Leaping Into the Spotlight

Don't have the time or talent to build your own electronic-commerce application? Now you can buy one.

by / September 30, 1999
Abraham Lincoln once said, "In all that people can individually do as well for themselves, government ought not to interfere."

We're pretty sure Lincoln wasn't thinking of information technology at the time. But the thought could certainly apply today. Honest.

Skip forward more than a century, to when Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill was in his prime as a politician. "All government is local," he said. Local government officials couldn't agree more.

Stop, Drop and Rolls

Through the power of devolution, federal mandates such as welfare reform are now the responsibility of cities and counties. During a time when the buck stops here, the reality is that government starts and stops at the local level.

"I think, oftentimes, people relate to the fact that local government is where it all begins and certainly is where it stops," said Betty Lou Ward, a Wake County, N.C., commissioner and immediate past president of the National Association of Counties (NACo). "It's sort of like a birth and death kind of thing if you look at the responsibilities of local government, particularly counties."

But while that means people at the state and national levels are finally listening to what local governments have to say, officials with the smaller entities still have to act independently.

"I think there is a real recognition that the federal government has certain responsibilities, and what we ask as local-government officials is for legislation that the Congress and the president think should be law, that if they do pass it, there should be funds given to the local governments to implement it," said Clarence Anthony, president of the National League of Cities (NLC) and mayor of South Bay, Fla. "There -- and I've said this before -- is a lot of great legislation that becomes bad legislation when money is not attached to it and it is sent down to the local officials to implement the effort.

"As it relates to welfare reform specifically, I think that any American would agree that we

The Big 7

The Big 7, as it is known in Washington, D.C., is a collection of organizations representing state and local government officials.

At the state level are the National Conference of State Legislatures, the National Governors' Association and the Council of State Governments, with the National Association of State Information Resource Executives serving as the technology arm for states.

Local governments are represented by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the International City/County Management Association, the National League of Cities and the National Association of Counties. The technology arm for the local government associations is Public Technology Inc., which, along with many other groups, is based in Washington, D.C.

need to do something and reform our system, but just getting people off of the
welfare rolls is not enough," Anthony said. "The second leg of that is how we get them into lifelong learning jobs, which include jobs which have to give them skills in technology. We just can't give them jobs at McDonald's or Burger King or Wendy's; we must give them jobs with benefits and child care attached to them. So that's the kind of sensitivity that local government officials and people who have to actually implement the legislation take into consideration. That's why we try to do as much as we can in Washington, D.C., as a Big 7 organization."

Hot Fun in the Summertime

The local government organizations have been busy lately, in Washington, D.C., and nationwide. In fact, when the NLC holds its annual Congress of Cities in Los Angeles from Nov. 30 to Dec. 4, it will conclude one of the busiest years, if not the most turbulent, that local governments have experienced in quite a long time.

The year began on an ominous note when the Advisory Commission on Electronic Commerce (ACEC) was formed following the passage of the Internet Tax Freedom Act in October 1998. But the 16-member commission, instead of eight industry representatives and eight state and local government officials, saw industry enjoy a 9-6 advantage with one private citizen -- a former South Dakota legislator -- completing the mix. Making matters worse was that of the six government appointees, only one -- Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk -- was from the local level. Letters to the president and congressional leaders preceded a March 8 lawsuit from NACo and the U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM), which said that not only must the industry-government ratio be even, but also that local government needed to have a bigger say in matters. The suit threatened to push back the scheduled June 21 and 22 meeting of the advisory commission. But the stalemate broke on April 27, when former Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale resigned and Delna Jones, a commissioner from Washington County, Ore., was added to the ACEC.

"I feel proud of the fact that as a result of bringing the lawsuit forward against Congress that we were successful in getting some people on Capitol Hill to listen to us," Ward said. "That was a positive."

Another positive was a summit held in early June in Chapel Hill, N.C. The Summit on Governance in a Technological Millennium, featuring nearly 100 government officials, was cosponsored by NACo, NLC, the International City/County Management Association and Public Technology Inc. Held in Orange County, just outside of Ward's jurisdiction, the summit emphasized a spirit of "coopetition" between the different organizations. Outsiders -- those not part of the sponsoring groups -- suggested concepts to give local governments a greater voice in the Big 7, and the Big 7 a greater role in Washington, D.C.

The USCM was not a summit sponsor -- probably because its annual conference was the following week in New Orleans. In some ways, for Kirk, the annual event served as a precursor to the first ACEC meeting later that month. Like many others, Kirk opposed the passage of the Internet Tax Freedom Act because of its impact on public services. With more people shopping online and not paying taxes, local stores are feeling the financial pinch, as are local governments, who may have to find other ways to provide needed public services.

"We have to explain that when you are sitting at home in your virtual world and you have a short [circuit] and a fire breaks out, do you want us to send a virtual fire truck or a real, big red fire truck?" the Dallas mayor said in New Orleans. "It doesn't matter if it's a 10 percent difference, 5 percent or even a 2 percent difference, we need to have a tax in order to maintain public services," he said in July after the first ACEC meeting. The second was held last month in New York City, with the final two slated to be in San Francisco in December and in Dallas in March, just a month before the commission's final report is to be issued.

July gave NACo another chance to shine as that organization's 64th annual convention was held in St. Louis. Ward passed the gavel to C. Vernon Gray, a commissioner from Howard County, Md., less than an hour's drive from the NACo headquarters in Washington, D.C. That is serving Gray well, as his presidential platform is focused on economic development, including the use of any available technology to help the cause, and he is able to speak from the NACo offices to a nation of county officials.

From All Angles

Two things local government organizations have going for them is the ethnic diversity of their leadership, and people who have a strong interest in information technology. In fact, this is the first time in U.S. history that all of the public-interest groups at the local level have African Americans as president, something not lost on the elected officials.

Take Clarence Anthony, for example. He is the mayor of South Bay, Fla., a city with a population of 4,300. It's extremely rare for a mayor of a city that size to be able to sit across from the president or vice president of the United States and be candid about government. But when you're the president of the National League of Cities, well, membership has its privileges. Waiting in the wings to serve as president in 2001 is fellow African American Dennis Archer, mayor of Detroit. By coincidence, NLC First Vice President Bob Knight, mayor of Wichita, Kan., gave the NLC's advisory board the task of reviewing racism for the 1999 session.

Howard County, Md., Commissioner Vernon Gray is president of the National Association of Counties, and in two years, Santa Fe County, N.M., Commissioner Javier Gonzales, currently NACo's first vice president, is slated to take over the reins.

Denver Mayor Wellington Webb recently took over as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Fellow African American Ron Kirk, mayor of Dallas and the lone city person on the Advisory Commission on Electronic Commerce, serves on the USCM's advisory board and chairs that organization's Standing Committee on Urban Economic Policy.

PTI also plays into the mix as Costis Toregas is the longtime president of that organization and the chief operating officer is Tom McCloud, an African American who previously worked for the National League of Cities. Finishing up a four-year stint on PTI's board is Valerie Lemmie, city manager of Dayton, Ohio. Lemmie is on track to become president of the National Forum for Black Public Administrators, for which she is currently secretary/treasurer.

Critical Time

Local government officials believe the concept of "coopetition" emphasized at the Summit on Governance in a Technological Millennium is what's needed now. And not just among the local governments, but also between the local, state and federal governments.

"It's been an uphill struggle in some ways because it's oftentimes difficult for individuals on the national or state level to understand how important and how timely it is for someone on the local level to be able to deal with any situation," Ward said. "Whether it's a welfare recipient or some other form of government entity, the bottom line is we have pushed that very thing in terms of this is really where the buck stops. I truly believe that there are individuals on the national or state level that are listening to us now."

But, with few exceptions, they may not be listening in terms of what technology is needed now, or where technology is going to be needed in the future.

"I think there are some individuals who do understand the dilemma we are in, in terms of delivering the services, and they do listen," Ward said. "I do believe, in time, that technology will take care of itself in that respect, if you just look at technology and how rapidly it's advancing. But in terms of technology, and getting people to listen to us, we still have a ways to go.

"Everything is happening so quickly," she added. "The technology is changing and many people are grasping the idea and making it a part of their everyday life. Others have not yet done so, and so I think the challenge is there."

The NLC's Anthony concurred.

"In the last four or five years [local] public-interest groups in the Big 7 have recognized that we are very strong organizations on behalf of our citizens, and that if we pull together on issues then we will be able to have a more significant impact on national public policy, be it e-commerce issues, national technology issues, Y2K lawsuit legislation, any of those issues," he said. "If we band together, then we will be a very strong, formidable team that the private sector would have to respect and use as a resource to go through.

"In addition, we have been able to get executive orders out of President Reagan,

President Bush and President Clinton that require that any agency laws or regulations that are being crafted must go through or be noticed by our national organizations," he added. "What I think is happening is a recognition that it's not always about campaign contributions, it's more so about the real interest of Americans, and that we represent citizens on the state, federal and local levels."

Tod Newcombe Features Editor