Jockeying for votes as the election rapidly approaches, four Long Beach mayoral candidates took questions on the environment, business friendliness and other topics last week at a debate organized by the Los Angeles League of Conservation Voters (LALC).
Candidates invited to participate included Vice Mayor/1st District Councilmember Robert Garcia, 5th District Councilmember Gerrie Schipske, Assemblymember Bonnie Lowenthal and Long Beach Community College District Trustee Doug Otto.
Candidate Damon Dunn, an entrepreneur and former NFL player, was also invited but stated that he couldn’t attend because of a scheduling conflict with a fundraiser. The other five candidates who will be on the ballot were not allowed to participate since they didn’t meet LALC’s criteria, according to organizers.
With the April 8 primary nominating election a little more than two months away, the hour-long debate on Thursday, Jan. 23, drew a large crowd of more than 400 people to a ballroom at The Grand Long Beach.
The debate was largely similar to a forum hosted by the Sierra Club Long Beach Area Group at the Aquarium of the Pacific in late November, when the same four candidates discussed many of the same subjects. Both the Sierra Club and LALC, which calls itself “the only environmental political action committee in Los Angeles County,” have yet to announce endorsements for mayor.
There were a few twists to the debate’s format, however. Panelists Jonathan Parfrey and Stephanie Molen, who are both LALC boardmembers, asked questions related to the environment while moderator Art Levine, host of the Long Beach TV show Straight Talk, sprinkled in his own questions on non-environmental topics. In addition, each candidate was allowed to ask another candidate a question.
The candidates were mostly on the same page when it came to such topics as restoring the Los Angeles River, encouraging water conservation efforts to deal with drought conditions, the I-710 Freeway expansion project and expanding bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure.
What drew a bit of contention, however, was when Lowenthal questioned Garcia on whether the councilmember stated during the Sierra Club forum that he supports the Southern California International Gateway (SCIG) project, a controversial railyard proposal that the City of Long Beach is suing the City of Los Angeles over because of a lack of mitigation measures and its proximity to west Long Beach neighborhoods.
Critics say the project was crafted with false data and would cause more air pollution by adding thousands of more trucks to local freeways. The Port of Los Angeles and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF), which is building the railyard, state the project would make cargo movement more efficient and would actually cut air pollution by reducing the number of trucks on freeways.
“To say ‘mitigate’ is all well and fine, but there are big, unresolved issues that affect the quality of life and the health of the people in west Long Beach,” said Lowenthal, who added that she has been “very much opposed to the project” since it was first brought to her attention as a councilmember in 2005.
Garcia, who has been on the Council since 2009, replied that he supports the SCIG project “in concept” but noted that he voted along with the rest of the Council to enter into a lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles.
“I think the idea of building that type of facility has incredible potential for goods movement [and] has the potential for getting cargo quick and up and down our corridor,” he said. “I think, in concept, it’s a good project. I support that, but certainly there are concerns, and that’s why I voted to go into litigation.”
Schipske pointed out that the City retained a retired federal judge to work out a settlement with BNSF, but the railroad company declined. She suggested the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles “revisit” the option of more on-dock rail rather than building facilities so close to neighborhoods.
“The bottom line is this project cannot be fully mitigated,” Schipske said. “It will have a serious negative impact on the communities which [are] adjacent. The solution to this is we need on-dock rail. We have to move the cargo fast and efficiently out of the neighborhoods.”
Otto said he doesn’t support the SCIG “as presently configured,” adding that BNSF hasn’t been “brought to the table” to make mitigation measures. Still, he said the lawsuit could take years to resolve and might not result in an equitable solution in the end.
“Even though I’m a lawyer, I don’t think environmental lawsuits accomplish very much, and they take a long, long time,” Otto said.
Molen asked the candidates how they can ensure voters they would “protect the environment” if elected since the mayor doesn’t vote with the Council on agenda items.
Schipske, who has campaigned for more transparency in city government, said the mayor “sets the tone for what occurs on the City Council” and that the annual budget, which is submitted by the mayor to the Council, is the “most important tool.”
“We need to be focusing in on, when we do the budget, what programs and projects occur in the city of Long Beach,” she said.
The number-one environmental issue that the City faces, Schipske said, is the future of the Southeast Resource Recovery Facility (SERRF) plant, a facility that incinerates solid waste to generate energy. She noted that a contract with Southern California Edison expires in 2018.“That means the solid waste is going to go to a landfill,” Schipske said.
The termed-out councilmember also said she wants to add environmental impacts to staff reports for regular agenda items, like city staff currently does with financial impacts.
Schipske said the City should also set out an “environmental vision” through 2020, similar to Los Angeles, looking at how the environment is impacted by the City.
Lowenthal, however, said it’s important for the mayor to include the Council on any long-range plans rather than setting out a vision alone.
“It’s very important to collaborate with the Council,” Lowenthal said. “So it isn’t always the mayor’s vision. It must be the City Council’s vision to work on sustainability and have everyone involved in environmental improvements.”
Garcia said he agreed with Lowenthal that it’s the mayor’s job to collaborate with the Council. “It’s the job of the mayor not just to lay out a clear vision we can all get behind,” he said. “I think nothing gets done on the Council without great consensus and team work.”
In response to a question asked by Levine earlier in the debate, Schipske said she has the ability to “get that consensus” but added that gaining agreement is not the only way to lead an organization.
“Good managers make enthusiastic employees get the resources they need and then get out of the way,” she said.
Levine said Mayor Bob Foster, who has thus far expressed no interest in pursuing re-election as a write-in candidate, has publicly stated that the mayor’s race will come down to three main criteria, “executive ability, financial discipline and trustworthiness.”
Both Lowenthal and Otto agreed with each other that the City’s Sustainability Commission is “not being well utilized.”
Lowenthal vowed to focus on encouraging green building and other sustainable practices.
Otto added that the Long Beach Office of Sustainability should be more of an “advocacy organization” rather than a “speed bump on the road of environmental work.”
“The sustainability office should be advocates to help small businesses and homeowners make their operations more sustainable, not make them jump through hoops but help carry them through these hoops,” he said. Garcia said that, if elected mayor, he would focus on lobbying for federal and state funds in Washington, D.C. and Sacramento, respectively, in addition to working with the Port of Long Beach to pay for environmental initiatives. “We’re not going to have enormous amounts of money coming into the city anytime soon so we got to be creative in how we get these things funded,” Garcia said.
The debate abruptly shifted from pro-environment to pro-business as Levine asked the candidates how they would go about attracting new businesses to the city.
Schipske said businesses will move to Long Beach if it is understood that they can “thrive” and the city is perceived to be “safe” and “clean.”
She also said it’s important that businesses have access to “trainable educated people,” giving a jab to Otto, who voted along with his colleagues in 2012 to eliminate 11 vocational trade programs at LBCC.
“It does us no good to do away with vocational programs locally,” Schipske said.
Otto, on the other hand, pointed to his 11-point jobs plan, which he said outlines strategies to generate “special,” “21st Century” jobs, which he said offer a “living wage.”
“We need to train people in this town to get those jobs,” Otto said. “It’s well thought out with action steps that we can follow. We can make this a prosperous city.”
Garcia said, however, that the “single most important thing” the next mayor needs to focus on is “protecting jobs we already have,” particularly the thousands of port-related jobs that are threatened by global competition.
He also said the city has the potential for growth in healthcare-related jobs at its “health corridor” and tech jobs, adding that Long Beach should be considered “the Silicon Valley of the south.”
Lowenthal said making the city more business-friendly, whether through reducing the City’s business-license fees for startups for the first few years or investing in infrastructure and public-safety services, will be key to attracting new businesses.
“I think it’s critical we make it easier to do business and create jobs in the city of Long Beach,” she said. “Every time that I hear that the cost of a business license is so much greater here that people move to Signal Hill or other cities and open their business there, it’s counter productive for us.”