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Long Beach Mayor: Power Broker or Power Seeker?

March 27, 1988|ROXANA KOPETMAN | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — Whoever becomes this city's next mayor may find the job to be much like the British monarchy: high on ceremony but low on actual power.

The new mayor will not have a vote on the City Council. And in most cases, the mayor's veto can be overridden by a simple majority. Perhaps even more significantly, the city manager--not the mayor--will still draw up the all-important annual budget and appoint department heads.

"This is an extraordinarily weak mayor," said Councilman Wallace Edgerton, a part-time college instructor of political science who called the future mayor "a horse without legs, a duck without feet. It's an anomaly."

"After July, the mayor is going to be a eunuch," Edgerton said.

But nine candidates are vying to take the new office, with the primary election to be held April 12. And some observers, including those who criticize the office as weak, said persuasion and leadership might be more important to the new mayor than charter-given powers.

"The individual is going to determine how that power is used," said Councilman Tom Clark, who has been an appointed mayor three times.

Clark Disappointed

Clark, a longtime advocate of a strong mayoral post, was disappointed with the plan that was eventually approved two years ago by the voters. Nonetheless, he and others noted that personality could strongly influence how powerful the position becomes. No matter what kind of mandate the new mayor gets from the people in this spring's elections, Clark said, the mayor will need to muster a majority consensus on the nine-member City Council.

With campaign spending breaking all previous records and two incumbent council members among the candidates, Cal State Long Beach teacher Paul Schmidt said the position must hold some allure. "Otherwise, why would people be spending $400,000 to get the job?" asked Schmidt, who teaches local government and public administration.

Schmidt was on both a citizens advisory group and a city task force that drew up the proposal that the City Council agreed to place on the ballot in November, 1986. At the heart of the discussions was the contention that Long Beach, as a growing city, needs to join the ranks of other large cities with one leader to deal with visiting dignitaries, corporations and other governments.

There was some initial discussion about abolishing the current City Council structure, which divides the city into nine districts, Edgerton said.

And there was also considerable discussion about doing away with the city manager and creating a powerful mayor, Clark said.

The citizens group ultimately recommended a major restructuring of city government that would have created a full-time city council and shifted some of the city manager's most important duties to the mayor and council.

While the citizens group met on its own, the Chamber of Commerce said it wanted to become involved in the restructuring discussion. Mayor Ernie Kell appointed a panel to study the questions. The panel, which included several members of the citizens committee, rejected key elements of the citizens group's plan for a stronger mayor.

Tie Vote to Be Avoided

The mayor's panel favored not giving the mayor a vote on the council, partially because the council has nine members, each representing a city district. With the mayor voting, there could be a 5-5 tie, unless the council districts were redrawn and either increased or decreased by one.

"What it came down to basically was that nobody on the committee wanted to increase the number of council districts, because that would mean adding another elected official, at greater expense," Schmidt said.

"Anytime there is redistricting, there is some reluctance," said Kell, who said he was "kind of neutral" on whether the number of districts should change.

Alex Bellehumeur, chairman of the citizens group, said the mayor's panel decided not to give the mayor "too much power" at the onset.

"We're a growing city, politically. . . . But we're not quite there yet. So we're going to tippy-toe for now and play it safe," Bellehumeur said.

Rejected in 1982

Voter approval was a big question mark. In 1982, voters rejected a full-time mayor proposal by a 3-1 margin. This time, though, more than 67% of the voters approved creating the $67,500-a-year job.

Clark said: "I thought the community was ready for it. And it was. And they (members of the mayor's panel) didn't have to make compromises. That (they did) was the unfortunate thing."

The mayoral post could change again. Part of the package that voters approved calls for a city committee to convene in 1990 to decide what--if any--fine-tuning needs to be done on mayoral power. Many of those who have pushed for a stronger mayor hope that the mayor will get more power, such as a vote or a stronger veto.

"I think it will evolve" into a stronger mayor after 1990, Councilwoman and mayoral candidate Jan Hall said.

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