Firing another salvo in what may become the hottest election fight in this city during 1986, Councilman Wallace Edgerton announced his desire to scrap the city manager form of government in favor of a full-time mayor elected citywide.
In an eight-minute speech during the council's Tuesday meeting, Edgerton criticized the city's present system, saying it does not effectively represent the wishes of the public.
Currently, nine council members are elected by districts and in turn select a titular mayor once every two years. While the council sets policy for the city, day-to-day operations are handled by the city manager.
"The citizens of Long Beach should not surrender their vote, their power and their democratic choice for what is at best an unaccountable benevolent administrator," Edgerton said, reading a written statement. "The only power the people of Long Beach have in influencing their government is at the ballot box."
Edgerton said a mayor elected citywide could assume the responsibilities of the city manager and give Long Beach residents "the real power to politically produce the kind of city they want."
After Edgerton concluded his remarks, Councilman Warren Harwood blasted his colleague and expressed support for the city manager system--and for City Manager John Dever.
"I believe this is essentially an attack on the city manager, whether you identify Mr. Dever directly or indirectly," Harwood told Edgerton, adding that he believes "there's a strong base of support for the quality government that we have experienced here for the past 10 years of John Dever's tenure."
Edgerton denied he was against "John Dever the man," insisting he merely wants to see the city have a "more representative" form of government.
A broad-based committee of prominent Long Beach residents, Citizens to Evaluate a Full-time Mayor and City Council, has been studying options for altering the city's political power structure. While the group has yet to take a formal position, it is expected to push to have the issue on the June general-election ballot.
If the group succeeds, it won't be the first time the full-time mayor issue has been before city voters. In 1982, a ballot measure that would have made the mayor a full-time position was defeated by a 3-to-1 margin.
Just what shape a new ballot measure might take remains unclear. While many politicos favor a full-time mayor, there seems to be little consensus on the specifics of the idea.
For example, Councilman Thomas Clark has been pushing in recent months for a full-time mayor with veto power over council actions and responsibility for submitting a budget to the council, a duty currently handled by Dever.
$65,000 a Year
Under that proposal, the mayor would be paid $65,000 a year while the council would get a salary of half that. Instead of meeting once a week as it now does, the council would gather for business two times a week. The city would continue to have a city manager.
During Tuesday's meeting, Clark took time to argue for his proposal. He criticized Edgerton's ideas, insisting that a combination of both a city manager and full-time mayor is the best approach. While the mayor would help to "focus leadership on the legislative side," the city manager could handle the complex duties of operating a city, he said.
Edgerton, meanwhile, said the current system had put too much power into the hands of the city manager, who is appointed by the council and not directly accountable to the public.
Power to Fire
While the council has the power to hire and fire city managers, Edgerton said it is a responsibility the city lawmakers rarely exercise because "most politicians do not like to rock the boat."
An additional safeguard for city managers is fear, Edgerton said.
"The powers of the city manager are enormous and, while most city managers would probably not try to discredit an opposing council member, the potential to discreetly do so is there, and it is this potential power that frightens some council members into submission," he said.
The enormous responsibility of running the city is "far too important to be placed primarily in the hands of someone who does not need to stand directly before the voters, who does not need to be held directly accountable to the citizens of Long Beach," Edgerton said.