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Things we learned during the city charter refresher course
If you heard that dull thud Tuesday night I can assure you it wasn’t my head hitting the table because I fell asleep during the City Council meeting. I was keenly tuned in because Tuesday was the night of the long-promised study session on the city charter, the one that was going to tell the council and the mayor exactly where their lanes were.
It turned out to be a dud.
The City Clerk and City Attorney’s offices presented the history of the city’s political structure, which included some notable highlights. Did you know the reason the city was incorporated twice (1888 and 1897) is because there was an effort to keep it alcohol-free?
Or that the city’s nine City Council districts were created in 1929, but it wasn’t until 1976 that the city pivoted from citywide elections to having individual districts elect their own representatives?
For you guys, I’ll try to stick to the highlights. We have a council-manager form of government where the City Council hires and fires the city manager and sets policy. The city manager executes it.
The mayor in this scenario is sometimes referred to as a “weak mayor,” but in Long Beach, the position does have the power to veto council votes. The mayor’s jobs listed in the charter include chairing the council meetings, which added a level of irony to the presentation because Mayor Rex Richardson was not present.
When that happens, the vice mayor, a ceremonial role that is elected by the council, takes over for the mayor.
Mayors in Long Beach also get to attend ceremonies—think giant scissors and golden shovels—as well as represent the city as its face outside of Long Beach. Neither the mayor nor council members have the authority to tell city employees what to do.
I wrote about the effort to get this discussion scheduled back in May when Councilmember Al Austin, who had been sounding the alarm on the growing influence of the mayor, sought to schedule it on an upcoming agenda.
He was met with resistance from council colleagues loyal to Richardson, who said they didn’t need the refresher course.
After Tuesday’s lighthearted refresher, Austin quipped, “That didn’t hurt so bad.”
But what could hurt, as the presentation revealed, is if the mayor is ever recalled.
Taylor Anderson, a deputy city attorney, said the cost estimates “keep us up at night” and for good reason. The cost of a successful recall, which would entail two citywide special elections, the first to remove the mayor and the second to fill the position, could cost the city over $17 million.
A recall election for a single council district would cost a mere $800,000, according to Anderson.
The swelling costs have to do with Long Beach now relying on Los Angeles County for election services coupled with the county changing the way it collects and counts ballots. It now uses more resources (drop boxes, voting centers) and allows people to vote from anywhere in the county.
I wrote about this issue in 2021 when a judge ruled that the county did not have to pay for the cost of locating individual paper ballots if someone wanted to perform a manual recount. A recount of the 2020 vote for Measure A, which won by 16 votes, was stopped after costs began to soar.
The ruling could basically make a manual recount of any future election cost-prohibitive. So, if you don’t trust machines, you might want to start a fund to locate ballots in the sea of millions of votes.
But a recount is still likely more affordable than a recall of the mayor. So, please, future mayors, if you’re going to get recalled, try to do so within 88 to 120 days of a scheduled election for mayor. The city’s budget is counting on you.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW THIS WEEK:
You should be able to heat your home this year without having to fear how much it will hit you in your pocketbook. The Long Beach Utilities Department has inked a deal to cap natural gas prices for the next three winters. It’s intended to keep the cost per therm (what you pay) at a fraction of what it was last winter. The department estimates that given the average household usage of 65 therms per month, residents could expect a bill of about $108 this January compared to the average bill of about $313 last January. The department still encourages people to conserve natural gas and offers discounted programs to qualifying households. But for those of you who can’t live without your heaters, this winter you can be warmer without breaking the bank.
PAY ATTENTION TO THIS NEXT WEEK:
It’s shaping up to be a slow week for public meetings, but there will be some very fast runners gracing the Downtown area and other streets, which will be closed, because of the Long Beach Marathon this weekend. Here’s a full list of those closures if you want to avoid being trapped on the wrong side of the route Sunday morning. Good luck to anyone running this year. I wanted to be out there with you, but my hamstring had other plans.