Local Government Leaders Shine As They Tackle An Array of Tough Issues

November 22, 2019 by Dan McCue
Providence, Rhode Island City Councilmember Nirva LaFortune is among the winners of this year's New Ideas Challenge contest presented by NewDeal Leaders. The organization is currently holding its annual conference at the Westin City Center.

WASHINGTON – Given the current political polarization in Washington, state and local policy makers are stepping up like never before to craft effective and innovative solutions to an array of tough issues.

On Thursday, The NewDEAL, a national network of state and local elected officials, honored five of their own for effecting real, positive change in the well-being and quality of life of those who live in their communities.

The winners of the NewDEAL’s 2019 Ideas Challenge were announced at the organization’s annual leaders conference, which is being held at the Westin City Center in Washington through Friday.

The winners were Mayor Christopher Cabaldon, of West Sacramento, Calif.;  Providence, Rhode Island City Councilmember Nirva LaFortune; Norfolk, Virginia City Councilmember Andria McClellan; Massachusetts State Senator Eric Lesser; and Columbus, Ohio City Councilmember Elizabeth Brown.

The honorees were selected from a pool of 15 finalists, all of whom made their local governments work more effectively to meet their respective communities needs.

“NewDEAL Leaders are charting a course for communities across the country with forward-looking solutions to our challenges, while embracing the keys to prosperity in the 21st century, rather than trying to turn back the clock to a different era,” said NewDEAL CEO Debbie Cox Bultan.

“Our winners have developed some of the most innovative ideas for making the new economy and government work for everyone. These ideas should inform policymakers in Washington and across the country who want to rise above the partisan fray to move the nation in the right direction,” she said.

Mayor Cabaldon told a rapt audience Thursday morning that transit ridership had been declining for years in West Sacramento, losing out to more expedient modes of transportation, while costs for the system continued to rise.

At the same time, he said, a sizable portion of the city’s population was actually asking it to provide more, not less service.

The city’s response, under Cabaldon’s leadership, was to create a first-of-its-kind micro-transit service that fills the gap between uber and the traditional bus to serve all members of the community, including youth, seniors and the disabled at a low flat-rate.

West Sacramento On-Demand began as a year-long pilot program in May. In partnership with New York based ride sharing company Via, the program allows users to book a ride in a six-passenger Mercedes-Benz van for rides starting at $3.50 ($1.75 for seniors).

In addition, most riders will be picked up within a block of their starting point. Door-to-door wheelchair accessible rides have also been made available.

Cabaldon said the initiative reaffirmed the city’s commitment “to provide residents of all ages with access to an array of transportation options.”

In addition, he said, the pilot program “will not only save residents money on gas and parking, but will also provide cleaner air, reduce congestion and promote overall livability.”

Innovative zoning

In Providence, Rhode Island, City Councilmember Nirva LaFortune found a lot of people were talking about issues related to housing, employment opportunities, and underutilized transportation corridors in the city, but few seemed to realize a comprehensive solution was needed or even warranted.

In response, she came up with the Transit Corridor Opportunity Program to incentivize “inclusionary” zoning for economic and housing development in transit corridors.

Her goals for the program are seemingly as vast as they are bold. Through the program she is fostering the creation of walkable and bikeable communities within the city limits, providing residents with access to affordable housing, transportation and jobs.

Once fully implemented, LaFortune sees the program helping to maintain mix-income housing and business development in focus areas supported by a high level of transit service.

Zoning was also the focus of the winning submission by Norfolk, Virginia City Councilmember Andria McClellan.

In McCellan’s case, however, the goal wasn’t economic revival and stability, but to ensure the city’s survival in the face of climate change and its resultant sea level rise.

Norfolk, a community with 144 miles of coast line, is already feeling the effects of that rise, with tidal flooding now regularly inundating areas, even on sunny days.

And because of climate change, the city is now planning for 1.5 feet of sea level rise by 2050, 3 feet by 2080 and 4.5 feet by 2100.

Recognizing that Norfolk needs to learn to “live with the water,” McClellan and her colleagues updated the city’s zoning code to encourage and require flood-resilient development.

Among its provisions are imposing elevated building requirements (between 16” to 3’ above base flood elevation); placing conservation easements on higher-risk properties, and limiting the expansion of parking and other impervious pavement.

The city has also come up with a resiliency quotient, a point-based system to help those building new developments mitigate climate-related risk.

Portable Benefits

Massachusetts State Senator Eric Lesser looked at the growth of the gig economy and immediately saw a problem: When people are employed as part-time workers or independent contractors, they are less likely to have access to traditional benefits and more likely to face financial and personal stress.

In response, Lesser introduced a bill in the Massachusetts state house that establishes the Portable Benefits for Independent Workers Innovation Fund and competitive grant program, a statewide program that will encourage employers and organizations to find innovative ways to provide this growing independent workforce with access to insurance and other benefits.

“The era of a 21-year-old or 22-year-old clocking into a company, signing up as a young person and checking out at 65 with a pension and having health care and steady wages and safe retirement at the end of it is not the reality most families are living anymore,” Lesser said.

The State Senator went on to say that the situation might actually be stifling innovation.

“There’s a lot of evidence entrepreneurship is tamped down because people feel they can’t leave their employer to start a business because they fear losing their health insurance,” Lesser said.

Educational Opportunity

Because her duties include being a member of the city’s Education and Recreation and Parks Committees, Columbus City Council Member Elizabeth Brown deals with the issues that confront young people on a daily basis.

As a result she knows that in Columbus, like many other cities, the zip code one is born in is the most predictive factor in the health, wealth, and life outcomes one can expect.

And this uneven playing field can manifest itself in the ability to attend college and lifetime earnings.

That’s why she became a prime mover behind ACCESS, also known as the Affordable College & Career Education Starts with Saving program.

Through the Columbus Recreation and Parks Department’s Applications for Purpose, Pride, and Success (APPS) program, young people ages 14-24 receive a job along with leadership and professional development, financial education, and mentoring.

Through the pilot eligible young people will also have access to an Individual Development Account (IDA) where up to $500 in savings will be matched 8:1 with a combination of city, private, and federal dollars, for a total of $4,500. Participants can use the funds for any eligible educational expense, including earning a certificate, to seek a four-year degree, or learn a trade.

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