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Op-Ed submitted by Ali Sajjad Taj, President of the League of California Cities

Last week, more than 2,000 city officials gathered in Long Beach for the 2022 League of California Cities Annual Conference and Expo. It was a great honor to be installed as the new Cal Cities president. It is an even greater honor to lead this organization as it continues to advance its 124-year-long mission: to expand and protect local control for cities. Being around such an impassioned and active gathering of thousands of city colleagues reminded me of the great strength of our organization.

As I start my new term, I believe it’s important to acknowledge our recent accomplishments while also committing ourselves fully to tackling the difficult challenges that lie ahead in 2023.

This past year will be remembered for the ongoing impacts of a pandemic, inflation at levels we haven’t seen in decades, a declining economy and an ever-worsening drought.

In the face of these challenges, city leaders showed strength and resilience by adapting innovative ways to serve our communities while also providing basic services with fewer resources — improving local streets and roads, planning and approving new housing, supporting unhoused residents, helping local businesses get back on their feet and keeping communities safe.

And like city leaders, Cal Cities also delivered for our members in 2022. Cal Cities meaningfully advanced all four member-driven advocacy priorities for 2022, including:

  • Housing: Cal Cities secured resources to support cities’ efforts to jumpstart housing construction — including nearly $1 billion for low-income housing and infill construction — and carved out flexibility for cities in bills that threaten local housing plans.
  • Infrastructure: Cal Cities led a broad coalition against a large, unfunded transportation measure that would have required cities to adopt significant and costly bicycle, pedestrian, and traffic-calming elements in their general plans. Cal Cities also defeated two measures that would have restricted local transportation funding.
  • Homelessness: The Cal Cities Board of Directors adopted a policy that supports additional funding and resources to expand access to behavioral health services and that supports our county partners. With this new policy, we went to work on bills designed to modernize the behavioral health system, to better serve those who need it, including our unsheltered residents. This includes the CARE Court legislation that the Governor signed into law on September 14, which includes Cal Cities’ requested amendments.
  • Climate resiliency and disaster preparedness: Cal Cities secured $180 million in the state budget for organic waste recycling programs, which will go a long way towards helping advance our shared city and state priority to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Cal Cities also had a seat at the table for a landmark recycling bill, SB 54, that became law this year. SB 54 requires all single-use plastics to be recyclable or compostable by the next decade.

But our work is not finished. While we celebrate the progress on our advocacy priorities, we continue to face challenges in the Legislature and at the ballot box that threaten local funding for local services and our land use authority.

As your president, I am committed to spending time in the State Capitol, building relationships with legislators, particularly the 35 incoming lawmakers, to advance our legislative priorities and uphold local control. But this work will require a unified voice. It will take working together for all of our cities to be stronger and our advocacy to be more effective.

To uphold our unwavering commitment to expand and protect local control, the Board directed Cal Cities to establish near-, mid- and long-term strategies, including exploring the feasibility of a ballot measure that fights back against the continual erosion of local control by the Legislature and Administration. And at this year’s conference, the membership directed us to work through our committee process to review a potential ballot measure.

Staff have already begun this important but difficult work. Designing, qualifying and passing ballot measures in California — particularly a constitutional amendment — is no small undertaking and certainly no guarantee. It takes months of policy research, polling, legal analysis, coalition building, fundraising and other deliberations to construct a policy that meets the goals of the organization, while also meeting the approval of California’s diverse electorate.

And it takes even more to actually win at the ballot. In 2022, gathering signatures to qualify a constitutional amendment cost between $10-16 million. The cost for 2024 could be greater. And running a campaign to pass a measure takes many tens of millions of dollars more to educate California’s 20 million voters. In fact, the average winning ballot campaign spent more than $50 million in the 2020 election cycle. Clearly, Cal Cities cannot go it alone. It will take a broad coalition and extensive evaluation to determine if there is a viable path to success.

Toward that end, the Board also instructed Cal Cities to engage in a campaign against the deceptively named “Taxpayer Protection and Government Accountability Act”. Backed by the California Business Roundtable, the measure adopts new and stricter rules for raising taxes, fees, assessments and property-related fees. It also creates new ways to challenge or repeal these revenue-raising measures that disrupt fiscal certainty and local services. This measure directly challenges our mission to safeguard local control.

The California Business Roundtable has raised more than $16 million and submitted 1,429,529 signatures to try to qualify this measure. It is likely to qualify for the November 2024 statewide ballot. We anticipate the business coalition will raise tens of millions more to push the measure in 2024.

We know what it will take to be successful at the ballot: tens of millions of dollars and a strong coalition of allies. We’ve already started building the coalition to oppose this measure and are working with very powerful groups: SEIU California, California Professional Firefighters, California Special Districts Association, California State Association of Counties, AFSCME California, the California Alliance for Jobs and more.

If and when this measure qualifies, we will need city officials to be all in to oppose this measure, spread the word and raise the funds it will take to defeat it.

As I start my new term, the bottom line is that the state of Cal Cities is strong. I am confident that we will rise and respond to our challenges this year as we’ve been doing for over 120 years. It is an honor to lead this organization and the important work we will do in the year ahead.

Ali Sajjad Taj was first elected to the Artesia City Council in December 2013, and served as mayor December 2016-17, and 2019-20. Throughout his tenure on the city council, Taj has focused his time and energy on improving day-to-day quality of life issues for Artesia residents by supporting improved lighting, street quality, and traffic safety, while being an advocate for bringing new businesses to the city, both to generate revenue for city services and to provide new amenities for residents.

Council Member Taj currently serves on several internal and external committees representing Artesia as a member of many regional boards and committees, including as board member and membership committee chair for California Contract Cities Association, and as vice chair for the Eco-Rapid Transit Orange Line Development Authority of Los Angeles County.

He has been actively involved with the League of California Cities for many years, and serves on the League of California Cities Asian Pacific Islander Caucus board, as well as the Public Safety Policy Committee, and Finance Committee.

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