9:30am | On Sunday evening Al Austin and Lillian Kawasaki, running against each other (and Gustavo Rivera, who was a no-show) for the 8th District council seat, got up on stage at the EXPO Building to field questions posed to them by members of the press and audience in a candidates forum put on by North Long Beach Community Action Group.
I say “fielded” and not “answered” questions because as often as not both candidates failed to speak directly to the queries, with the majority of talk by each candidate centering around how qualified he/she is for the position — even when the questions had nothing to do with this.
An overview of what we heard:
Austin’s main pitch about his qualifications to be 8th District councilmember was his extensive work in the community, while Kawasaki‘s was her extensive budgetary experience.
Dave Wielenga of GreaterLongBeach.com used the idea of $181,000/year pension that Kawasaki will receive once she retires from her Water Replenishment District job as a springboard to a question about how the candidates would deal with pension issues if elected. “The pension I received is the one I paid into for 30 years,” Kawasaki said. “The pension I received is the pension I earned.” She expressed her chief concern as being about pension stability, using her own pension as an example: “I have a concern [about] the stability of those pensions. And are they really going to be there when, um, I’m hoping to live a long time. So as you look at the pensions and the pension numbers, although I earned it, I have a concern — very much so, in a personal way — if that pension is going to be there. The aspect of pension stability is one we have to look at very carefully in the overall percentage of the budget, and where we’re going to be in the future.” When his turn came Austin joked that he had never earned enough to have anywhere near a six-figure pension, then pointed out that “the average public employee retires with [a pension of] $30,000 to $35,000 a year. [… But] pension reform is a critical piece of solving our budget situation.”
8th District candidates Lillian Kawasaki and Al Austin address attendees at a forum in the EXPO building. Photo courtesy of Matthew Barnett.
I asked the candidates to name one specific way in which they would continue outgoing Councilmember Rae Gabelich’s work, and one specific way in which they would move in a different direction. Austin: said he would continue Gabelich’s neighborhood-preservation efforts; said he would “foster greater involvement of the community north of Del Amo [Blvd.]” than Gabelich has. Kawasaki: said she would continue to support “aggressive vitalization of the Atlantic corridor […] actually, more aggressively, in fact”; said that unlike Gabelich, she favors a ban on medicinal-marijuana collectives (I didn’t ask about medpot, I swear!): “I’d like to see a ban put in place until such time as we would be able to make sure that any collective that would be in the area could be properly enforced and there would be proper compliance. […] This is a matter again not of compassionate use — we want to have every available alternative to people who are in pain — but this is about land use, this is about governance, it’s about making sure that we can enforce these collectives. And if we cannot, we need to just ban them.”
A resident asked the candidates how from their council seat they would address an increasingly visible homeless/panhandling population. Austin admitted he didn’t have a plan at present; Kawasaki said she would work to improve connecting the homeless population with the services available.
When asked how they would protect 8th District residents while at the same time protecting citywide interests, Kawasaki said she would work to have good working relationships with other councilmembers, have a broad range of contacts throughout the city, and enhance communication with constituents. Austin spoke more specifically to the issue: “Our district elects us, so […] my first priority will be to the residents of my district.” He then held up former 9th District Councilmember Val Lerch as a paradigm he would emulate, noting that Lerch spent a lot of time in other council districts (community events, etc.) “I think that that helped him have a broader perspective about the City of Long Beach. And as a city councilmember, I’ll do the same. But I want to go one step further: I think it’s time for our city council to do the same. If that means having a city council meeting at the EXPO or […] in other places. Bringing us away from downtown so that the residents throughout this city can be more actively involved and engaged [with the City], I think it’s worthwhile. Not everyone in this economy and this day and age has the time to go downtown. And so I think we need to think about creative ways to engage our residents and increase civic participation.”
Wielenga asked a question that resulted in perhaps the biggest dodge of the evening by both candidates: Do they believe it’s right for the City to continue to withhold the names of police officers involved in shootings despite two court orders ruling that the names are public information? Kawasaki answered the question as if Wielenga had said the court had ordered the City to withhold the names, and said she supported that action. When Wielenga corrected her, Kawasaki said she had received contrary information about the court decision. For his part, Austin talked of his service on the Citizen Police Complaint Commission, as well as of his support the Police Officers Bill of Rights and police privacy. When Wielenga pinned him down on a “yes” or “no” regarding complying with the court order, Austin answered, “That’s a city-attorney call.”
At one point Kawasaki objected to Austin’s having an iPhone (or some such device) on the table in front of him, saying that all comments should come from the candidates themselves and not from information supplied to them by others.
Austin said if elected he would bring together a small-business council in the 8th District, which would meet quarterly. “I’m going to be a champion for small businesses,” he said.
Kawasaki fielded a question about what any specific ways in which the candidates feel the 8th District is not getting its fair share of City resources by talking about the need to generate more resources. “So, I’m going to try to answer the question,” Austin said when she was finished, then pointed to “recreational funding,” “street maintenance, tree-trimming [etc.],” and “police staffing” as examples.
The crowd turn-out for the 8th District Candidate’s Forum held at the EXPO building.
The candidates were asked point blank how each was a superior candidate to the other. “Please be specific and frank,” said the questioner. Austin was neither, not so much as once comparing himself to Kawasaki. Not that Kawasaki made a direct comparison, either, though she did imply that she understands budgetary issues better than Austin. “It’s one thing to understand the issues,” she said. “It’s another to have a track record.” Austin later came back to this implication: “There’s an inference that because I haven’t served 35 years as a bureaucrat that I don’t know how to read a budget,” he said, pointing to his experience representing (e.g.) Parks & Rec employees in labor negotiations with the City of Los Angeles.
Harry Saltzgaver of the Gazette newspapers asked how the candidates would impact issues related to the 710 freeway, since it’s within the direct purview of the State and not the City. Austin said he would leverage relationships he formed as transportation deputy for State Senator Kevin Murray. Kawasaki said she is already involved in this issue, though it wasn’t clear to me from her answer how her current involvement would translates into impacting freeway issues once she is a councilmember.
Wielenga asked if the candidates feel there is a “mayoral majority ” on the currently city council –i.e., a voting bloc that more or less does Mayor Bob Foster’s bidding — and whether they would be a part of it. Both candidates made general statements about their independence; neither chose to answer whether they think a “mayor majority” exists.
“We must give firefighters and police the resources and tools to do their jobs.”
“We need to continue to improve our air and water quality.”
“We need to preserve as much green space as we can.”
“The whole notion that it’s either the environment or the economy is a false dichotomy.”
“I’ll work to protect and preserve the quality of life in these neighborhoods.”
“I love Long Beach.”
The 80 or so folks in attendance Sunday heard numerous statements such as the five above, which I leave unattributed on purpose, because it simply doesn’t matter who said them, since such sentiments are so general and universal that they could have come from the mouth of not only either of the candidates but just about anyone you will ever see running for any office in the country.
On March 7 the ________ will sponsor another 8th District candidates forum. Perhaps more people will turn out. Perhaps all three of the candidates will show up. Perhaps the candidates who do will specifically answer each question put to them.
We can only hope.