Leadership at the National League of Cities: Q&A

August 20, 2019 - (25 min read)

On Monday, August 19th, the National League of Cities held a panel with three local elected officials to talk about the value and experience they each gained through holding a position within NLC. What follows is a transcript of their thoughtful testimony.

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Clarence Anthony, CEO and Executive Director, National League of Cities: Good afternoon! My name is Clarence Anthony, I’m CEO of the National League of Cities. Thank you for joining us today with this amazing panel which is going to talk about the National League of Cities and their experience with becoming engaged, involved and leading at the National League of Cities.

This is a very important conversation for those who are applying for and interested in being involved in NLC.

One quote that I often share—and the electeds can relate to this—is “Leadership is not about the next election, but the next generation.”

At the National League of Cities, the work that you do and our staff take that very seriously. Not only do we have an amazing panel of electeds, we have two of our senior executive team members joining this panel today to share their perspective on engaging.

We have Irma Esparza Diggs, our Senior Executive Director for Federal Advocacy. And we have Seantae Byers, our Senior Executive for Member and Partner Engagement.

[To the Panelists] I don’t want to introduce you, so I’d like to ask you to share a few thoughts about who you are, what you do and your role at the National League of Cities.

Mayor Wojahn, would you start by sharing your thoughts with us?

Patrick Wojahn, Mayor, City of College Park, Maryland: Sure. My name is Patrick Wojahn. I’m the Mayor of the City of College Park, Maryland, located just outside of Washington, DC and I’m in my fourth year as mayor. Before I was mayor, I served on the city council for about eight years, and I’ve been involved with the National League of Cities for most of my time in elected office.

I first started coming to the National League of Cities conferences—the NLC legislative conference—in 2010 and took on a variety of different roles: serving on the University Communities Council, the LGBTLO [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Local Officials] Officials, and the Board of Directors.

In 2016 I became chair of the Transportation and Infrastructure Services Committee, in part because transportation is a huge issue for us in my local community, and I had gotten involved locally in trying to solve this issue in the DC Metro.

And I’m now in my third year as an at large member of the Board of Directors of NLC.

Clarence Anthony: Thank you.

Councilmember Sayles, why don’t you introduce yourself to us as well?

Laurie-Anne Sayles, Councilmember, City of Gaithersburg, Maryland: Thank you, Clarence.

My name is Laurie-Anne Sayles and I’ve been a councilmember for two years now. I was first elected in 2017 and the National League of Cities annual conference was the first event that I attended as a councilmember.

I was immediately drawn to the Community and Economic Development Committee: most of my background was in community advocacy and community outreach work. The Community and Economic Development Committee was a natural home for me to really get involved and become more engaged with the National League of Cities.

“The National League of Cities provided the perfect vehicle to really make an impact, not just locally in the City of Gaithersburg, where we’re one of the fastest growing cities in the state, but on a national level.” – Councilmember Laurie-Anne Sayles

It really compounded the impact that I would have, not just locally, but as a member of a bipartisan organization, to be able to weigh-in on legislation and really form the agenda every year. It was the perfect vehicle, perfect entre into my role as a councilmember and really built upon what I could do at the local level.

Clarence Anthony: Thank you. Councilmember Polster?

Sean Polster, Councilmember, Town of Warrenton, Virginia: My name is Sean Polster, I’m an at-large Councilmember in the Town of Warrenton, Virginia and I got involved with the National League of Cities at the Nashville [City Summit] Conference.

I really got brought into the family there, and I really want to emphasize that the National League of Cities is a big family. It’s elected officials, it’s staff, it’s everybody that comes together for one common purpose. And when we talk about Warrenton, Virginia, we’re a small community.

But even though I’m at the National League of Cities, I don’t feel like a small community because we really are all equal. We have the same problems, the same concerns and we’re working towards the same goal.

I’ve been on the Board of Directors for the past several years; I’m on the Executive Committee; I’m a past Chair of the Public Safety and Crime Prevention Committee and I’m the Immediate Past President of APAMO [Asian Pacific American Municipal Officials].

“One of the things that the National League of Cities allows is for small communities like mine to have their voices heard with all the communities across the country. I’d welcome anybody in a leadership role here.” – Councilmember Sean Polster

Clarence Anthony: I think that is an interesting point you made, that we represent cities of all sizes. When I was an elected official involved in the National League of Cities, this was my lobbying staff, if you will, because they represented me in Washington, D.C. and this was the place that I learned about leadership and getting involved in leadership.

Mayor Wojahn, what was that moment, that takeaway moment when you found that you appreciated being involved and it brought value to your city and your community?

Mayor Wojahn: Being involved in the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, one thing I realize is that the National League of Cities brings together all the issues that we’re working on locally, the most important issues to our communities. It gives you a national pedestal to be able to advocate for those issues, for those concerns.

In particular, I’ll focus on one thing that we’ve been working in College Park: we’re making our community more walkable and bikeable. It was built up as an automobile-oriented suburb, but I mentioned the transportation challenges that we have in the region, and the more that we can enable people to get around without getting in their cars, the better for our community.

The National League of Cities has adopted a position in support of funding for local investment in bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, giving me the opportunity to represent not just College Park, but also the national network.

“I can reach out to my members of Congress—in particular one of my Senators, Ben Cardin, who has taken on a leadership role in advocating for funding for the Transportation Alternatives Program at a national level.” – Mayor Patrick Wojahn

And as I worked with his staff, I was able to show them what we’re doing in College Park, take them on a tour of what we’re working on and highlight the importance of this to our community, speaking not only on my behalf but on behalf of the network that has selected this as a priority through the National League of Cities.

So it gives you a national pedestal to highlight your own local issues and really enables you to draw the connection between how federal policy impacts our residents on the local level.

Clarence Anthony: I also think that as you participate on these panels and these committees, it’s amazing how the common issues are the same in cities all over America.

Councilmember Polster, you talked about the NLC family, the feeling that you get from being part of NLC, but one of the things that people always ask is how much time does it take to serve on committees and leadership?

Talk to us about how you balance family first, local leadership, state leadership, and then your role as a national leader.

Councilmember Polster: That’s a good point.

When growing up in a military family, I was always taught that you have to give back before you can take. So that’s what I do with my family, and I think that this organization is committed to that as well.

I think about the National League of Cities conference—my wife’s attended, my daughter’s attended.

[Pensacola City Council Vice President] P.C. Wu still remembers, “Hey, how’s Riley doing?” So again, you talked about family, this is a very welcoming organization to your family.

I think that as far as the work life balance goes, it again goes back to give back before you can take. I think that we all serve in the local level, not for us, but for our constituents. And this allows us to have that national pedestal to talk about local issues and share those issues with other individuals, too.

I think that it is a balance. The other thing I also want to say real quick is say that NLC staff makes it easier for us in leadership roles.

I can tell you, I was blown away when I did the Hill Day [at the Congressional City Conference], and I’m walking into a senator’s office and on the way in [Stephanie Martinez-Ruckman, NLC Program Director, Human Development] Stephanie’s saying, “Hey, he serves on this committee, this issue’s important to him.”

“I would say to anybody that that’s worried about the time commitment, is that you’re making your community better, you’re making your state better and you’re making our organization stronger as a whole by being part of a leadership team.” – Councilmember Sean Polster 

Clarence Anthony: Thank you for that. We do have a great team, and I’m so honored to work with them as well.

Council Member Sayles, hearing that story about this family and getting to know each other and the opportunity to work on the Hill, what inspired you to seek leadership? Get involved in the CED committee as a part of the National League of Cities?

Councilmember Sayles: What drew me to the committee is, I think I mentioned it before, the City of Gaithersburg is one of the fastest growing cities in this state.

We are also known as the BioTech Corridor, and so economic development is very important to how we build and how we envision the future of our community. So I thought it was very important for me to have a say in how we continue to grow.

When I learned about the Community Economic Development Committee and some of the issues that they advocated for, it felt like home. It really builds upon what we were doing at the local level.

So we’re focused on cradle to career and making sure that every member of our community can thrive. And that means having the right mix of businesses, the right mix of out of school opportunities.

And those are things that we can’t do at the local level, but we can partner with the National League of Cities and learn about after school programs and advocate for more funding for CDBG funding and the myriad of other issues that we can now not just focus on doing it alone.

We have municipal leaders from across the country who are experiencing the same things, and they are able to join in the advocacy for economic development resources and community programs that really strengthen our communities and make them a better place to live.

After I served a year as a member of the committee, I sought out membership Vice-Chair and I’ve enjoyed it.

“And as Councilmember Polster mentioned, the staff is incredible. The level of support that we receive in order to balance our families, our full-time jobs and our roles as city council members is phenomenal. And I don’t think we could have done it had we not had that infrastructure in place.” – Councilmember Laurie-Anne Sayles

Clarence Anthony: So you finished your first conference in Charlotte, then I saw you in March at the legislative [Congressional City] Conference.

You were pumped up and excited to go. Has it improved you professionally as well to be involved?

Councilmember Sayles: It definitely has.

I had relationships with my elected officials at the federal level before, through advocacy work locally in our county, but now coming to them and wanting to partner with them to help them get their legislation passed through was just another level to our relationship.

Knowing that I can be not just a constituent asking, but actually a partner in getting important legislation that will trickle down to the local level where the impact is the greatest. Just having that new relationship to build upon was just even more helpful in advocating on other issues that come up on the local level.

Clarence Anthony: Let me ask the Mayor and Councilmember Polster: has this helped you back home, the league, at all being involved at the national level?

Mayor Wojahn:Absolutely. 100% yeah.

I mentioned the work with the Transportation and Infrastructure Services Committee. I was also involved the University Communities Council, which as a university community in College Park, we look for other university communities for best practices and ideas.

Anybody can come to the National League of Cities conferences and be involved in that way, but being in leadership helps you actually set what the agenda is, helps you actually decide what’s going, what the priorities in the National League of Cities are going to be so that you can look at what your community’s greatest needs are and then help to shape the national conversation in a much deeper way.

Councilmember Polster: I agree.

“I think one of the things that the National League of Cities does best is strengthen local elected officials through the National League of Cities University, through the networking, through the programs.” – Councilmember Sean Polster

It could be the CVS Prescription Drug Program, it could be the NLC Service Line Warranty Program. You’re connecting our stakeholders and our other local electeds to help communities that don’t have those resources, that don’t have the lobbying power. I do think it’s been a huge benefit for our community.

Clarence Anthony:Let me turn to our senior executive team experts on the panel.

A lot of times there’s these questions, these most frequently asked questions about being involved or becoming a leader at NLC. I’m going to start with you Seantae. What are the eligibility or requirements that a local leader needs to have in order to become a share or in leadership at the National League of Cities?

Seantae Byers, NLC Senior Executive Director, Member and Partner Engagement: That’s a really good question.

“I think the first thing is that a local elected official would have to be in good standing with their State Municipal League.” – Seantae Byers

So as long as their membership is intact with their league, that automatically allows them to become a member of the National League of Cities and then puts them in a position to be able to seek out leadership opportunities.

I think having the opportunity to get involved in your League—and I was listening to some of our panelists—they all mentioned at some point in time League engagement. I think that’s a great preparation for you to then come to the national stage.

I also believe that having a very strong interest in either one of the categories for our Federal Advocacy Committees, our Member Councils or even our Constituency Groups will allow you to set the agenda for an organization that can really help local elected officials and local municipalities across the country to solve certain issues as well.

Lastly, I would say having an understanding of the National League of Cites. I think national leadership is attractive to a lot of people, but how well do you know the organization? How well do you know your fellow colleagues that are in the organization? Some of the programs that Sean talked about, some of the committees that were mentioned here. How well do you know those things that will inform you as you take the opportunity to apply for leadership?

Clarence Anthony: So the size of the city, in order to become share or serve on a board, do you have to be Elkhart, Indiana—

Seantae Byers: One of the greatest cities in the country.

City size, or I should say, local municipal size doesn’t matter. You could be a village, you could be a town, you could be a borough. You can be a city council member or the mayor in, we’ll say New York or you can be, the mayor or council member of a city like Elkhart, Indiana, or even smaller. So in that case, size does not matter, it’s not a qualifier to be a part of leadership.

Clarence Anthony:So great things come from places like South Bay, Florida.

Seantae Byers: [Joking] I’ve never heard of South Bay.

Clarence Anthony: So next Irma, why don’t we talk about service on the Federal Advocacy committee? Because usually that’s the route. There are so many routes into leadership at NLC, whether it’s Constituency Groups, Councils, all of those areas.

But our seven Advocacy Committees is a place that a lot of folks find their place. Are we making an impact serving on that committee? Can you make an impact on Washington?

Irma Esparza-Diggs, NLC Senior Executive Director, Federal Advocacy:
Most definitely, the answer is yes.

There are seven Advocacy Committees and they are organized by issue area. So depending on your area of expertise, or an area in which you would like to become an expert in, we have a Committee for it.

The seven policy committees meet three times a year, and so you have an opportunity throughout that year to not just set the priorities for the national organization, the federal priorities, but react to what is taking place in Washington that you want to make sure our National Municipal Policy addresses.

“The best way that I like to think about it, and what we as the lobbying team in the federal advocacy department use as our basis to set our advocacy platform, is just to look at what’s happening in individual communities.” – Irma Esparza-Diggs

Like Mayor Wojahn said, biking and pedestrian infrastructure was important to that community.

What is happening in your community that should be addressed federally?

What is being discussed federally that you need to know about and be able to share your local perspective on?

In addition to the Advocacy Committees setting the advocacy platform for the national organization, it’s also making sure that the federal government understands, and members of Congress understand, the policy discussions that they are having, the policy debate of the legislation that’s being drafted.

What’s the real impact of those discussions on local communities across the country? Our policy committee members are the first people, the first line of defense that we go to, to be able to have those conversations with members of Congress and key Capitol Hill staff that are actively writing that legislation and looking for feedback from cities, towns and villages on the actual policy implications.

Clarence Anthony: I’m going back to my question for Councilmember Polster, on balancing local commitments.

How much time commitment to a leader will serving on this committee take?

Irma Esparza-Diggs: The first priority is for chairs and vice-chairs to lead each one of these respective policy committees. That happens three times a year.

And those calendars, those dates and times are preset. So you can build those into your calendar for the year so you know what’s coming and more importantly that you can budget accordingly.

“We work a lot via email, teleconference, webinars to be able to connect with our Advocacy Committee members. We like to give as much notice as possible to the Committee Members so that they can plan accordingly.” – Irma Esparza-Diggs

But if there’s something that’s breaking on the Hill for which we don’t have policy for or we would like more information for, we will most often set up a conference call and the respective staff member will follow up with all of those who were able to join and those not able join, just to make sure that they could still participate.

Clarence Anthony: Great. Irma you talked about leadership chairs and vice-chairs and them being members.

Seantae, in your role over membership as a part of the organization, talk to us about the difference between the leadership application process and the membership application process because they are distinct.

Seantae Byers: Absolutely.

I’ll start by saying that there are two separate times to be able to apply for each.

The first thing that people may have noticed that’s out on our website now is the ability to be able to apply for leadership within the National League of Cities.

So that means if you are applying to be a part of the Board, you’re applying to be a Chair or Vice-Chair of any of our Advocacy Committees or any of our Member Councils or the president of one of our Constituency Groups, so this is really specific to those roles alone.

Once that application period closes, we’ll then open the opportunity for folks to apply for general membership. So that’s anybody that wants to be a part or participate in our Federal Advocacy Committees and our Member Councils or in a Constituency Group. It’s not that you’re seeking a leadership position where you’ll be able to set the agenda, as the mayor talked about previously, but it’s more so of being a voice for the general body of each one of those respective groups.

Clarence Anthony: So Irma, another question we get often is that members are just so excited to get involved that they want to be on everything and every committee. Can I serve on more than one Advocacy Committee?

Irma Esparza-Diggs: So, unfortunately our policy committees all meet at the same time. So if you can figure out how to clone yourself, the answer is yes. But we have not been able to figure that out and there are members who have tried.

To be honest with you, the best way for you to engage is to choose one committee. That doesn’t preclude you from choosing another committee of service in the future.

You asked me about time commitment. Our meetings, one thing I do want to say is our meetings are set well in advance, but typically our Congressional City Conference takes place in March here in Washington, our summer Board and Leadership meeting takes place during the month of June, and our fall meeting, which is our City Summit, takes place in the month of November and those rotate.

But that would be the time requirement and you would be able to attend in-person at any one of those meetings, and hopefully all three.

Seantae Byers: Clarence, just to add, we also encourage you to get involved in other Constituency Groups and other Councils. Although there is that time commitment with Federal Advocacy, you can apply for multiple different roles, so you still have the opportunity to lend your voice and your leadership through Member Council opportunities.

We don’t necessarily meet at the same time as far as the meetings, but they’ll be in the same place. So that’s another opportunity to reach out and connect.

Clarence Anthony: So to our panel, one last question that I have: what kind of advice would you give to a local elective that is interested in getting involved and becoming a leader? Councilmember Polster, I’ll start with you.

Councilmember Polster: 

“Don’t hesitate to jump in.” – Councilmember Sean Polster

It’s a great environment, it’s a welcoming environment. If you’re worried about not having the knowledge, not having the prerequisite skills of being able to jump to that chairman role, staff’s able to assist.

Previous chairs are more than happy to help you. Current members—I know current members of the Public Safety [Committee] that’ve been there longer than I’ve been an elected official. And they were very eager to help me meet that goal. So again, going back to being a family. Everybody will help build you up to serving your goal.

Clarence Anthony:Councilmember Sayles?

Councilmember Sayles: I would say get started at your local municipality, your local Municipal League.

Make sure that you have an understanding of where you want to make an impact, if you want to join one of the Federal Advocacy Committees. I thought it was very helpful to join the Committee before I applied for leadership, so you get to know the community members.

Everyone serves as a mentor, whether being a new member of the city council, the National League of Cities or a seasoned member, so there’s just a wealth of information.

I think once you find out what you’re interested in, you can apply for the leadership role and if it’s not a good fit, you can always try one of the other Committees or one of the Constituency Groups. There’s a myriad of opportunities for you to get involved.

Mayor Wojahn: I would say there’s a lot of different ways that you can contribute to and get involved with the National League of Cities.

“Find what your passion is and learn more about it, and get involved in different ways. I think it’s great to jump right in, but it’s also good to test the waters in different ways and try out different things and see what’s really the best fit for you.” – Mayor Patrick Wojahn

I also think it’s impossible for one person to do everything that you might want to do with the National League of Cities, but that’s why you have your colleagues here.

Colleagues in your state, your colleagues in your own community, as your fellow elected officials.

One important part of being a leader within the National League of Cities is being able to bring in other people and sort of preach the gospel of the National League of Cities—of national coordination, and how we all are stronger together as a group.

So think about how you can bring in people from your communities to also get involved with NLC.

Clarence Anthony: From my team, any advice? First time someone wants to get involved.

Seantae Byers: I would echo the sentiments that were just described. A lot of the organizations connected leverage the network, and then have a passion that helps you serve in two ways that you can be a voice not just for your community, but you can also be a voice at the national level for communities across the nation.

Irma Esparza-Diggs: Really look at what the priorities of your community, that you have for your community, that your community has for itself.

If broadband and bringing broadband to your community is a key priority, even if you don’t have an expertise in it, the Information and Technology Committee might be the place for you. To better understand what federal resources are available for local governments to expand broadband, that’s a place you would go to.

But also to get an understanding of how other cities go about bringing broadband to their communities, in the event that there isn’t an existing network and be able to share what those best practices are, and more importantly, how a local government has gone about financing that for themselves.

“I think regardless of what area you choose, issue area, you can always make an impact and bring something home from each and every respective interaction with NLC.” – Irma Esparza-Diggs

Clarence Anthony: And I think that’s a great way to conclude: this is about making impact.

The information that we’re providing today is information that will help you to navigate your leadership opportunities with the National League of Cities.

But please remember, leadership applications close September the 24th.

September the 24th is your opportunity to become a leader in the National League of Cities. And finally, I’ll just tell you that you can apply at nlc.org/lead, nlc.org/lead. I got to say, thank you all so much.

I’ve been in this job almost seven years and I learn something every time I hear about the way in which you can become a leader.

If you really want to improve your community and lead your community, I agree: get involved with the National League of Cities and you’ll be able to take things back, ideas back to your community that will help you lead your community even better. Thank you again for joining us!

Serving in a leadership position as an NLC Board Member, Officer, Chair, or Member is one of the most rewarding ways for you as a municipal leader to bring your expertise to the service of cities, towns and villages at the national level.

Learn more about the leadership roles you can apply for!