SCLPC Education Features

From Activist to Policymaker: Now What?

by Bill Britt
The Latino Policy Connection

AR-302099951“I still consider myself an activist.”

Oscar Magaña – Mayor, City of Maywood

Self-proclaimed community activist Oscar Magaña didn’t expect to lose friends when he won a seat on the Maywood City Council in 2011, but that’s exactly what happened when some of the people who encouraged him to run realized he wasn’t going to deliver for them.

“My transition into office was probably more difficult for them than it was for me. There are people who knocked on doors for me who don’t talk to me today because they wanted a favor or something that I knew, morally, I wasn’t going to do.”

That’s the first splash of ice-cold reality that typically hits newly-elected policymakers. The second and far more harsh awakening is the realization that they’re now part of an organization that functions with a specific set of rules. They’re reluctant to admit they don’t know what those rules are, let alone understand them. Which is why they should take a few cues from predecessors like Magaña, who didn’t hesitate to ask for help the moment he achieved the status of Insider. “I formed a relationship with people I could trust, who’ve been in office much longer than I have,” he says. “I looked to people like Aide Castro for advice.”

images“You can’t be on the dais protesting.”

Aide Castro – Councilmember, City of Lynwood


Aide Castro, elected to the Lynwood City Council in 2007, has been around long enough to recognize the pitfalls of former activists who are more accustomed to confrontation than compromise. “If you learn the rules for addressing your colleagues and understand protocol, you can still push an agenda but you can’t be on the dais protesting at city council meetings.”

“I can see where she’s going with this, regarding certain people who continue to be combative,” says Huntington Park Mayor Karina Macias, who’s been Mayor for the past two months and a City Council Member since 2012. “I always extended an olive branch and showed up with an open mind. But I wasn’t going to vote ‘yes’ on council matters for the sake of voting ‘yes.’ I stood my ground on issues that I knew were important to the community at that time.” In fact, she says her early years were mirror images of Magaña’s experiences. “I lost a few friends as well. I sat down with a constituent who actually did not want me to associate with another council member and I said, ‘Look. She’s my colleague. I have to talk to her!’”


“I always extended an olive branch…”

Karina Macias – Mayor, City of Huntington Park


Based on council member Castro’s observations over the years, Mayor Macias’ willingness to engage is a welcome exception to the norm. According to Castro, there’s “a trust issue among the elected and the staff,” but the first people newly-electeds should trust are city managers. She doesn’t mince words when asked to explain the importance of city mangers to new officer-holders.

“If you go to your city managers, or at least get them on the phone once a week and ask questions before the next city council meeting, you can avoid spending time on the dais asking those questions. You think you sound smart, but you don’t. You’re just frustrating the hell out of everyone else who’s there trying to get things done.”

tn-blr-south-gate-gives-flad-215000-contract-2-001Mike Flad, the City Manager for South Gate, has an administrative career that dates back 30 years, mostly with the city of Burbank. “I’ve put in 50 to 60 hours a week for decades, and I’ve seen everyone benefit when newly-elected people meet with city managers on a regular basis. “Let’s say you want to reduce unemployment and you believe building an employment center in your community would be a huge step in that direction. It’s totally appropriate to go to your city manager and ask, ‘How do I get there as a council member? Where do I start?’”

imgres-1Castro suggests they start with their own staff. “Discuss your idea with them and have them gather all the research. Then, go to your city manager and explain that you want to put it on the council’s agenda. Your staff’s recommendation will state that you’re either agreeing with it, or you’re asking for the council’s direction. This way, when you go to council meetings you’re presenting solutions rather than complaining about problems.”  

“I saw all the arguing going on before I was elected and I didn’t like it,” says council member Magaña. “While some people were saying I was too young and inexperienced for office, they didn’t realize I planned on being the most mature person there. If I took office and started arguing with people and not listening to others, they would’ve said, ‘See! He’s too young and inexperienced!'”

That’s not to say he arrived with the air of a soothing diplomat. “At first it was a little difficult understanding there are certain things you can’t say as an elected official because you represent the entire community.” He also learned some of the rules and protocol during his activist years, but he admits “there was a lot of trial and error involved” when he got into office.

Oscar-Magaña-en-una-escuela-561x375Ironically, Magaña’s first year was complicated by a compliment. “I was appointed Vice Mayor by my colleagues. My second and third year they appointed me Mayor.” City Manager Flad explains why that’s a complicated twist for new office-holders. “There’s a difference between attending a meeting and running a meeting. When you’re a council member you’re focused on the issue. When you’re the mayor you’re responsible for making sure the process that’s followed is going to be legally binding, and you’re trying to advocate your own position while you’re doing that.”

“Most newly-elected officials have never helped run an organization with a 100-million dollar budget and several hundred employees.” And as Flad points out, when that organization is a city, the smallest misstep can derail the best-laid plans. “You have to make sure the procedure is done right so that new law you’ve just created isn’t thrown out because you didn’t follow the rules.”

Says Flad, “city managers can explain those rules for you. Getting elected requires one set of skills. Governing requires another. There’s a lot of knowledge out there that needs to be shared.”

Hi-Tech Classrooms with Low Budgets

by Bill Britt
The Latino Policy Connection

education freeze

School administrators who think limited budgets prevent them from putting the latest learning technology in their classrooms can learn a lesson or two – actually, three lessons – from Paul De La Cerda, a Southern California Latino Policy Center board member and a Trustee at the Saugus Union School District in Santa Clarita.

Back in 2008, Saugus Unified did something that’s still considered remarkable today. After receiving a federal grant to provide laptops to every 4th grader in the district, students’ test scores skyrocketed in just fourth months. Equally impressive was the new software that included a unique translation feature that let English language learners receive feedback and corrections in their native language.

“It’s never too early to introduce them to the technology they’ll be required to use in the workforce,” De La Cerda says. “As a career technical education administrator, I’m looking at how we’re using technology to support industry demand.”

education freeze2

So, how do you get technology in classrooms when the B-word, “budget” seems to put a damper on those efforts? The answers lie in De La Cerda’s aforementioned three lessons; his 3-step plan for policymakers looking to bring classrooms into the 21st Century.

“Step one is to form a technology planning committee with administrators, parents and teachers, industry technology advisors, and definitely one or two school board members. It’s an inclusive approach that doesn’t fall on just one person to tackle the problem so the responsibility is shared by all the stakeholders.

“Step two, talk about where your technology stands right now, where you’d like it to be, and what you want to accomplish. This is where the budget plan comes in.” Instead of focusing on your current budget, De La Cerda suggests looking at the budget you need, and then “find ways to bring money in. Set up a strategy to look at grants or any other alternative funding like bond measures.”

De La Cerda’s Step Three: Schedule committee meetings on a regular basis to keep everyone updated on the latest learning technology and familiarize themselves with software that has proven to be effective in the classroom. “That way, the superintendent stays informed and the person designated as your Director of Technology will know his or her marching orders when the committee comes up with a plan.”

While the goal is getting cost effective and productive technology into classrooms, the challenge is finding ways to stay current. As De La Cerda points out, “I used the same textbooks my brother was reading five years ahead of me. If we hand down a laptop or iPad in 5 years, it’s obsolete.”

School administrators can get a jump-start on this entire process at the Summer 2015 Latino Policy Forum on June 6 at Cal State LA, which will feature a panel discussion titled, “21st Century Schools.”

education tech

Cracking the Code: The Secret to Boosting Latino Technology Workforce

By Bill Britt
The Latino Policy Connection

tech latinos 2There are more than 79-thousand computing jobs available in California right now, and just over 5-thousand computer science graduates in this state. Do the math, even if you’re not good at it. There’s a ton of technology jobs out there and it’s almost like no one’s going after them.

At least one person thinks our students are actually ignoring those jobs because they have the wrong idea of what it takes to be “good at it.”

liliI want school board members and superintendents to understand one thing. Not all computer industry jobs are math intensive and complicated. In fact, some of them are the most rewarding jobs out there because they involve lots of creativity.

Liliana Monge – Sabio.LA

Liliana Monge is talking mainly about coding; the act of writing a specific language that tells software exactly what you want it to do. If you can code, you can create the next app that teaches people how to play guitar, talk to political candidates, or help provide meals for hungry families.

In fact, those three apps are real; created by students and job seekers who learned to code thanks to Sabio.LA, a learning and training program co-founded by Monge and her husband. “We wanted to make a concerted effort to get more women and people of color into coding.”

latino tech 1An intensive, immersive experience modeled after a program called the Developer Boot Camp, SabioLA does a lot more than train people to code. “We help them prepare for interviews, we connect them with recruiters, we review their resumes and we get them jobs in the technology workforce.”  And, long after they’re employed, SabioLA offers to help students gain professional development skills and find opportunities for leadership.

Next month, local elected officials attending the Summer 2015 Latino Policy Forum, “21st Century Cities and Schools, will hear a lot more about effective ways of using technology to help face a variety of challenges in education and municipal settings. Monge will be there for a workshop on getting more Latinos into the technology workforce pipeline. She’s hoping administrators will realize that coding is one of the most attractive ways to accomplish that.

“After all, we’re giving people the skills to create new opportunities that actually mean something to them.”



Social Media Tips for Elected Officials


By: Dennis Hernandez,

Social media, such as Facebook, Twitter, blogs and even email, are powerful tools available to city council and school board members. Facebook and Twitter accounts are easy to create. Communicating with constituents about an issue coming before the board or sharing your ideas about the Common Core standard can be fast and responses from constituents can be furious. But some elected officials have run into trouble using social media. Here are some tips to keep in mind:

  1. Think about how you want to communicate: Social media can be fully interactive or can be more limited. You have options. You can set up your Facebook page or blog to allow comment and feedback from constituents, or it can be information only, not allowing comment. If you want to be fully interactive, there are risks: risk that you will offend someone, risk that you will turn people off, and risks that you will invite that crazy constituent that shows up at every meeting to continue the rant online.
  2. You can’t take it back: The biggest problem in social media is the fact that the send button is easy to reach. Be thoughtful and deliberate in your communications with constituents. Think about each post as if it were going out on your personal stationary. Don’t hit send if you wrote the post in anger or if you were in a hurry. Show it first to a trusted source. Look for typos and grammatical errors. And remember, sometimes the story is not about what you said, but how you said it.
  3. Don’t blur the lines: As an elected official, you have a pubic life as a legislator and public official, a political life (that is the work of getting reelected), and a private life. When using social media, keep these different roles in mind as you communicate. You wouldn’t want to share personal or confidential information on your public education page, and you certainly don’t want to campaign on a city website. Each of these roles involves a different kind of communication. Keep them straight.
  4. Know the rules: If you are using publicly-owned technology (computer, email, website), check to see if there are policies governing the use of social media. Know that you are creating a public record. Follow rules 1, 2 and 3 above.

Democracy is alive and well online. As an elected official, you can use social media to educate, communicate, and to build a strong following on the issues you are passionate about. Keep these tips in mind, and you will be ahead of the game.

Dennis is an attorney in private practice with more than thirty years experience with municipal, education and other public sector clients. 



One Year After The Scandal: The City of Bell Scores Top Grades For Open Data Access


By Bill Britt
For The Latino Policy Connection

The City of Bell has developed a powerful tool designed to pull back the covers of government and reveal how city finances work. A new city website was created not only to inform residents about city employee salaries and contracts, but also, hopefully, re-instill confidence in local government.

“Before the scandal was exposed, we didn’t even have a website,” says Mayor Nestor Valencia.   “For years, if you clicked on it, it was the same online picture of a little girl and boy with the caption, ‘Website under construction.’ Our new Finance Director has since turned things around.”

The “scandal” Mayor Valencia refers to thrust the small working-class Latino city into the national spotlight. One year ago this month, former Bell City Manager Robert Rizzo was sentenced to 12 years in prison and five former elected Bell officials were convicted of corruption for paying themselves salaries of up to $100,000 a year. For a time the scandal turned the city into a symbol of government corruption. And not only did Rizzo and his crew con the city out of millions, they left it unable to afford the experienced administrators and staff who are now needed to replace them.

Enter Josh Betta, the Finance Director Mayor Valencia is proud to point out. He’s so good at his job that during his tenure as Finance Director for the City of Glendora, he received the Certificate of Achievement, the highest form of recognition for governmental accounting and financial reporting. He regarded working Bell as challenge.

Says Betta, “the idea of having a useful and viable website is simply good business. The challenge is letting people know it exists. After they find it, the challenge for users is perspective. Sure, you can see our salaries but if you want to know whether a salary or increase is appropriate, you have to find the contract pertaining to that union. It’s also on the website, but you’ve got to do the work. It’s not all laid out for you.”

Which is why Mayor Valencia wants to take the website a step further by making that contract, and other information, easy to find. “Visually,” he says, “I’d like to see a tab where people go right to the specific things they’re looking for, but personally, mindful of those fake bonus rewards that were exposed in the scandal, I want us to post total compensation. Not just salaries but pensions, health care benefits and any potential, legitimate bonuses as well.”

While Betta boasts that the city’s website earned an A-minus grade from the Sunshine Report, an organization that evaluates the transparency of websites, Valencia points out that Bell has replaced one image problem for another: It can’t afford to hire quality administrators and support staff. Valencia says the city’s interim city manager has moved on, and both Financial Director Betta, and the Community Development Director are also leaving.

“Our current city manager did great work. Our Finance Director, who was key to this turnaround, is moving on. They’ve done their work and other cities are able to pay them more money. We just don’t have the funds to compete.”