The Backroom is a column by the staff of the Long Beach Post with notes and analysis, along with bloops and blunders, from the city’s political scene. It runs every Thursday. To contact us, email [email protected]. For questions or concerns, please contact Managing Editor Melissa Evans: [email protected] or 562-437-5814.
The Backroom is back.
You’re wondering how we could be so irresponsible to take a vacation when we’re supposed to be keeping an eye (or, in our case, eyes) out for civic horseplay.
You’re perhaps also wondering what could be so important that we’d put ourselves on hiatus for a month. What have we been doing?
Can we be honest? We’ve been dreaming about being in Cabo. Sailfishing, basking in the sun, drinking cocktails with the word “monkey” in their title, relaxing in a beach chair, reading James Patterson and Danielle Steel paperbacks that we picked up in the airport kiosk, and turning off all gizmos to disconnect ourselves from world affairs.
And we come back to this. Look at this place! This is what happens when we give you a little responsibility and trust you to behave. We’re not mad; we’re just a little disappointed.
OK, let’s see what we’ve got.
Much has happened in our month-long quarantine from local politics: The Measure A tax extension claimed victory by the thinnest of margins, Long Beach Unified has a new superintendent, LBCC has a new interim president-superintendent. And also important, Long Beach has a new city manager, Thomas Bruce Modica, who, after spending 18 years burrowed deep in the bowels municipal bureaucracy, has climbed to the pinnacle of his career only to be greeted by the mess of a pandemic that has ravaged the local economy.
Yes, congratulations. We’re happy for Tom. He’s the right person for the job. We were saying that before it was cool.
And what a job it is, and will be for the foreseeable future: The city’s budget nerds—with whom we’re guessing people are avoiding eye contact these days—issued an initial assessment this week tallying the carnage from the coronavirus.
Very early projections show the city is expected to lose between $38 million and $44 million this fiscal year, much of it from the taxpayer-funded general fund—problem being (for the city at least), no one is paying much tax these days. Hotel occupancy has cratered, oil is as cheap as kittens, and no one is making it rain in local shops.
The tab includes massive amounts of overtime for city staff and emergency personnel responding to the pandemic. What it does not include is equally as significant: The city is considering a range of stimulus measures—loans, grants, fee waivers—and worker protections that will have financial fallout for months, possibly years to come.
Next Tuesday the city will also consider opening a $25 million line of credit for one year “to provide security for an unknown future,” according to a staff report. In addition, officials may take out a $60 million line of credit for its Water Department, for up to three years, to potentially help pay for infrastructure work.
We love living off our credit card. It’s almost like it’s not even real money.
If things get bad, we know Tom’ll figure it out.
Mute the mic
Another thing Modica will have to navigate, delicately we think, is the challenge of public meetings in the Coronavirus Era.
We all understand the awkward perils of video conferencing: The pain of talking to a triple chin, for one, or trying to have a meaningful conversation with someone who’s riding a stationary bike in their living room.
At least a tenth of the substance at recent City Council meetings now involves the mayor imploring participants to mute their mics. No one needs to hear heavy breathing reminiscent of a Friday the 13th horror flick. At least one person on Tuesday seemed to be pounding a slab of veal; another was definitely in their car with screaming kids in the back seat. Save your recipe sharing for off-hours, please!
We’ll go ahead and forgive these faux pas. It’s new; we’re all adjusting.
What’s more alarming is the potential loss of public input, especially on a night like Tuesday, when the council was discussing a slew of requirements for businesses that could have a profound effect on their viability.
Residents can still submit e-comments, but this does not replace public comment in real time. And on Tuesday the audio of the meeting was disconnected for the public in the middle of the discussion about these very consequential economic policies. We could almost hear the clatter of gadflies typing in all caps: WHO KNOWS WHAT THEY VOTED ON DURING THAT FIVE MINUTES!!
Given that social distancing restrictions will likely be in place for a while, we’d urge the city to figure out how to allow more meaningful feedback and participation, possibly through a call-in line, and more flagrant advertisement of policies under consideration.
Happy to be nonessential
Instead we called up our old pal and former City Manager Pat West, who is one of the few people who isn’t unhappy to be out of work right now.
It’s true that a six-figure pension that continues to pour in regularly somewhat softens the blow of being unemployed, but you get the impression talking with him now that he’d almost prefer being out of work at no pay.
But surely, being in the thick of things during this worldwide crisis must have a certain appeal. Does West wish he was still at the helm of the city, guiding it through this raging storm?
“No,” he said. “No part of me wishes to be involved. I’m just happy to be here with my wife, away from all the drama. I do miss the grandkids, but we talk to them on FaceTime and the other day my daughter drove them over and parked across the street and we went out and waved to them. But, no, I’m fine with retirement.”
And now West’s former assistant has been promoted to the job, as per The Backroom’s instructions to the city council, and it’s his problem now. And that pleases West greatly.
“I couldn’t be more excited for Tom,” said West from his backyard hammock in Cypress. “I think he’s going to be fantastic. He’s the right guy at the right time. He’s just so smart.”
OK, we get it; you’re fine. But pretend you’re still the boss. What should we do?
“Well, we have to wait and see what sort of restrictions we’ll have to follow,” said West. “It’s tough for Long Beach, because we’re so heavy on restaurants and hospitality. We’re just going to have to pay attention to our leaders.”
“ALL of them?” we yelped, because some of them, you know, they’re sort of difficult to follow. West laughed. “Well, our leaders in California, I think, are doing a pretty good job.” Yeah, he knows who we’re talking about.
West does feel empathy for essential workers, who put themselves at risk every day. Some, he said, change their clothes in their garage so as to not bring the virus into their house and possibly imperiling their partners and their children. It’s a lot of stress for a lot of people.
Still, he says, “I have no problem with being a nonessential person now.”
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