2 NATION’S CITIES WEEKLY
November 21, 2011
The following is an excerpt of
2012 NLC President Ted Ellis’
acceptance speech during the
Annual Business Meeting at the
Congress of Cities and Exposition
in Phoenix. Ellis is mayor of
These are interesting times,
aren’t they? Times when history is bending. Nowhere is this
more evident than in our cities,
towns and villages.
One summer day in 1891,
Mayor Martin Walbert boarded
a train car and set out on what
would be the better part of a
day’s journey out of town.
History was bending then,
As Martin left the city, he
must have wondered what the
future would hold for his community.
Abroad, the European economy was weak and already in
a recession. The U.S. was less
than two years from its deepest-ever depression.
At home, the public was
clamoring for an end to the
open ditch carrying human and
animal waste along the south
side of his city and into a major
river. They demanded that new
streets be constructed to replace
the muddy ones, but their
demands exceeded their ability
to finance the repairs.
The citizenry was still restless over the immigrants – the
Germans – who did not speak
the language and yet, they said,
took jobs away from the locals.
And the Irish – who had their
own brand of English – were
reputed to drink, avoid work
and take advantage of law-abiding citizens.
Then there was the crime
In those days when communication was slow at best, horse
thieves and swindlers found it
easy to slither into the city,
commit their criminal acts, and
blow town. Maybe there was a
shyster or two on this very train
with the mayor.
In a rare quiet moment as
the train tracks clacked beneath
him, it is not difficult to know
what Martin was feeling because
we have all been in the same
place: seemingly insurmountable problems; not enough
money to fix them; and constituents demanding more than
they are willing to pay for.
No doubt he sometimes
questioned why he ran for office
to begin with.
It was the need to share information with other mayors from
other cities that took Martin
out of town that day. Ten other
mayors would join him in this
first such meeting of mayors
in the U.S. — the very first
recorded state league meeting.
Elsewhere in the United
States, officials were seeking one
another out for similar reasons.
Soon, other state leagues began
forming. In the 1920s, his state
league joined others to form a
“league of state leagues” – which
eventually became the National
League of Cities.
Bluffton, Indiana Mayor
Martin Walbert could not have
known how his train trip that
day would take him to the
genesis of an organization that
would one day affect millions of
Americans living in cities.
He could not have known
that 120 years later, we would
still be dealing with environmental, transportation, immigration and funding issues at the
He did know, however, that
his and other communities faced
problems and opportunities that
transcended city or state boundaries; and that sharing ideas and
information was the best strategy for dealing with those issues.
They also knew that by
speaking with one loud voice
they could make things happen.
(One of their first big lobbying
successes was obtaining free use
of the newfangled telephone service for police and city business,
including league business.)
No doubt there was reluctance from his community to
consider new approaches to
persistent problems; but, for
Martin Walbert, it was the difference between solution and
Such is our challenge today.
The world has changed significantly in the last 30 - 10 - even
five years. And the very way we
think about things is changing.
A century later, all of us find
ourselves with challenges that
are centered on some familiar
For Martin, the problem was
old: criminal behavior, with the
escape of the criminal made easier by the advent of the railroad.
Whereas the conventional
remedy would have been to run
the criminal down on horseback,
when they looked at the prob-
lem in a different way – not how
do we catch him from behind,
but how do we get ahead of him
— the solution (the telephone!)
see page 11, column 1
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Nation’s Cities Weekly
Volume 34, Number 43 | ISSN 0164-5935 | November 21, 2011
Official publication of the National League of Cities
Helping City Leaders Build Better Communities
Donald J. Borut, Executive Director
Publisher: Donald J. Borut; Editor: Amy Elsbree; Managing Editor:
Cyndy Liedtke Hogan; Writer/Editor: Sandi Burtseva; Coordinator,
Editorial Services: Laura Turner
Advertising Information: Contact Laura Turner at the National League
of Cities; Phone: 202-626-3040;