- Greggory Moore
Institutional memory is hard to come by in Long Beach government. With the mayor and nine city councilmembers termed out after eight years in office, the greatest possible stability would be seeing the same 10 faces behind the dais for six years running. And when change inevitably comes, it can be sweeping.
No year better epitomizes that fact than 2014, in which five new councilmembers and a new mayor have taken office. And with five of the six of the newbies under 40—and holdovers Suja Lowenthal and Al Austin not far beyond that line—it may be more valuable than ever for the city’s sitting government to draw upon the experience of the past.
Who better than those recently off the front lines of Long Beach governement to offer these young’uns some advice on how to make their short time in office as productive as possible? It was with such a thought in mind the week before the most recent changing of the guard that I touched base with outgoing Councilmembers Gary DeLong and James Johnson, as well as with former Councilmember Rae Gabelich (who was termed out in 2012), to find out what advice they have for their successors, their main concerns for Long Beach’s immediate future, and how they think the city council might function more effectively.
Although now-former Mayor Bob Foster did not respond to an invitation to participate in this article,* shortly before he left office he did make clear his greatest concern for the City of Long Beach in the near term: finances.
“While we have weathered a great storm with the financial crisis, there’s another very large storm brewing,” Foster said earlier this month when he announced his FY2015 budget recommendations, made in light of what Foster called a “freight train” of future costs the City must bear related to California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS) expenses, which will increase by 87% over the next seven years. “You’ll be told, and we’ll hear it again, that we’re ‘balancing the budget on the backs of employees.’ [But n]early 75% of our budget costs are on salaries and employee-related expenses. Where else are you going to look?”
DeLong and Johnson agree with Foster’s stormy economic forecast. DeLong names general financial issues, along the related upcoming labor negotiations, as the biggest challenge facing the new council and urges them to “balance the budget without any gimmicks, continue to make capital investments in our community, and don’t let the operating expenses increase.” He names the council’s biggest failing during his term as “not taking on pension reform sooner, and not doing enough. […] We also could have made more improvements in the existing labor contracts.”
For his part, Johnson is concerned about the temptation to sacrifice long-term good for short-term political gain. “I believe the biggest challenge in our times for government—not just local government, but [also] state and federal government—is how short-term political institutions make the right long-term decision,” he says. “And that’s hard. There’s always going to be the pressure to make things look good today at the expense of tomorrow—to not put money in reserves, to not worry about maintenance, the benefit of which you may not see for five or ten years. […] If we don’t get the money right, everything else—police services, fire services, parks, libraries—will suffer.”
Gabelich’s view of the greatest challenge facing the new council encompasses the difficult financial reality the City is facing, but follows more along the general lines of George Santayana’s famous maxim: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
“In my opinion, the greatest challenge will be [for the council] to educate themselves on how we got to where we are today,” she says. “There is much to be said about institutional memory and how it can help to not reinvent the wheel. Only three members have been [on the council] over two years, soon to be two [a reference to Patrick O’Donnell’s likely move to the State Assembly]. It takes a couple of years to wrap your arms around policy, staff responsibilities, and options available to you as a councilmember.”
Johnson concurs with Gabelich about the need to draw upon institutional memory so as to avoid expending time and energy on efforts that have proven ineffective. And he offers a stratagem for making the most of one’s early years on the council: immediately get involved with regional governmental bodies such as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) and the Air Quality Management District (AQMD).
“These are all regional governmental bodies that have tremendous impact on people’s quality of life every day,” he says. “And all too often Long Beach has been not well represented—or even not represented—on those bodies. […] We’re the second-biggest city in L.A. County, yet there’s no-one from Long Beach City Council on the MTA, even though the Blue Line is incredibly important for the entire city’s growth and development. Los Angeles has multiple councilmembers on the MTA, and Mayor Eric Garcetti is the vice-chair. The City of Long Beach currently has no representative on the AQMD, even though with the Port of Long Beach air-quality issues are vital to people’s quality of life. It’s one of our main problems in the city. We have the lowest air quality in America. This [kind of thing] is important for new councilmembers to remember. You’re sworn in on Tuesday—I’d start immediately looking at those kinds of opportunity.”
DeLong, Johnson, and Gabelich all spoke of the lack of collegiality on the council—a theme nearly all councilmembers have touched on at some point during the last few years. “The environment doesn’t foster collaboration,” DeLong says. Johnson and Gabelich propose a strategy for improving the environment: some sort of time together beyond the confines of council chambers.
“I lobbied for council retreats so that each councilmember could share the needs and vision for the communities they represented,” Gabelich says. “[…] It’s difficult to put your arms around situations that you only hear discussed on Tuesday nights. And at that point it is usually when a situation or need has escalated.”
“Of course, the challenge is, with a city government, there would be Brown Act issues,” says Johnson. “So I don’t know what the answer is. But that kind of social interaction, a time to leave the council, go somewhere and kind of talk about the goals of the city, maybe talk about non-business items having nothing to do with politics, I think it’s helpful because it increases collegiality.”
Gabelich partly blames Foster for not fostering a collegial environment, labeling what she calls the “Gang of Six mentality”—a reference to the voting bloc of councilmembers that some perceived to be more interested in carrying out Foster’s agenda than in finding common ground across the council—as the most dysfunctional cycle of behavior she’s seen on the council in recent times. She hopes Garcia will set a better tone.
“Today our mayor begins with a clean slate,” she says. “He can lead from past examples and use the ‘divide and conquer’ methods that created significant dysfunction over the past years, or he can bring the nine councilmembers together to build a new citywide vision. If our new council body can realize the sometimes very different needs that spread from one district to another and that as a body they play a part in serving the entire city, they can become the strongest, most effective council to date. [… But the new council] may be courted to create a new ‘Gang of Six,’ which would only continue the discourse that has been so obvious over the past six or seven years. It is important that each member understands that they set the policy, not the Mayor’s Office.”
DeLong and Gabelich emphasize the need for the new council to listen to their constituents—something Gabelich warns City staff may not always help them do.
“[Concilmembers] may be inclined to refer to staff recommendations without asking questions or seeking alternatives,” she says. “These suggestions may not always support the desires of their constituents nor be in the best interest of their district/city vision. […] Being a public servant should not be about doing it my way, but finding common ground within the community you represent.”
Whatever the council does, Gabelich hopes it will do so with more transparency than it has displayed in the past, especially because such a practice will earn the good faith of Long Beach residents.
“The unwillingness [on the part of the council] to discuss opportunities for increasing transparency within our government has given the residents of Long Beach even greater reason to criticize local government actions,” Gabelich says, referencing now-former Councilmember Gerrie Schipske’s April 2013 motion to (among other things) force councilmembers to disclose communications about City business emanating from non-City e-mail addresses, a motion that died when no councilmember would second it. “From limited budget information that today does not demonstrate levels of service or needs, to open discussion and options on a new civic center. The reference to our existing city hall’s being dangerous is terribly misleading to the public and of concern to many that work within the building. The study that supposedly determines support for the 3T project versus a rebuild of our current site has yet to be revealed to the public. Watch this one closely. The devil is always in the details!”
The Long Beach of today will not be the Long Beach of tomorrow, and many of the decisions made by the new city council will be certain to outlast the tenure of their decision-makers. Johnson talks of the “failure of leadership” that caused West Long Beach to miss out on tens of millions of dollars of redevelopment money while the getting was good. And it’s not just West Long Beach that is haunted by missed opportunities and bad city planning that make Long Beach lesser than it might have been.
We civilian residents of Long Beach can only hope the new leadership in Long Beach avoids those same errors. But the leadership themselves can do more than hope: they can draw upon the past to forge a better future.
*Note: Now-former Councilmembers Gerrie Schipske and Steven Neal were also invited to take part in this article, but they did not respond.