By Nick Diamantides
The two seasoned lawyers argued politely over which one of them was the best choice for Long Beach City Attorney. Incumbent Bob Shannon pointed to his 12 successful years in the office, while challenger Tom Reeves, who is currently the Long Beach City Prosecutor, insisted he could do a better job.
The discussion, dubbed a “candidates forum” and sponsored by the Long Beach Press Club, took place at the Gaslamp Restaurant Monday [March 8] evening. About 50 people attended the event. A panel of four local journalists took turns asking the candidates questions.
In his opening remarks, Shannon outlined what his office does. He noted that by the City Charter, the city attorney is the legal counsel for the city council and all the city’s commissions and departments, the airport, the port and the trash-to-energy plant. “All those people need transactional advice on a regular basis, and we give it to them,” he said.
He added that his office also handles all litigation for the city. “On any given time, in house I have 150 to 200 lawsuits pending, handled by five litigators I have working in my office,” he explained.
Reeves also described the duties of his office, which are also mandated by the City Charter. “I prosecute adult misdemeanors and infractions, and that includes everything from barking dogs to manslaughter,” he said. “We do anywhere from 20,000 to 30,000 cases a year.” He noted that his office prosecutes the violation of state laws as well as city ordinances. “The most prominent types of crimes (we prosecute) are domestic violence, driving under the influence, other kinds of violence and, of course, drug offenses,” he noted.
Harry Saltzgaver, publisher of Gazette Newspapers, noted that sometimes the Long Beach Harbor Commissioners and the Long Beach City Council want to move in different directions on a port-related issue, and yet, according to the City Charter, the city attorney represents both governmental bodies. He asked how, in times of conflict, the city attorney could fairly represent both groups.
Shannon replied that having the city attorney represent both bodies is actually in the best interests of the city and its residents. “It’s my feeling that it’s much more efficient to have the city attorney give single legal advice to the city and the port,” he said. He pointed to a recent example of his office working with the port and council to help formulate the port’s green truck program, which is reducing diesel emissions in the city. “If you had a separate attorney giving legal advice to the harbor, you would not have had that well-oiled situation where we really aren’t competing,” he added.
Reeves noted that the Harbor Commission is a semi-autonomous agency with authority clearly defined by the City Charter. “To the extent that there was ever a conflict between policy that the city council sought to impose and the port sought to impose, I think the analysis would go to the Charter,” he said. “Who has the authority over that area?”
Shannon noted that a recent amendment to the City Charter has given the mayor and city council the power to remove harbor commissioners from office without cause. He noted that if there was ever a fundamental difference in policy and no compromise could be reached, the council could fire certain harbor commissioners and replace them with people that agreed with the council’s position.
Ryan Zummallen, reporter for LBPost.com, asked the candidates to explain their position on a lawsuit recently filed by about 100 Long Beach police officers against the city in which the officers are asking to be paid for the time it takes them to put on and take off their uniforms. Shannon noted that similar court cases throughout the United States have been won by cities. The only exceptions, he explained, were cities that did not pay police officers for the time it takes them to put on their safety equipment. Shannon also explained that his office has contracted with a private law firm that specializes in such cases, because his staff does not have the time or specialized expertise to fight the lawsuit.
The officers are asking for approximately $10 million, and the city is paying the law firm about $1.2 million to handle the litigation. Shannon said it was regrettable that the officers were forcing the city to spend that kind of money, but he was confident that fighting the lawsuit was the lesser of two evils. “I guarantee we are not going to be paying anything like $10 million to settle or litigate this lawsuit,” he said.
Reeves seemed to agree that the city was right in fighting the lawsuit, but he took issue with Shannon’s decision to hire a private law firm to handle the case. “My suggestion is to employ the expertise and hire the lawyers,” he said. “You can hire a whole lot of lawyers for $1.2 million.”
For the remainder of the almost two-hour forum, the candidates responded to questions that focused primarily on their philosophical differences. Both men agreed that the city’s lobbying ordinance is not strong enough, and both agreed that the city must adopt and enforce regulations pertaining to medical marijuana dispensaries.
Shannon, however, said that it seemed as if Reeves was more interested in banning such dispensaries from the city instead of regulating them. Reeves denied that, insisting that most dispensaries are making exorbitant profits and selling marijuana to people who do not have a legitimate medical need for it. (On Tuesday night, Long Beach City Council passed an ordinance regulating the dispensaries.)
In the last remaining minutes of the forum, Saltzgaver asked the candidates why they felt they deserved to be elected.
“I’ve been city attorney for 12 years, and I am running on a track record, not promises,” Shannon said. “We are the best city attorney’s office in the state.”
“I think the next four years for this city, county and state are going to be challenging to say the least,” Reeves said. “We need leadership.” He pointed to the years when he successfully managed his own law firm, his more than 30 years in the U.S. military, in which he rose to the rank of colonel in the Air Force Reserve, and his many years of successfully managing the city prosecutor’s office. Reeves insisted that he could provide better leadership than Shannon.