The Long Beach Ethics Commission voted Wednesday to recommend censure for the mayor and a City Council member for appearing in a series of public service announcements that the city’s legal counsel said violated ethics rules.
During the most recent election season, then-Councilmember Rex Richardson—who has since been elected mayor—and Councilmember Al Austin participated in several PSAs about fire safety issues, such as the city’s ban on fireworks and the importance of changing smoke alarm batteries.
The videos violated ethics rules, in part, because Austin and Richardson were claiming to speak on behalf of the entire City Council, which they were not authorized to do, and because their political campaigns were tagged in the videos posted on Instagram, according to the Long Beach City Attorney’s office.
The Long Beach firefighters union, which endorsed both Austin and Richardson, paid for and posted the PSAs in the months leading up to the November election.
Taken as a whole, the videos gave the appearance that the City Council, and the city, were endorsing both Richardson’s and Austin’s election bids, according to an outside law firm hired by the city to consider the issue.
Best Best & Krieger, the firm hired by the city to handle election-related complaints, concluded in a letter that the PSAs looked and sounded “like a campaign advertisement, notwithstanding the lack of any direct appeal for votes.”
Austin, who ran unsuccessfully for a state Assembly this November, said he was surprised at the commission’s decision to recommend censure. Austin said he didn’t see anything wrong with the PSAs and added that he wouldn’t have voted to censure someone for things that were out of their control, such as the decision by the firefighters union to tag his campaign account on Instagram.
Richardson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Rex Pritchard, president of the firefighters union, said he’s to blame for the situation. Pritchard said the union has been doing similar PSAs for over 15 years and this is the first time they’ve run into any ethical issue.
He noted that one of the videos featuring Richardson was filmed in July 2021, before he announced his bid for mayor. The script for the PSAs and the decision to tag political accounts was Pritchard’s responsibility, he said.
“What is their official account and private account, I’m horrible at that and that falls on me, 100%,” Pritchard said. “If they want to censure someone, they should censure me.”
For either Richardson or Austin to be censured, which amounts to a formal reprimand, the City Council must take up the Ethics Commission’s recommendation and vote on it, something that’s far from guaranteed to happen.
Even at the commission level, the decision was labored. During Wednesday’s meeting, some commissioners questioned whether they had the authority to recommend censure. Others argued it was crucial that they not ignore the issue.
“I think for us to not speak on violations of the city’s ethics policy when it’s an elected official says volumes and weakens our credibility,” said Margo Morales, who chairs the commission and made the motion to recommend censure.
Candidates are not allowed to use city resources in their political campaigns and are even barred from appearing on things like the city’s television programs once they’ve signed papers to run for office.
The city and the Fair Political Practices Commission, which enforces campaign laws, have similar blackout periods where candidates can’t appear in city-funded mass mailings, with Long Beach including “television and radio programs from being prepared, produced, printed, sent, broadcast, transmitted, delivered or distributed at public expense.”
Former Councilmember Suzie Price was accused of using public resources to aid her campaign because she had a link in her City Council newsletter to constituents that directed readers to a campaign site. A complaint to the FPPC was also filed against her for using a pop-up shade structure at a city event that had the same website address printed on it. The case has yet to be resolved.
The city sent a letter to the FPCC asking it to investigate the PSAs, but it was denied, according to the city attorney’s office.
Deputy City Attorney Taylor Anderson said the city is working on a new policy on how to handle election-related complaints given the “onslaught” of violations its office saw this year. It could create a more transparent way for the office to alert the public to who has been alleged to have violated campaign laws.
“There’s a public interest in elections violations and my office recognizes that,” Anderson said.
If the City Council does take up the issue, Richardson, like Austin, would face censure in his role as a member of the council, not in his new role as mayor, according to the city attorney’s office. The last time a City Council member was censured was May 2018.