As Mayor Rex Richardson enters his third month in office, he’ll begin the search for new positions that were added to his staff when the City Council voted last week to expand the budget for the legislative floor, in part to add at least two “deputy mayors.”

Deputy mayors are somewhat common across the country, but out of the 482 cities in California, very few have them. Richardson has pointed to bigger cities like Los Angeles, Oakland and even the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, which has a budget larger than some states, as examples of why his administration needs them.

Few details on the tasks of these deputy mayors were shared publicly before Tuesday’s vote by the council, leaving many people wondering what their role will be in the new administration. Here’s what we know.

What will the deputy mayors do? 

In short, they’ll allow the city to have a seat at the proverbial table when the mayor isn’t available and help gather information from the governing bodies of other jurisdictions on what is being done to address housing, homelessness and economic issues beyond Long Beach.

They’re merely members of the mayor’s staff with no special authority. Richardson made that point Tuesday when he said the title “deputy mayor” was a preference, and that he didn’t care if council members called their staff “deputy council members.”

Paul Barragan-Monge, the policy director for Richardson, said the deputy mayor positions would also allow the city’s housing and economic development officials to stay in the city and focus on servicing residents instead of constantly attending conferences and other meetings.

“There’s countless national bodies that are meeting that we could be at right now, but we don’t have the capacity to,” Barragan-Monge said.

The deputy mayor dedicated to homelessness and housing could do things like meet with the county to help figure out how the city could bring mental health services under the city’s control, something that it currently cannot do, even with its own Health Department. Richardson, nonetheless, made the idea part of his campaign as a tool to fight chronic homelessness.

The economic development and recovery deputy mayor could continue meeting with small businesses and talk to industries interested in opening in Long Beach. The person in that position could also meet with organizations like the Mayors for Guaranteed Income group, which helped create the city’s pilot program that will pay some area low-income households $500 per month for one year.

Barragan-Monge said this was not an “expansion of powers, but a delegation of the mayor.”

An announcement on who could fill the positions could come in the next month or so, but Barragan-Monge said the mayor’s office did not want to rush the process and potentially miss out on qualified candidates.

Limits of the city charter

The powers of the mayor’s office are limited by the city charter. Long Beach is a city that put its power in its City Council and city manager. While the mayor is the chief legislative officer, the council approves policies, and city management is charged with implementing those policies through the various city departments.

The charter limits the powers of legislators by specifically saying council members or the mayor cannot direct city employees to do anything individually. Those same restrictions would be in place for the deputy mayor positions, which are subordinate positions to the mayor.

City Attorney Dawn McIntosh said the new positions would have “absolutely no control over city departments” because of the charter, and she said her understanding is that they’d be in more of an information-sharing role and provide the city more opportunities to coordinate with other regional governments.

City Manager Tom Modica said that he sees the new positions as potentially being helpful in suggesting new policy directions or identifying outside funding opportunities the city could apply for.

“We’re clearly going to need a lot of money to deal with housing, homelessness and economic development,” Modica said.

But the power to enter into any deals, negotiate contracts or even apply for grants? That power will remain with his office, Modica said.

What’s the need? 

Richardson says he needs the new positions to help implement his “Opportunity Beach Agenda,” which put housing, homelessness and reviving the city’s economy at the top of his priority list for the city.

The additions will cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars for the second half of this fiscal year and push the mayor’s office’s budget over $2 million, something that drew denouncements from city hall critics and some members of the council.

Additions to the staff come as the city is projecting a budget deficit, which was as high as $43 million at one point but city officials now expect to shrink.

While the new positions have funding for this year, they could require cuts in the future to cover over $1 million in additions to Richardson’s staff. Barragan-Monge said the new positions could lead to more funding coming into the city through grants and other partnerships that could eclipse the fiscal cost.

Matt Lesenyie, a professor of political science at Cal State Long Beach, called the move “gutsy” because the new hires will come with expectations from the community to deliver on those policy areas.

“This situation sounds like someone is going to be on the hook for whatever happens, and they’re trying to be able to take more ownership of the issue,” Lesenyie said of Richardson’s campaign promises around housing and homelessness.

Lesenyie likened the moves to what the president does with cabinet members to try and steer policy in a way that aligns with their thinking and said it could be a way to exert more influence in city hall because changing the composition of it would require a charter reform.

Frank Zerunyan, a professor of the practice of governance at USC’s Sol Price School of Public Policy, said that he doubted more than a few dozen of the 482 cities in the state had deputy mayors, noting that they’re typically reserved for large cities.

“To be honest though, if you look at Long Beach, it’s the size of Cincinnati, Ohio. Does Cincinnati have a deputy mayor? I don’t know,” Zerunyan said.

Cincinnati (308,935 people) does not have deputy mayors, but some larger cities closer to Long Beach’s population of about 456,000 (Fresno, Oakland and Miami, for example) do. Others like Tucson, Omaha and Raleigh, do not.

Zerunyan, who has served on the Rolling Hills Estates City Council for 20 years, and served four terms as mayor, said that if Richardson has a clearly identified policy focus for the new positions, he doesn’t see an issue with them.

However, he questioned the use of surplus funds to hire for positions that carry long-term effects like pensions, benefits and salaries. Zerunyan said that did not make for good public administration.

But given the makeup of the city’s power structure, with the city manager being the policy implementer, Zerunyan said the additional hires might be more helpful on the city side.

“If the issue is about finding solutions in implementation, logically speaking of course, the need for more staff is more on the implementation side,” Zerunyan said.

Long Beach mayor’s office will grow despite pushback from some on council

Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or @JasonRuiz_LB on Twitter.