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Long Beach City Council holds off on proposal to merge water department, gas utility

Community members file public-records request regarding potential utilities charter amendment

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The Long Beach City Council agreed Tuesday in a joint, public meeting with the Long Beach Charter Amendment Committee to hold off on asking voters to consider a consolidation of the gas and water departments.

Mayor Robert Garcia began the meeting with an announcement that it would be the last charter amendment public hearing and the final opportunity for public comment on the five charter amendments being considered for placement on the Nov. 6 special municipal election ballot.

Following public comment, Garcia announced that Robert Shannon, president of the Long Beach board of water commissioners, had recently sent a letter to the council members asking for more time with the utilities consolidation item.

“The water commission […] who brought forward the charter amendment to the council, is asking us to, please, look at 2020 to put that item on because they would like more time to develop the item with their staff and the community,” Garcia said. “And so the request on that issue is going to be for the council to not take action on the water and the utility measure, but to continue having a conversation in the future about that.”

The board of water commissioners voted to support the possible merger of the city’s water department and natural gas utility in March. Possible benefits of the proposal include “greater resources available for emergency response purposes, more efficient and cost-effective operations and increased coordination of construction activities in city streets to reduce impacts to residents,” according to a press release that the City of Long Beach issued after the vote.

“The potential charter amendment to merge the gas and water departments into a public utilities department is intended to create better efficiencies in customer service and costs since the two utilities share the same customer base and deal with the same areas of pipelines,” Public Affairs Officer Kevin Lee said via email. “A combined utility department would be overseen by a commission, like the water department has for decades.”

Four individuals who oppose the merger filed a public-records request for information pertaining to the impact and language of the proposal, according to a statement they issued shortly thereafter. Lee indicated via email that a public-records request was received by the City on July 30, and he said the City has 10 days to respond and could extend that timeline to 14 days.

Long Beach resident Diana Lejins is one of the four who participated in the records request and was in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting. Lejins criticized the nature of all five charter amendments during public comment.

“These amendments are totally self-serving,” Lejins said. “The whole set-up is totally self-serving […] I say, ‘Shame on you. Shame, shame.’ […] No one asked for this, and it’s self-serving.”

In a telephone interview Wednesday, Lejins said she and the group that submitted the public-records request on the utilities item are still organizing, and following the results of the request, they may move forward with additional actions.

In their statement issued July 31, the group shared the list of items they are requesting and expressed their concerns about the nature and intentions of the proposal.

“We are most concerned that the mayor and city council are proposing a major change in the city charter to merge the gas and water departments into a public utilities department without any documented analysis of the impact of such a merger,” the statement reads. “We have reason to believe that this merger is being proposed to remove the independence of the water department to make certain it is no longer ‘a rogue department’ that makes actions independently of the mayor and city council […] We also share the concern of some city staff who believe that the mayor, city council and major management are possibly being ‘lobbied’ to contract out or to privatize the city’s utilities, which include water, gas, refuse, sewers and a city-run electricity service that is currently being considered.”

Former 5th District Long Beach Councilmember Gerrie Schipske also participated in the records request, according to the statement, which identifies the group as “the four taxpayer advocates who challenged Measure M.”

Measure M is a charter amendment to explicitly authorize and affirm the transfer of surplus City utility revenues to the City’s general fund to support services for Long Beach residents such as police, fire, 911 paramedic and other general government services, according to the City of Long Beach Measure M information document available online at longbeach.gov/citymanager/measure-m.

In a telephone interview Tuesday, Schipske said she believes that, following the passage of Measure M in June, the proposed utilities merger is the “next step in the city trying to loosen up any kind of oversight on the transfers of money from the utilities into the general fund.”

Via email, Lee said Measure M and the utilities charter amendment are unrelated.

Schipske said that, even though the proposal will not be on the ballot in November, she still wants the information requested and she intends to make any records she does receive from the City public.

“I still want to see [the information] because they were moving forward to propose a very major change in the structure of city government, and where was the analysis?” Schipske said.

The other two people in the opposition group are Tom Stout and Citizens about Responsible Planning (CARP) President Joe Weinstein.

CARP issued a press release prior to Tuesday’s meeting opposing the charter amendments due to concerns about fiscal responsibility, public involvement and respect to voters. The group indicated in the release that it opposes placing any measures on the ballot at this time.

“New ballot measures must be truly needed and fiscally responsible, must seriously involve the public and be in accord with public priorities and can come only after demonstrated commitment to essential information and fair treatment of voters,” Weinstein said in the release.

Charter amendments that will move forward following the joint, public meeting include the establishment of a city ethics commission, the establishment of a three-term limit for council members and the mayor, the establishment of a redistricting commission and changes in the charter language pertaining to the city auditor’s authority to conduct performance audits. Each item passed unanimously.

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Long Beach City Council holds off on proposal to merge water department, gas utility