OLD NEWS: Total recall in 1934, when the voters dumped the entire City Council

Editor’s note: “Old News” is an occasional series looking at some of Long Beach’s quirky and interesting historical stories and headlines.

Contentious elections, as we are learning again, are nothing new in Long Beach, nor is the constituents’ almost inevitable subsequent displeasure with those they’ve elected to office.

Recalls are frequently threatened by various grievously dissatisfied or angered groups, but infrequently seen through. Instead, voters have tended to suffer through office-holders’ terms and if disgruntled enough in sufficient numbers, will vote them out of office at the earliest opportunity.

That wasn’t the case in 1934, when Long Beach was just beginning to crawl out of the ruins of the Great Depression, but was still mired in financial difficulty. The budget was upside down, unemployment was still high and salaries were being slashed. In an effort to keep the city from sinking completely, city employees’ wages had been cut by as much as 30%, and the common folk with no access to the government trough weren’t faring much better.

One potential source of income for the city was oil money. The oil companies that had just recently sprung up in and around Long Beach in the early 1930s owed the city a substantial amount of money in royalties, but the City Council had been loath to prosecute the companies for payment. Why? If you’re blessed with a minimum amount of cynicism, you can probably guess.

At any rate, in the sizzling summer of 1934, the citizens in Long Beach had just about had a bellyful of the fat cats in City Hall, and mounted a staggeringly successful recall effort and threw the bums out. All nine council members, including the mayor (who, in those days, was appointed by his peers on the council) as well as the City Attorney were all ousted in the July 10 recall election.

The house-cleaning move received national attention, mostly of the tongue-in-cheek variety. The Kansas City Star noted that “Long Beach, Calif., is said to be in the position of having voted itself out of its government and must await an election to balance up the situation. But what if Long Beach should find it possible to get along just as well as matters now stand?”

And LA Times columnist Ed Ainsworth wrote, “Long Beach today is the luckiest city in America. It doesn’t have a municipal government! The voters not only threw a monkey wrench into the civic machine; they threw the whole blooming machine over a cliff.”

What prompted the recall? You pick. The charges included not only the council’s failure to to prosecute the oil companies for nonpayment of royalties, but a host of more generic complaints: incompetence, mismanagement, misuse of public funds, carelessness and disregard for the rights of the citizens of Long Beach, failure to adhere to the city charter, inefficiency and extravagance.

To keep a bit of a rudder on the foundering ship and prevent Long Beach from sinking into full-on lawlessness, the recalled councilmen were allowed to remain as the city’s de facto governing body, doing only the minimal amount of governing and barred from introducing new legislation until their replacements were elected the following month.

And that election was a barnburner, with 134 candidates on the ballot for the nine council seats, including several communists, which prompted the police to keep a close watch for disorder from the proletariat  (there was none).

Nearly 40,000 voters turned up at the polls for the election, compared with about 26,500 who voted for the recall.

Following the election, Long Beach’s council was back to the business of governing, with Carl Fletcher appointed as mayor to replace the ousted Mayor Merritt E. Paddock. The new group of politicians were afforded a lot more job protection in the 1935 election, with the passage of a proposition that changed the city charter to require 25% of registered voters signed up only in the city clerk’s office to initiate a recall election, rather than 10% of voters. The measure was touted as a way to make it more difficult for “recall racketeering,” in which interested parties would drive people to City Hall, and sometimes pay the voters, to sign.

Today, it would be a tremendously difficult task to recall the entire council, even though it’s occasionally pleasant to think about.

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Tim Grobaty is a columnist and opinions editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his newspaper career at the Press-Telegram in 1976 as a copy boy and moved on to feature writer, music critic, TV critic, copy editor and daily columnist. He’s the author of several books, including I’m Dyin’ Here, and he lives in Long Beach.