LONG BEACH — Like many residents, Howard Reno never took much of an interest in city politics.
City Hall is a 15-minute drive from his house and, he said, elected officials always seemed remote and inaccessible, tucked behind closed doors hidden in a bureaucratic maze.
But all that changed recently. The Long Beach City Council came to him. In an effort to encourage residents to become more involved in city government, the council has launched a plan to meet each month in a different Long Beach neighborhood.
While the council's daytime meetings generally draw a few dozen spectators, officials hope the monthly neighborhood gatherings will attract hundreds.
That was the case Tuesday as Reno, a North Long Beach resident, and more than 300 other residents packed Hughes Junior High School auditorium to watch the council begin the program with its first neighborhood meeting.
"I thought it was very well done," Reno said after the two-hour council meeting. "I really appreciated the openness of the council. It really encourages people to speak out."
Ray Grabinski, a North Long Beach resident who attended the neighborhood meeting, said the council will benefit from the chance to get out into the neighborhoods.
"A lot of times the council is sitting down with the only people out in the audience three crazies and two old people who don't have any place else to go," Grabinski said. "It's nice for them to not have to play to an empty house."
Better Look at Problems
City officials see the gatherings, which will supplement the council's regular weekly meetings at City Hall, as a way to reach more residents and give the nine-member council a better look at specific problems in the city.
"We want to show residents that the council cares enough to join them in their neighborhood, in their backyard," said Mayor Ernie Kell, who proposed the idea. "It's important for people to know that, although Long Beach is big, the City Council hasn't grown out of touch with them."
Said Councilman Warren Harwood: "These meetings should help eliminate the psychological barrier between people in their homes and this imposing city government operating out of its fancy, 14-story downtown high-rise. It kind of makes it all relevant to the people."
Harwood acknowledged council members may be tempted to use the neighborhood meetings to score political points with constituents, targeting the sessions for topics and issues that have a positive impact on their district.
"But it's a two-edged sword," Harwood said. "It may highlight the good things, and it may also highlight the problems. Sure, everyone likes to be seen in a favorable light, but I don't think that can entirely be controlled."
To Rotate Among Districts
The meetings will be rotated each month among the city's nine council districts. The program makes Long Beach the largest city in the state to offer full-fledged council meetings outside City Hall on a regular basis.
Councilman Edd Tuttle, who played host Tuesday, said the meetings will give council members an opportunity to get a better perspective on areas outside the districts they represent.
"It gives me a chance to point out the positive and negative things that happen in my district and educate my colleagues firsthand about those things," he said.
To help do that, Tuttle had the council, city staff members and a handful of residents board a Long Beach Transit District bus for a tour of his district before the meeting.
Manning a microphone, Tuttle pointed out new business and housing projects that have sprung up in the area, delivering a monologue that prompted Councilman Jim Wilson to quip, "We have to listen to Tuttle all the way through this tour?"
Afterward, seven council members and some staff members sat down to a gourmet dinner of salmon, lamb and pasta at a local restaurant. The $421 bill for the 21 members of the party will be paid out of the council's operating budget.
Then they moved on to the junior high. Tuttle stood at the auditorium entrance, shaking hands and offering greetings as residents entered, many drawn by one of the 4,000 mailers he had sent to announce the meeting.
Many neighbors walked to the meeting and some, like Reno, rode bicycles.
"My bike is locked up outside," said Reno, who came dressed in riding pants and bicycling shoes. "You'd never see me riding a $500 10-speed to City Hall and parking it outside."
Once the meeting began, it was business as usual, the council running through each item as it would at any other meeting. Among other action, members voted to ban three airlines from night flights at the Long Beach Airport, listened to arguments for gurney vans in the city for non-emergency patients and approved $27,000 for a mobile air compressor for the Fire Department.
Residents later gave the council rave reviews for bringing the meeting to the neighborhood.
"I think it's a tremendous idea," said Grabinski, who called the meeting "an invigorating experience."
"I think it's great," said Dorothy Powell, another area resident. "It's a lot closer to come, and trying to park downtown can be a nightmare. I know a lot of people who are simply afraid to go downtown at night for council meetings."
Neil and Pat Phoutrides brought their two daughters, Stephanie, 8, and Jennifer, 4, because they couldn't get a baby sitter.
While the girls' parents thought the neighborhood meeting was a great idea, Stephanie and Jennifer were unimpressed.
"Boring," Stephanie said, yawning. Jennifer just snoozed on her mother's shoulder.