultivating relationships with others. Montañez, who started his PepsiCo career as a janitor in the 70s, imparted this sage wisdom to city officials: “Don’t become such an expert so that you can’t see anymore.”

New leadership and board members announced

Cal Cities also announced its 2021-22 Board Officers and Directors during the conference. The Board of Directors elected Walnut Creek Council Member Cindy Silva to serve as president, Artesia Council Member Ali Sajjad Taj to serve as first vice president, and Fowler Council Member Daniel Parra to serve as second vice president. El Centro Mayor Cheryl Viegas Walker, who served as the 2020-21 president, became immediate past president.

In her first speech as president, Council Member Cindy Silva spoke about the past and future of Cal Cities. She also reminded attendees of their shared commitment: “We come from all parts of our State and we are very different. North and South — coast and mountains — rural, suburban, and urban. Yet, despite our differences, we recognize that our to apply our local knowledge and experience to the work we do together on behalf of all California cities.” 

Mayor Cheryl Viegas Walker shared her sentiment stating, “Today’s proceedings signify our continued forward momentum as an organization working to ensure a strong future for all Californians.”

In response, Cal Cities Executive Director and CEO Carolyn Coleman stated, “All of our officers and board members make our organization an even stronger voice for the cities we represent, and I’m excited about all we will accomplish together on behalf of California cities.” Coleman welcomes the new board in a message in the Sept. 29 issue of Cal Cities Advocate.

Thanks to our exhibitors

Cal Cities Annual Conference and Expo would not be complete without its many exhibitors, who provide valuable resources and services to California's diverse cities. This year’s Expo Hall featured 150 exhibitors, including: