May 31, 2013 - From the June, 2013 issue

Demystifying Southern California's Leadership Council: A Non-Partisan, Regional Public Policy Champion

TPR interviewed Billie Greer and Rich Lambros, president and managing director, respectively, of the Southern California Leadership Council. Founded by LAEDC business and community leaders and four past California Governors, the Council aims to solve public policy issues impacting the region, with a focus on economic vitality and job creation. The Council’s work on water, land use, manufacturing, and energy are detailed along with the challenges of aligning the region’s diverse interests and needs illuminated.


Billie Greer

"The Leadership Council very early on got engaged in AB32 and was supportive of the direction, but from the very outset we have cautioned that it needs to be implemented in a thoughtful way so that the environmental benefits do not harm our economic needs. I think that’s what Californians want. At the end of the day they absolutely want us to lead on climate change." -Rich Lambros

Billie, Rich, in 2005, the Southern California Leadership Council emerged out of the LAEDC as a nonpartisan, nonprofit, public policy partnership of business and community leaders. What was/is the primary mission of the Southern California Leadership Council?

Billie Greer: The Leadership Council was birthed to exert leadership on critical issues that impact the entire Southern California region. It was felt that although chambers and economic development corporations have a major role to play with respect to shaping public policy, their primary focus is on the municipality or the county. The Leadership Council was founded to fill a niche involving top-level government and business leaders to look at how to best manage issues from a regional perspective.

Rich Lambros: As Billie notes, the Leadership Council is a leadership group at its core, not a business group or governmental entity. So we have the benefit of not having to take on every issue; we can be selective.  

Since the Council is a group of senior statesmen who look at the region over the long term, we focus on its evolution—its planning, its growth, its development—by its very nature, we are looking at land use, and that brings into play infrastructure and how Southern California can maintain a legacy of planned development in a way that upholds our vibrant economy and tremendous quality of life. That’s our challenge as the region grows.

Rich, with over 18 million people in Southern California, encompassing over 32,000 square miles, and with over 200 cities, how is it possible to align interests in what is actually the nation’s eighth largest mega-city region?

Rich Lambros: Yes, Southern California is a world-class, mega region. The challenge of aligning our diverse interests and needs is the genesis of the Leadership Council. Clearly, a common vision is required and is essential.

This region’s growth and success is, it is important to remember, the product of long-term visioning—from the State Water Project, to how we’ve developed energy, to our freeway systems. Each investment took long-term planning and regional coordination. But as Southern California has outgrown the boundaries of local governmental jurisdictions, it is essential that we have a more deliberative and effective regional dialogue. This is where the Leadership Council tries to fill a need.

We are one of the organizations that looks at all of Southern California, including LA and San Diego, and every county in between, and tries to focus on long-term, high-level issues and needs for economic development and job creation, all with an eye toward maintaining our exceptional quality of life.

The Planning Report first reported on the Leadership Council in 2005 by carrying an interview with former California Governor Wilson. TPR highlighted the inclusion in leadership of four former governors (now three because one of them is back as governor). What’s the value of having involved such high-level, bipartisan political participation?

Billie Greer: The strength of the Leadership Council really flows from its members, and as to the four (now three) former governors that are actively engaged in the Leadership Council, I refer to them as the deans of the public sector. They are extraordinary senior statesmen who obviously, based on their years of experience in government, know better than I and most of us, what it takes to bring about effective public policy, as well as the reverse of that, what stands in the way of public policy resolution. When the governors—Republicans and Democrats—speak with one voice on a public policy issue, the impact is strong.

Without regional government to facilitate a common vision for Southern California (except the Metropolitan Water District), how does the Leadership Council advance its mission?

Billie Greer: Members of the Leadership Council board include the top leadership of the MWD, SCAG, and we have three Southern California ports (LA, Long Beach, and San Diego) represented. So we’re right there, hip-to-hip, with our public partners.

We’ve been very fortunate, I believe, to forge a strong partnership with SCAG. This emerged from the involvement of the Leadership Council in one of their committees that lead to our active participation in helping shape the Regional Transportation Plan and Sustainable Communities Strategy (RTP/SCS) that was recently adopted. We were able to work closely with SCAG, and I think that’s a model that is going to be very fruitful.

It used to be, in the early years, that the Leadership Council picked one issue a year to focus its energy on, and I gather that’s morphed into taking on a larger role on a greater number of issues. Could you talk about issue selection and what they are?

Billie Greer: You’re correct that we have grown our issues portfolio through a lot of discussion with our members and strategic partners (which include major business and labor organizations in the region). We have criteria for looking at issues: the issue has to be significant to the region and the state; it has to be critical to economic development and job creation; and importantly, we need to make sure that near term solutions are feasible. We also take a look at the political will required and whether it can actually be garnered.

We’ve focused much of our agenda and work on the major industries that constitute our economic engine in the Southern California region. That’s brought us to continuing work in the international trade sector, focusing on ensuring that our seaports and airports continue to meet the challenges of ramped-up competition. We’ve also worked a lot on energy issues, but I’ll let Rich speak to that because he’s the expert.

Rich, Energy Policy in California is in transition. Bring our readers up to date on what the Leadership Council’s role and position is on this energy transition that California is leading in North America and globally.

Rich Lambros: Our energy future very much revolves around a new emphasis on emissions and climate change. The transition to renewables has significantly changed how we produce and deliver energy in the state. Our focus is the 40-plus significant mandates in the energy sector, from distributed generation to renewable portfolio standards—a variety of issues that are changing the economics and business of public utilities. We absolutely support the goals of our energy transition, but as it happens, we need to make sure that while we’re focused on environmental benefits, we don’t lose sight of safety, reliability, and cost-effectiveness.

What we’ve been concerned about now for two years is whether California has an effective long-term strategy for this transition. Our concerns were validated last December when three reports came out, one from the Hoover Institute at Stanford, one from the Little Hoover Commission, and one from the Legislative Analyst’s Office, all pointing to some potential challenges and crises if the policies related to the transition to renewables are not more integrated. In fact the Little Hoover Commission Report actually went so far as to say that the state needs to pass a moratorium prohibiting new energy mandates affecting renewables until we figure out the magnitude and how to strategically integrate the new mandates that we are currently working to implement in California.  We’re starting to see some load impact now, and if we don’t effectively think through and manage the transition, there could be significant costs to every Californian in their energy bills and we could dramatically affect our state’s business competitiveness.

California’s leadership on energy policy and GHG emissions has mostly been managed through a stick as opposed to a carrot approach. There’s been some discussion of a carrot approach in the form of a carbon tax that rewards those who conserve and punishes those who don’t. Is there any discussion of that by the Leadership Council?

Rich Lambros: No, but we share the belief that we need to continue to incentivize a cleaner California. The interesting thing is, as we continue to push ourselves further on carbon reduction in California, at the end of the day, it’s not just about California achieving our GHG goals. The challenge of global warming really won’t be addressed and a level economic playing field in domestic and international markets won’t exist unless the rest of the nation and world do the same. We want to be a leader, but we want to see that California begins to get credit for the work that it’s already doing.

One could say that what you see depends on where you stand. Your membership is made up of the sizeable companies and utilities that have Southern Californian interests but don’t necessarily reflect the trillion-dollar green economy—Tesla, First Solar, international waste-energy firms, for example—that often have a different take on energy alternatives and what California needs. Would that be an unfair assertion?

Rich Lambros: I think your assertion may be mistaken in that we do not oppose the transition to the green economy; we support it. The Leadership Council very early on got engaged in AB32 and was supportive of the direction, but from the very outset we have cautioned that it needs to be implemented in a thoughtful way so that the environmental benefits do not harm our economic needs. I think that’s what Californians want. At the end of the day they absolutely want us to lead on climate change. But as a recent public policy survey showed, Californians want that done without added costs or economic impact—so that is the challenge. Our role is not to obstruct but to, in fact, support the transition while trying to be a force for bringing business’ input to the table. This allows us to think through and implement California’s energy transition in the most logical ways possible.

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Turning now to water—what folks in California fight about—, what is one of the Leadership Council’s water agenda for Southern California, and what is it advocating for the state invest in and promote?

Billie Greer: Since its inception, one of the top priorities of the Leadership Council has been ensuring that we have a reliable and safe supply of water for Southern California. I think we all understand the challenges. The Southern California region, particularly LA County, has done a terrific job in terms of water conservation and water recycling, but we are still going to need to rely on imported water.

We all know that the Delta is at great risk. We are a strong supporter of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan including the alternative conveyance that is going to be under continual discussion this year. I think the historic North-South schism around water is dissipating somewhat because the reality is that the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta delivers water not only to Southern California but also chunks of Northern California and to our agricultural communities in the Central Valley. And the Leadership Council wants to see the water bond on the next ballot, and we want to be part of the discussion as that bond measure is retooled by the legislature.

Rich, you have addressed climate change and energy, what are some of the other issues that the Leadership Council is tackling?

Rich Lambros: We’ve been very focused on CEQA modernization. That’s something that all three of our governors feel very passionately about. Also, infrastructure and regional planning—we worked extensively last year with SCAG on the new 2012 Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) and Sustainable Communities Strategy (SCS), which is the first time we did a RTP with the new SCS as mandated under SB 375.

We also worked a bit with SANDAG on the same. We’re also involved with AQMD and air planning, which, of course, often relates back to the RTP/SCS and back to CARB and efforts on climate change. I’m focused a bit more on the land use side, you might say.

To better appreciate your board’s deliberative process, describe the nature of the expert issue presentations and your board discussions of policy.

Rich Lambros: I think what’s unique is the high caliber of the discussions and the diversity of opinion. The governors are just a microcosm of the diversity. Californians know those three men; they have a sense of their philosophy and politics. When you’re able to get three of them in a room and have a robust discussion on issues, when you’re finding common ground and areas of strong agreement, you know you’re really dealing with areas where there should be broad based support for moving forward. The rest of our executives and leaders in our group are equally diverse geographically, in industry, and in philosophy. At the end of the day, when we pick an issue and a direction on that issue, we feel we have great prospects for being successful and making a difference.

Billie Geer: Rich and I develop a draft work plan for the board, laying out the issues agenda to be tackled for consideration by Council members, and we introduce those recommendations. What follows is a very robust discussion at the board level, and we go issue-by-issue, involving members in validating where they want to go and, subsequently, whether we’re making progress. We have a Leadership Council board member who leads on each of the issues we’re involved with, and he/she advises members about what is happening with respect to that issue.

We bring in outside speakers. For example, recently we had an excellent discussion on workforce development involving top-level members of the governing boards of the CSU, UC, and California Community Colleges systems addressing whether the various institutions are working together in filling the workforce gap that lies ahead. Those are the typical things that happen in our meetings.

Both the Brookings Institute and JP Morgan have supported President Obama’s effort to grow exports and manufacturing. Is this priority also on the agenda of the Leadership Council?

Billie Geer: We’ve been very actively involved in responding to President Obama’s initiative to double our exports. We have really been looking at that, and are moving forward with two related proposals.

The first would reestablish the California Exports Finance Office, a program that existed for almost 25 years in California but was abolished when the Trade and Commerce agency went away and the trade offices were closed. It basically guarantees loans for small and medium-sized businesses that already have a transaction and need an added guarantee in order to secure their loan. We’re moving forward to see if we can reestablish the program.

We also worked towards a bill last year that did not get out that would provide tax credits to exporters and importers who increase the amount of cargo that they are putting through our California ports. This is an attempt to level the playing field with the Gulf and East Coast states, whose ports have lucrative incentives and are salivating as they try to pick up our market share when the widened Panama Canal is operational in 2015. That bill is designed to increase imports as well as exports.

How is the impact of the work of the Leadership Council measured? What are your metrics?

Billie Geer: Our work plan includes specific action steps and deliverables, and the executive staff is held accountable for that.

There’s not an easy answer to your question because, as we know, many of the overarching issues that impact Southern California are ongoing, huge, complex, and take a lot of dogged work, vision, perseverance, and imagination. One of the ways we take the temperature is when we introduce or highlight an issue, which is done primarily through opinion editorials that are signed by our leadership. Through feedback and communication we judge whether that issue has resonated more as a result of the Leadership Council’s pushing it.

It’s not so scientific, but there was an opinion editorial signed by the governors in the Sacramento Bee not too long ago comparing the challenges that our sea ports are facing as well as the parallel challenges of competitiveness in our television and film production industry. We are still getting a lot of positive feedback on the general awareness of the importance of those issues.

Are your Leadership Council members bullish on Southern California?

Rich Lambros: Absolutely. Each of them is significantly invested in Southern California. Besides the governors, our leaders are all involved in managing significant private or public sector enterprises in our region. They believe in the quality of life, the strength of the economy (as much as we beat up on California, we’re still the 9th largest economy in the world); there’s much here to be proud of that we need to build upon.

Like anything, we spend our time and energy focused on the problems and trying to make improvements. I think our members share the belief that as well as we are doing, and as great a place as this is to live, things could be better in the region. Frankly, that vision is what has made California what it is—the drive to do better. It’s great to see leaders at this level who are not satisfied, who want to continue to improve California, not just for themselves and their businesses but for the benefit of the entire region.

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