By Kevin Frazell
What one League of Minnesota Cities (LMC) service is mandated by its constitution? The annual conference! And Minnesota city officials have been at it since founding the League in 1913, when they convened in St. Paul for education and training a short two months after creating the organization.
The League has had an annual convention (as they called it until the mid- 1970s) or conference every year, except in 1918 during the Spanish influenza pandemic, and in 1945 when the federal government banned conventions because of gas rationing associated with World War II. (We almost had to cancel in 2012, too, when Duluth was hit with a major flood on the first day of the conference. But, thanks to the help of Duluth city staff, the show went on!)
Duluth Mayor Don Ness addresses attendees at the 2012 Annual Conference, which was almost stopped by a flood.
We don’t know everything LMC members have done at the annual conference over the past 100 years, but there is a pretty good historical record of some activities they did and topics they covered. Delegates arriving by train for the 1920 meeting on Lake Bemidji were picked up by motor cars and whisked to the Birchmont Inn, noted as “a most admirable headquarters.”
The program for the 1932 convention in Red Wing, during the depths of the Great Depression, had a session called “Unemployment and Poor Relief.” Other than that, though, many of the program topics were surprisingly similar to those we talk about even today. And they still made time for fun—including band concerts and a “Moonlight Excursion on Steamer Capitol.”
The 1936 program in Detroit Lakes featured both a motion picture on plumbing sanitation and, for entertainment, a League Dance!
The early announcement for the 1951 convention at Rochester’s Mayo Civic Auditorium proclaimed “Ladies invited to all sessions.” By the time the group returned to St. Paul at the Hotel Lowry for the 1961 meeting, the League had added a special “Ladies Program,” complete with movie, luncheon, and a giftwrap demonstration. Women were also starting to make their presence known in city operations, as evidenced by the session “Savings in Use of Women in Police Work,” offered by the police chief of Willmar.
Conferences of the 1970s included some watershed moments for the League and for Minnesota city officials. One of these moments happened in 1973, after the University of Minnesota announced that it was severing its ties with the League.
Since its founding in 1913, the League had been supported by a sister organization, the Municipal Reference Bureau at the University of Minnesota, which was contributing nearly 25 percent of the financial resources for the functionally combined operation. In late 1972, the university’s Board of Regents informed the League that it would be ending that relationship and its financial support.
Consequently, delegates to the 1973 Annual Convention in Alexandria had to act on a report recommending that the League become a fully independent organization with a new constitution, the ability to speak out on issues “that are somewhat controversial,” and, yes, a substantial dues increase.
League staff and city delegates who attended in 1973 fondly recall it as the year of the Kentucky Fried Chicken buffet, with everyone slipping and sliding over the gravy and greasy chicken that had fallen on the floor. Despite the dining chaos, delegates voted affirmatively to increase their dues and create the independent League that we still have today.
Oh, and remember the ladies’ progress back in the 1960s? Well, the 1977 conference in Rochester was a turning point with the election of the first woman president of LMC, Duluth Councilmember Maureen “Meg” Bye (pictured at right).
With the 1980s came the creation of the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust (LMCIT) and the prominent role of insurance and loss control in sessions. The 1996 conference unveiled something quite amazing to behold—the launch of League services and information on the World Wide Web. There were even two computers in the exhibit hall, where attendees could experience the new LMC website and “surf the net” for other sites of interest.
At the 2001 gathering in Duluth, city officials previewed an easy way to build their own websites with the latest service from the League—the GovOffice website development tool.
The 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s have continued to see Minnesota city officials gathering annually to share, learn, network, and have a little fun.
Legendary memories of those conferences include Rochester Mayor Chuck Hazama dropping onto stage in a spacesuit to regale the 1987 conference, and LMC Executive Director Jim Miller appearing on stage in Spam boxers as part of a Minnesota-themed fashion show. Six years later, the 1993 conference featured “An Evening with Garrison Keillor.”
And who could forget in recent years the League intergovernmental relations team’s fun ways of reporting what happened during the most recent legislative sessions? They’ve done this by acting out a variety of popular game shows, including Hollywood Squares, Jeopardy!, and Family Feud.
LMC Intergovernmental Relations team puts on a “Hollywood Squares” game show at the 2009 Annual Conference in St. Paul to highlight legislative news.
Differences and similarities
Over the past 100 years, so much about the League Annual Conference has changed. Yet so much has remained the same. Topics like finding more efficiency in operations have been perennial since the beginning, while connecting through the Internet and social media is new.
Either way, city officials have always appreciated this annual chance to learn, but equally important, to gather and celebrate with their peers from across the state. Awards have always been given, meals shared, networking encouraged, and fun times planned.
The centennial year conference
So what’s in store for this year’s conference— happening June 19-21 in St. Paul? Things old and things new, of course! We won’t be offering motor car service for those arriving by train, but we will hold our special Centennial Celebration in the beautifully restored Union Depot. And guess who’s agreed to join us—Garrison Keillor!
Coming out of the Great Recession, we’ll follow in the legacy of those 1932 delegates, who had to deliver city services in the midst of the Great Depression. And we’ll keep talking about our ever evolving relationship with the state.
We’ll celebrate the century-long contributions of the League, both its original connection to and continuing connections with the academic world, as well as the voice it has found as an independent organization that represents all Minnesota cities. We’ll think about how the work we do and the legacy we leave impacts our citizens in their everyday lives. And we’ll gather at a St. Paul landmark to create a new picture not unlike the one taken at the first gathering in 1913.
This year’s influenza outbreak seems to have passed, and at least right now, we don’t have a world war brewing on the horizon. And League staff is planning ahead to avoid any slippery or otherwise treacherous dining!
Oh, and yes, ladies will most definitely be welcome at all sessions. As will gentlemen! And, who knows, maybe we’ll even bring back that movie about plumbing sanitation or a giftwrap demonstration!
Kevin Frazell is member services director with the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or (651) 281-1215.
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