Retreat or Regroup?
By Jason Baran
Intergovernmental Relations, City of Tucson

Local governments have the greatest impact on the daily lives of Arizona residents and are the most responsive to an evolving vision for Arizona. Our elected leadership and staff believe this. It is our basic message to the rest of the world.
Local governments' core services - public safety, parks, water and land use - are essential to the stability, viability and livability of our communities. Regardless of size, our cities and towns and, to a statutorily lesser extent, counties exist to ensure the safety, security, value and enjoyment of our lives and property. Many of our constituents know that these are the things we do first and best.
Why, then, has the local government message lost credibility? Cities and towns have a few powerful and very effective champions who do their best to maintain sensible public policy that allows local elected officials and staff to respond to unique local situations. But to many statewide decision-makers, the mantras of public safety and quality of life have become cliché or worse: We have become the enemy.
The State Legislature has become increasingly unreceptive to the local governments that are serving their constituents. It follows that our message and our mission have lost favor and effect. State Shared Revenues, a voter-initiated program, is threatened annually. Each year, cities and towns are faced with many bills that would strip us of our ability to operate effectively.
We've been able to win many of these battles, but local governments' taxpayers are slowly losing the war.
A new paradigm for local governments' external relations should be developed to not only fight off these attacks, but also to fundamentally change the perception of local government among members of the public and our colleagues at the state and federal levels.
While each of our communities faces a unique set of dynamics, there seem to be a few areas where cities and towns should make stronger efforts so that local government can regain its status as a respected stakeholder in the development of Arizona's public policy.
Despite the barrage few face each year at the Capitol, we occasionally manage to score proactive victories. These are not accidental and are not merely crumbs of magnanimity from our legislative leadership. Local government gets wins when it can build strong coalitions with the private and non-profit sectors to advocate sound proposals. Many of our defensive victories occur in the same way.
Local governments' ability to partner with the private and non-profit sectors is powerful but these partnerships have proven ephemeral. Local government would be well served to create stronger alliances with the businesses and cultural organizations built on the foundation that local government helps business and community groups profit in their respective ways. For example, the strength of local government to provide a sound transportation system is good for business.
It may be that as government officials, we may need to undertake an effort to learn more about business and the non-profit sectors. By better understanding the language, practices and needs of our colleagues in other sectors, we can better address their concerns and be better partners. If our local leadership is able to form more permanent relationships with community groups, though we may occasionally disagree on isolated policies, our position in this state and our position at home will be greatly improved.
For the most part, if local government is drawn into a fight at the Legislature, it means that we have already lost. It is true that we may defeat these unfavorable bills, but that is often not the point. A stakeholder's first resort should not be the Legislature. An introspective look at how we do business locally could be a beneficial exercise. Not to call attention to our faults, but to attempt to resolve difficulties locally whenever possible. These good faith attempts will engender good will in the community and reserve our precious capital for more important, proactive efforts that will better serve our taxpayers.
These steps pair with a broader discussion with the entire political spectrum, including those considered to be on the wings, about goals for Arizona. What do Arizonans truly want to achieve, and where do we want to be in twenty years? By identifying Arizona's goals, local governments can find and articulate their appropriate roles as partners in achieving those goals.
Local government is important to the stability and viability of this State's economy. We must make strong efforts locally, as well as in the State offices, for our importance to reemerge. Our Mayors and Councils are a tremendous, underutilized resource. They represent perhaps the largest political network in Arizona and their ability to interact with the public is unparalleled. Our professional local government staff can educate the public on the real costs and consequences of legislation and policies that continually add to the already significant regulations and red tape in local government. It is our duty to explain how this legislation and these policies come to be, and who really pays for them.
Efforts to reach out and build lasting coalitions to resolve differences locally and to educate the public of our issues, while not easy, will benefit our communities and improve the way we do business. We will better serve our residents by being strong, respected stakeholders rather than being victims or, worse, the enemy to Arizona's cultural and economic progress.
Arizona City/County Management Association
1820 W. Washington Street
Phoenix, AZ 85007
Phone: (602) 258-5786
Fax: (602) 253-3874
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