Annual conference features engaging keynote speakers and educational sessions; Sedalia Sanders receives top Cal Cities award

Sep 14, 2022

During the largest annual gathering in nearly a decade, over 2,000 Golden State city officials came together for the League of California Cities Annual Conference and Expo. The three-day event featured countless opportunities to spur important ideas and discussions about challenging, city-specific issues. Cal Cities leadership also announced the winners of several prestigious awards and the 2022-23 Board of Directors.

Longtime local government champion Sedalia Sanders receives Lifetime Achievement Award

During the annual conference, the Past Presidents Council awarded Sedalia Sanders the Lifetime Achievement Award for her longstanding advocacy on local issues. The former El Centro mayor has had distinguished career at the national, state, and regional levels. She is also the first Black woman to receive the award.

“I [ran for office] because someone encouraged me. I took the encouragement to heart and to my surprise, I won,” said Sanders in her acceptance speech. “Those who may look like me … know that if you live long enough, work hard enough, all things can be accomplished.”

Sanders currently serves on the Executive Committee of the California Commission on Aging Commission. In addition to several statewide task forces and national municipal organizations, she also served on the El Centro City Council from 2003-2015 and 1984-1999, where she was mayor five times. She emerged as a state and national figure when in 1995 she became the president of Cal Cities and joined the National League of Cities Board of Directors in 1996.

“Today we recognize a true champion of local government,” said El Centro Council Member Cheryl Viegas Walker, who presented the award. “One of my dearest friends and mentors who has been not only a champion of local government but a champion of quality-of-life issues, making our cities better places to live, to work, to raise our families.”

Cities receive prestigious Helen Putnam Award for outstanding local programs

Cal Cities also revealed the winning cities of the esteemed Helen Putnam Award for Excellence. Each city was chosen for its outstanding efforts and innovative programs to improve the quality of life and delivery of services in their communities. The award is given annually in 12 categories. This year’s winners include:

Powerhouse speakers talk about infrastructure, recovery, and climate change; emphasize the power of collaboration and trust

This conference featured a lineup of high-profile speakers, including Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia, state infrastructure czar Antonio Villaraigosa, public policy expert Dr. Lande Ajose, and Jill Ellis, the former head coach of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team.

“There’s no question that the real work happens in our cities up and down the state of California,” Garcia said in his welcoming address.

Villaraigosa, who recently became the state’s Infrastructure Advisor, highlighted the importance of city and state officials working together to maximize recent infrastructure investments from the federal government. Previously, Villaraigosa was the mayor of Los Angeles and the Speaker of the California State Assembly.

"We are going to have to row in the same direction,” Villaraigosa said, before noting that the state is focusing on regional, climate-friendly projects. "We want to hear from you about what we need to shorten projects and accelerate projects. We want to get your ideas: We want the best projects ... we want to work with [Cal Cities] to do this.”

In her keynote address, Dr. Ajose shared insights about California's economic and environmental future. Dr. Ajose, who holds multiple leadership positions at the Public Policy Institute of California, noted that COVID-19 deepened existing inequalities. Although the overall recovery has been more equitable than expected, it has not been evenly felt, particularly in noncoastal regions

Dr. Ajose concluded by noting that cities need to think carefully about who is participating in political discussions. Despite being a majority-minority state, California's diversity is not fully represented in the political process. She also noted that cities cannot solve every problem — including housing, homelessness, and climate change — alone.

"Cities cannot solve problems that are not city-based problems," Dr. Ajose said. "We need to operate as regions … it's about cities working with cities, cities working with regions, and regions working with regions."

During a “fireside chat,” Ellis shared her insights about creating unified, successful workplaces. In today’s environment, it can be difficult to engage people one-on-one, much less get everyone working towards a common goal. Drawing parallels, between her historic tenure and public service, Ellis stressed the value of relying on the fundamentals.

“What you do in your environment daily," Ellis said. Those are the things that you lean on when you are in a big moment.”

For Ellis, this means cultivating an environment where people and their passions can succeed — and where their opinions can be heard. “If people are hesitant to give their opinion then you are not going to be challenged and grow,” Ellis said.

Ellis had some sage advice for would-be recruiters in her ending remarks. Prepare people for the job they have and the job will have. Nurture them as people and professionals. “We’re not just going to invest in the job you’re doing: We’re going to invest in you as a person," she noted.

The conference also featured National League of Cities President Vince Williams, who opened the Thursday General Session. Williams is the mayor of Union City, Georgia.

Educational sessions and Expo Hall highlight solutions for major challenges

This year’s breakout sessions and Expo Hall featured solutions to some of the most pressing challenges facing cities — affordable housing, homelessness, climate change, infrastructure, incivility, equity, and economic development.

In a packed, standing-room-only session, El Cerritos Mayor Pro Tem Lisa Motoyama, Truckee Mayor Courtney Henderson, and Lift to Rise President and CEO Heather Vaikona discussed how to encourage affordable, multifamily housing. Motoyama noted that good design standards and strong partnerships helped ensure that multifamily developments were built in El Cerritos.

Vaikona and Henderson emphasized the importance of regional partnerships, stating that increased housing production requires collaboration and a willingness to experiment. "You can't wait for everyone to start,” Vaikona said. “You start with what you have."

Multiple speakers talked about how to engage vulnerable and historically marginalized residents. “There's not one solution to all the issues facing cities,” said former Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs during a session on guaranteed basic income. “But in terms of economic insecurity, the answer is economic security."

Similarly, Norwalk Deputy City Manager Richard Rojas spoke extensively about how to build trust during community revitalization projects. Meaningful engagement often leads to better, more sustainable project outcomes. “We made the time to listen,” Rojas said.

Other speakers underscored the value of uplifting and collaborating with other local officials. In a session on Black empowerment, Agee Global Solutions CEO Jovan Agee focused on how institutional assumptions and unspoken norms create roadblocks for Black leaders. Empowerment is not just about giving people a platform: It is also about providing leaders the information they need to lead.

Adelanto Council Member Stevevonna Evans agreed. “It's our responsibility to educate the folks that are coming behind us,” Evans said. “I don't want folks to make the same mistakes I made.”

Other sessions focused on how to find funding for deferred maintenance, encourage youth participation, implement organic waste recycling regulations, and respond to emerging public safety challenges. Although many of the proposed solutions required extensive, year-long commitments, many speakers highlighted the low-cost steps that any city, regardless of its size, can take.

For example, during a session on transgender health care, Palm Springs Mayor Lisa Middleton noted that cities can use their platform to encourage confidential, culturally competent, and accessible health facilities in their communities. They can also ensure access to single-stall restrooms and pass laws that mandate gender-affirming care among city contractors.

New leadership and board members announced

Cal Cities also announced the 2022-23 board officers and six new at-large directors. The Board of Directors elected Artesia Council Member Ali Sajjad Taj to serve as president, Fowler Council Member Daniel Parra to serve as first vice president, and Palm Springs Mayor Lisa Middleton to serve as second vice president. Walnut Creek Council Member Cindy Silva, who served as the 2021-22 president, became immediate past president.

“I have benefitted both personally and professionally from my involvement in Cal Cities throughout my nine years in public service, and I’m excited to give back as president,” Taj said. “I look forward to working alongside such skilled, thoughtful, and insightful local leaders as we advocate for policies that enhance our communities and the lives of our residents.”

The board also elected six at-large directors who will serve a two-year term: Carlsbad Council Member Teresa Acosta, Grass Valley Vice Mayor Jan Arbuckle, Cloverdale Council Member Melanie Bagby, La Palma Council Member Marshall Goodman, Chino Hills Mayor Ray Marquez, and Union City Council Member Jaime Patino.

Additionally, voting delegates approved several bylaw amendments and acted on a petitioned resolution during the concluding General Assembly.