L.B. Officials Ask Whether Commissioners Have Overstepped Their Powers : Safety Panel Says It Won't Be Council 'Puppet'

Times Staff Writer

If their job is not to make recommendations, then what is it?

That was the question members of the Public Safety Advisory Commission asked each other this week as they vented their anger over the lambasting they recently received from the City Council.

The commission's 13 members agreed on a couple of things: they do not form "a cardboard commission," in the words of one member, and they have no intention of the group becoming a "puppet" of the City Council.

On Dec. 29, City Council members reacted to something they did not like: a proposal by the commission that its powers be expanded to allow it to sit as a civilian police review board.

Police Chief Lawrence Binkley has strongly opposed the proposal. The National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, whose local representatives allege that police mistreat blacks in Long Beach, has just as strongly endorsed it. So have gay leaders who allege that police harass homosexuals.

Police Deaths Brought Up

The proposal is further supported by some because of what police acknowledge was an unusually high number of in-custody deaths last year. Police, however, say the five deaths that occurred last year were unrelated and already have been thoroughly investigated.

Council members sided with the police. But rather than debate the merits or drawbacks of a civilian review board, most of the discussion centered on the appropriateness of the commission's proposal and whether the commission has overstepped its powers in other actions it has taken in the past. Councilman Edd Tuttle then questioned whether the council should abolish the commission.

"I really found it offensive," Commissioner Charles Townsend said of the council's reaction.

Commissioner Barbara Shoag called it "shooting the messenger" instead of the message.

Commissioner Marshall Blesofsky said: "I don't think we have to necessarily do what our City Council wants us to do and be a puppet."

No problem there, Mayor Ernie Kell said this week when told of the commission's response. (Council members, who rarely attend the Public Safety Advisory Commission meetings, were not present for the commission's monthly meeting on Wednesday.) The group can make recommendations, Kell said, but the council is "under no obligation" to accept their--or any other group's--proposal.

'Bit of Hollywood'

Blesofsky said there was "a little bit of Hollywood" in how the council shot down the proposal. Sid Solomon, who heads the Long Beach Area Citizens Involved group, told the commission that he also thought the council's reaction was orchestrated before the Dec. 29 meeting.

Kell dismissed that notion. "I think if there's anybody doing any theatrics, it's them right now."

Vice Mayor Warren Harwood said Blesofsky's "Hollywood" reference "is precisely the kind of comment that indicates, clear as can be, that members of that commission have ceased to perform the function they were set up for.

"They were not set up to critique the Long Beach city government.

Some council members and City Atty. John Calhoun are questioning whether the commission has overstepped its powers by going directly to the Police Department with its recommendations and "demanding" changes, instead of going through the City Council.

Commission Chairman Allan Tebbetts, who is on vacation and did not attend Wednesday's meeting, said in an interview recently that the commission works within the perimeters set by the council.

The commission hears concerns on public safety matters and then makes recommendations to the City Council. The commission gets its information through a Police Department liaison who attends commission meetings. Tebbetts said.

Changes Achieved

The process has helped the commission achieve changes and produce "positive reports" about the Police Department that could have led to negative reactions, Tebbetts said. For example, when the commission recommended in 1983 that the Police and Fire departments become more responsive to the non-English-speaking communities in Long Beach, the report included changes already in the works because police officials were given "an opportunity to respond," he said.

The process has worked so far and Tebbetts said he does not see the commission doing anything different in the future, unless instructed otherwise by the City Council.

"If the City Council wants to restructure our staff, they're free to do so," Tebbetts said.

Of the council's reaction to the commission's latest recommendation, Tebbetts said, "It appears to me that what the City Council has done is react badly to something they did not want to hear."

Somewhat buried in the squabble between the council and the commission is the proposal to expand the group's powers so that it can investigate police misconduct where there is loss of life, great bodily harm or special circumstances, such as racial harassment. The issue is expected to resurface before the council later this month.

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