The League of California Cities kicked off its 111th annual convention Wednesday with plenty of networking, discussion of brass tacks on civic issues and a spirited keynote address from William Hudnut, a former longtime mayor of Indianapolis.

The convention’s theme is “Strong Cities, Strong State, Strong Nation.”

Judy Mitchell, the mayor of Rolling Hills Estates and president of the League of California Cities, introduced Hudnut at the San Jose Convention Center.

Hudnut, whose resume includes mayoralties in Indianapolis and Chevy Chase, Md., urged city officials to find the opportunity in California’s fiscal crisis and recession.

“You’re in a squeeze but you’re OK,” Hudnut said. “You’re going to get out of it. It’s an opportunity for reforming yourself, for regeneration and making your cities strong. The cities are the cradle of creativity in our civilization … even though you’re always looking over your shoulder at state government and the economy.”

What is needed, Hudnut said, is creative thinking by city officials to discover new sources of revenue by taking advantage of trends.

“The era of McMansions is over,” he said. “The best cure for destructive sprawl is creating spaces in our cities that are worthy of our affection. We need to build cities that people will not abandon. We have to ride the back-to-the-city trend.”

Hudnut said there are three rhyming cohorts for the trend of residents returning to inner cities:
• singles — “young people with their laptops;”
• mingles — couples living together in the downtown taking advantages of the amenities of urban living;
• jingles — happy empty-nesters returning to the downtown amenities.

Mitchell thanked LCC members for their recent political activism as a platform to introduce the league’s executive director, Chris McKenzie. Mitchell praised McKenzie’s leadership in fighting the state’s attempts to co-opt revenues earmarked for cities.

The state, said McKenzie, “will have to do what every city council has done — balance their budget with their own funds.” At the convention, McKenzie said, the LCC is looking for members’ commitment on whether to pursue an ambitious campaign to gather signatures for a petition, leading to a 2010 initiative “to keep the (state) Legislature from robbing or pilfering or borrowing — whatever you want to call it — money that is needed for local government.”

“We’re going to have to organize ourselves and prepare for the next fight,” said McKenzie. 

San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed underscored McKenzie’s point, saying, “I do know the voice of the league is very powerful in Sacramento. It’s not about the people. It’s not personal. It’s about the system. That needs to be fixed.”

Reed welcomed delegates to the “innovation capital of the world.”

Ron Loveridge, the mayor of Riverside who is campaigning to be the president of the National League of Cities this fall, addressed the convention. He noted the heavy presence of California leaders in national organizations, not the least of which is the U.S. Congress.

“It is in the cities of the United States where economic development takes place,” Loveridge said. “As cities we must be participants in these issues. This is our time for advocacy. This is the time for our voices to be heard.”

Earlier in Wednesday’s session, city officials had a chance to get practical information on hot topics in breakout sessions. For instance, a panel of leaders from San Bernardino and San Jose talked about “Gang Violence — Reduction, Intervention and Prevention Strategies.”

San Jose Police Chief Robert Davis talked about an attitude change among police rank and file in the last two decades. There’s been a growing recognition from officers that gang violence is a community issue needing police collaboration with a variety of agencies. This included breaking the problem down into manageable chunks and delegating tasks for different agencies.

“It just simply has been a win-win for us,” said Davis. “If I as chief today tried to take away our model (of suppression, intervention and prevention), the first people who would be banging on my door are the police department rank and file. “

The collaborative model has produced results. As the city has grown at a clip of 25,000 people a year, the gang crime rate is about the same while the rate of other crimes is growing, Davis said.

A main collaborator for the SJPD has been California Youth Outreach. Its CEO, Tony Ortiz, described setting up the Right Connection — a network of ex-gang workers 15 years ago to work in the community, who built relationships with families and children in the neighborhoods. The group built an assessment of gangs and sub-groups, and identified the rivalries and flash points.

“When you understand the gang dynamics, you can deploy resources where it is actually going to make an impact,” said Ortiz.

Representing San Bernardino was Kent Paxton, director of the mayor’s office on community safety and violence prevention. The collaboration model is key to Operation Phoenix, “a partnership and infrastructure in which we bring together the services that are already in that high-risk neighborhood.”

The statistics show a dramatic decrease in murders and other Part 1 crimes. A survey in 2003 showed the residents’ great fear of violence, and a more recent survey shows the major problems have become potholes and more local neighborhood concerns as the fear of violence recedes, Paxton said. But the best evidence, he suggested, might be the anecdote he has heard a few times in that neighborhood: “The kid are out in the yards, playing at twilight.”

The gang session was moderated by Jack Calhoun, a consultant with the National League of Cities.

Other afternoon sessions examined a partnership among statewide organizations for cities, counties and school boards; city responses to the foreclosure crisis; emerging funding options for sustainability; and options for rebuilding commercial districts.

Lance Howland can be reached at