Council weighs Cal Cities membership, considers exit due to opposing stances on key issues

By SARA HALL

City Council unanimously decided this week to consider at an upcoming meeting whether or not Newport Beach should continue its membership in the League of California Cities.

Councilmembers expressed concerns about Cal Cities’ stance on some key issues, primarily Proposition 1 (which would allow by-right approval of sober living group homes), which are opposite of the position the city has taken. They voted 7-0 on Tuesday (Feb. 27) for the issue to return on a regular council meeting agenda so they can decide how to move forward.

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. City Manager Grace Leung confirmed that Newport Beach recently received its invoice from Cal Cities, which would need approval (if they want to continue) from the council at a future meeting. At that time, councilmembers agreed, they can have a full discussion (as an action item during regular business and not on the consent calendar) and weigh the benefits and drawbacks of being a member of Cal Cities. Councilmembers also asked the Cal Cities’ representatives in attendance to convey their concerns and return with a response.

“I’d like to have some kind of good, compelling reason to stay in response to the concerns we’ve raised, so that we can have that discussion at the dais when it comes back to us,” said Mayor Will O’Neill said. “Maybe we stay in, maybe we don’t; but I’d like to at least have expressed these concerns – and you’ve heard them – so that there could be a good response back to us to make the decision: Do we want to move forward or not?”

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Photo by Sara Hall

City Council is weighing whether or not to continue membership in the League of California Cities

Explaining why he asked for a study session on the item, O’Neill explained that he has a number of concerns, but is unsure of what he would like to see happen.

“I don’t know what I want to do with this, but I’m just beyond frustrated with the number of times this City Council has taken a position that we are very strong on and only to find that the body that’s supposed to be advocating for us has done the opposite,” he said.

The key issue for councilmembers was the organization’s stance on certain propositions.

“Proposition positions being taken by the League of Cities have been grossly opposed to the positions that have been taken from the dais and this year, in particular, we’re seeing two positions that have, I think, frankly, offended me, in terms of the way that they’ve taken it,” O’Neill said.

The most discussed point was Cal Cities’ supportive position for Prop 1.

“This body unanimously took an opposition position to Proposition 1 for many different reasons, one of the primary reasons though being the way that it’s going to be undercutting local control and the way that we anticipate the money being used to come in and allow for state funding, additional state funding, into our neighborhoods in ways that we’ve been strenuously opposed to and been begging for support and help on legislation addressing these needs,” O’Neill said. “It just strikes me as stunning, frankly, that the League of Cities would have taken a position supporting Proposition 1 given its effects on localities and neighborhoods.”

O’Neill also mentioned Cal Cities’ opposition to the Taxpayer Protection Act and their support of ACA 13, both of which are differing from the entire council or several members.

“These are tough to stomach,” O’Neill said. “My concern is that the League of Cities has been taking political positions that are (the) exact opposite of the ones that this body repeatedly takes on behalf of our residents and so it bothers me to no end to see our money being spent on an organization that is doing things like that.”

O’Neill is “raising a significant concern that is shared by many, if not all of us here at the dais,” said Councilmember Robyn Grant, who serves as the council’s representative to Cal Cities, but she’s also seen the good work that Cal Cities has done.

It’s unfortunate that something so important to the council (Prop 1) is what brought this to a head, Grant said. Newport Beach City Council and Cal Cities are “180 degrees apart” on the issue, she added.

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“We’ve been suffering with an over concentration of unregulated sober living and other types of group homes for a very long time, so it’s a very important issue for our city,” Grant said.

Moving forward, if the council decides to continue with Cal Cities, it will be “critical” that they push the agenda of those particular pieces of legislation, which will bring relief to the cities that are encountering this difficulty, she said.

While Councilmember Brad Avery likes what Cal Cities aims to do and can acknowledge that it’s an important organization for many cities across the state, seeing such diverging positions on Prop 1 – which is crucial to Newport Beach – is disappointing.

“It’s not good for us and it’s not good for the future. And I understand the reasons behind it, but we need to respond to our residents and defend our residents in this situation,” Avery said.

When the council discusses an item related to the issue of sober living homes, the chamber gets filled with concerned residents whose comments are on the opposite side of the very direct stance that Cal Cities has taken on Prop 1, said Councilmember Noah Blom. If there are enough propositions/issues that Cal Cities opposes that a large majority of Newport Beach constituents support, that makes it difficult for the city to continue, he added.

“This is irresponsible for us to continue this membership because this goes against the will of Newport,” Blom said. “I can’t support continuing with this organization – I just won’t.”

The city has taken a number of proactive steps to fight these issues, he explained, and while he is glad to hear about the educational, collaborative and leadership benefits for city staff, it’s council’s job to represent and protect the citizens, so being a member of Cal Cities – given the positions that the organization has taken recently – is essentially a “non-starter,” Blom said.

“I’m not saying we can’t come back to the table. I’m not saying that we can’t find somewhere to get to eventually, but – at this point – how could I support this? How could the citizens of Newport support this? And that’s my job, to represent them,” he said.

Councilmember Lauren Kleiman previously reached out to a local Cal Cities representative for an explanation on the support for Prop 1 and was informed that Cal Cities chose to back the proposition before the by-right language was added. After it was included, the board voted in favor of it anyway, she recalled.

“Supporting now and hoping that the state is going to miraculously implement much needed guardrails in the future is simply not a plan for success,” she said. “By-right allowance for the uses outlined in the proposed legislation is the absolute antithesis of local control and on an issue that much of this county, and certainly this city, is already deeply struggling with.”

“I’m definitely not convinced that Cal Cities is representing the values of Newport Beach, but what’s more troubling, however, is the active advocacy in opposition to our needs,” Kleiman added.

She quoted the organization’s official mission “to expand and protect local control for cities through education and advocacy to enhance the quality of life for all Californians” and noted that their recent actions have been counter to local control and autonomy.

Ever since he was first elected, the loss of power at the city level has been ongoing, Avery said.

“It’s been a steady drumbeat of all cities in California losing local control, particularly Newport Beach,” he commented.

Responding to a request about the benefits of membership in Cal Cities, Leung noted 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.

In terms of education, for example, the Newport Beach fire chief has taken on leadership roles and Cal Cities is the main vehicle which to collaborate with other fire departments across the entire state, Leung said. The city clerk has also taken on leadership roles in that area of the statewide organization.

The group also hosts various conferences for specific areas of focus (city managers, public works, planning, etc.), which is beneficial in collaborating and getting to know other California city officials. They also have a coastal cities group that has been helpful, she added, in terms of joining together on issues with geographical commonality.

City Attorney Aaron Harp said he’s served on the legal advocacy committee, which was a positive experience where he analyzed requests for amicus briefs and found ways to support cities in litigation. Cal Cities also does a good job with education and keeping up on important legal code, like the Brown Act, the Political Reform Act and the Public Records Act.

Connor Medina, the regional public affairs manager for the Orange County division of Cal Cities, highlighted some key points made in a “membership value report” that he shared with the council.

“The report details the ROI [return on investment] of your membership based on the funding formulas and allocations that Cal Cities was the lead stakeholder in securing for its members, with your investment providing an average return of $449 for each dollar invested over the past six fiscal years,” Medina said. “So membership is an investment that has delivered for the city and will keep on doing so in a budget deficit year.”

The report also outlines some positions Cal Cities has taken that aligned with Newport Beach.

“(There are) many sections of your legislative platform where we do have that alignment with our advocacy efforts, both legislatively and legally,” Medina said.

He heard the concerns “loud and clear,” but pointed out that since the organization represents 476 cities there’s bound to be some differences on the issues.

“It makes us stronger, as an organization, to have Newport Beach at the table with us. We are both stronger together and more effective together than we are operating apart,” Medina said.

He also noted the ways Newport Beach takes advantage of its membership, like engagement, collaboration and education.

He encouraged councilmembers to apply for a seat on the statewide board so that the city’s voice can be more directly heard in discussions on issues that are important to Newport Beach.

“I want Orange County to have as many voices at the table as possible,” he said, noting that there are five representatives from OC currently sitting on the board. “I want to maintain and grow that presence together with you.”

Grant was encouraged that the Orange County representatives for Cal Cities showed up and listened to their concerns. She also agreed that they need more Newport Beach, and other like-minded cities, to get actively involved.

“That is the way that we can make changes by having a seat at the table,” she said, “and the more seats the better.”

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


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