Back to the Sep-Oct 2019 issue

This Club Shares Ideas to Help Cities Thrive

By David Unmacht

The United States Senate is routinely referred to as one of the most exclusive clubs in our nation due to the enormity of its work, the impact of its decisions, and the limited number of members involved. In my role as executive director, I too am humbled and privileged to serve as a member of an exclusive club.

Forty-nine states in the U.S. have municipal leagues—all but Hawaii. The executive directors of these leagues meet several times during the year to learn from each other, share stories about our member cities, and swap good ideas to improve the services we provide.

The two clubs and the participation of its members offer clear distinctions. But each is more similar than one might suspect at first blush. Let’s start with differences:

  • The executive directors don’t make motions, vote, or issue press releases. Senators, on the other hand, use these actions as their bread and butter, their de facto form of serving.
  • The executive directors have decentralized leadership, with a handful of directors serving on a steering committee. The Senate, under current practice, has centralized power largely in one person: the majority leader.
  • Finally, executive directors serve at the pleasure of a governing group of city officials, called the board of directors. Senators serve at the pleasure of the general voting public.

Yet, it’s not the differences between the senators and executive directors that are relevant to our members—it’s the commonalities. This was apparent once again when about 40 directors recently convened in Montana (Minnesota hosted the group a few years ago) and realized that issues important to our cities are the issues of the Senate.

These issues include health care, infrastructure, violence prevention, mental health, housing, economic development, the economy, child care, and more. State league directors can’t solve these issues alone, but we are charged with leading our organizations to help our members address them.

Executive directors proudly share stories about how our leagues are helping our members address common issues. Just like the cities and states we represent, the 49 state leagues vary in form, scope, and size, so our approach and methods are unique.

It’s akin to a well-known axiom in our work: The issues facing the cities of Minneapolis, Oakdale, Luverne, and Virginia are often similar; it’s the scope, capacity, and ability to impact them that are different.

But no matter the size of the state league or the tenure and experience of the executive director, we exchange nuggets of ideas with each other. Here are a few good examples of topics important to our members that are worth considering, in some form, in our own state:

  • The Association of Washington Cities prepares a practical information guide for people running for city offices.
  • The Michigan Municipal League uses non-municipal methods of funding, such as foundations and endowments, to bolster their member services.
  • The Maryland Municipal League hosts a Young Municipal Leader Summit that encourages youth to engage in local government.
  • The Vermont League and Massachusetts Municipal Association are actively working on programs that support and encourage women in local government.

At this summer’s meeting, the many conversations I had with colleagues and friends from Delaware, Wisconsin, Iowa, North Dakota, Arizona, and other states confirmed that our state league is doing good work and on the right track when it comes to how we conduct business and how we administer important services.

Some of this work includes maintaining our partnership and connectivity with our Insurance Trust (LMCIT); rebranding and refreshing our logo, communications, and messaging tools; investing in strong member engagement and outreach; providing leadership in the area of race equity; and succession planning with a strong emphasis on professional development of our staff.

I tip my cap to my counterparts across the country for their unwavering commitment to serving members and their willingness to share ideas and stories. Thank you for helping to improve the work we do for Minnesota cities. As for comparisons with the U.S. Senate, I can speak with a high degree of confidence that the majority, if not all, of the executive directors strongly prefer membership in our club.

David Unmacht is executive director of the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: or (651) 281-1205.