A former Long Beach city attorney and three former city councilmembers
met at the Business Journal offices recently to discuss the 2014 city
elections. The planned one-hour meeting stretched past two hours and a
promise to meet again prior to next April's primary. From left are
former councilmembers Les Robbins and Jeff Kellogg, former city
attorney John Calhoun and former councilmember Rae Gabelich.
(Photograph by the Business Journal's Thomas McConville)
Robbins: They had major bucks.
Kellogg: That aside, they were all really quality individuals who had strong ties to the community. If any of them got elected, it was a positive. They were tough campaigns. When was the last time you saw that type of campaign?
Gabelich: You know what? I think that city politics is such a negative arena. Who wants to do that? Who wants to get in there and do that every week?
Robbins: How can you make that statement and then turn around and say you think we are going to have 49,000 people turning out [for the April primaries]? I think the statement that you just made is exactly the point that I made. I think people in this city are really turned off by government, by politics. I don’t see a big turnout in Districts 3 or 5. If there isn’t a big turnout in those districts, the implications that could have on the mayor’s race. . . .
LBBJ: That benefits Bonnie Lowenthal in the mayoral race?
Robbins: It does.
Gabelich: Then Districts 7 or 8 push it.
Robbins: But I’m saying that most of the interest in those two districts [3rd and 5th], which historically have pretty hotly contested races . . .
LBBJ: So, because there are not strong candidates in the 3rd District, that is going to hurt the turnout?
Robbins: I don’t see how it does anything but hurt the turnout. That could change though.
LBBJ: Do you all agree that the 5th District should be pretty competitive?
Kellogg: Historically, the 5th District has always been a competitive seat. But if you’re not out there working right now, you run into the time factor. You can’t physically go door to door.
Gabelich: Because they have more sidewalks than any other district in the city.
Kellogg: The 5th District is always competitive because you have very concerned, high propensity voters. Like in the 3rd District, it surprises me what’s not there. I don’t see the traditional community activist.
Robbins: Stacy’s been pretty involved out there the past five years.
LBBJ: In the El Dorado Estates area.
Robbins: Yes. But there are no burning issues out there [in the district].
LBBJ: What about the Gerrie Schipske factor in the 5th District as far as bringing voters out? Don’t you think that her being in the mayoral race is going to generate voters in the 5th – both for and against her – to turn out?
Robbins: Gerrie is disappointed that there aren’t more candidates running out there in the 5th. Gerrie has tried to get more people in the race, figuring that would increase the turnout, which, of course, is to her benefit in the mayor’s race. I totally agree with her logic, but I’m not hearing the interest. I don’t hear anybody out there talking about council. The attitude is just apathetic beyond anything. I’ve lived there for 64 years and nine months, and I’ve never seen it like this.
LBBJ: What about Frank Colonna as a write-in for the 3rd District?
Kellogg: Right now, looking at the field, Frank brings tremendous legitimacy. I think he would be an instant front-runner. Frank has a history.
LBBJ: So you think Frank would be the favorite?
Gabelich: I agree.
LBBJ: John, how do you feel?
Calhoun: Yeah, I agree.
Robbins: With the name I.D., absolutely.
Kellogg: Rae touched on this earlier . . . I have to tell you, nobody understands the difficulty of being an elected official today. There are no easy answers anymore. There are no simple solutions anymore. You’re making votes that are guaranteed to upset people. . . . There are two types of people who run: people who want to be “somebody;” and people who want to do something. Everyone says they want to do something. But you watch them over the course of time and you realize that they are really into it because they believe in the power of the office and having the prestige. That, traditionally, in the long run, will get them in trouble. That’s the problem today.
LBBJ: But you didn’t have much experience when you ran.
Kellogg: But what I did have is that the Kellogg family has been in the 8th District since the 1930s.
LBBJ: Les wasn’t really involved in the community.
Robbins: When I ran, I was involved on the county level. But I had no city experience.
Kellogg: You know what we called it back in the day? We called it the “Nice Young Man” campaign. It goes back to the candidates for mayor. The people are going to have to like them.
LBBJ: Let’s move on to the city attorney’s race where Councilman James Johnson recently announced he is going to run against Charles Parkin, who was appointed city attorney by the city council after Bob Shannon retired July 1, and who has been with the city attorney’s office since 1995.
Kellogg: That is the most unusual race.
LBBJ: Why do you think that Johnson, after raising $70,000 since January for his relection to the city council, would decide to run for city attorney?
Gabelich: He needs a job.
Robbins: I agree.
LBBJ: We asked him what he was doing for work and he said he was teaching law at Cal State Long Beach. Is he prepared for the city attorney’s office? Not just any attorney can run for city attorney, right?
Kellogg: No. You just have to be an attorney.
Calhoun: Yeah, that’s the problem. You have to have five years of qualified practice before the courts of California.
To answer your initial question, if you made a list of all of the areas that the city attorney has to serve as the legal advisor and representative, and compared that list with L.A., New York City, Oakland, Portland, wherever you want, the Long Beach list would be longer. First, we’re one of only four cities in the state that has its own public health department. The City of L.A. does not have its own health department. The City of San Diego does not have a health department.
We have oil, gas, water, the port, refuse, the airport. If you make the list, the city attorney has one hell of a long list.
LBBJ: Right. You’ve got to be smart.
Calhoun: You’ve got to be very active and energetic and usually you have to have [a certain level of] experience.
LBBJ: What were you doing before you were elected?
Calhoun: I served seven or eight years as the assistant city attorney.
LBBJ: What about being in front of a court? Don’t you have to have that experience, too?
Calhoun: You mean litigation?
Calhoun: I spent six or seven years as a prosecutor for the County of L.A. and the city prosecutor’s office before I went over to the city attorney’s office.
LBBJ: But that’s important, isn’t it?
Calhoun: I think it’s important from a standpoint of evaluating and analyzing cases and the positions that maybe should be taken in litigation and so forth and so on. Usually you only get that by exposure to it.
Robbins: George, I think you hit on what may very well be, next to the mayor’s race, the most important single election coming up. There are a lot of things that hinge on what that city attorney tells the city council. It requires an ability to convince them, for lack of a better word, to do the legally correct thing and maybe not the politically correct thing. I think that could be really important.
Calhoun: I’ll give you an example of something I read about in the past two weeks. It was a maintenance contract that the city had with some landscaping service. What is important is it was a two-year contract. Well, first thing that pops into my mind is what about the debt limitation clause? You cannot commit next year’s revenues this year. You cannot sign a contract to buy a trash truck over three years.
Calhoun: You have to have all the money in the year you make the commitment. That’s why you don’t have installment contracts. That’s why you don’t have long-term service contracts, unless they’re out of a special fund like the harbor revenue fund.
The second thing that pops into my mind is what about Proposition L?
[Prop L was passed nearly 25 years ago. It requires that work by an outside contractor be performed “as efficiently, effectively and at an estimated lower cost to the city” than work being done by city employees.]
Did they go through Prop L for this contract? You can’t wipe out civil service by making a finding in one year that it’s going to be more economical, efficient and effective, and not detrimental to the best interests of the city, to trim trees and have that be the rule from then on. You have to do it for each particular contract. Those actions have to be by a supermajority of the council. They have to be by ordinance.
Kellogg: I think James is looking at this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to run for an office [without facing an incumbent]. . . . Here you have a young person who’s got a tremendous pedigree and wants to be in politics and do law. I think that’s how he’s looking at it. He is a Cal graduate of law school. He went to Harvard. He’s got a pedigree. And also . . .
LBBJ: What is the longest he’s ever spent with a law firm?
Kellogg: That’s a legitimate question. What I’m saying is he is at a point in his life where he can be involved in politics and law. So it makes sense for someone who has that opportunity.
2014 To Bring Huge Change
LBBJ: There’s tremendous change coming to this city with next year’s election. At least six of the nine council seats will have new faces. There’s going to be a new mayor and city attorney. Is this much change good for Long Beach?
Kellogg: That is a huge question. The simple answer is only time will tell what the impact will be. . . . How do the people who are elected mature and grow once they’re in there? You can’t do policy at city hall unless you run a successful campaign, but there is a big difference between running a successful campaign and running good policy.
Kellogg: Only time will tell what the agenda is of these people, and how they are going to mature. Is this just a stepping stone for the next office?
LBBJ: Les, what do you think? Is this much change good for Long Beach?
Robbins: My first answer is no. Too much change is not good. It’s very unsettling for staff and department heads. I think the most critical thing that can happen with this new lineup is a new city manager, one that the elected officials will allow to run the city per the damn charter. You’re not going to get that person with the current lineup of people because they’re not going to want to step into the political environment that we see. You don’t see it in Lakewood, you don’t see it in Signal Hill, and that’s because they have kind of a stable political lineup. I wish I could say it’s good for the city, but I can’t reach that conclusion.
Gabelich: I think you have the opportunity for that [type of change] every time this election comes up, for Districts 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9 and the mayor. But I think the difficult part is we are losing the institutional memory. I know that it took me, and it’s the average time, a couple of years to be comfortable in my responsibility and understand the significance of my role there.
Robbins: It helps, Rae, to be able to do that with seasoned people around you. Jeff and I had that advantage. We had people who had been there a long time and we could look to them because they had been down that road. They knew what to expect. Today you’ve got rookies teaching rookies.
Gabelich: I think what is really going to be critical is that whoever is going to win the mayor’s race, I believe this person has got to be able to bring the council together. It should not be about what has happened over the past eight years, the division of the council where every week you’re fighting, you’re posturing, instead of trying to grow the city into a better city, citywide and working on it. It’s going to be a difficult time for Long Beach at the beginning.
LBBJ: What do you think, John?
Calhoun: As everyone has indicated, it’s a long learning curve. And as they’ve indicated, who is in office definitely and drastically affects how staff operates the city. . . . All of these folks, I’m sure, would agree, that when they came on they thought they knew generally all there was to know about the city. But they soon found out that there were a lot of things that go on in the city and don’t go on in the city for one reason or another. It’s hard to really put your finger on what is going to happen and how it is going to happen, but I think that there has got to be some real changes in the way the city is operated. As Les says, if we’re going to have a charter city, run it like a charter city and run it the way the charter says it’s to be run, not like somebody wants it to be.
Kellogg: One thing I learned is, learn what you are good at and then do it. The reason I say that is, I remember vividly when I was on the council somebody asking me about an issue, like the color of the recycle bins. I don’t even pick out my own ties. ‘You’re hired to do this job. You pick it out. Bring it to me. If that’s you’re recommendation, I support it.’ That’s my role. But when you’re elected, they immediately start talking to you and want your opinion. You don’t have a clue what you’re talking about. Pick what you know and stick to that and try to grow over the course of time.
LBBJ: Isn’t that an example, maybe, of staff being fearful of councilmembers? That’s why they ask you for input?
Kellogg: There are roles you take as a councilmember or mayor, but it all comes back down to the city charter. It’s pretty simple to follow if you turn to the person and say, “Tell me what my responsibilities are.”
Calhoun: And they need a strong city attorney to hold them in.
Robbins: I read story after story about how Mayor Foster has negotiated this deal. He has absolutely no authority to do that.
Kellogg: Okay, full circle now. What it goes back to is this is still a charter city, it’s still a weak mayor form of government. I honestly think the city councilmembers are a whole lot smarter than what people give them credit for.
Calhoun: There is a provision in the city charter that says no member of the legislative department [mayor and city council] shall give orders directly or indirectly. I used to have to go up and remind all of these people.
Robbins: I will be the first to admit that I’m not a huge Bob Foster fan. But I respect one thing about Bob. I respect his intellect and his acumen. The man has run a business. He’s been a CEO. If you take the shortcomings of how the city has been operated, I will say that at least we’ve had Foster in calling some of these shots. But I want to go back to a city charter form of government, a city manager form of government. Bob just took that role, but at least he had the skill set. It could have been a lot worse.
LBBJ: Thank you all. This has been an interesting exchange and, yes, we will do it again before the election. It’s too bad our councilmembers can’t get together occasionally and just chat and share ideas.
Kellogg: I just don’t get it. I had a very good relationship with everyone sitting there, even with the clerks. We actually enjoyed sitting down and dealing with the issues. I always tell people, Tuesday, to me, is like game day. That’s the day you earn your pay.
Robbins: One of the dynamics that is not present today that was present when we sat there is, I didn’t look at anyone that I sat with on that council as a potential opponent – politically. Every one of them is now looking at whom they’re running against. That has changed the personal dynamics. It’s another world. They don’t work together as councilmembers because they are afraid they are going to be enemies down the road. And we’ve seen it happen, and it’s happening right now.
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