For the second time this year the city of Long Beach could see its city charter tweaked by voter approval in November as city leaders advanced a plan Tuesday night to place changes surrounding term limits for city council, utility consolidation and the formation of citizen commissions that could police city ethics and redraw council districts every ten years.
The multi-faceted charter reform still has a ways to go with multiple future meetings required before the city council could vote to place it on the November ballot for Long Beach residents to decide. Placing the five questions on the ballot is estimated to cost the city about $650,000.
Easily the most contentious of the topics are the term limits adjustment to allow for a council person to campaign regularly for a third four-year term—currently they can only run as a write-in candidate after serving two terms and their name can only appear on the ballot after advancing past the primary election—and the redistricting commission appointment process.
City officials see the reforms to term limits as a closing of a loophole that allowed two-term council members to continue to run as write-in candidates indefinitely. There is no language in the city charter to prevent incumbents from seeking unlimited re-elections via the write-in process and current members of the council see trading in this loophole for a more defined third term as a way to put a hard ceiling on term limits.
“Voters in many jurisdictions including Long Beach have shown they want term limits,” said City Auditor Laura Doud, whose powers could be more defined as part of this charter reform. “Currently there’s a loophole in our law. Mayor and council members can run for an unlimited amount of terms as a write-in candidate and once they win in the primary their names can then appear on a general election ballot. In effect term limits, as the public intended them, do not exist in our city.”
Under the new rules a person would be limited to serving three terms as council member and three terms as mayor. However, persons who have already won a write-in campaign, like Sixth District Councilman Dee Andrews, would be eligible to run again as winners of write-in campaigns prior to November 2018 would be exempted as currently written. If Andrews chooses to run again he would potentially be in office a total of 16 years while future council members would be capped at 12 years.
The citizen redistricting committee, which would help redraw council district lines after the release of the United States Census every ten years, would be appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the city council as currently written which raised concerns among community members who felt this process could exclude full inclusion of the city’s diversity in the body that would determine its very politicized, and important, district lines.
“Today we know that you are our mayor but we don’t know who are next mayor is,” said Laura Som, a Fourth District business owner. “So we don’t know his values, we don’t know if he’s going to pick commissions that are going to represent all of us.”
Mayor Robert Garcia, responding to multiple comments made by community members about the chance for minority groups like the city’s Cambodian neighborhoods and LGBTQ community to be included, said that the bare bones literature that currently makes up the charter reform is likely to change before a final draft is voted on in August to place it on the November ballot.
“I support that the commissioners on these commissions should be random, just like the state and the way they’re appointed,” Garcia said. “You’re going to see, as the process moves out and as the council has some conversations, I think you’re going to see all of this come together in the next few months.”
Like the redistricting commission, the ethics commission which would police the city’s ethics, lobbying and campaign finance issues is also set to be appointed by the mayor. The two other questions that could potentially be put to voters are whether the city auditor’s powers and access to city entities’ records should be expanded and if the two city-run utilities should be consolidated.
Currently the city operates a gas and water company independent of each other with the water department having its rates set by the city’s water commission and the gas department having its rates set by the city council.
Combining the two would place them under the jurisdiction of a single utilities commission which would mutually appoint a general manager of both utilities with the city manager. The city says that this move could reduce redundancies and cost by having one utility providing service and digging up streets to repair lines which are often located near each other.
The water commissioners voted in March to explore this idea and it was then added to the list of charter reforms presented to the public Tuesday night. By law the city will host at least two more meetings to discuss the charter reforms before a vote can take place to put the issues on the November ballot.
Earlier this month the city was successful in passing a charter reform to codify its practice of charging its city-run utilities fees for access to city pipelines and then transferring those fees into the general fund. The mayor attributed that to the city trusting its leaders and again the council will rely on trust to pass these five potential amendments.
“This is an opportunity for our city to make some improvements in our public confidence, ethics and our delivery of services to our residents,” said Eighth District Councilman Al Austin. “Without public confidence we have nothing.”
[Editors note: This story has been updated to clarify that candidates currently can run for an indefinite amount of terms through the write-process with their name being added to the ballot after advancing past the primary election.]
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