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League of California Cities Executive Director Carolyn Coleman on pensions, affordable housing and the value of local control

Back Q&A Oct 15, 2018 By Rich Ehisen

While most people get caught up in the high-profile workings of Sacramento or Washington D.C., the issues that impact their daily lives are actually hashed out most often at the local level. Comstock’s sat down with League of California Cities Executive Director Carolyn Coleman, one of the state’s fiercest advocates for the power of local control.

About 90 percent of California’s population lives in urbanized areas. Is there a particular issue you see as the biggest challenge facing our cities?

Overwhelmingly, our cities are challenged by pension liability. [Additionally], the affordability of housing — no matter where I go in this state, I’m hearing about the challenges our communities are facing with making sure there are good and safe housing options across the spectrum for their residents. Another issue that continues to bubble to the top has to do with the need for resources to invest in our core transportation systems.

What happens if the courts continue to reject any efforts to modify or overturn the so-called ‘California Rule’ that prevents governments from modifying pension systems for current employees?

The League of California Cities fully supports defined benefit retirement plans. … In terms of the health of cities overall, I would give the situation a yellow caution light. I don’t think there is a city finance director, city manager, council member or mayor who is not looking closely at the status of their pension liability and forecasting their obligations in the near term and prioritizing where those precious city resources and revenues will go. One thing about the local level of government is every day they have to do it all — and that means they’ve got to make tough choices. We hear a lot about concerns that pension costs will crowd out resources for investments for infrastructure and a whole host of other things that cities are obligated to be doing. Those concerns are real. Those choices are real.

From your perspective, what can be done to address the shortage of affordable housing in California?

I want to give credit to Gov. Brown and the Legislature … who recognize that this is approaching crisis level in our state. This is not just a local governments’ challenge. It’s the state challenge, it is the private-sector challenge. We’ve got to identify sustainable funding streams to help drive down the cost of housing in the state. I think we also — this is maybe the most important thing — need to stop identifying who is to blame for the situation that we find ourselves in, because there’s probably plenty to go around. There are certainly things local governments can do better to make for a more conducive development environment, but there are also new approaches the private sector could try, as well as the state government. Over time, the federal government has had a role to play as well, in incentivizing the affordability of housing. We also need [the federal government] to stay at the table.

Local governments are closely watching Proposition 6, which would overturn SB 1, the gas tax increase. What happens if SB 1 is overturned and we lose this infrastructure funding?

Over the last 10 years, [the League has] focused intensely on documenting the need for more investments in our transportation infrastructure. We have been successful as a state in creating and establishing those new funds to invest in our local transportation systems, and we certainly are going to be fighting to make sure those funds are not eliminated. Those funds are going to pay for the basics — safer roads, bridges that are more structurally sound — as well as improving and hopefully lessening traffic congestion that so many of us have to experience each and every day.

President Trump has been promising to make huge investments in infrastructure since his inauguration, but we haven’t yet seen an actual plan. Aside from money, are there other things the feds could do to help cities get some of their infrastructure needs addressed?

The money is a key part. There are potentially innovative ways the federal government could leverage their resources. What about an infrastructure bank? Are there ways the federal government could enhance or better leverage public-private partnerships? There is a definite leadership role for the federal government to play, but it needs to be done in partnership with the state level and local governments … If they’re all working together, then I think we can have a kind of robust national infrastructure system that all of us envision.

We’ve been living through some devastating fire seasons. What can cities do to help prevent or deal with this situation?

I think the local response is to really focus on what we can be doing on the front end. What would pre-disaster mitigation look like? For cities, that might mean taking a look at your land-use plans [and] helping residents understand how to take care of themselves in these kinds of emergencies. … I’ve had the opportunity to have multiple conversations with Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey and some of his staff, and I’m always reminded of the resilience of cities and local leaders. There will certainly be lessons that Santa Rosa will be able to share with all of us, because we’re all a day away from a natural disaster.

I hope we can continue to look at lack of uniformity as an asset in our state — the 482 different communities that we have in California represent the essence of a diverse state.

Recreational marijuana is legal in California, but some cities still bar legal services that deliver weed into their locale. State cannabis regulators want to allow deliveries even into communities that have said they don’t want dispensaries. Why does the League oppose those regulations?

We’re an organization built on the concept of local control, meaning the local level of government and the elected representatives ought to be making the decisions. From the Leagues’ perspective, it was fundamental to us as a part of Prop 64 [Adult Use of Marijuana Act] that local control be protected.

Marijuana advocates say the lack of uniformity in our cannabis laws across California prevents the state from maximizing the economic potential. Is there a pathway to uniformity?

I hope we can continue to look at lack of uniformity as an asset in our state — the 482 different communities that we have in California represent the essence of a diverse state. So is there a pathway forward? I’m sure there is. Recreational marijuana has been legal since Jan. 1, 2018. It is now only September 2018. We have a long way to go. We are going to continue to learn as cities. We are certainly in conversation with some of our colleagues across the country who have also been walking down the path of this great experiment … but I think it would be premature in fall of 2018 to be prescribing a cookie-cutter approach that everyone must follow. Because I think we will actually lose some of the innovation and some of the real transformative ways of operating in this new industry if we start off by heavily prescribing what everyone must do in this space.

What is your perspective on state mandates? There are cases where a statewide regulation is probably better than 50 different sets of regulations. So where is that sweet spot?

It is a case-by-case analysis. I could make an argument that in those circumstances involving public safety there might be good grounds for it — maybe public safety in emergency circumstances. But obviously I’m going to resist efforts to infringe on and interfere with local control, but where you draw that line is a product of negotiation. Whether I was in Washington D.C. fighting for cities or here fighting for cities, so often there wasn’t a table for negotiations that included the local government perspective. … and that is just going to end up in a fight. Last year, we had the small cell tower discussion. [Gov. Jerry Brown ultimately vetoed legislation that would have given the state more authority over how local governments issue cell tower permits.] That’s a good example of cities wanting the deployment of these great new modern technologies as much as industry wants them, and there ought to be a way to sit down at the table and figure out how we can do that. In those instances where we can reach some compromises, it doesn’t have to be an all or nothing. I hear that term ‘patchwork’ quite a bit, I frankly like patchwork quilts myself. You know there’s a reason and there’s natural tension in our system of government that allows for that patchwork in certain circumstances, but we’re all going to have to come to the table and figure out how to draw those lines. 

What do you see as the biggest issue facing your city?