On January 13 Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster delivered his annual State of the City address. I will likely have much more to say, in a subsequent column, concerning the content of his message but, for now, I want to stand back and make some observations about the bigger picture.
While Article II, Section 202(a) of the Long Beach City Charter, mandates, among other things, that the Mayor “communicate by message to the City Council a statement of the conditions and affairs of the City, and make recommendations on such matters as the Mayor may deem expedient and proper,” a free and open public address such as that delivered at CSULB’s Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center was at once refreshing and very much needed.
In the recent past, of course, the Mayor’s annual address had taken on the flavor of a “members-only” affair, for the most part reserved for those in the various political, corporate, social and governmental inner circles in the city and delivered at well-heeled and fairly high-priced luncheons hosted by the Long Beach Area Chamber of Commerce.
This previous approach accomplished several things: The Mayor’s annual message was delivered as required, Long Beach area movers and shakers and other assorted local “glitterati” had the opportunity to be seen by and to catch up with one another and The Chamber got to make a pile of money… this event having become one of its major annual fundraisers.
But this previous approach also unfortunately accomplished something else: It had the, perhaps unintended, effect of preventing the average members of the electorate, the “regular folks” in Long Beach from hearing this important report from their Mayor first-hand, something that all members of the local electorate most certainly should have the opportunity to do.
To his great credit, Mayor Foster seems to understand this simple truth… that the audience for this important annual City message should be all of us, regardless of perceived “station” and that we should all have a fair opportunity to attend in person and we shouldn’t have to pay an advocacy group to be able to do so.
My lovely wife and I were very fortunate to be able to attend. I didn’t do so as a member of the press. Because this column is still so new to me, it doesn’t even occur to me to think of myself as a member, albeit a decidedly novice one, of that auspicious group. We attended as residents; as people who work, live, provide custom and recreate here; as parents whose children attend school here; as card-carrying members of the local electorate.
As I looked about, I was gratified to see a vast number and mixture of local folks gathered: from students to workers to members of the press to business and community organization members and leaders to volunteers to various elected and appointed public officials. Most notable and welcome though, at least for me, were all of the average Jane’s and Joe’s, the many folks having clearly come straight from work or school or who were able to escape from household duties for a couple of hours. Folks who had shown up because they were engaged enough in their city and their local government to want to hear, first hand, what their Mayor had to say about the current status of the city that they all own some small piece of.
As a strong and vocal advocate for greater public interest and participation in our local government and the public affairs of our fine city, I was extremely gratified to see so many “average” members of the community in attendance. It occurred to me that many, if not most, of the “regular folks” I saw would not have been present for this important message had it been held as and where it used to be.
Most regular folks are too busy working in the middle of any given weekday or they are sleeping because they have been working all night. Likewise, the cost of a high-priced luncheon isn’t generally in the household budget for folks who usually carry lunch sacks to work or go home and eat leftovers during their meal break each day.
In my humble opinion, however, the regular folks in Long Beach really can’t afford to not enjoy precisely this sort of free, open and direct access to their government and the elected and appointed officials that represent them.
Such access is our right as well as our responsibility. Such access has a positive and expansive effect upon our liberty. I was extremely pleased to see so many taking advantage of the opportunity.
Whatever impressions I took away from the content of Mayor Foster’s message… and they are numerous… I am most impressed that he seems to understand the importance of speaking directly and in person to the “regular folks” in our community and that, this year; he was willing and able to make that happen.
This unprecedented approach to delivering this annual address was a big step in the right direction. What, in my opinion, could have made a good event still better?
* A larger venue, obviating the need for tickets. As we saw, tickets may have run out (on paper) but there remained many seats available on the night of the event. Many residents probably declined to attend simply because they were told there were no more tickets to be had.
* An interactive format that affords audience members, perhaps 3-5 from each Council District, the opportunity to question the Mayor, directly, concerning aspects of his message. This is often the only chance that folks have to address the Mayor directly on a message he is delivering. The Mayor should be prepared to not only report to the Council (and, by extension, the electorate) but to answer a limited amount of direct questions as well.
* Lengthen the allotted time of the program to accommodate the mentioned interactivity. This is a once a year event. The Mayor should be willing to make himself available to the electorate for a longer period of time on that one night each year.
* Seat folks according to Council District and require respective Councilpersons to sit among their constituents rather than segregating them in front rows reserved for VIP’s. Offer an incentive to the Council District with the best attendance.
* Change the audience seating to a “theater in the round” configuration. This would place the Mayor in the center and provide equivalent viewing vantages for all audience members, regardless of Council District.
* Provide designated vantage points for press photographers that are well segregated from the rest of the audience. Several parts of the program proved very difficult to hear because one photographer after another slid into various empty seats near us and their automatic shutter motors competed with many of the Mayor’s comments.
* Provide copies of the speech and any support documents to all attendees upon entering (not just the Press) so they can better follow along, make notes and refer to them when asking questions.
* Invite volunteer Community Service groups to staff information booths before and after the event to: pitch their organizations; explain how they benefit our community and recruit new members.
The Mayor and, indeed, we, as a community, could do so much more with this annual event but, as mentioned, it’s a very good initial step in the direction of bringing our local government much closer, and making it much more available, to the “regular folks”.
I very much welcome your comments and questions.