LONG BEACH — Ernie Kell has not officially taken his seat as the city's new elected mayor, but the influence of his office apparently helped him fulfill a campaign promise this week.
The City Council voted 8 to 1 Tuesday night to create an Office of Education that would mostly coordinate already existing programs. The proposal has the backing of school officials, who see it as a means to combat drugs and gangs.
Although several council members questioned whether they should spend $113,000 annually for the new municipal department, the majority went along with the vote--in part because the proposal came from Kell. Had the idea originated with another council member, it probably would have been killed in light of next year's tight budget, they said. The new budget, formally adopted Tuesday, increases some fees while cutting several services.
"This is a part of his new platform. And I think he deserves a honeymoon period," Councilman Wallace Edgerton told his colleagues.
In contrast, Edgerton had leaned against the proposal as late as last week. At the time, he called a city Office of Education a good idea but suggested that Kell find a new source of revenue to pay for it. But by Tuesday afternoon, after meeting with Kell privately, Edgerton had changed his mind.
"I need to think a long time before I'm going to allow the mayor's program to fall," Edgerton said a few hours after his meeting with Kell.
The new department will coordinate various programs now overseen by city departments and social service agencies. Among other things, the new Office of Education manager will contact businesses opening in Long Beach to urge their participation in the school-business Partnership in Education program, work with the school district to train educators about gangs, and seek to expand the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program by identifying additional funding sources.
Councilman Evan Anderson Braude, who said he supports the concept, had questioned whether the city should spend $113,000--mostly on salaries--for another department. Braude said he would prefer that the Office of Education manager be a part-time position, as suggested by City Manager James Hankla. Councilman Clarence Smith had said the same recently. But on Tuesday, the suggestion to make the position part time died with little discussion.
Councilman Tom Clark, the only one to vote against Kell's proposal, said he opposed having an Office of Education in City Hall because it overlaps with responsibilities that belong to the school district and not to the city. He, too, questioned whether city officials should allocate $113,000 for another department when last week they agreed to cut library services to save money. The school board, he noted, is not setting up a "municipal office" to oversee city matters, and if it did, Clark said he would have some concerns.
Councilwoman Jan Hall had also opposed the plan but she was not present for the vote. She was ill and left Tuesday's meeting early.
Kell told the council that an annual fund-raising dinner could partly subsidize the new department. He also said the new office will save money because it will free city staff members who now have to deal with school issues. For example, city staff is working with the district to develop temporary elementary school classrooms and identify new school sites. The new Office of Education manager and the office's secretary will take over such responsibilities, becoming a clearinghouse for education-related issues in City Hall, Kell explained.
Among the supporters of Kell's plan was Marilyn Bittle of the Teacher Assn. of Long Beach. Calling the proposal "long overdue," Bittle said: "We have found that we can't do it alone."
Councilman Ray Grabinski said he voted in favor of the Office of Education on its own merits. "I'm supporting it not because the mayor supported it but because it's a damn good proposal," he said.
But Clark said after the council's session that the plan was "basically pushed on" because it was a campaign promise.
Vice Mayor Warren Harwood said, "I'm supporting it because the mayor supported it."
Councilman Smith said before the meeting that because Kell is the mayor-elect--he will be sworn in July 19--"that gives him a little more leverage to get things done.
"I have to believe that anything the mayor does has more credence to it than if a council member makes a recommendation. It's a political reality. So yes, if I or Jan Hall were introducing this, it wouldn't get the same amount of attention," Smith said in an interview.
Edgerton said he still thinks the mayor should find a new revenue source to pay for the new department, but he added that the new office is another step in improving relations with the Long Beach Unified School District.
Asked whether he felt pressured to vote for Kell's proposal, Edgerton said only that "I certainly would say that Ernie Kell has put some effort in his persuasion."
Kell denied pressuring any council member to approve the plan. "I didn't put any pressure on them. If anybody put pressure on the council it was the PTA and the school district, (whose representatives voiced support for the Office of Education,)" he said after the vote. "They (council members) would not have supported it if they did not think it was a good idea."