It was a kind of leadership homecoming. CityVision 2022, the annual conference of the N.C. League of Municipalities, saw hundreds of elected and appointed leaders from cities and towns across North Carolina gather in Wilmington this past April for what was the League’s first in-person annual conference since the start of the pandemic. The packed event, held at the Wilmington Convention Center alongside the beautiful Cape Fear River, glowed with smiles, as this was in many cases the first time that attendees had seen one another since the last in-person conference, years before.
The good spirit of togetherness that played out over the conference’s three days came to be just as important as the engaging programming in which conference-goers partook. That included convenings of several affiliate group meetings, like the N.C. Mayors Association, Black Elected Municipal Officials and N.C. Women in Municipal Government, along with interactive learning sessions on timely, vital topics like the American Rescue Plan, community development, climate resilience, and other key issues.
“This was the most engaging CityVision in memory, and part of that was the fact that we could come together, as one,” said Rose Vaughn Williams, Executive Director of the League.
After two previous years of conferences held over Zoom connection, 2022’s coming-together was thematic of the adaptability of local governments. “We have to adapt and change with the change that occurs around us. And it is only by leaning upon one another, by coming together through organizations like this one, that we can do that, and meet the challenges of a changing world,” said Salisbury Mayor Karen Alexander, who served as president of the League over the past year and was celebrated for her service during the conference.
Mayor Alexander, in a high point of the event at the Wilmington Convention Center, passed the gavel to a new League president: Mayor Scott Neisler of Kings Mountain. “It is an honor to hold this office, and I look forward to continuing to assist this organization in serving each city and town in the best way possible,” Mayor Neisler told the conference crowd after his swearing-in.
Neisler said his priority areas included broadband access. “We have to ensure that all cities and towns have great broadband, and cities should be playing a role in making that happen. It doesn’t make sense that we can’t use our assets to bring good broadband to our people and our residents.”
CityVision also saw the swearing-in of a new League Board of Directors, with Fuquay-Varina Town Commissioner Bill Harris and Durham Mayor Pro Tem Mark-Anthony Middleton now serving as first and second vice presidents, respectively.
Special guest speakers included State Treasurer Dale Folwell, National League of Cities President and CEO Clarence Anthony, and Local Government Federal Credit Union (LGFCU) CEO Maurice Smith. Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo welcomed all to Wilmington for the occasion.
“He’s got one of the most beautiful cities in all North Carolina,” Sen. Michael Lazzara said of Saffo during the conference’s President’s Dinner and Awards Ceremony, April 28. Senator Lazzara of Jacksonville along with Rep. John Bell of Goldsboro were named the League’s Community Champions, which are annual awards given to legislators who demonstrate their understanding of issues affecting municipalities and help with solutions. Lazzara, prior to his Senate service, while mayor pro tem of Jacksonville, had served an extended term as president of the League.
“I’m known as the ‘League Guy’ (at the General Assembly),” Senator Lazzara told an applauding audience during his acceptance speech. He said his time in municipal government and as a League Board of Directors member gave him unique but essential knowledge and perspective when he transitioned to the Senate. He urged conference attendees to remain informed and engaged with League and legislative activities.
“This is the most important thing: that you’re here,” Senator Lazzara said. “There is absolutely nothing more important as a municipal leader than to be engaged in your League and to attend these events, to get to know your legislators, to make time, to communicate, to build relationships… It’s extremely important… We have common goals and common challenges.”
The CityVision annual conference always puts timely matters on the agenda for the hundreds of municipal officials who attend.
Smith, the LGFCU CEO, led an all-seats-filled session, titled, “Leadership as a Service,” which examined the common characteristics of leadership and Smith’s own observations on the subject. Breakout sessions for municipal officials in attendance included “10 Critical Elements That Will Make Tomorrow’s Communities” and “Telling Your Story: Why Sharing Your American Rescue Plan (ARP) Funding Plan Matters.”
These sessions offered solid takeaways. With local ARP money, Morrisville Town Council Member and NCLM Board of Directors member Satish Garimella said it’s important for local governments to share how they’re spending it and how those expenses will ripple.
“By highlighting those success today, we ensure that we remain in the good graces of state and federal policymakers tomorrow,” Garimella said. “And we ensure that we emphasize this American Rescue Plan as the partnership that it is—at the federal, state and municipal level—to improve the lives of our citizens.”
Dr. Amanda Martin of the N.C. Office of Recovery and Resiliency led “Building Climate Resilience in North Carolina Communities,” representing an issue affecting so many cities and towns. A session that brought together the League’s Working Group on Racial Equity and Emerging Municipal Issues included a panel discussion and breakout groups that put participants together for frank talk.
The session “Dangerous Crossroads Ahead” covered police-citizen interactions in the cell phone camera age—a standout topic for recent times. Kinston Mayor Dontario Hardy noted the past two years’ expressions of protest and public calls for racial equity and justice in the aftermath of police-involved shootings.
“As elected officials, all of us have—or likely will—come to play crucial roles in responding to these demands for change,” said Mayor Hardy during the Dangerous Crossroads session. “At the same time, we have a duty to provide for the public safety of our residents, to create safe communities where people can learn, live, work and enjoy a good quality of life… As such, it is important that we understand the rights of the people who live within our communities, and how those rights intersect with the need to provide for public safety.”
Fellowship continued as the City of Wilmington welcomed conference-goers to its host-city event, Rendezvous on the River, where it was food and fun at the stunning Live Oak Bank Pavilion, an outdoor music venue located on a riverfront park, developed upon a 6.6-acre tract the City of Wilmington bought in 2013. As the sun set on the river, the legendary Chairmen of the Board performed for the CityVision crowd.
As the three-day conference wound down, the outgoing president, Mayor Alexander, dialed into the persisting theme of togetherness in her conference address.
“I’m proud to say that we not only managed to survive; we actually thrived,” she said, referring to the pandemic times that disrupted how communities and leaders connected and which prompted fast, creative thinking. “This organization is stronger than ever, because of you. Like steel forged through fire, we have been tested and have come through the fire more effective, more adaptive, with stronger bonds… We make each other stronger.”
“Isn’t it great that we’re now being able to come and do this together?” President Neisler said during his inaugural speech. “I have learned so much at this [conference]. It’s been absolutely super.”
CityVision 2023 is set to take place in Concord.
“Mayor Saffo, you set the bar high,” Concord Mayor Bill Dusch told his Wilmington counterpart of CityVision 2022. “But I cannot wait until you are in Concord.”