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Hometown Mayor : Cautious Kell Neither Blunders Nor Dazzles in 17 Months in Office

December 03, 1989|BETTINA BOXALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Of the hundreds of times Ernie Kell could have resorted to a veto since becoming Long Beach's first full-time mayor last year, there has been only one matter that nudged the threat of a veto from the ruddy-faced millionaire--crumbling sidewalks.

Kell said he would have vetoed this year's budget if the City Council had not agreed to a slightly altered version of his proposal to add $800,000 for sidewalk repairs and street trees, along with another $200,000 for anti-gang and drug programs.

That buckling sidewalks, of all the city's problems, should stir Kell's political passions says much about the former city councilman's style as the city's first full-time, elected mayor.

In the 17 months since he was swept into office with a 60% majority, Kell has remained true to his cautious instincts, taking care not to rock the political boat or move too far out front on controversial matters. He has neither blundered nor dazzled, offering few surprises.

Those who fault Kell's performance do so not for what he has done, but for what he has not done. He has been, critics contend, too much the small-town mayor for a city that is laboring to shed its parochial image and become a major urban player on the Pacific Rim.

Kell has lobbied the council on only a handful of issues and assumed a hands-off role that has made him less a force on the council than when he was a member of it, representing the 5th District. Yet when he has seriously pushed for something, he has won.

His ties have remained strong to the white middle-class east-enders who form the core of his political base, while in the minds of many minority leaders, Kell has dealt only superficially with some of the most critical problems facing their community.

He has maintained his reputation as a pragmatist who appeases by forming task forces on difficult issues, and who frequently molds proposals out of other people's ideas.

His closest political confidants continue to be his wife of 17 years, Jackie, and his paid political consultant, Jeff Adler. In this pre-election year, he is raising money with ease for next year's campaign against Councilman Tom Clark, retaining the generous financial support of developers, who not only consider him a winner, but a known and relatively safe quantity.

"Given the way the mayor sees the role of the mayor, he has done very well," said Chuck Greenberg, an attorney who backed one of Kell's opponents in last year's election. "He has minimized conflict. He has pulled together a consensus of the council and has avoided a lot of strife and difficulty.

"But for those who envisioned the role of the mayor being a citywide leader who puts together an agenda for the city and carries it out, I think he has been less successful at that."

"He has a careful way about him that has not held him in good stead in this position," said one council member. "Whatever's safe, let's do it."

Complained a local business leader, "We envisioned someone who could promote the city overseas and in Sacramento. What we got with Ernie, unfortunately, is a 5th District councilman."

Yet the council has been relatively peaceful under Kell's tenure, usually lining up behind city management and passing a number of significant measures.

With Kell's blessings, the council has approved a major revision of land-use policy that lowered density limits in many of the city's residential neighborhoods, a billion-dollar shoreline development on the old Pike amusement park site, and an office of historic preservation that has institutionalized preservation efforts in an unprecedented manner for Long Beach.

A proposed citizen's review board to handle police brutality complaints has been put on next April's ballot for a public vote, and an ordinance was passed barring discrimination against people with AIDS.

"The measure of his skill is that there have been so very few crises," said Anthony Tortorice, a Kell appointee to the Planning Commission.

"I think he gets high marks for wanting to learn about issues that face the city. He has grown in the job," commented Doug Otto, an attorney and preservationist who said Kell has become more sensitive to preservation issues.

Still, there is no consensus that Kell's new $67,500-a-year position, and his handling of it, have left much of a footprint on city affairs. "I don't see much difference except higher overhead," said Jim Gray, chief executive officer of Harbor Bank and a former harbor commissioner.

"There's a lot going on, but it's just sort of happening," remarked a council member.

The dissatisfied argue that Kell's vision of his job and his social polish are both sadly limited, particularly in a position that requires more style than substance. The mayor's job has little real power. Kell can exercise a veto that can be overridden by a simple majority of the council, and he makes appointments to city boards and commissions. Otherwise, it is a matter of finesse.

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