Children play on a sand berm along the shore in Seal Beach. (Katie Falkenberg / For The…)
Long Beach Transit officials have decided to cut bus service into neighboring Seal Beach, following a series of insults and vague claims of racism hurled between the neighboring cities, which straddle the Orange County and Los Angeles County border.
Hundreds of residents who rely on the service will now have to transfer to Orange County Transportation Authority buses at the city limits, and pay a separate fare. Transit officials say they are working with OCTA to ensure the transfers are as efficient as possible.
"It seems to have become an emotional issue on behalf of the transit staff," said Seal Beach City Manager Jill Ingram. "The end result is something that neither agency should be proud of."
The controversy began at a May 8 meeting, where Long Beach Transit officials invited Seal Beach residents to discuss proposed changes to the alignment of a bus route and the introduction of a new, larger bus. The meeting was not taped but several people who attended said it became heated and angry words exchanged.
Two days later, Ingram said she received a letter from the chief executive of Long Beach Transit, saying the agency was cutting service to the neighboring beach town.
"The level of angry, rude, and unprofessional behavior directed toward our organization helped Long Beach Transit to clearly understand that any bus service directly linking Long Beach & Seal Beach is not in anyone's best interest," Laurence W. Jackson wrote in the email.
In his letter, Jackson said "colorful" comments were made by residents and a Seal Beach council member, and called them "deep-seated ugly feelings."
Jackson declined to discuss the letter or the meeting, which he did not attend.
Long Beach Transit spokesman Kevin Lee insists that, despite the stinging letter, the decision to lop off the routes was financial; charting an alternate route into Seal Beach that could accommodate larger, upgraded buses would have required costly infrastructure improvements.
But the accusations were renewed this week at a Long Beach Transit board meeting, said Seal Beach Councilwoman Ellery Deaton, who attended to plead with officials to reconsider the bus service.
"We were told [by board members] that we are racist and don't allow certain races in our city or on our beaches," Deaton said during a public City Council meeting this week.
Transit board members could not be reached for comment.
Deaton and other Seal Beach officials say the "racism" claim is unfounded and deeply offensive.
"I know there had been hurt feelings over a very loud meeting, but it never crossed my mind that anybody would think it was racism," said Deaton in a phone interview, adding that the city has formally apologized for the tenor of the May meeting.
"All I want is to make it work. Solve the problem, get the buses back and move on," she said.
That's not likely to happen any time soon. The service changes will go into effect Aug. 26, Lee said, and the earliest that could be reversed is January.
For Paul Cabral, a disabled Seal Beach resident, the service changes pose an added burden of getting on and off another bus, and maybe paying an additional fare. He helped collect more than 300 signatures on a petition to Long Beach Transit officials, urging them to keep the buses running into his hometown.
"They need to work out their problems," Cabral said, "because the people have to pay the price for what they can't settle out."
A meeting Wednesday night between Ingram and Jackson seemed promising, Lee said.
"Both parties wanted to really move forward. If there was anything said in the past, let's just move forward so that we can make sure the residents…. are served in the best possible manner."