Accentuate the positive: Cities target aftermath of Bell

As scandals tarring officials at the city of Bell began emerging in newspaper probes two years ago, municipal authorities across California felt the fallout. A suspicious public wondered whether Bell’s problems – pension boosting, voter fraud, expense abuse, salary spiking – had seeped into other cities as well.

“After the Bell experience, we realized how quickly one actor in one city could create the false impression about what city government is like,” said Chris McKenzie of the League of California Cities, which represents almost all of the state’s 482 cities.

Bell wasn’t alone – Southgate, Vernon and Maywood, among others, also came in for their own brand of public criticism. The hugely inflated salaries of the city manager and others in Bell became widely known, but fiscal scandals weren’t the only problems. Economic downturns, political woes, traffic issues, police actions, pension flaps and crumbling infrastructure, among many other issues, all routinely get attention in towns up and down the state.

So the League partnered up with California’s city managers to create an initiative called “Strong Cities, Strong State,” a sort of communications broadside aimed at combating the aftermath of the Bell meltdown while offering a positive view of cities generally.

It’s part PR push, part information campaign and part promotion, but it’s drawing traction among the cities, which feel they need all three.

Nearly a hundred cities have been profiled on the Strong Cities, Strong State web site since the program was launched last August and more are coming. The program hopes to have all 482 cities profiled over 18 months. The profiles include such positive things as local success stories, road improvements, special events, local officials’ and descriptions of the job of city managers – topics that the cities believe don’t make it into the public consciousness.

The project “tells the story of these everyday successes, and the people behind them,” according to the web site.

Like the state, the local governments often face public skepticism, but the cities may be better positioned to present their case. Local elected officials typically score higher in job-performance ratings. Unlike the Capitol, which is institutionally remote from most Californians and home of the deeply disliked Legislature, the cities are closer to residents and can respond faster.

At least, that’s the theory.  

“Actually 99 percent of what goes on is succeeding, but the (media) focus is always on what’s failing,” McKenzie said. “Our desire is to find a way to help people better understand that California can only be strong if city governments and their communities are strong.”

From Adelanto to Yucca, the idea is to let the cities put their best foot forward not only to combat the Bell aftertaste, but to target the other problems as well.  

The League’s partner, the non-profit California City Management Foundation, has been around for a quarter century, providing services and support to city executives. The Foundation program has been familiar to municipal insiders but virtually unknown to the public.

“And then the Bell thing happened and we got thrown into the limelight,” said Wade McKinney, who had been named Foundation president just days before the Bell scandal broke. “City managers all of a sudden had a bad reputation and all of a sudden the city manager was an evil person,” said McKinney, the city manager of Atascadero.

But by reaching out to the “state lawmakers, the public and our own colleagues,” he said “we’ve had a really positive response.”

One index of the burgeoning, widespread interest in city managers: Seventy percent of the web hits on city managers have occurred in the past year, according to McKinney.

As interest and engagement in local government develops, the hope is that the public will become more cognizant of state government as well. But it has to start somewhere.

“We know all politics are local,” McKinney said.

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