Opening up lines of communication and giving residents a chance to talk face-to-face with their elected representative were the two reasons Al Austin gave for holding an open house at his north Long Beach office last Tuesday evening. Austin, who was sworn in as the 8th District’s Long Beach city councilmember on July 17, said he wanted to be sure that his constituents know where his field office is and that his staff is there five days a week, 9am to 5pm to answer questions and deal with issues pertaining to city services.
The 8th District north Long Beach field office at 5641 Atlantic Ave. has been in existence for about two years, but many people were used to the 8th District Bixby Knolls field office, which closed last July. Austin’s staff publicized the open house by announcing it in the 8th District online newsletter, sending email invitations, and distributing flyers. In addition, during a recent council meeting, Austin himself invited the public to attend.
The open house also kicked off the 8th District’s annual toy and canned-food drive. Austin said that in about three weeks his staff will take all donated toys and food to local charity organizations that will distribute the items to needy families.
Speaking to the Signal Tribune, Austin said he has not been surprised by the way things work at City Hall. He explained that moving ideas forward is a slow process in city government, but he knew that even before getting elected. He noted, however, that he is surprised by the level of support he is getting from the community as a whole.
“Business people and residents are eager to roll up their sleeves and help solve the problems in the district and throughout the city,” he said. “There is a very strong spirit of cooperation, even from people who did not support me as a candidate.”
Austin said working with his colleagues on the city council has been a good experience so far, but there are challenges. “They all have strong opinions, and it’s a little tougher than I thought to build consensus on issues,” he acknowledged. “Believe it or not, we don’t talk to each other much throughout the week. There is not a whole lot of socialization among us.”
He explained that each councilmember, with the help of his or her staff, analyzes staff reports and proposed actions and ordinances in the days prior to a council meeting. “Everybody pretty much has reached their own conclusions before the meeting and most of our conversations are during the meeting,” he said. “That makes for an interesting dynamic when you start deliberating and voting on issues.”
He added that even though all councilmembers are interested in doing what is best for their own district, he has not seen any proposed actions or ordinances that would benefit one district to the detriment of other districts.
Austin stressed that his number-one priority as councilmember is public safety, and in spite of budget restraints, the council is taking actions designed to make Long Beach a safer city. “We’ve actually budgeted a police academy for fiscal year 2012-2013,” he said. “We should be graduating new recruits in a year or two.”
He added that his second priority is infrastructure repairs. “We are looking to replace dilapidated sidewalks and repair streets that have been neglected for many years,” he said. “We are looking to paint out graffiti on railroad trestles and do some public-art projects on those trestles.”
Austin added that he is also working to build a better, more unified community by establishing stronger ties with neighborhood associations and neighborhood watch groups in the district.
During the open house, Austin spent most of his time talking with people one-on-one or talking to small groups, but about 45 minutes after the event began, he gave a short speech to everyone in the room. “My staff and I are here to serve you,” he said. “We wanted to open this place up and let you know that this is where we are based right now.” He added that he hopes to be able to open another office in Bixby Knolls sometime in the near future.
The open house was a friendly gathering with many people expressing support and approval of how Austin has performed during his first four months in office.
Gayle Carter credited Austin with giving a group of north Long Beach dog lovers the impetus to start an organization called the Uptown Dog Park Association. “We are taking citizen ownership of the Uptown Dog Park that is located in Scherer Park,” said Carter, who is president of the association. “Al really inspired us and helped us get our group started.”
Dan Pressburg, longtime community activist and president of the North Long Beach Community Action Group, lives in the 9th Council District, but he went to Austin’s open-house event because a large section of north Long Beach is in the 8th District. He explained that, regardless of which district they live in, most north Long Beach residents are hoping that, with state approval, the City of Long Beach will be able to use existing bond money to build a new north Long Beach library, and Austin will no doubt participate in the process choosing a building plan for the new facility.
Blair Cohn, executive director of the Bixby Knolls Business Improvement Association, praised Austin for his support of local businesses. “He and his staff are always eager to help us accomplish our goals in any way they can,” he said. “Al also has lots of ideas and plans of his own, and he really wants to see the greater good of the area.”
Eighth District resident Kelly Lindberg said she came to the open house to show her support for the new councilmember. “I have had a couple of discussions with him about the streets and sidewalks where I live, and he has been very supportive, so I felt that I needed to be supportive of him,” she explained.
Another 8th District resident, Rita Cardenas, said she attended because she wanted to personally meet Austin. “I just wanted him to know who I am, and to ask him to get more involved in my neighborhood,” she added.
At the close of the event, Austin said he was happy with the turnout. About 50 people had attended. “We had residents who came from throughout the district and from many neighborhoods,” he noted. “I am very encouraged about our ability to move forward with our plans to activate all of our neighborhoods and get them involved in making the 8th District a better place for all of us to live.”