Council votes to leave League of Cal Cities, exit primarily due to opposing stances on Prop 1

By SARA HALL

A majority of City Council decided this week to leave the League of California Cities.

Councilmembers voted 5-2 on Tuesday to not renew Newport Beach’s membership in the League of California Cities. Although a time limit was not placed on the exit, a majority of councilmembers commented that they would like to revisit the idea in about one year. Councilmembers Erik Weigand and Robyn Grant dissented.

Mayor Will O’Neill was the strongest voice in opposition, although even he was torn on the topic.

“I’ve been wrestling with this one,” O’Neill said.

There are positives and negatives, he noted. On one side, he likes the local representatives from the Orange County division, city staff leadership roles at Cal Cities and the advocacy efforts on certain issues. On the other side, they have taken strong positions against Newport Beach’s stance on several important issues.

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Photo by Sara Hall

City Council voted to end Newport Beach’s membership in the League of California Cities

During the back and forth in the deliberation of membership in the organization, the lynchpin of the discussion was Proposition 1 (which would allow by-right approval of sober living group homes). Several councilmembers noted that Prop 1 is barely passing and that opposition from a group like Cal Cities could have made a difference in the outcome.

“The reason why it’s been so hard to stomach and accept as we’re working this through is because the League of Cities knew that Prop 1 was bad. They knew that it was bad for cities,” O’Neill said.

In an announcement in late 2023, Cal Cities noted that they had supported the measure for much of the year before some last-minute changes drew concern from cities and prompted the League to withdraw its support. The amendments would allow for by-right approvals of unlocked and locked behavioral health facilities, sober living homes and recovery housing, O’Neill said, quoting from the Cal Cities December 6 statement. While existing law generally requires by-right approval of these facilities in residential areas, Proposition 1 would also apply this approval process to office, retail and parking zones.

After withdrawing support, the Cal Cities board decided to override that decision and directed staff to engage in the regulatory process and pursue legislation to address these concerns, while also supporting Prop 1.

The statement also notes that Cal Cities will “focus on correcting the overconcentration of these facilities in residential areas and implementing reasonable oversight of unlicensed recovery housing and sober living homes to ensure the safety and success of those receiving services and support.”

Considering the list of pros and cons, he can’t support sending more taxpayer dollars to an organization that hurt the city this badly, he added.

“It’s so hard to want to be a part of an organization that is supposed to be advocating and did the exact opposite in such a high-profile way,” O’Neill said.

As they have tried to work through this issue for eight years, they have never gotten “anywhere near” the amount of regulatory help needed to try and rein this in, O’Neill said, and now Prop 1 exacerbates the problem. Literally any other position from Cal Cities instead of support, and in particular actually opposing it, would have been helpful for cities throughout the state dealing with this issue, he commented.

“It’s just unfathomable to me that when Cal Cities knew that this was going to be harmful to a city like ours, they still stood up and said ‘We’re going to support it,’” he said, “and there are a lot of cities like us on this one.”

O’Neill suggested taking a year off and seeing what it looks like at that time. After some of the bills Cal Cities is sponsoring work their way through the process they can reconsider, he added.

“Hopefully all of the legislation they’re advocating for to help alleviate the position that they took will pan out,” he said.

“I’m at a breaking point on this one and it took me a while to get there, but the more I dug in on it, the less I could stomach it,” O’Neill said.

But it’s not without a lot of consternation, he added.

Most of his fellow councilmembers expressed a similar struggle while weighing the benefits and downfalls of membership in the statewide organization.

Cal Cities does a good job on their areas of focus, said Councilmember Brad Avery.

“It’s so important for all the cities in California to have an organization like that to look to, to get help from and to learn from,” he said, “it’s a fabric of all these cities connected to the League.”

He’d hate to see Newport Beach move away from that, even for a year, but it does send a message.

“The message that it sends is how impacted we’ve been by the state and it hurts,” Avery said.

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The negative effects from state decisions have worsened over time and they have shown an inability to manage this particular issue, he added. There are a number of bad operators of sober living homes that can be used as an example, Avery noted.

“I’m inclined to step aside for a year, just to communicate – at the risk of us looking petulant to a bunch of other cities – the gravity of (the situation on) our residents,” he said.

Residents living in a neighborhood with these group homes that aren’t being well-managed is “awful,” he emphasized. It’s something that shouldn’t happen to anyone, Avery added.

Mayor Pro Tem Joe Stapleton reiterated his disappointment in the organization and said a year off sends the right message.

“It’s not about packing up our toys and leaving the sandbox, but it’s more about enough is enough. This is going to be a huge threat to quality of life for residents and using taxpayer dollars seems to be a big problem to me,” he said.

Weigand clarified that his no vote was not relevant to his position on Prop 1, which he opposed. His stance on the matter is more of a regional scope.

“We can take our ball and go home, but that means we don’t get a seat at the table and we don’t get an ability to shape any of those policy discussions,” Weigand said.

The dues of $24,800 isn’t that much for the benefits, he added, highlighting the amicus briefs and staff training.

Having a Newport Beach councilmember sitting on the board for the OC division is a beneficial tool in shaping those policy discussions, Weigand said, although there is a lot of input to consider with 476 cities involved in the conversation.

“We don’t always get a say, but, again, having a seat at the table is pretty important,” he said.

They were able to get their message and concerns across with their discussion in the earlier study session, Weigand said.

“It’s easy for us to say ‘Let’s pull the plug’ because there are certain things that we don’t agree with, and I certainly am one of those persons who is upset at some of the rhetoric that the League has and I think it’s frustrating for us to see, but I think there’s a greater investment here for a very minimal cost that the city puts into it,” Weigand said.

Grant agreed “wholeheartedly” that they have suffered a “serious disappointment” with Cal Cities. There’s no doubt about that, she said.

But it’s important to have a strong voice in Orange County to send up to Sacramento, Grant emphasized. Being a part of Cal Cities is not always going to work in their favor, she noted, and there will be times that they don’t agree with the majority of other cities in the state, but they should at least share their stance at every level possible (councilmember, city manager, clerk, etc.). If they all opt out, Newport Beach is not in a better position, Grant concluded.

As an individual city, Newport Beach does not have a lot of bargaining power, Grant noted. Although they have some influence as a strong and important city in the state, it’s not as much as when they can combine efforts with other coastal cities, for example, which face a number of similar issues, she pointed out.

“That, in and of itself, is a very strong reason for us to continue with the Orange County division of Cal Cities,” Grant said.

Sitting on the OC division board, Grant found that representatives outside of the coastal cities often weren’t even aware of the issues that they faced. Just being able to communicate to other municipalities about what they’re dealing with is important, she added.

“If we don’t say something, if we don’t have an outlet to remind the other cities of really what our needs are here and why they’re important for the state – for our residents, but also statewide – then there’s no voice to say that at all,” Grant said.

During a study session on February 27, council discussed the topic and unanimously agreed to place the issue on an agenda for a regular council meeting to officially decide how to move forward.

At the study session, councilmembers expressed concerns about Cal Cities’ stance on some key issues, primarily the group’s support of Proposition 1 (which would allow by-right approval of sober living group homes), opposition to the Taxpayer Protection Act, and their support of ACA 13. Cal Cities’ opinion on all three of these issues are the opposite of the position the city has taken or that a majority of councilmembers have expressed.

The association has 476 members, including Newport Beach for many years. Annual dues are based on population and are currently $24,800 for the city.

Responding to a request about the benefits of membership in Cal Cities, City Manager Grace Leung noted at the study session that the other key tenets (in addition to advocacy) of the League of Cities is to provide education and collaboration across the state with the various cities. Most of the cities in California are part of the organization, she noted, which provides a strong foundation for both of these key pillars.

During the discussion in February, O’Neill asked the local Cal Cities’ representatives in attendance to convey their concerns to the executive team and return with a response. He wanted to hear a compelling reason to stay, O’Neill said at the time.

In a letter from Cal Cities Executive Director and CEO Carolyn Coleman, she confirmed that they heard the council’s feedback.

Coleman explained that the league’s policy committees’ recommendations are reviewed and subject to approval by the Cal Cities board of directors on a simple majority vote. In the case of ballot measures, it takes a threshold of two-thirds approval before the board may take a position on a statewide ballot measure.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Regional Public Affairs Manager for the Orange County Division of Cal Cities Connor Medina highlighted several bills that the organization is sponsoring or co-sponsoring that are related to regulation of sober living homes and substance abuse recovery and treatment programs. Of those bills, one is authored by Assemblymember Diane Dixon, former Newport Beach councilmember and mayor, and establishes distancing requirements between licensed facilities.

As it relates to Prop 1, Medina said they recognize the concerns that the council has expressed regarding Cal Cities’ support position.

He noted that he didn’t spend time advocating for Prop 1 and CitiPAC, the League of California Cities’ political action committee, did not contribute funding to the campaign in support of it.

The proposition appears likely to pass, Medina pointed out, so they are now shifting gears to the implementation phase. During this part of the process, they will urge the state to distribute bond funding equitably, with geographic considerations that recognize overconcentrated areas. They believe the funding should be distributed statewide, he added, and will advocate for distancing requirements for projects funded by Prop 1.

The city must be a member of the league in order to be involved in Cal Cities’ advocacy efforts, participate in policy committees or on the state or division board and provide input on legislative activity, Medina explained. As a member, Newport Beach receives action alerts and up-to-date information on priority legislation, he added.

“Generally, Newport Beach is one of the most engaged and active cities in the division through these opportunities,” Medina said.

He’s spent a significant amount of time working with the city over the last few weeks in an effort to move forward in a positive direction, Medina said.

“Not just because we never want any member to leave, but because I sincerely believe Newport Beach’s participation is a vital component of our advocacy efforts, especially related to sober living facilities,” he said.

Medina also mentioned other priorities that Cal Cities aligns with Newport Beach on, including: Reforms on the Regional Housing Needs Allocation process; legislative discussions on retail theft; supporting anti-camping ordinances by asking the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse Johnson v. Grants Pass and Martin v. Boise; representing cities in water conservation rulemaking and advocacy to make California Air Resources Board advanced clean fleet regulations workable for cities.

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Sara Hall covers City Hall and is a regular contributor to Stu News Newport.


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