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Council May Fume, but Dever Makes Long Beach Work

Times Staff Writer

The subject of the closed-door City Council session was John E. Dever, and the volume increased as the meeting wore on.

“You could have heard the yelling on the next floor,” one council member recalled.

City Manager Dever is widely regarded as the catalyst for Long Beach’s remarkable economic recovery and an innovative star in his profession--the president, in fact, of the 7,500-member International City Management Assn.

But Dever is also a lean, disciplined ex-Marine lieutenant whose laconic, self-assured and sometimes intimidating style has made him many enemies in the 10 years since he was hired to fix this city.

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And at that personnel session last month, attended only by the council and the city attorney, most of Dever’s council bosses were not altogether pleased with how he is doing his job.

Lines of Communication

The two new council members, Evan Anderson Braude and Ray Grabinski, wanted more information more quickly from the manager. Edd Tuttle also thought there should be a “better line of communication” between the Dever and the council.

“Right now if I don’t ask the right question, I don’t necessarily get the answer I’m looking for,” Braude, an attorney, said later. “That may be all right in a court of law, but in this position I think you have to have a complete openness.”

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Braude was furious a few days later when he found out from constituents, and not from city management, about a riot at the Long Beach Arena. The arena is in Braude’s district.

Wallace Edgerton, who early this year said that some of his colleagues were afraid of the manager, once again voiced his concerns. Jan Hall, who had joined Edgerton and two others in a 1982 move to oust Dever, was absent. She said later that council-manager cooperation still needed some work but had improved.

“John Dever is not a Mr. Personality Kid,” said Mayor Ernie Kell, who, along with Councilmen Warren Harwood and Thomas Clark, is a staunch Dever supporter. “But that’s not what we hired him for. We hired him to perform a function, and I think he’s doing it very well.”

Job Performance Meetings

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In response to others’ concerns, however, Kell scheduled meetings with Dever for each of the next three months to review his job performance. The manager usually has a job review once a year.

There had been talk of a formal job warning for Dever. But most council members said they only wanted to clear the air. And after the first of those meetings on Sept. 16, critics seemed appeased.

“It was a tough session, but it wasn’t a screaming session,” said a council member, who requested anonymity. “We bared our souls, you might say. And I think it might have done the trick.”

Braude said specific suggestions for improving communication included daily phone calls from council members to Dever, or vice versa. Dever even offered to provide the council, which is a part-time body, with computer terminals in the members’ city hall offices, so they could have access to much of the city’s information bank, Braude said.

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“I feel better about our ability to communicate with each other,” Hall agreed. “But when you have a meeting like that, it takes some time to tell.”

Meeting Survived

So, it appears that Dever had again been called in for a frank discussion and survived to say little about it.

He has had good luck in such meetings. In July, 1982, one city official recalled, “the council called a meeting to pound on him and he came out with a contract. Job security. He’s a very astute guy.” That contract, still in effect, would give Dever six months’ severance pay if he is fired.

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Dever said he would not comment on personnel sessions. Dever said he had heard nothing of the fiery Aug. 12 meeting and had seen no deterioration in his relations with the council.

“I think one councilman has expressed some concern about the future management and leadership of the city. . . ,” Dever said. “But I haven’t made any kind of decision about that.”

Dever, 63, a city manager for 35 years, would receive nearly half of his $94,511 annual salary if he retires, an option he says he has not considered. Several other city management officials, however, said Dever would have lucrative options if he chose to leave.

“Managers always have the option of making a hell of a lot more money in the private field,” said William Hansell, executive director of the international city managers organization. " . . . And I think it’s safe to say that John Dever is probably the most respected city manager in America.”

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An old friend, Carl Husby, a former finance director in Long Beach, said Dever has told him he “always keeps his bags packed” so that he will not have to compromise if a city council makes unreasonable demands. Of that, Dever said: “You can’t adjust values and principles to changes which occur on the basis of temporary politics. You have to adjust style and what you’re doing on that basis. . . . , but you can’t adjust ethics with the kind of vagaries that come and go with politics.”

Down-the-Middle Approach

Dever’s down-the-middle approach, his refusal to play favorites or acquiesce to demands of some council members, is precisely the reason he has sometimes angered his bosses, supporters say.

“He has responded perfectly to the council as a whole,” Harwood said. “Some people would like a city manger who would yield on substantive issues to protect a job or accommodate individual council people. But not John Dever. He is unwilling to accept direction behind the scenes, and if that displeases some of them, so be it.”

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That view is not universally shared.

Edgerton, for example, said in January that Dever, who he said holds 90% of the power in local government, is hardly apolitical. Edgerton argued for a full-time mayor and City Council and elimination of the “strong manager” form of government. A full-time mayor proposal is on the November ballot, but it would not diminish the power of the city manager.

Dever “has a lot of goodies he can offer council people who stay in line,” Edgerton said then. “He can make them look good or he can make them look foolish. . . . And if anyone tells me some council people aren’t scared to death of John Dever, they’re either stupid or they’re lying.”

Edgerton said recently that he is honoring his colleagues’ wishes by refusing, at least temporarily, to comment further on Dever’s relationship with the council.

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Favors Not Involved

Hall, too, said most of the council’s problems with Dever have had nothing to do with requests for favors by the council. On a number of occasions, most of them long past, Dever did not keep the council properly briefed, she said. And there are still times when she hears about city issues first from her constituents, not from city staff, Hall said.

Hall also said she once felt that Dever treated her with little respect because she is a woman. “There was that blonde and female reaction, and I’d like to say I’m so magnanimous it did not cloud my reaction to him, but that’s not the case,” Hall said.

But Dever now distributes a weekly newsletter on key city issues to the council, Hall said. A respect has also developed between her and Dever, she said.

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In the view of other City Hall veterans, Dever’s nagging problems with the council don’t have as much to do with lack of information as with his personality and method of operation.

“I think the problem boils down to the fact that we have a strong manager and a part-time council, and the manager feels that if it weren’t for the elected officials, he could run this city pretty well. And he’s probably right,” one official said.

“He’s not a warm person to deal with,” the official said. “He puts some of them down right on the council floor. I’ve seen him treat them with less respect than you’d expect in a relationship of boss and subordinate. But I have to admit that when it happens, maybe the council people have taken advantage of their position and cast a barb. He’s not one to just brush it off.”

Patronizing Seen

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Indeed, others said they had seen Dever patronize council members and lecture them on their rights and his under City Charter and state law.

For the most part, Dever will not discuss his relationship with the council except to say that he attempts to be direct and helpful and has never intended to patronize its members.

“I try to treat the council with respect and deference. I feel that way about their offices and about them as individuals,” he said.

He said he had never considered Hall as a sexual stereotype. “Mrs. Hall has been a fine councilwoman from the time she first came on. She came on with a great deal of background and knowledge and she’s one of the hardest-working council members I’ve had. . . .”

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Dever said his style is not easily changed. “People’s style of relationships are their personality. . . . I’m not an actor. I believe in being forthright and direct.”

Dever’s bluntness has become a part of his substantial reputation, said James T. Pott, a retired public works director whom Dever hired in 1978.

‘Dever’s Hallmark’

“No bull.... But we got something done. That’s almost Dever’s hallmark,” Pott said. “That type of attitude applies very well to John Dever. With a faint smile on his face and an attitude of, ‘It’s done, isn’t it.’ ”

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David L. Lund, former head of community development, advanced rapidly while working for Dever for about seven years. But, Lund said, “he keeps to himself. I can’t say I knew much about him personally.”

But Pott, Lund and others said that when considering Dever, the focus should be on accomplishment.

“You work for John because you want to excel. You don’t work for John because he cares about you or personally likes you. You work for him because he’s the best and you want to learn,” said Lund, now Los Angeles County director of community development. “Just doing the job doesn’t cut it with him.”

And Pott said: “There are some who love John and some who hate him and others who are scared to death of him. . . . We all have our different styles, so why don’t we let it go at that and consider the results of his performance?”

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In that area, there have been relatively few complaints, either here or in three other cities Dever has managed since 1951--Two Rivers, Wis.; Decatur, Ill., and Sunnyvale, Calif.--say city managers and others who have worked with him for many years.

Management Innovation

In 1975, the year before accepting the Long Beach job, Dever received the International City Management Assn.'s two highest awards--one for a career of management innovation, especially in the area of finance, and a second for a training program for his professional staff.

In Long Beach, Dever is widely credited with developing a superior computerized financial management program and with turning around a city that was listed by a federal agency as the nation’s sixth most economically depressed in 1978.

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When Dever first arrived, in January, 1977, the city manager had been forced from office, the planning director had been convicted of accepting a bribe, and the budget was awash in red ink.

Painful employee cuts were immediately made. Warren C. Heistand, city finance director at the time, remembered the situation: “We were virtually running a deficit. We had liabilities that weren’t properly recorded, like sick leave and vacations. . . . Millions of dollars’ worth. But Dever has put the city on a sound financial basis.”

Even Dever’s decision to demote Heistand in 1977 was a good one, Heistand said. “He could cut pretty cleanly with the ax, but he didn’t play favorites. . . ,” said the recently retired Heistand. He said he did the best work of his career after his demotion to city treasurer, a job for which he was better suited.

Fees, Cutbacks

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Even more drastic cuts came with tax-slashing Proposition 13 in 1978. In response, many city services were either eliminated or forced to pay for themselves. Fees of all types were increased. And, by 1981, the city’s general fund had a $35-million surplus and $1 billion in downtown reconstruction was either under way or in its final planning stages.

Dever “was the catalyst for that total city effort,” Heistand said. With prosperity, however, came charges that Dever was too frugal with city dollars, and was unnecessarily shortchanging social and recreational programs. This year, however, city programs were back to 1978 levels, and, for the first time in eight years, the city funded social programs sponsored by community groups.

Over the years, Dever overcame a number of serious squabbles. In 1979 he was nearly fired for failing to clear a commission appointment with the council. In 1979 and 1980, he fought hard for a centralized, civilian-run communications center for the police and fire departments, but finally gave way and returned those operations to the departments.

In 1981, City Hall’s leading expert on subsidence--the sinking of the city as oil is pumped from under it--accused Dever’s staff of keeping warnings about possible problems from the City Council. And the city attorney found Dever’s delay in carrying out a full survey of land movement due to subsidence “perilously close to malfeasance.”

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Suit by Latino Group

In 1984, after the city was sued by a Latino group that said it was not hiring enough minorities in its parks department, the city agreed to hire more.

And now, after about three years of relative political calm, Dever is again taking some heat and getting to know a council with three new members--Braude, Grabinski and Clarence Smith, who was elected in a special canvass Aug. 26. (Smith, another former city employee who was once demoted by Dever, said he has no hard feelings.)

“You have to adjust to each group and each individual as they come along,” Dever said. And this acclimation, he said, has not been especially trying.

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