Infrastructure, Equity and Leadership: Takeaways From the Inaugural City Council Presidents Convening

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“We created this convening because we wanted to inspire each other,” said NLC Executive Director Clarence E. Anthony. “Looking around the room, I’m confident that we did.”

Melissa Mark-Vivitero, speaker of the New York City Council, opened up the inaugural City Council Presidents, Speakers and Chairpersons convening in New York City on April 28 with some light-hearted ribbing over baseball, bragging that the Yankees — set to play the Baltimore Orioles later that night — were unstoppable.

Upping the ante, Mark-Viverito offered a Yankees jacket to Baltimore Council President Jack Young. Young declined, citing an Orioles hat waiting back at his hotel.

This exchange marked the start of the first-ever City Council Presidents, Speakers and Chairperson Convening — an unprecedented summit featuring council leaders from America’s thirteen largest cities. Partnering with Speaker Mark-Viverito, the National League of Cities (NLC) hosted the event to provide the leaders with a forum for sharing experiences candidly and drawing upon the wisdom of their counterparts.

But it was friendly interactions like Mark-Viverito’s — part hometown pride, part shared connection — that made the convening such a success.

With that connection made, the council leaders were able to frankly discuss their communities, common challenges and what they hoped to accomplish. Subjects ranged from the practical — Council President Cole spoke about addressing homelessness in San Diego, California — to the philosophical, as when Council President Kelly from Cleveland asked, “How do we make the case for cities?”

One rallying point for the council leaders was their agreement that “nothing is a silo.” For the 13 large cities represented in the room, the definitions of public safety, infrastructure and economic development are broadening. The concept of infrastructure includes much more than simply paving roads and filling potholes — and with cities responsible for emerging infrastructure components like broadband internet, mixed-use development and bikeshare systems, the emphasis must be on creating access to resources for all city residents.

“When talking about equity and infrastructure,” said Jess Zimbabwe, NLC’s director of urban development and leadership, “it’s important to keep in mind four key questions: who benefits, who pays, who bears the environmental burden, and who decides?”

Public safety, as Speaker Mark-Viverito pointed out, is also not a silo — it cannot be viewed from a single, one-sided perspective. “It’s important to address the economic environment,” said St. Louis Council President Lewis Reed, “[in order] to begin addressing public safety.”

“Until we deal with the underlying problems,” added Philadelphia Council President Darrell Clarke, “we’re never going to figure it out.”

The council leaders also discussed collaboration and creativity in leadership, from budgeting to communicating with constituents. In the context of a new federal landscape, they noted, city leaders must be proactive in identifying revenue resources that don’t come from the federal government. And identifying what needs to be done with those resources can be even more difficult. As Denver Council President Brooks said, “You have to start with the community and ask them how we [should] best spend our resources.”

Often, the leaders agreed, working with the rest of a city council and the mayor can help balance the needs of the present with the needs of the future. As Council President Wu of Boston said, “What’s the cost of doing nothing to protect our infrastructure?” With an increasing number of state legislatures preempting city authority, they noted, cities will have to do more with less.

Overall, the inaugural City Council Presidents, Speakers and Chairpersons convening was a success — in large part due to the passion and commitment demonstrated by the 13 city leaders present. In the coming months, NLC plans to grow the network of local government officials convened in New York City last week, creating a space for even more city leaders to learn from each other and to share their successes.

“We created this convening because we wanted to inspire each other,” said NLC CEO & Executive Director Clarence E. Anthony in closing. “Looking around the room, I’m confident that we did.”

NLC CEO & Executive Director Clarence E. Anthony (far right) joins leaders from America’s 13 largest cities at the inaugural City Council Presidents, Speakers and Chairpersons Convening in New York City on April 28, 2017. (Meri St. Jean)

Council President Bernard Young of Baltimore also wrote an article on the convening, which can be found here.

NLC would like to thank all the city council presidents, speakers and chairpersons who participated in this year’s convening, including: Supervisor London Breed, San Francisco; Council President Albus Brooks, Denver; Council President Darrell Clarke, Philadelphia; Council President Myrtle Cole, San Diego, California; Council President Brenda Jones, Detroit, Michigan; Council President Kevin Kelley, Cleveland; Mayor Pro-tem Vi Lyles, Charlotte, North Carolina; Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, New York; Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, Washington; Council President Lewis Reed, St. Louis; Council Chairman, Mike Suarez, Tampa, Florida; Council President Michelle Wu, Boston; and Council President Bernard Young, Baltimore. Special thanks to New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and her team for their partnership.

meridith_st_jean_125x150About the author: Meri St. Jean is an associate for marketing, communications & technology at the National League of Cities.