Exhibiting the first glimmer of political discourse in what is set to be a jam-packed election season, four candidates for Long Beach mayor fielded questions on a plethora of environmental issues during a forum on Thursday, Nov. 21 at the Aquarium of the Pacific.
Long Beach Area Group Sierra Club Chair Gabrielle Weeks moderated the two-hour forum that was sponsored by the local club in partnership with seven other area environmental groups, drawing a crowd of more than 150 people.
All mayoral candidates were invited, according to the event’s organizers, but only four participated, including Assemblymember Bonnie Lowenthal, Long Beach Community College Board Trustee Doug Otto, 5th District Councilmember Gerrie Schipske and Vice Mayor/1st District Councilmember Robert Garcia.
Weeks and some audience members posed questions on a variety of environmental subjects, such as air quality, water pollution, green jobs, bike infrastructure, transit-oriented development, the Long Beach breakwater, waste management and “fracking.”
Except for a few disagreements, the four candidates agreed on most wide-ranging topics, concurring, for the most part, that the city’s environment should be a key consideration for the next mayor and City Council.
“We’re here tonight because we care about our community,” said Lowenthal in opening remarks. “We care about our environment. We care about our future. It’s not just about proclaiming your love for the environment, it’s about finding effective, creative solutions to the problems and challenges we face.”
While providing few examples of how they would actually carry out various stated environmental objectives, the candidates mostly focused on their past political and career track records as a way to give clout to their statements.
Lowenthal, who was elected to the Assembly in 2008 after serving as a 1st District councilmember, brought up that she had worked with Schipske on promoting water conservation and reclamation while on the Council. Lowenthal also said she was the first to encourage electrified docks at the Port and was involved in the City’s first green-building policy. She added that she has been “at the forefront” of state environmental policies as well.
Schipske pointed to her background as a nurse practitioner, stating that she has worked on the city’s public health for years and then took her advocacy to the City Council. “There’s nothing more important than the environment for the city of Long Beach,” Schipske said. “Not only is it something that’s important for our health, it’s important for our economy.”
Calling herself “an environmental leader” for the 5th District, Schipske noted that she put together a task force to protect wetlands habitats and birds during nesting season at El Dorado Park and has hosted the first Solar Grand Prix in which middle-school and high-school students compete in a race of solar-powered model cars.
Garcia also lauded his own political record on environmental issues in the 1st District, stating that in the last few years, the City has opened up new parks and community gardens. Garcia also noted that he was one of three co-authors of the City’s plastic-bag ban and continues to push efforts of “reclaiming back our urban space” by promoting pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly infrastructure.
Otto, who said he’s an avid backpacker and hiker, called attention to his stint as an environmental lawyer working for the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, taking on cases for the South Coast Air Quality Management District against air polluters. Otto, who is also a founding member of the Aquarium Board, said being an “environmental steward” is paramount to the city’s future.
Still, differences of opinion arose on some subjects.
Otto, for instance, lauded the establishment of the Long Beach Sustainable City Commission, but he said the City should still be more “proactive” on sustainable projects, adding that the City needs to focus on encouraging a cultural change.
“We need to advocate for sustainability more,” he said. “That means putting a little more teeth in that commission.”
Schipske, however, disagreed. “We have a very aggressive Office of Sustainability, with wonderfully trained staff,” she said, adding that the next step is to encourage staff to promote more solar projects and create “a clean-tech zone.”
Garcia received applause when he mentioned the possibility of making Long Beach a hub for green jobs.
“The reality is, if we just sit around and have a passive approach, we’re not going to get the job done,” he said. “We have got to be aggressive when it comes to bringing the green economy and green jobs to Long Beach. That’s going to be a combination of solar jobs, green-industry jobs and light industrial. There’s a lot that we can do.”
Otto, however, disagreed with the notion supported by Lowenthal, Schipske and Garcia that the City should look into requiring that new buildings, at least public facilities, be Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-certified, considered the highest ranking in the nation for energy-efficient buildings.
“I think you’d drive all the jobs out of Long Beach,” said Otto, who pointed to his 11-point jobs plan, adding that the City shouldn’t just focus on only green jobs but other industries as well. “Green jobs are great, but I think we put ourselves in a box,” he said. “We say that’s the only way we’re going to go.”
Otto was also the only candidate to not raise a hand in support of a ban on polystyrene and Styrofoam food containers.
Some questions, however, were asked about subjects that still have yet to be fleshed out.
For instance, the candidates all agreed that the possibility of reconfiguring the Long Beach breakwater would help the ecosystem and improve water quality along the harbor and beaches, but they also pointed out that a complete analysis of the proposal has yet to be launched. They all also showed support for urban agriculture in Long Beach, but it was noted that a newly proposed ordinance has yet to be brought back to the Council.
Some more specific, hard-pressing questions, on the other hand, particularly asked by the audience at the end of the forum, brought to light some provocative topics.
A question about fracking, a controversial process of hydraulic fracturing done by oil companies to extract fossil fuels, prompted Schipske to propose bringing forward an item to the Council, requesting that oil operators in Long Beach share with the public whether the procedure is taking place and what chemicals the companies are using.
“I do think we need to ask our operators that we contract with, who make a great deal of money in the city of Long Beach, if they could in fact tell the citizens of Long Beach, are they using fracking, to what extent and what chemicals are they using to extract that oil,” Schipske said. Garcia said he is willing to co-author the agenda item.
Other mayoral candidates who have filed candidacy statements but did not attend the forum include: Damon Dunn, Jana Shields, Kareem Muhammad, Richard Camp and Steven Mozena. The primary nominating election is scheduled for April 8, 2014.