December 18, 2014 - From the December, 2014 issue

Long Beach Mayor Garcia On Civic Engagement & Economic Development

Recently elected Mayor of Long Beach Robert Garcia assumed office in July 2014, becoming the youngest Latino male to fill the role. In this TPR interview, Garcia outlines his plans for Long Beach’s economic development—plans that grew out of  his transition chair’s (Doug Otto) report that has just garnered a $3 million, three-year grant from Bloomberg Charities to create an “innovation team” to jump-start new approaches to poverty, public safety, and job growth. Garcia also addresses the City’s long overdue CalPERs pension payouts, data-driven decision-making, and the mayor’s initiatives in education that focus on after-school and municipal library programming.


“The Port of Long Beach is a large provider of jobs to the City of Long Beach… It’s incredibly important to us… It’s going to be greener.” —Mayor Robert Garcia

In your mayoral acceptance speech and the final report of your transition team, your priorities as Long Beach’s new mayor are articulated—two of which are civic engagement and economic development. The City Council already have accepted more than 60 of your commissioners, which is evidence of greater civic engagement - your goal. What now are your intentions and ambitions regarding economic development?

Robert Garcia: We’re in the early stages of developing a 10-year plan for economic development. We’re reviving a dormant economic development citizens’ commission that has been around for a while. It’s an 11-member panel, which we’re going to name in January. It’ll be an all-star group of citizens, business leaders, and community members to put together this new economic development plan focused on a few things. 

First, it will show us a snapshot of where things are at today, including all of our major industry partners. Also, we’re going to look at opportunities to tap into due to future changes in the economy—whether it’s the explosion of health care, the technology and innovation economy, or expansion of trade and other things at the port. 

It’ll be an internal and an external process. We expect to bring in an all-star management group or economic team that’ll help advise this commission, so we can put together a really solid report that will come to the Council, where we can adopt it. 

The commission will look at a variety of things—not just the high-level stuff, but also the micro stuff we can work on. For example, what is the best way we can provide concierge service to our businesses? What’s the best way we can reform our planning department so that we can make it more efficient? Can we put more things online?

One of your engines of economic vitality that you noted is the Port of Long Beach, in addition to the airport. Last month, TPR published an interview with Jon Slangerup, the new Chief Executive of the POLB. He emphasized the port’s sustainability initiatives, the logistical challenges of such a large operation, and international trade competition. What are your expectations and thoughts for the POLB as a priority?

The Port of Long Beach is a large provider of jobs to the City of Long Beach, as well as to the regional economy. It’s incredibly important to us. 

The port is growing. It’s going to be greener. Next year is the tenth anniversary of the Green Port Policy, so we’re going to recommit ourselves to being the greenest seaport in the world. Right now, we’re building the world’s first zero-emissions terminal at the Port of Long Beach. We’re investing in technology and electrifying terminals, as well as putting more on-dock rail. We’ve had a world-wide model in our clean trucks program—it’s reduced truck emissions by 90 percent. We’ve done a lot of good stuff, and we’re going to focus more on that next year, as well. 

2015 is our sustainability year. We’re going to talk about climate change and sea level rise. We’re going to make sure we launch a city-wide, regional discussion on how climate change is going to affect us in the coastal community. All of that is part of what we’re doing and the port is going to have a big role in it.

Please elaborate on next year’s sustainability initiatives.

We’re going to be asking the Aquarium of the Pacific to  play a major role in helping the city put together a climate change action plan. We’re going to be gathering some of the top scientists from all of the federal and state coastal agencies, along with meteorologists, water experts, and planning experts, to talk about how climate change is going to have a dramatic impact on not just Long Beach, but on everyone. 

How we in Long Beach prepare for climate change, with sea level rise and with the drought, will be part of this report. We hope we can use that data to put in place some changes in our planning documents and our General Plan. We’re going to have to think and rethink how we build buildings and the way we use our coastal resources. We want to start that conversation now so that for the next 10, 20, and 30 years of construction and development, we’re thinking about climate change. 

Last month, the Long Beach Board of Water Commissioners voted to declare a Stage 1 water supply shortage. In the context of the State’s ongoing drought and the water bond passage this past November by voters, what opportunities are now available for you and your Council to review Long Beach’s sustainable water management practices, storm and waste water collection, and new reuse technologies?

I think our water departments are doing a great job. As you know, Long Beach is leading the state in water conservation. We’re not using any more water today than we were using in the 1960s, yet we have dramatically more people. We’re seeing huge decreases if you look at the state’s average. I think we have put in place everything that we can. 

Now, with imminent shortage of water and reservoirs drying up, we’re not getting the wet winter we had hoped. As a result, we’re going to take it one step further. That includes the city. We’re doing even less watering of our parks and green spaces, we’re reducing how often we wash our fleet vehicles, and we’re reducing our water consumption overall even more than we had been doing. It’s all part of what every city needs to be involved in.

You ran for Mayor of Long Beach on a platform that included rebuilding aging streets, sidewalks, and alleys. Your predecessor focused, following the country and state’s 2008 economic crisis, on addressing the City’s structural deficit, as well as the Downtown Plan and redevelopment. Are the City’s on-going budget challenges impacting your infrastructure investment plans for the City? 

From an infrastructure point of view, we’re at a pretty decent place. Downtown is booming right now and a lot of retail is coming in. We’ve got about 3,000 units under construction or at some level of construction just in the downtown core. So I feel that some things are moving in the right direction. 

There are deeper infrastructure needs when we start moving into the residential communities in East Long Beach and other areas that need huge repairs in alleys, streets, and sidewalks. We’re going to have to get creative about how we invest in infrastructure in the future.

I think that downtown is going to take care of itself, because we’re on that rocketship—which has happened in a lot of downtowns—where things are getting better every single day. But we’ve got to invest back into the neighborhoods. That’s going to take some additional budget support in the next few years in infrastructure, particularly when it comes to East Long Beach and central parts of Long Beach. 

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Regarding the challenges of the budget, it’s public knowledge that the city will have to make a very large state pension contribution to CALPERS starting in 2017. It may be up to $35 million a year by 2021. The City’s budget is a little over $400 million. How are you, the Council, and your senior advisors squaring  that large pension contribution with needed infrastructure investments and other priorities?

I look at the pension payments we are going to make as actually a very good thing for the city. Essentially, we’re going to be making a payment that we should’ve been making a long time ago. Making a larger payment now will ensure that 10 to 15 years from now, our pension obligations and liability will be quite dramatically decreased. I view the increased pension contribution as having a direct relationship to our underlying liabilities. The more we pay, the less our underlying liability is going to be. 

Is it going to cause us some tightening of the belt in other areas? Absolutely. But we’re hopeful, and we have a plan to manage it all. I think it’s going to be a very good thing for the city long-term.

The long term, given term limits, leaves you stuck with the challenges of the next eight years. Will either tax increases or program cuts be necessary, as is the case for most other California cities? 

Absolutely. We’re going to first look at everything. I’m a big believer that everything is always on the table. I don’t think you can say no to any opportunity for either revenue or for cuts. But we’re going to be better informed about this once we’ve done the economic report to see where we are at. 

We’re doing a huge infrastructure street survey right now. We’ll have more data and information in the first or second quarter of next year, which will inform us moving forward.

The city of Long Beach is ranked as one of the top 10 digital cities nationwide. How did the City score in the top ten and how will you stay ranked so high?

This has been my top issue since I’ve been on the Council. I’ve been a technology and innovation guy since I got elected, and I continue to be. 

It’s been a culture change—having everyone think of innovation at the city. The city manager has been brought on and the Council gets it. I think everyone is interested in us being a 21st Century city. 

We pushed initiatives forward like getting wi-fi in all of the libraries and all of our parks; creating smart phone apps that are going to work; and modernizing a lot of our technologies, including changing our software. We’ve done all those things that will make the city operate more efficiently and faster. But I actually think we have a huge amount of opportunities left. While I’m very thankful for the honor, we have a long way to go. We have a lot more work to do and a lot more systems to change. 

In my budget this year, I restructured the Technology Services Department to the new Department of Technology and Innovation. We’re going to be hiring a chief innovation officer, as well. I love what LA and Mayor Garcetti are doing. I just spent a couple days with Rick Cole, who heads up a lot of that stuff in LA. It’s fantastic—I’m a huge fan.

Lastly, one of your other main interests and priorities is public education. While other leading mayors of the country likewise have begun addressing education, most, like in Long Beach, have no direct authority over schools. How then will you go forward to improve the City’s schools?

I think mayors do have a big impact in the education arena in a different way. First, we have a municipal library system. A lot of learning, research work, collaboration, and education support is happening in our libraries every single day. That’s a huge area where I think we can make improvements and ensure that we have the libraries of the future. 

We also have a huge afterschool program. Our youngsters are coming from schools to our park programs and community centers. How are we best facilitating learning and growth there?

In respect to the greater system, what mayors do—and what I’m doing—is convening. We have a great school system in Long Beach. Our universities and community colleges are all really successful. It’s going to be my job to ensure that we’re providing support to them. It’s really about collaboration and not control. Some mayors try to get too involved with controlling what happens inside the classroom, and that’s a big mistake. 

But what I can do is help with capital campaigns. I’m launching a new internship initiative where we’re going to double the amount of internships in our first year, from 1,500 to 3,000 for public school students. I’ve been vocal about supporting universal preschool. We’re bringing together preschool stakeholders and working with the White House, the Governor’s Office, and others on how to achieve universal pre-k in Long Beach. 

There is definitely a role for mayors. I am very involved in the education side, particularly because I come from that world.

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