Orlando Hosts NLC University Summit Focused on Leading Through Tough Times

This is a guest post by Laura Lanford.

The 2015 NLC University Leadership Summit was hosted at the Loews Portofino Bay Hotel in Orlando, Fla. (photo: Universal Orlando)

More than seventy elected officials and city staff from across the country gathered in Orlando, Florida, from September 16-19, to learn how to lead through challenging times in their communities. This convening, NLC University’s Annual Leadership Summit, is a retreat-style training program aimed to strengthen and enhance the leadership skills of city officials. This year’s summit was held in conjunction with the National League of Cities’ Race, Equity, And Leadership (REAL) initiative, NLC’s effort to equip its membership with the capacity to address the historical, systemic and structural barriers caused by racism and inequities.

A special pre-summit event, the 3rd REAL Talk Forum, was hosted in the city of Sanford, Fla., on Wednesday afternoon. The city of Sanford recently gained national media attention due to the high-profile Trayvon Martin case. The REAL Talk forum provided an opportunity to hear from Sanford city leaders about their experiences, actions, and challenges for moving forward in the aftermath of tragedy.

Formal summit programming commenced on Thursday, and was facilitated by Roy Reid, Executive Director of Communications at the University of Central Florida and Consultant for Enso Leadership. Roy spoke to the group about new ways of building a high-trust and resilient culture within communities.

The conference featured insightful presentations about racial equity connections to trustworthy leadership from Leon Andrews Jr., Director of Race, Equity and Leadership at NLC, Julie Nelson, Director of the Government Alliance on Race and Equity, and Glenn Harris, Director for the Center of Social Inclusion.

The Summit also included presentations by Dr. Scott Paine, Director of Leadership Development and Education at the Florida League of Cities, and Lt. Ricardo Ubinas, from the National Preparedness Institute at Indian River State College. Dr. Paine spoke to the group about how to rethink leadership to meet modern challenges, and Lt. Ubinas addressed how to navigate “hyper-complex” crisis scenarios in order to ensure public safety.

In addition to traditional summit programming, participants were exposed to issues of particular importance to the city of Orlando. Mayor Buddy Dyer greeted the group during Thursday’s luncheon, and talked about reimagining and remaking Orlando in the aftermath of a nationwide economic recession. On Friday, summit participants learned from Orlando leaders how the city used neighborhood commercial corridors to create jobs and bring economic vitality during a recession.

The city of Orlando hosted receptions on both Wednesday and Thursday evenings, highlighting the city’s eclectic food and culture. Wednesday’s reception at the Red Coconut Club at Universal Orlando’s City Walk was open to both Summit and REAL Talk Forum attendees, and sponsored by Comcast and NBCUniversal. Thursday’s reception was held at Orlando’s annual Taste of Downtown, and sponsored by Red Lobster, the Downtown Development Board, and the Downtown Orlando Partnership. Participants were able to network and engage with top executives from these companies.

Another highlight of the program was participating in one of two special mobile workshops. Participants had the option of a mobile workshop that focused on public safety in Orlando and provided a tour of the city’s state of the art operations center, and a workshop that demonstrated the city of Orlando’s commitment to advancing a boys and men of color agenda.

From all of these experiences, Summit participants walked away with useful tools and skills to better serve their home communities.

As Lydia Glaize from Fairburn, Georgia, commented upon conclusion of the conference, “This was one of the most informative trainings I have attended both nationally and state wise. It gave us the issue, multiple plans of resolution, and provided reports on best practices from these innovative and courageous cities.”

The NLC University Leadership Summit features presentations by noteworthy leadership scholars and provides opportunities for engaged learning and networking with influential individuals from across the country. The program’s goal is to showcase leadership skills and topics valuable to local leaders at every level. Additionally, each city that hosts the Annual Leadership Summit has the opportunity to use the program as a platform to discuss issues of particular importance to their community. For more information, visit the Annual Leadership Summit homepage or contact Laura Lanford at lanford@nlc.org.

About the Author: Laura Lanford is the Principal Associate for Leadership Training at the National League of Cities University.

How the Roberts Court Has Affected Local Governments for 10 Years

The Roberts Court refers to the Supreme Court of the United States since 2005, under the leadership of Chief Justice John G. Roberts. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Roberts Court refers to the Supreme Court of the United States since 2005, under the leadership of Chief Justice John G. Roberts. (Wikimedia Commons)

Ten years ago today, John Glover Roberts, Jr. became the 17th Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Roberts Court decisions have affected everyone from average Americans to Guantanamo Bay detainees. But what about state and local governments?

This article provides a brief analysis of how the Roberts Court has impacted 10 areas of interest to states and local governments: federalism, pre-emption, race, free speech, religion, public employment, qualified immunity, the Eighth Amendment, the Fourth Amendment, and gun control.

Regarding the first five topics, the Roberts Court has in recent years decided a number of important cases involving federalism; generally, federalism has fared well in these big cases. While the Court’s preemption doctrine has been thin, lately the Court has decided (with mixed results) a series of cases involving drug labeling. The Roberts Court has taken a keen interest in deciding cases involving race; generally, race-related decision making has fared poorly. The Roberts Court is well-known as pro-free speech (see Citizens United v. FEC) and its recent sign case is no exception (see Reed v. Town of Gilbert, Arizona). While the Roberts Court hasn’t decided a lot of religion cases, generally it has been tolerant of religion in public spaces.

As for the other five topics, the Court has only decided an average of one public employment case every other term; all but one have been in favor of public employers. State and local governments have done well in qualified immunity cases, likely because the qualified immunity standard is very deferential to government and the Court tends to not take close cases. More death penalty cases have favored the defendant than the state, at least partially because Justice Kennedy tends to join his more liberal colleagues in these cases. The Roberts Court’s most significant contribution to Fourth Amendment jurisprudence is making it clear that it isn’t going to allow new technology to undermine traditional Fourth Amendment protections. Finally, the Roberts Court gun control cases were landmark decisions.

How the Roberts Courts will decide cases over the next 10 years for state and local governments — and everyone else — may be largely in the hands of future Justices who will be appointed during that time period.

Lisa Soronen bio photoAbout the Author: Lisa Soronen is the Executive Director of the State and Local Legal Center and a regular contributor to CitiesSpeak.

First Lady Announces 500 Communities Have Joined Let’s Move! Cities, Towns and Counties

The National League of Cities recently joined First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House to announce that 500 cities, towns and counties are now participating in the Let’s Move! Cities, Towns and Counties (LMCTC) initiative.

First Lady Michelle Obama

A key part of the first lady’s Let’s Move! initiative, LMCTC helps local elected officials, their staff and communities in their efforts to ensure all children grow up healthy and have the ability to reach their full potential. (Jason Dixson)

The 500 cities, towns and counties honored at the White House come from all 50 states, the District of Columbia and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. To date, approximately 80 million Americans live in a city, town or county participating in LMCTC. That’s one in four Americans!

Let's Move city

(Jason Dixson)

More than 100 mayors, councilmembers and city/county staff participated in an exciting day of activities at the White House. In the morning, attendees networked with their peers, discussed their achievements to date, brainstormed solutions to current challenges and planned next steps with assistance from staff from NLC, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and other federal and national nonprofit partners.

Following a networking lunch, the afternoon session consisted of a plenary Dr. Karen DeSalvo, the Acting Assistant Secretary for Health; Deb Eschmeyer, Executive Director of Let’s Move! and Senior Policy Advisor for Nutrition; and Jerry Abramson, Deputy Assistant to the President and Director of Intergovernmental Affairs and a panel of city leaders. And of course, First Lady Michelle Obama, who led the crowd in celebration of this historic milestone:

“Together, over the past five years, we have built what we call a movement on behalf of our kids’ health. We have changed the culture in this country in the way we live and eat,” said First Lady Michelle Obama. “This is about giving our children a fair shot in life. It’s about ensuring that they have everything they need… to help them fulfill their boundless potential.”

LMCTC calls upon local elected officials to adopt long-term, sustainable and holistic approaches to addressing childhood obesity. Local elected officials and their communities can receive bronze, silver and gold medals from NLC for their implementation of the five goal areas of LMCTC.

The goals include providing access to healthy meals through school and summer meal programs, expanding opportunities for physical activity during and outside of school, promoting healthier early care and education programs, and encouraging healthy snack and beverage choices using local government purchasing policies and practices.

Across the nation, 52 communities have achieved gold medals in each of the five goal areas. Local leaders have met all five goal areas by engaging in a variety of systems and policy changes locally. For example:

  • In Columbus, Ohio, Mayor Michael B. Coleman has taken great strides to increase opportunities for physical activity and promote healthy eating. New parks and recreation centers, parklets, an Open Streets initiative, new bike paths, outdoor fitness equipment and numerous natural play spaces help city departments make the healthy choice the easy choice for residents.
  • In response to being named the most obese metropolitan area in the U.S. in 2011 and 2012, McAllen, Texas, has intensified its strategies to build a healthier city. Spearheaded in part by Mayor James Darling, their work involves numerous community partnerships and has earned the city national accolades. The city of McAllen has transferred vending machines in city facilities to a vending company that offers healthier options, and has placed MyPlate as well as the Let’s Move McAllen! logo in all city-owned facilities. The city has been named a Playful City USA by KaBOOM! five years in a row, and has been a regional leader in promoting bicycle-friendly communities.
  • In Missoula County, Mont., Let’s Move! Missoula uses education, policy development, advocacy and environmental change to build and enhance healthy environments for all residents. Their efforts, heavily supported by County Commissioner Jean Curtiss, include the creation of additional trails and parks, Let’s Move! Child Care trainings for child care providers, in-classroom physical activity training for teachers and increased access to healthy food through the development and implementation of a healthy vending policy for all county-owned and operated facilities.

Learn more about Let’s Move! Cities, Towns and Counties and find out if your community is signed up at www.HealthyCommunitiesHealthyFuture.org.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation provides generous support to NLC to provide technical assistance to local elected officials working to create healthier communities and prevent childhood obesity, including those participating in LMCTC.

About the Authors:
Elena Hoffnagle
Elena Hoffnagle is the Senior Associate for Let’s Move! Cities, Towns and Counties at the National League of Cities. Contact Elena at Hoffnagle@nlc.org.

Izzy Jorgensen

Izzy Jorgensen was a 2015 summer intern with NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families.

Supreme Court Preview for Local Governments – October 2015

The State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) files Supreme Court amicus curiae briefs on behalf of the Big Seven national organizations representing state and local governments.

*Indicates a case where the SLLC has or will file an amicus brief.

(Getty Images)

The Supreme Court’s last term was big for local governments because the Court decided a number of important cases against them, most notably Reed v. Town of Gilbert, Arizona (2015), holding that strict scrutiny applies to content-based sign ordinances. The October 2015 term is one to watch, and not just because the Court has accepted numerous cases on controversial topics affecting local governments. Adding to the intrigue, many of the Court’s decisions this term are likely to be discussed by the 2016 presidential candidates as the election heats up. Here is a preview of the most significant cases for local governments that the Court has agreed to decide so far.

Public Sector Collective Bargaining

In Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association the Court will decide whether to overrule a nearly 40-year old precedent requiring public sector employees who don’t join the union to pay their “fair share” of collective bargaining costs. More than 20 states have enacted statutes authorizing “fair share.”

In Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (1977) the Supreme Court held that the First Amendment does not prevent public employees who do not join the union from being required to pay their “fair share” of union dues for collective bargaining, contract administration, and grievance adjustment. The rationale is that the union may not discriminate between members and nonmembers in performing these functions. So, no free-riders are allowed.

In two recent cases, the Court’s more conservative Justices, including Justice Kennedy, have criticized Abood.

If the Court doesn’t overrule Abood, it may instead rule that public employees may be allowed to opt-in rather than required to opt-out of paying “nonchargeable” union expenditures, in which case presumably fewer will opt-in.

“Fair share” and opt-out are foundational principles for public sector collective bargaining in the United States. Overturning either of them would mean a major change in the law that would substantially weaken public sector unions.


The U.S. Constitution Equal Protection Clause “one-person one-vote” principle requires that voting districts have roughly the same population so that votes in each district count equally. But what population is relevant — total population or total voting population — and who gets to decide? The Court will answer these questions in Evenwel v. Abbott.

Over the last 25 years the Supreme Court has repeatedly refused to decide (in cases all involving local governments) whether total voter population must be equalized in state and local legislative districts.

Plaintiffs claim that total voter population must be the metric. They argue their votes are worth less than other voters because they live in districts that substantially deviate from the “ideal” in terms of number of voters or potential voters.

The lower court disagreed because the Supreme Court has never held that any particular population metric is unconstitutional. Most state legislatures use total population, not total voting population data.

Asset Forfeiture

The question in Luis v. United States* is whether not allowing a criminal defendant to use assets not traceable to a criminal offense to hire counsel of choice violates the Sixth Amendment right to counsel.

Local law enforcement often receive asset forfeitures related to drug crime.

This case comes on the heels of Kaley v. United States (2014) where the Supreme Court held 6-3 that defendants may not use frozen assets which are the fruits of criminal activities to pay for an attorney.

Luis argues that it is “inconceivable” that she may not use “her own legitimately-earned assets to retain counsel.” The federal government responded that per her reasoning criminal defendants “could effectively deprive [their] victims of any opportunity for compensation simply by dissipating [their] ill-gotten gains.”

The Eleventh Circuit ruled against Luis, who was indicted on charges related to $45 million in Medicare fraud.

Local Governments Sued Out-of-State

In Franchise Tax Board of California v. Hyatt* the Court will decide whether states must extend the same immunities that apply to them to foreign local governments (and states) sued in their state courts. Hyatt is important to local governments who are often sued out-of-state.

The Franchise Tax Board (FTB) of California concluded that Gilbert Hyatt didn’t relocate to Nevada when his tax returns indicated he did and assessed him $10.5 million in taxes and interest. Hyatt sued FTB in Nevada for fraud among other claims.

In Franchise Tax Board of California v. Hyatt (2003) the Supreme Court held that the Constitution’s Full Faith and Credit Clause does not require Nevada to offer FTB the full immunity that California law provides.

A Nevada jury ultimately awarded Hyatt nearly $400 million in damages.

The Nevada Supreme Court refused to apply Nevada’s statutory cap on damages to Hyatt’s fraud claim, reasoning that Nevada has a policy interest in ensuring adequate redress for Nevada citizens that overrides providing FTB the statutory cap because California operates outside the control of Nevada.

Hyatt has also asked the Supreme Court to overrule Nevada v. Hall (1979), holding that a state may be sued in another states’ courts without consent. If the Court overrules this case, the question of whether the immunities a state enjoys must be offered to a foreign local government (or state) will be moot.

Affirmative Action

For the second time the Court has agreed to decide whether the University of Texas at Austin’s race-conscious admissions policy is unconstitutional in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin.

Even though this case arises in the higher education context, the Supreme Court decides relatively few affirmative action cases so all are of interest to local governments that use race as a factor in decision-making.

Per Texas’s Top Ten Percent Plan, the top ten percent of Texas high school graduates are automatically admitted to UT Austin, which fills about 80 percent of the class. Most other applicants are evaluated through a holistic review where race is one of a number of factors.

Abigail Fisher claims that using race in admissions is unnecessary because, in the year she applied, UT Austin admitted 21.5 percent minority students per the Top Ten Percent Plan.

The Supreme Court has held that the use of race in college admissions is constitutional if race is used to further the compelling government interest of diversity and is narrowly tailored.

In Fisher I the Court held that the Fifth Circuit, which upheld UT Austin’s admissions policy, should not have deferred to UT Austin’s argument that its use of race is narrowly tailored.

When the Fifth Circuit relooked at the plan again it concluded that it is narrowly tailored.

Only time will tell whether the Court agrees.


The Court’s docket is only about half full right now. Interestingly, the Court hasn’t accepted a Fourth Amendment or qualified immunity case yet — but no term would be complete without a few such cases. Of interest to the Court may be a case involving whether cell phone location data may be obtained without a warrant.

Lisa Soronen bio photoAbout the Author: Lisa Soronen is the Executive Director of the State and Local Legal Center and a regular contributor to CitiesSpeak.

Joplin Takes Action on E-Fairness

This is a guest blog post by Councilmember Melodee Colbert-Kean.

People in Joplin, Mo., know how to adapt to change.

Our city got its start in 1873 as a mining boom town, and we’ve been growing and changing ever since. We’ve seen Bonnie and Clyde, built our Main Street around historic Route 66, and became a diverse, developed city with a beautiful network of parks and museums.

However, what we’re probably best known for is our resilience in the face of one of the worst tornadoes ever to hit the United States. On May 24, 2011, Joplin was hit by a Category X tornado that destroyed much of our town and cost 161 lives in just minutes. But our local government, businesses, and residents all pulled together in the immediate aftermath of that storm to recover, and we’ve been growing ever since. When 553 businesses were destroyed or severely damaged in the wake of the 2011 storm, we responded by rebuilding 500 of them – and opening 150 more new ones!

Our local businesses are the backbone of our city, and that’s why it’s so important to me personally to close the online sales tax loophole. I’m not just a city council member – I spend most of my time running a restaurant, and I’ve always been an entrepreneur. I understand the role local businesses play in a community.

While no city can afford to leave resources on the table, it’s been particularly important for Joplin to invest in the development and services our residents need, and to have a strong local economy. We’ve got a 7.825% sales tax rate in Joplin, which supports not only our efforts to rebuild, but also our work to invest in our roads and water system, and build our city for the 21st century.

But that’s also a 7.825% unfair disadvantage our local stores face against online sellers, who aren’t collecting that sales tax, and who are luring shoppers away from our downtown. Statewide, Missouri loses out on almost half a billion dollars in uncollected sales taxes.

That’s why this month, I brought together a group of people in Joplin to push for a solution: e-fairness legislation. I invited our U.S. Representative and our U.S. Senators to join members of the Joplin City Council and the Joplin Chamber of Commerce to talk about how the online sales tax loophole is hurting our city, and what to do about it.

One of our senators, Senator Roy Blunt, has long been a supporter of e-fairness, and is a sponsor of the current Marketplace Fairness Act in the Senate. We appreciate his continued efforts on behalf of the residents and businesses in Joplin, and we’re looking forward to working with him to see this effort through to the finish line.

A group of ten people, including me, our mayor, city staff, and several local retailers met with representatives of our congressional delegation on August 20 to talk about e-fairness in our community. It was a valuable opportunity for our legislators to hear how the online sales tax loophole is specifically affecting Joplin.

For instance, one store owner observed that deliberate avoidance of sales taxes was changing the way that people shop. People are ordering large purchases online to avoid paying dozens or even hundreds of dollars in sales tax on that purchase. That means that the stores in our downtown and our mall see less foot traffic, and have fewer opportunities to make even small sales.

Joplin_eFairness_blog5Leadership from our local mall also pointed out that harm to individual retailers in the mall has an even bigger snowball effect on our community. The mall’s financial contribution to Joplin includes not only the impact of the sales taxes its stores collect, but also the hundreds of people employed there, and the property tax the mall pays.

Our city manager, also helped our legislators understand how passing e-fairness legislation would impact our city finances. We’ve been fortunate to have steadily increasing sales tax revenue in Joplin from the growth we’ve experienced as a community. However, we also rely on a use tax on large purchases, such as vehicles, which we need city voters to renew. If e-fairness legislation passed, and we were able to recover some of that uncollected sales tax, we might be able to streamline our system of taxes and fees, and maybe remove some of the existing taxes or fees we currently collect.

While e-fairness is not a new tax, it is up to community leaders to educate their residents about the current unfair system, and what the sales tax revenues in their communities support. While most people don’t want to pay more taxes, we do want roads free of potholes, working sewers, safe sidewalks, and emergency response services.

We also know that times are changing. Most of us shop online because it is convenient. Even with e-fairness, we know that more people will shop online every year. Our retailers are not afraid to adapt to a world in which we can order anything with the click of a mouse. We’re just asking Congress to close this online sales tax loophole, and enable us to have a fair shot in the future.

If you haven’t already, reach out to your legislators. Find out if they support e-fairness, and start a dialogue with your business community. You know they have a lot to say! If you need help, the staff at the National League of Cities can get you started.

Together, I truly believe that we can change minds and make a difference.

About the Author: Melodee Colbert-Kean is a councilmember from Joplin, Mo., and currently serves as NLC’s 1st Vice President.

What Will Tax Abatement Disclosures Mean for Economic Development Groups?

This is a guest post written by Ellen Harpel. The post originally appeared on the Smart Incentives blog.

Economic development incentives such as tax abatements can allow cities to spur growth and encourage progress – but these incentives should be used effectively and responsibly. To that end, tax abatement disclosures can support greater transparency, although new disclosure standards may bring new challenges to economic developers. (silverjohn/Getty Images)

State and local governments will begin disclosing financial information about tax abatements under new guidance from the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB). The requirements take effect for financial statements for periods beginning after December 15, 2015.

Tax abatements are defined by GASB as agreements between one or more governments and an entity or individual that reduce the taxes the entity or individual would otherwise owe, and in which the business or individual promises to take a specific action that contributes to economic development or otherwise benefits the governments or their citizens.


Tax abatements can limit revenue-raising ability because a government has agreed not to collect taxes that it otherwise would be entitled to. GASB seeks “to make the financial impact of these transactions readily transparent”, stating:

“Financial statement users need information about certain limitations on a government’s ability to raise resources. This includes limitations on revenue-raising capacity resulting from government programs that use tax abatements to induce behavior by individuals and entities that is beneficial to the government or its citizens.”

GASB is not directly concerned with the effect of tax abatements on economic development or community-level outcomes.

What needs to be disclosed and what does not?

Information that must be disclosed includes:

  • Brief descriptive information, including
    • The tax being abated
    • Authority under which abatements are provided
    • Eligibility criteria
    • Mechanism by which taxes are abated
    • Provisions for recapture, and
    • Types of commitments made by recipients
  • Dollar amount of taxes abated during the reporting period (accrual basis)
  • Other commitments made by a government (such as providing infrastructure)
  • Tax abatements entered into by other governments that reduce the reporting entity’s tax revenues

Information that does not need to be disclosed includes:

  • Individual tax abatement agreements
  • Future amounts to be abated
  • Number of agreements entered into and effect during the reporting period (a change from the draft statement)
  • Information the government is legally prohibited from disclosing – but the general nature of the information omitted and the source of the legal prohibition must be provided

Of interest to economic development organizations

The guidance for disclosure is limited to tax abatements. It does not include all tax expenditures (only the subset that fit the definition) and it does not include many other forms of assistance to businesses, such as grants, loans or transfers of capital assets.

The disclosure rules are not limited to tax abatements for business attraction. Tax incentives designed to support economic development objectives such as historic preservation, brownfield cleanup or housing construction are also covered if they meet the other criteria.

Disclosure does not depend on the existence of a written, legally enforceable agreement. Abatements must be disclosed even if the government’s agreement to reduce the tax liability and the taxpayer’s agreement to perform a “certain beneficial action” is implicit.

The disclosures will be useful for transparency purposes but not for compliance, evaluation and accountability. GASB explained, “(I)t was not an objective of the Statement to provide information needed to evaluate the effectiveness of tax abatement programs.” Further, the Board noted that information on compliance may not be readily available for reporting purposes.

Our take

We support greater transparency in economic development incentive use and believe this standard is a good step in that direction even though it will not answer many key questions about incentive costs and benefits.

GASB cares about how tax abatements affect government finances. Our concern, by contrast, is effective and responsible use of economic development incentives to accomplish community objectives.

Challenges for economic developers will be 1) responding to financial reporting on tax abatements that lacks context on why incentives were provided and 2) telling a complete story about incentive use to demonstrate responsible use of those funds and to explain how they help achieve a community’s economic development goals.

The full GASB statement can be accessed here.

Ellen Harpel bio photoAbout the Author: Ellen Harpel is President of Business Development Advisors (BDA) and Founder of Smart Incentives. She has over 17 years of experience in the economic development field, working with leaders at the local, state and national levels to increase business investment and job growth in their communities. Contact Ellen at eharpel@businessdevelopmentadvisors.com or ellen@smartincentives.org. You can also follow her on Twitter at @SmartIncentives.

Responding with Grace to the President’s Charleston Eulogy

In his first CitiesSpeak blog post, the inaugural Director of NLC’s Race, Equity And Leadership (REAL) initiative encourages city leaders to reflect on this past summer’s events and respond with grace to racial tensions in their own communities.

The city of Charleston, S.C., where the Mother Emmanuel AME Church is located. (Sean Pavone/Getty Images)

We have now had a few months to reflect on the tragedy that occurred at the Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. on the evening of June 17. The shooting that occurred was an ugly, unconscionable and incomprehensible act of evil — and an awful reminder of the racial hatred that we, as Americans, have allowed to continue even after so many believe we have ended racial discrimination in this country. For far too long, we have turned a blind eye to the racial bias and the historical barriers that exist in this country as a result of institutional, structural, and systemic racism. We have not shown a willingness to be bold and courageous in doing what is necessary to call out these injustices.

Summer’s passing has given me ample time to apply these reflections to my own work. I feel I have been complicit in not demonstrating the boldness and courage necessary to explicitly acknowledge the need to focus on the implications of racism.

I have fought tirelessly on behalf of youth, families and communities for over 20 years. I believe passionately in changing the sociopolitical system in which we operate as well as the policies that guide that system. I have worked with mayors and other city leaders across the country to strengthen their capacity to make policy changes and systematic changes to improve outcomes for children and youth and to strengthen families.

But I cannot honestly say that, in my field of work, we have been intentional about acknowledging the historical barriers that exist because of institutional, structural and systemic racism. In many ways, I myself have turned a blind eye and have rationalized that I can pursue the changes we seek for cities and communities across this country without needing to refer specifically to the injustices caused by racism.

The Charleston massacre painfully reminds me what happens when we, as a country, seek to avoid addressing racism and allow it to fester and contaminate our society. I can only begin to imagine how our inability as a nation to take on the tough and uncomfortable issue of racism has impacted so many aspects of our individual lives, our communities, our politics, our policies, our systems, our institutions and our way of life.

“As a nation, out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us, for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind. He has given us the chance, where we’ve been lost, to find our best selves. If we can find that grace, anything is possible. If we can tap that grace, everything can change. Amazing grace. Amazing grace.”
– President Barack Obama

That is why, for me, President Barack Obama’s remarks during the eulogy of Reverend Senator Clementa Pinckney offered a sobering reality check and an inspiring opportunity for us, as Americans, to be bold and courageous in how we turn this tragedy into triumph.

I have heard and sang “Amazing Grace” since I was child. But never have the words of that song rung so loudly as a national cry for social justice until the president’s remarks. The President’s reflections on the idea of grace were not only appropriate for the eulogy of Rev. Pinckney and the eight others who were assassinated in their church, but they were a hopeful message for our country: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I’m found; was blind but now I see.”

The president shared how grace provides an opportunity to not be blind to the injustices we see around us. His reflections provided a mirror for us to see ourselves, and a chance to ask ourselves, “Was this simply another moment, another symbolic gesture — or are we in fact ready to do the hard work necessary to create lasting change in our country?”

I am ready to do that hard work, as is the National League of Cities (NLC). The Race, Equity, And Leadership (REAL) initiative is our effort to equip NLC members with the capacity to respond to racial tensions in their communities and address the historical, systemic and structural barriers that further inequality and racism in our nation’s cities.

This focus on racial equity provides NLC the opportunity to align its unique strengths and resources across the organization to proactively prepare city leaders to apply a racial equity lens to policies, initiatives, programs and budgets. A racial equity lens offers city leaders the opportunity to create meaningful conversations and take action by assessing the ways in which municipal government can both benefit and burden racially diverse communities.

While the REAL initiative is designed to eventually address concerns expressed by city leaders related to all equity issues, such as discrimination based on income, class, gender and sexual orientation, race is arguably the most prevailing equity issue in American society today. Slavery is a shameful and embarrassing part of our nation’s past, while systematic, institutional racism continues to be a part of our nation’s present. Race is therefore a critical concern as well as a difficult subject to talk about and take action upon.

To put it another way, tackling the issues of racism and inequality in American cities is hard work. But it is work that I am prepared to do, and I am better equipped to do so with the many resources that the National League of Cities has to offer. As the director of NLC’s REAL initiative, I pledge to work hard in this arena – and I hope to do so with grace.

About the Author: Leon T. Andrews, Jr., is the Director of the Race, Equity And Leadership (REAL) initiative at the National League of Cities.

Four Ways City Leaders Can Boost Entrepreneurship and Propel Economic Growth

This is a guest post by Josh Russell and Jason Wiens. This post is the fourth installment in a series focused on NLC’s 2015 Cities and Unequal Recovery report, which highlights the findings of our 2015 Local Economic Conditions survey.

Startup density varies from city to city across the United States. (Kauffman Index of Startup Activity)

City leaders across America understand that entrepreneurship is key to the success of their economies. That is the message from the 2015 Local Economic Conditions Survey conducted by the National League of Cities.

In that survey, 47 percent of cities said the “number of new business starts” was a positive driver of local economic conditions. New business creation was viewed by more city leaders as source of local economic improvement than any other factor.

These perceptions of chief elected officials are in line with decades of data that show new and young businesses are the primary source of net new job creation. When it comes to job creation, age matters more than size.

But how do these perceptions reflect the reality of entrepreneurial growth in these cities? Is entrepreneurship flourishing in cities where leaders viewed it to be an important contributor to economic growth?

To answer these questions, we looked at a sample of cities linked to their metropolitan statistical areas from 2002 to 2012. Here is what we found:

  • Over the last decade, average startup rates are consistent among cities regardless of their views on new business creation.
  • Startup rates converged in 2012 to 6.9 percent for cities that believed startup rates were an impactful economic factor and to 6.8 percent for cities that did not.

While there is little difference between startup rates in cities that viewed new business creation as an impactful economic factor, the real story is found when we look at employment in startup firms.

The percent of employment in startups has diverged among cities that believe startups are and are not an important economic factor. In those cities that viewed startups’ impact positively, new businesses were adding more jobs than in cities where leaders did not view them to have a positive impact. In 2012, on average, firms in cities that viewed new businesses as having a positive impact started with 15 percent more employees.

2011 marked the first year of an increase in new business creation since the start of the Great Recession. To further boost entrepreneurship and propel economic growth, local leaders have a menu of tools available to them.

  1. Build connections. While capital constraints represent one of the primary challenges to entrepreneurs, research has shown that public venture funds and local incubation centers result in little to no benefit to entrepreneurs. Instead, cities should focus on fostering local connections among entrepreneurs and businesses. These local connections, as opposed to national or global contacts, are vital to an entrepreneur’s success. Focus should be put on events that cause entrepreneurs to think and act together, building a robust local ecosystem. Examples of early-stage entrepreneurship programs that can be implemented in cities include Startup Weekend and 1 Million Cups.
  2. Welcome Immigrants. Immigrants are twice as likely as native-born Americans to become entrepreneurs. These entrepreneurial gains are not limited to low-skill sectors, but include high-skill and high-tech sectors as well. Immigrants and children of immigrants represented 52 percent of key founders of high tech firms in Silicon Valley and over 40 percent of Fortune 500 founders. While legal barriers to immigrant entrepreneurship result in missed opportunities for U.S. economic growth, cities can capture the benefits by welcoming immigrants and supporting their entrepreneurial ambitions.
  3. Support Women. Women face many unique challenges to starting a business and are half as likely to start businesses as their male counterparts. Among the top challenges are financial capital, mentorship, and work-life balance. Women are one-third as likely to access equity financing through angel investments or venture capitalists as men and begin companies with nearly half as much capital. Mentorship plays an important role in developing successful entrepreneurs, yet nearly half of female entrepreneurs say a lack of available mentors is a major challenge facing their businesses. Parenting balanced with work also results in lower rates of entrepreneurship among women. Women with STEM Ph.Ds are significantly less likely to engage in entrepreneurship if they have a child under two, while there is no statistical difference in entrepreneurial rates of comparable men. Local policies that support women in entrepreneurship can create positive economic growth in cities.
  4. Develop Human Capital. Higher levels of education are associated with increased entrepreneurial activity. While a high ratio of college graduates means more entrepreneurial firms, a substantial high school completion rate can further increase a city’s startup activity. Developing a strong school pipeline can help promote human capital and develop a strong, local entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Stated simply, these policies are all about investing in people.

As entrepreneurship rates grow, entrepreneurs are reviving local economies across the nation. The role of city leaders in this arena is to create conditions that allow more entrepreneurs to start businesses and nurture that environment so that those businesses can grow. Cities that invest in people should see entrepreneurial benefits.

About the Authors:

Josh Russell is a research assistant at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.



Jason Wiens is Policy Director at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

Ensuring All Veterans Have Safe Housing Requires All Hands on Deck

In recent years, dramatic progress has been made across the nation in the effort to reduce Veteran homelessness thanks to strategic planning, bold leadership, and unprecedented community collaboration. These elements are being paired with data-driven strategies that have resulted in a nationwide decline of 33 percent since 2010. This progress is paving the way for success in other sub-groups of the homeless population.

While headway on Veteran homelessness is notable by itself, the efforts also offer insight about how city leaders can ensure all Veterans have a safe place to call home.

Members of Team Depot build a community garden in Los Angeles. Philanthropies such as The Home Depot Foundation are increasingly important partners as cities aim to address multiple challenges. (photo: Elijah Harig-Blaine)

The Anatomy of Success: Strategic Planning

Beginning in 2010, the federal government’s response to homelessness became guided by the Opening Doors strategic plan. For the first time, the plan broke the nation’s work on homelessness into specific sub-populations. The first sub-population was Veterans. Bringing focus to a specific sub-population is one approach to make progress on municipal challenges.

Another way to make progress, is by bringing focus to a specific issue. In nearly every city across the country, access to safe, affordable housing is a challenge. This year’s State of the Cities report found housing as one of the top ten issues receiving significant coverage in mayoral addresses.

Like homelessness, progress on addressing housing overall can be made with a focus on Veterans. Realizing this progress comes when cities use the dual lenses of Veterans and housing to guide how existing programs and municipal networks are utilized.

Bold Leadership & Community Collaboration

In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti used his State of the Cities address to announce that in the past year, the city had decreased Veteran homelessness by 50%. Across the city and county of Los Angeles, community stakeholders have housed 6,538 Veterans since June 2014.

To continue this progress, access to housing is key. A first step taken by city leaders and federal partners is to engage property owners and managers of existing market-rate housing. In June, Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Bob McDonald joined the Mayor and others in calling on landlords to join local efforts.

In addition to increasing access to existing market-rate housing, there is the need to increase the supply of affordable housing and preserve existing affordable housing. To support these goals, the Mayor Garcetti has proposed an additional $10 million for the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund (AHTF). Recognizing the need to tie the emerging sharing economy to the pragmatic needs of residents with lower-incomes, the Mayor proposed generating $5 million for the AHTF from taxes collected for the first time from Airbnb.

These resources are particularly needed in the face of past and proposed cuts to the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) and the HOME Investment Partnerships program (HOME). In addition to program cuts, the demand for affordable housing is exacerbated as the affordability restrictions on thousands of housing units are ending. In the next five years, in California alone, at least 1,380 properties will have a subsidy expire, impacting the affordability of at least 100,181 units of housing.

To meet these challenges, cities are increasingly building collaborative partnerships beyond their existing relationships with non-profits and the federal and state government. Recognizing the unique role foundations can play in bridging the gap in services, cities are turning to the philanthropic sector to help meet the housing needs of Veterans.

Using Data to Drive Decision-Making

Tragically, Veterans are over-represented among the homeless.

Nationwide, Veterans comprise 8.1 percent of the general population. However, with the homeless population, 8.6 percent are Veterans. This over-representation is particularly seen in the unsheltered homeless population, where 10 percent are Veterans. In Los Angeles city and county, these numbers are even starker. Veterans comprise only 3.6 percent of the overall population, but are 10.8 percent of the overall homeless population and 11.3 percent of the unsheltered homeless population.

In addition to being over-represented in the homeless population, the percentage of Veterans who are seniors is significantly greater than the general population. Nationwide, 47.3 percent of Veterans are over the age of 65, compared to 15.9 percent of non-Veterans. In Los Angeles city and county, the numbers are again striking. In Los Angeles city and county, 53.2 percent of Veterans are over the age of 65, compared to 13.6 percent of non-Veterans.

These facts show that by using the lenses of housing and Veterans, city officials and their partners can not only make progress in these areas, but also position the community to better address the housing needs of other sub-populations, such as seniors.

One illustration of a housing development at this intersection is the Guy Gabaldon project. Developed by the East Los Angeles Community Corporation (ELACC), the 33 unit facility is operated by New Directions for Veterans and exclusively serves Veterans aged 55 and older.

Finished in September 2014, the project was fully leased in less than three months as a result of being part of Los Angeles’ coordinated entry system developed as part of the Home for Good campaign. Staff from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs work with New Directions to provide on-site supportive services to clients. Amenities include a community garden, a community room with gym equipment and on-site laundry facilities. All units are furnished and as they moved in, Veterans were provided a “move-in” kit with paper products, toiletries and other essentials.

To allow the units to be affordable for homeless senior Veterans, ELACC used Los Angeles’ AHTF, Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTCs) as well as project-based HUD-VASH vouchers. Additional funding came from the Federal Reserve’s Affordable Housing Program (AHP) and The Home Depot Foundation. Similar support for housing developments serving Veterans from The Home Depot Foundation has helped cities build or preserve more than 17,000 units of housing. Over the past three years, the Foundation has invested more than $90 million in projects supporting Veterans and their families.

In addition, volunteer groups of Home Depot associates known as Team Depots have worked on more than 3,780 projects building or improving homes for Veterans. Just in California, The Home Depot Foundation has supported 622 projects impacting 2,520 units of housing benefitting Veterans with either financial or volunteer support.

While the role of philanthropies is critical, in the face of declining resources for affordable housing, cities are increasingly making systems changes to use the funds more efficiently. In 2013, Los Angeles began developing a “managed pipeline” to guide the distribution of LIHTCs, as well as support the coordination of allocations from the various state programs.

The “managed pipeline” has evolved to support 24 projects every 24 months. Every six months, six projects are moved forward and six new projects enter the pipeline. The result has been more certainty for developers, providing them the confidence to move forward with pre-development outlays and stronger applications for additional support from financial institutions, philanthropies, housing authorities and others. By initially focusing on the housing needs of homeless Veterans and gradually expanding the community coordination efforts to ensure all Veterans have access safe housing solutions, cities lay the groundwork for all community members to be housed.

Despite consistently encouraging news about the growth of city workforces, it is likely that support for affordable housing programs will continue to face fiscal constraints. For cities to create and grow relationships with committed philanthropic partners, local leaders must be strategic in how existing resources are used. Focusing on a specific population, such as Veterans, and a specific issue, such as housing, is one way cities can help ensure meaningful investments benefit all community members in the long-term.

Elisha_blogAbout the Author: Elisha Harig-Blaine is the Principal Associate for Housing (Veterans and Special Needs) at NLC. Follow Elisha on Twitter at @HarigBlaine.

REAL Talk to REAL Action: Undoing Racism in America’s Cities

NLC held its second REAL (Race, Equity And Leadership) event at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. on August 25. Undoing Racism in America’s Cities and Towns explored how city leaders are advancing racial understanding and healing within communities across the nation. (photo: Tim Mudd)

For most people, race is a difficult topic to discuss. The very mention of race can spark a myriad of emotions ranging from denial, guilt, anger and frustration to hopelessness. The discomfort or unease associated with these emotions can lead people to respond in different ways. Some choose to avoid conversations about race entirely, whereas others refuse to shy away from the conversation and speak out boldly and confidently about issues of race and injustice. Others are willing to have a dialogue about race but feel more comfortable limiting their interactions to members of their same race instead of reaching out across cultures. And then there are others who, according to according to Gary, Ind., Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, muster up the “keyboard courage” to post their comments on social media and engage in conversations from behind their computer screen but refuse to have the conversation in public.

As a result, it can be difficult for local elected officials to figure out how best to facilitate racial understanding and healing in their communities.

Overwhelmingly, the panelists at the National League of Cities’ (NLC) REAL Talk series Undoing Racism in America’s Cities and Towns reiterated the idea that, if we are going to create a more equitable society, we have to have this conversation no matter how difficult it may seem. The panel, which included Gary, Ind., Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, Cleveland Councilmember and NLC 2nd Vice President Matt Zone, and Tim Wise, anti-racism activist and author of the memoir White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son, challenged city leaders to confront issues of race, racism and racial equity.

This is especially poignant for me given my experience with NLC’s Learning Collaborative on Health Disparities. In working with the collaborative, I have had the opportunity to witness firsthand just how difficult it can be for local elected officials, their staff, and their community partners to talk about race. Cities participating in the Collaborative were challenged to think critically about the root causes of health disparities in their city. It’s nearly impossible to have these conversations in a meaningful way without examining the impact of historical, systemic and structural racism on the unequal distribution of quality schools, affordable housing, employment opportunities, access to healthy, affordable foods, and safe spaces to engage in physical activity. In some cases, candid discussions about race, disparities and equity have been hampered by feelings of discomfort. For example, one city leader shared that, as a white male, he often feels uncomfortable speaking about race and that his fear of “saying the wrong thing” prevents him from actively engaging in these conversations.

While the REAL Talk panelists acknowledged the difficulty of these conversations, they refused to accept that as an excuse for not moving forward, issuing a call to action to city leaders to be bold in helping move people past their discomfort and create meaningful conversations. To that end, the panelists outlined concrete actions that city leaders can take to advance racial understanding and create more equitable communities.

  • Start Early, Start Young — “Individual attitudes are passed down from generation to generation. So as I talk about this conversation locally and as I talk about it in other places, it’s really to challenge how we are training, how we are teaching, and how we are challenging our children because we get a lot of things from our parents…some parents are passing down hatred [and a] belief in inferiority that certain races, certain genders, certain people are less than [which] that informs everything they do and how they relate to people not like them,” said Mayor Freeman-Wilson. City leaders can work with parents, caregivers, teachers, faith leaders, and other early education stakeholders to educate young children about the importance of diversity, inclusion, and tolerance.
  • Review Current Practices, Procedures, and Policies City leaders can apply a racial equity lens to their policies, programs, initiatives and budgets to identify intentional and unintentional consequences. Effective data collection and statistical analysis is a critical component of this review process.
  • Engage the Community — “These are conversations we need to have not only in city hall but in the community,” said Matt Zone. “Being a convener is a tremendous opportunity that local government leaders have. To convene people in a way that allows them to feel equal and that their opinions matter is critical for moving this conversation forward.” City leaders can create a safe space for the community to share their lived experiences, clarify their needs, and participate in the decision making process on an ongoing basis.
  • Call out Racism — “We have to be willing to acknowledge that [racism] exists and be willing to talk about it” said Mayor Freeman-Wilson. Local elected officials are uniquely positioned to leverage their position and visibility to speak out against racism, injustice and inequality. “Our first role is to understand and to take the time, just like [we take the time] to understand the budget, crime rate, and all of the other important statistics. Once [we] understand those dynamics then we can do something about it.”
  • Expand the Conversation — “If you are going to understand the events that happened in Baltimore six months ago you can’t start with Freddie Gray and you cannot start even with the police department in Baltimore… We talk about housing and education and we talk about neighborhoods as if they are not racism,” said Tim Wise. Conversations about race and race relations should not be limited to discussions about police brutality. Throughout the forum, the panelists reiterated that we have to analyze the systemic and structural violence and inequities occurring across a broad range of sectors including education, transportation and health that impact the quality of life of individuals living in cities and towns.

In just the last year, tragic events in cities across the country have highlighted just how difficult it is to talk about race — but they have also highlighted the urgent need to have these conversations. According to Tim Wise, “If you own your piece of it, it’s easier to get others to own theirs.” As I reflect on my work with the Learning Collaborative on Health Disparities, I am encouraged by the passion and commitment of city leaders to address inequities and build more equitable, inclusive communities. NLC’s Race, Equity And Leadership initiative is uniquely positioned to provide NLC staff and local elected officials the tools, techniques and resources to prepare them to advance the conversation and translate these important conversations into action.

Alyia Head ShotAbout the Author: Alyia Smith-Parker is a Senior Associate for Health and Community Wellness at NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families. Contact Alyia at smith-parker@nlc.org.