By Matthew Kredell
Marco Barcena worked in local government doing administrative work for 15 years before getting elected as a council member for the City of Bell Gardens last year. Shortly after retiring from a career in the aerospace industry, George K. Chen decided last year to run for the City of Torrance council.
One had lengthy experience as a public servant and the other a private leader, but they weren’t politicians and entering that world felt like moving to a foreign country where they didn’t understand the language.
They wanted to do good for their communities but didn’t know how to navigate the political landscape to get work done for their constituents, and it was frustrating.
That’s why they enrolled in the Local Leaders Academy, a collaboration between the USC Price School of Public Policy, California Community Foundation and Los Angeles County to equip local elected officials with strategies to further develop and refine their leadership skills and styles.
“Taking this on so suddenly was a challenge to me because I’m not entirely knowledgeable about politics and all the things that are related to it, such as negotiation and dealing with different personalities,” Barcena said. “So that was the attractive part of the program, to learn from people who have been in politics for a long time or have experience coaching elected officials.”
With USC Price celebrating its 90th year as a school, Dean Jack H. Knott remarked that the effort shown by the program to help local leaders better serve their communities fits perfectly with its original name as the USC School of Citizenship and Public Administration.
“One of the things of which I’m very proud about our school is that we’re very prominent academically, but we’re also very grounded in practice in the community,” Knott said. “The curriculum of the academy is designed for leaders in local government, and I truly believe it is local leadership where things happen in our country. It’s local leaders who get things done.”
The academy builds from our public service executive education offerings including our work through the Local Leaders Forum directed by USC Price Professor Frank Zerunyan (7-years), the LA County Executive Leadership Development Program (7-years) and National Conference of State Legislatures’ Legislative Staff Management Institute (15-years) directed by Paul Danczyk.
Zerunyan, longtime council member and former mayor of Rolling Hills Estates, co-ran the academy with Paul Danczyk, USC Price’s Director of Executive Education in Sacramento.
Zerunyan is proud of how the academy helps USC Price connect its reach to the practice and directly affect local communities.
“At USC Price, we’re accomplishing our mission of being transformative by making an impact at the local level, which I believe is the most important level of governance,” Zerunyan said. “I’m excited about this academy because we’re taking our local leaders and helping them to serve their constituents at the highest level possible to make communities better for all.”
The three-month program trained 26 local leaders, mostly city council members or mayors throughout Los Angeles County’s 88 cities, around four major themes: presence and social awareness, culture and decision-making, negotiation and influence, and change leadership.
Barcena attested that the negotiation and influence session had the biggest impact on him.
“If you told me this two years ago when I was working in local government, I would have laughed, but I think what resonates the most with council members here are simply the lessons on how to get along with each other,” Barcena said. “In my own council, the diversity of people and their backgrounds is huge, and the main challenge of being a council member is learning to work with others.”
Each session featured a component focused on Los Angeles County, including the voter system, budgets and Board of Supervisor priorities. At the beginning of each module, one of the directors talked to the participants about how they put to use lessons from the previous session.
“One of the things that really impressed me is how they took what they learned in the classroom and applied it for themselves,” Danczyk said. “When we come back for the next module, there’s a reflective period built in to hear what they have tried and how it worked. There’s that real application piece.”
Kimberly Cobos-Cawthorne of Montebello and Juan Carrillo of Palmdale valued the opportunity to hear what other council members are doing in their cities and consider how they might be able to apply such practices in their cities.
The California Community Foundation funded the academy as a pilot project to take place twice, in the fall and spring semesters. Academy administrator Eleni Mastorakos will soon be taking sign-ups for local officials to take part in the program for the spring.
The longer academy allowed the cohort to gel much more than they can in a two-day program.
“The major advantage to the longer academy is creating long-lasting relationships between local government officials among themselves, while also branding them as members of our Trojan family,” Zerunyan said.
“When they started the program, they didn’t really know each other,” Danczyk added. “They ended up becoming a tight community, and that was cool to watch.”
To learn about future Local Leaders Academy or Forum opportunities or about our executive education programs, visit priceschool.usc.edu/lla or contact Eleni Mastorakos, [email protected], 213.821.0406.