Civically Speaking is a weekly newsletter on the latest local government news from the lens of the Long Beach Post’s City Hall reporter, who sits through so many city meetings for us. Subscribe here.
The sausage is being made in open session
I’ve mentioned it before, but I’ve been around the block a few times. I’m “long in the tooth” and my ears are no longer wet on the backside or whatever euphemism you prefer. I’m old.
In my decade-plus of covering City Hall, I’ve seen a lot of presentations from the Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB for short). It’s the city-funded nonprofit that promotes tourism and helps book conventions in Long Beach, and every year during its budget season there’s a big production put on to show the City Council how awesome it is.
Just last year, it boasted that its work led to $1.8 billion in economic impact from visitors coming to Long Beach, with a lot of other markers trending up like hotel tax revenue, future convention bookings and its growing media reach. The Long Beach Post was not listed, sadly.
Business is good, or so some might think.
That’s why it was perplexing to see that the City Council is going to vote Tuesday to restructure how it does business with the CVB by giving roughly half of that business to a newly formed, untested nonprofit named Meet Long Beach.
This is happening at the CVB’s explicit request to help avoid public records laws like California’s longstanding Brown Act, which the CVB says, “compromises its ability to conduct confidential business that contributes to the success of the city as a tourism destination.”
Not once during any of the previous annual presentations has the Brown Act’s crippling effect on the CVB’s ability to conduct business come up. And in interviews over the years with its CEO Steve Goodling, Steve’s never pulled me aside to say “Guy, if only this pesky transparency law were gone, this place would look like Waikiki.”
The Brown Act is a statewide law that requires government agencies to vote on the public’s business at meetings that are open to the public, and a companion law, the California Public Records Act, mandates those same agencies must open their books up to public inspection.
Because Long Beach helped form the CVB back in 1982 as a marketing arm of the city, it must comply with those laws, but it wasn’t until recently — when our reporters started poking around into some alleged misdeeds by Goodling — that the city told the CVB it needed to follow the Brown Act and Public Records Act.
If you recall, my managing editor, Jeremiah Dobruck, has been following this story for some time. It started with a wrongful termination suit in April 2022 that alleged Goodling conspired to get the Convention Center’s finance director fired after he complained that truckloads of furniture, stuffed animals and chandeliers bought on the public’s dime kept showing up unannounced at the Convention Center.
Another “whistleblower” complaint was sent to City Hall in July again alleging that Goodling was recklessly spending public funds and treating employees in a “harassing and retaliatory” way.
If you haven’t read Jeremiah’s story yet, I recommend you do. It details the allegations in depth but also shows what public documents revealed about Goodling’s practices at the CVB, like his buying of gifts for politicians and other city officials with public funds and throwing lavish private parties, one that included a $40,000 cake — again paid for with public funds.
As he was reporting that story, Jeremiah informed the City Manager and City Attorney that the CVB was refusing to fulfill some of his public records requests, and they, in turn, told the CVB it had to comply or risk losing out on its annual contract this year. (Side note, the CVB is still refusing to turn over many of the documents.)
That seems like pretty good motivation for what happened next: Goodling and the CVB’s board of directors executing a plan that could shield many of his activities from public records laws in the future.
That brings us to Tuesday when the council will be asked to authorize contracting with the new organization Meet Long Beach. Also led by Goodling, it would work hand-in-hand with the CVB by taking on many of its marketing and sales duties, but with one big distinction: Meet Long Beach — and the $7 million in public funds it’s set to control — would not be subject to public records laws.
That means no more public documents that might reveal publicly funded parties that only city officials and dignitaries were invited to, or the ability to definitively say how millions in public money are being spent.
The Brown Act does require transparency, but it also lets bodies have sensitive negotiations like land acquisitions or union contract negotiations in private. As many reporters in our newsroom have found over the years, the law also allows things labeled as a “draft” to be withheld from being released to the public.
So, does the CVB’s newfound gripe with the Brown Act pass the smell test? I’m not one of the people who gets to decide. We’ve tried to ask members of the council and they’ve been quiet on the matter.
When we asked Mayor Rex Richardson this week if he supports Goodling’s plan, he said it’s up to the City Council, and a follow-up question to his non-answer was cut off by some urgent coughs from his communications director before she finally interrupted with a “next question.”
Should the public know how public money is being spent? One way or the other, the City Council will give a definitive answer to that question Tuesday night.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW THIS WEEK:
Last week Belmont Brewing Company said it had decided to pull out of the process to get a parklet approved outside its restaurant, but that doesn’t seem to be slowing the tide of other applications moving their way toward approval. On Monday, the city’s zoning administrator, the person who’s in charge of giving preliminary approval to things like parklets, is expected to decide on a new parklet for Aroma di Roma on Second Street. Aroma di Roma is proposing an outdoor dining area that would only take up one parking stall instead of the two spaces that other restaurants have sought to build their parklets. That meeting starts at 2 p.m. and you can watch it remotely.
PAY ATTENTION TO THIS NEXT WEEK:
The ONLY City Council meeting of the month is happening Tuesday, and it’s packed with important votes. I’ve discussed what’s on the line with the restructuring of the CVB above, but the City Council could also vote to approve a new ordinance that will set standards for street vending. It’s a contentious issue that has pitted restaurant owners against the vendors, and the law could have big effects on where they’re allowed to sell and will set penalties for what happens if they violate the law. Make sure to tune in early. This week’s meeting starts at 4 p.m.