Five months before filing for bankruptcy, the former operator of the Queen Mary “had run out of money” and was unable to pay its $250,000 electricity bill—a fact that key city officials were aware of.
“Maintaining basic utility connections to the Queen Mary is of critical (sic) for the maintenance and security of the historic City asset,” John Keisler, the city’s former Economic Development Director, wrote in August 2020.
That bit of information would have been a story: The fact that the ship’s operator Urban Commons, which had been entrusted with $23 million in publicly funded bonds to fix critical repairs on the ship, was in such dire financial standing that it couldn’t afford to pay basic utilities and insurance.
But it wasn’t a story we wrote, because we didn’t know about it—at least, not until earlier this year, when the city finally released records that were requested by a reporter two and a half years ago, on Oct. 5, 2020, through the state’s Public Records Act.
It is one of many instances in which the city has slow-walked, or thus far disregarded, information requests that the public, by law, is entitled to have.
Long Beach is breaking state law by not meeting this obligation—and that has a direct impact on the public’s ability to understand how decisions are being made, and how well the government is managing public funds and assets.
In interviews this week, city officials concede there are problems.
City Attorney Dawn McIntosh, elected last year, said the city is taking steps to address the delays, including training, or re-training, employees to ensure they understand the law and its legal implications.
April Walker, the administrative deputy city manager who oversees these requests, said there are perceptions at City Hall that need changing: “There’s a stigma around this,” she said of records requests. “Some think that anytime someone requests a record it’s because they’re doing something wrong.
“We do need to change the culture around that.”
The Public Records Act specifically requires government agencies to notify requesters whether the information exists within 10 days, and then to give an estimated date when the information will be provided.
When records are delayed for a lengthy period, it is a de facto denial of them, said David Loy, legal director for the First Amendment Coalition, which provides legal counsel and advocacy to groups seeking public information.
The Queen Mary emails are a good example. These now-dated records included dozens of pages of communications that preceded Urban Commons’ bankruptcy filing in January 2021—a time when officials like Keisler were still tight-lipped about the problems brewing behind the scenes.
City Editor Hayley Munguia, who at the time was a reporter for the Press-Telegram, asked for four months of communications between key city staff, consultants and companies in charge of the Queen Mary.
The emails included back-and-forth between city leaders and vendors of the Queen Mary, many of whom contacted city officials to complain that invoices dating back as far as December 2019 for services provided to the ship were not paid.
The detailed accounting of the many different debts that Urban Commons seemed unable to pay would have, on its own, been newsworthy. But the emails included other nuggets of information.
For example, the Long Beach Water Department’s General Manager Chris Garner emailed Keisler and then-Business Operations Bureau Manager Johnny Vallejo in July 2020 to let them know that a Water Department employee had paid a $14,000 deposit to get married on the Queen Mary, but the wedding had been canceled due to COVID, and the employee had been unable to get a refund.
Garner reached out on July 6, and the emails indicate the refund was issued July 21. Months later, residents with no connection to City Hall were still waiting to get their money back.
There are many other examples of similar requests made by the Post, and we simply don’t know what information they may contain—or we received it far too late:
- Curious as to why former Mayor Robert Garcia had been absent from several City Council meetings, or was leaving meetings early last year, City Hall Reporter Jason Ruiz on Oct. 5 requested Garcia’s calendars and schedule from January 2022 to Oct. 1. After I made several calls about the request this week, Ruiz finally got the information Wednesday (six months later), and it showed that Garcia, who was running for Congress at the time, had numerous appointments for campaign activities lasting up to six hours a day, including meetings with campaign advisors, donors and potential supporters. However at this stage—after the election—this information has far less relevance.
- In February 2022, Reporter Brandon Richardson requested emails from 2017 to 2019 between then-Mayor Garcia, members of the City Council and some key city staffers related to Community Hospital. More than a year later, he has not received the information. In the months after this request was made, the city voted to relinquish ownership of the hospital to its private operator to make up for millions in losses after the hospital closed.
- Here’s an easier one, or so we thought: On Feb. 23, Managing Editor Jeremiah Dobruck requested a single incident report for an explosion at the fire training center in November that injured 11 firefighters. The city said there were responsive documents, but gave no date as to when they would be provided. Messages went unreturned—even one from Dobruck offering to come down and view the report in person. Finally Dobruck resorted to tweeting about it. The next day, on April 12, the city said the information would be released April 17. Dobruck is still waiting, even after a followup message this week.
Walker, in the city manager’s office, said the city receives about 3,900 public record requests a year. She oversees the process, but there is just one full-time person in charge of making sure each department complies promptly.
“We do need more resources around this,” she said.
The city employs more than 6,000 people across 23 departments. It isn’t a matter of hiring more people, in my view—it’s a matter of choosing how these resources should be used.
Both Walker and the city attorney seem genuine in their efforts to address the problem.
Before joining the city in 2016, McIntosh worked for a law firm that was brought in to manage the fallout of the city of Bell scandal, including responding to dozens of records requests from the Los Angeles Times, which won a Pulitzer for its work exposing the bloated salaries and perks that led to criminal convictions for the city manager and a majority of the City Council.
And the Bell scandal is a good example of why this matters.
McIntosh said she doesn’t think anyone in Long Beach is doing anything maliciously, but that they just may not have an appreciation for what’s required.
“People have a right to access the government,” she agreed. “This is a fundamental right.”
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify a statement by April Walker.