LONG BEACH — Mayor Ernie Kell said he plans to trim the costs of a controversial city-funded cable TV show, "Keys to the City," in which he has a dominant role.
Kell said he was shocked by reports that eight episodes of the slick, half-hour production will cost taxpayers between $321,000 and $395,700 this fiscal year. "We're going to cut it back," Kell said in a recent interview.
But the mayor, who has been criticized for hogging the spotlight in the production, also said he would set aside funds for councilmen to establish mini-shows of one to four minutes.
Kell did not provide details of the planned budget adjustments but said the program's status will be reviewed during the city's budget deliberations next spring.
The monthly show, which features the mayor delivering upbeat messages about city issues ranging from the Port of Long Beach to crime, first went on the air 14 months ago on Channel 21, the cable station that is provided by law for municipal programming. The show is broadcast weekdays at 6 p.m.
Kell came up with the idea for a TV program in 1988, after winning a seat as the city's first full-time, elected mayor. The program became a campaign issue in the mayoral elections last spring, when Councilman Thomas Clark contended "Keys to the City" gave Kell an unfair advantage. Kell narrowly defeated Clark in a June runoff election.
The dispute flared up again recently when Councilman Warren Harwood sent a flurry of memos to his colleagues and other city officials, in which he questioned the show's costs and demanded that councilmen be allowed to share the spotlight.
At a recent council meeting, Kell defended the show and contended that he is fulfilling a City Charter mandate that requires the mayor to act as the city's spokesman on city issues. But he also proposed that each councilman be allowed to participate in one- to four-minute shows, called "infomercials."
City Atty. John Calhoun concurred with the mayor's analysis of the charter language and warned the council that there could be some "legal concerns" if "too awful much" money were spent on programs for councilmen.
The council approved the "infomercials" on a 5-1 vote, with Harwood opposing the proposal. He said he needed more information about the cost to taxpayers.
The mayor said later he will allow his colleagues to call on some of the 20 producers, actors and other professionals involved in producing "Keys to the City." Councilmen can sit in his studio chair, read from his TelePrompTer and even use his makeup artist, the mayor said in the interview.
A memo from the city Library Services Department, which oversees municipal programming, said each councilman "will be invited to introduce someone or something of which he is proud. It could be a library, or a park, an artist, an unusual place of worship, a special garden. . . . This series of programs will present a personalized look at what makes Long Beach great." In interviews this week, however, several councilmen said they are reluctant to participate in the TV productions, mainly because of the costs.
"I don't think that it's appropriate to involve myself, given our current financial situation," said Councilman Douglas Drummond.
Councilman Jeffrey Kellogg added: "We're all going to wait and see what this (new program) will cost. We have to look at the economics. I believe public safety and policing and housing need to come first."
Some councilmen also complained last week that they were never told about the growth of the Telecommunications Bureau, the city office that produces the mayor's show and other municipal programs. The bureau's budget has doubled to more than $1.1 million over the past two years, and much of the growth is attributed to "Keys to the City."
The bureau is funded by revenues generated by the cable television franchise in Long Beach. City officials say the revenues could be used for general purposes such as hiring police and fixing up parks. But a 1982 ordinance also gives officials the option of using all of the cable money to fund cable programming. The city's share of revenues generated by the local cable operator, Simmons Cable TV, has climbed from $179,248 in 1983 to more than $1.1 million this year.
"Nobody told us about the amount of money that was being spent," Councilman Clark said last week. "This just appears to be a pool of money that can be used at the discretion of the mayor's office. There does not seem to be any budgetary control. Given the current financial problems we have, this needs to be looked at."
Councilmen said they did not raise these concerns during the recent City Council meeting because they want to avoid a public feud with the mayor, who has been lobbying hard for their support for his show. "I don't want attack the mayor and find myself in a war," said one councilman who asked to remain anonymous. "This is something we need to finesse in private."
But the feud between Kell and Harwood over this issue already seems beyond the point of finesse.
Harwood recently described the mayor's show as "pure puffery." Kell retorted this week that Harwood was "all puff."
"He's trying to represent himself as the savior of taxpayers," Kell said. "But the only reason he brought this up is that he didn't get what he wanted. He wanted a program exactly like what I had, costing taxpayers exactly the same amount of money."