Straight Talk: Mayor Bob Foster
From Issue: Volume XXI - Number 4
Art Levine’s recent guest on Straight Talk was Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster.
Art: Welcome to Straight Talk. We’re delighted and honored to have as our guest for the entire show, the Mayor of Long Beach, the Honorable Bob Foster. Bob, welcome back to Straight Talk.
Bob: It’s a pleasure, Art.
Art: Tell us a little bit about [recent accomplishments in the city, like the airport].
Bob: It’s been a long time coming. We’ve tried to modernize this airport for quite some time. The airport is well-appreciated because it’s very efficient. The goal is to get you from the curb through security in 20 minutes or less. It was always like that, and the problem was, it was convenient, but not comfortable. We now have a brand-new concourse. You have an open garden court with fire pits and palm trees. You have two wings where the gates are, and you’ve got great waiting areas, Wi-Fi throughout and all the concessions are Long Beach companies.
Art: And with local pricing?
Bob: Local -- no add-on. Local pricing -- that’s exactly what they charge in their regular business, and people have responded so favorably, it’s incredible.
Art: I know when Mario Rodriguez, the airport director came to town, the feud had -- like the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s between the larger airports, smaller HUSH1, HUSH2, and in six months, he brought everyone together and they came up with a fantastic solution that preserved the classic terminal that everyone loves, but also has these convenient concourses.
Bob: The decision on reducing the size of the terminal had actually occurred before Mario got here, but he has brought a professionalism. He right-sized the parking garage. It was going to be a lot bigger than it is, being done three months ahead of schedule, under budget. The airport terminal is 89,000 square feet.
Art: And it’s the lowest-priced airport in California, second lowest in America?
Bob: That is correct. We were a very well-run operation, financially stable, and if any of those carriers give up a gate, there will be a line to be able to come…
Art: Some other great accomplishments during the year, AA rating for the city paper and a new port headquarters for the next five years. That was quite controversial.
Bob: One thing that I’m most proud of is we’ve weathered a substantial financial storm, the worst recession since the Great Depression. We said, “Look, we’re not going to take one-time revenue and use it for ongoing expenses.” We’ve only done that rarely, and in specific instances, had proportional share, reduced our budget in every department proportionally as we made cuts. We don’t want to become a city that’s all public safety and no parks, no libraries, no public works. So, we used some very strong financial principles to do our budgeting. We actually increased our reserves during this period.
Art: You vetoed the original plan of the port to build new headquarters adjacent to the current, outdated headquarters.
Bob: I vetoed port headquarters because it was very expensive. It’s better served to use port land for productive purposes. The port should be downtown. Nobody wants to be like Los Angeles, where the port commissioner serves at the pleasure of the mayor. I don’t want such a disconnect that they’re not part of the city. They’re a city department that started out with public money.
Art: You don’t secretly want that?
Bob: I wouldn’t support an effort to do that. I think it’s important to have an arm’s-length relationship from politics.
Art: I’ve noticed that some of the best-run entities in this city are under separate commissions, whether it’s the port, the airport, Long Beach Transit, the water department. They seem to run well when they’re insulated from political control.
Bob: I would have argued that oil and gas, which doesn’t have its own board, is well run. Public works is fairly well run. It’s a different principle. If you have a big business enterprise and you want to run by business principles, you should be, not disconnected from politics, but at arm’s-length. We’ve found a good balance in Long Beach. You shouldn’t ignore the fact that you’re a city department.
Art: The port went ahead and was going to buy the World Trade Center, but that was not approved by a majority of the board. Your two appointees opposed it and bought a building for under 25 million in the airport area, while they wait for a new headquarters. The natural location would be where the old courthouse gets raised when it opens. That would be a great location for the port headquarters and a new City Hall.
Bob: The issue here is not old or functional, but about safety, both in the port building and City Hall. The building is unsafe and a substantial earthquake is likely to pancake, so employees had to get out of there. I felt very strongly that it made no sense to buy the World Trade Center. It was overpriced and not a good purchase. When it got down to leasing, you look at the price of leasing the World Trade Center versus buying this building, which is easy to secure and was used as a temporary location for four or five years...
Art: And you might be able to sell it for more than you paid?
Bob: I think you could. Now, they’ve done that. I give them a lot of credit. However, it’s a minor inconvenience and a slightly longer commute. Ultimately what I liked is a procedure to build an iconic building downtown. I’m not sure where it will be, but they’re putting together a process that could be defensible.
Art: Bob, let’s look at some of the challenges of the city. The budget each year is a challenge and you’ve had to make cuts that were proportional. However, you were able to get pension reform through, which was a major accomplishment that will benefit down the road.
Bob: Pension reform is essential, and police and fire have agreed to pension reform. I think we’re very close with the last remaining group and hopefully will agree to pension reform, and that will produce about $230 to $240 million over ten years.
Art: Pension relief is perpetually under the gun.
Bob: It’s not a sustainable argument. We’re financially solid, and I want to applaud all the employee groups who stepped up to do this.
Art: One of the real impacts of the budget situation has been the continued reduction in police manning. Would you agree that more boots on the ground means more safety for the city?
Bob: Yeah, but I don’t know if that’s the correct question. This city has less crime than it did back in the 60s. Do I think that we need more personnel? Yes.
Art: Crime figures were continuing to improve, with less crime year after year. We’ve had the so-called perfect storm with the recession, realignment, and the reduced number of police officers. Figures sadly are going up in our city. We asked the chief and he said if he could get back to the police manning levels of many years ago, he could turn this trend around. Ultimately, more boots means more safety.
Bob: Generally, that’s correct. Crime has ticked up a bit, but lately it’s been off. Let’s wait until the figures are in at the end of the year. You’re always going to have crime. The point is to strike a balance. You want to be able to put enough resources so that you provide reasonable safety for your city. Do I want more police officers? Yes, I do.
Art: We have an academy.
Bob: We have an academy because we’ve been prudently managed. We have not used a lot of one-time resources for ongoing expenses. There will be a time in the near future where we can start rebuilding some of the services we’ve cut.
Art: When you first ran for Mayor, you campaigned on 100 more...
Bob: 100 more police officers, correct.
Art: And you’d gotten to 50?
Bob: I got halfway there.
Art: Then the recession hit and things went the other way.
Bob: It was the only thing I haven’t been able to make good on. I want more police officers and provide the safest big city in California. It doesn’t mean you’ll always do that by putting police officers on the street...
Art: If we don’t have a safe city, then everything else goes to hell in a hand basket.
Bob: Having safety allows you to do all the other things with the economy and with the kind of social things that we want to do. We want to have enough resources to be safe. One of the first things I will do when we get additional revenue is start rebuilding the force.
Art: There’s talk around town that the three man fire truck proposal is on the table.
Bob: We resolved that last time. We’re not deviating from four person crews.
Art: There’s some rumors about going to the L.A. County Fire Fighters.
Bob: No. You’ll see a couple of cuts in this next year’s budget. I’m hopeful that by 2014, we can be structurally balanced.
Art: While there are more taxes or lower services, a way out is to have a more robust business development where we bring business in, get more tax revenue, and thus more to go around. We don’t have to increase taxes or cut services. Long Beach continues to have a non-business-friendly reputation among developers, who stay away from there because of difficulty. Other cities have open arms. Why have we not been able to lick this problem of making Long Beach a business-friendly place?
Bob: You must be reading old press releases because that’s no longer Long Beach’s reputation. The L.A.D.C. named us the most business-friendly city in L.A County. It opened about three months ago and we’ve created a one-stop shop. You now go for permits on the fourth floor down in City Hall and have a horseshoe. You go to business permits and licenses. We cut fees by 1/3 because the process is more efficient.
Art: A lot of talk about your future political plans. You’re legally eligible to run for a third term as a write-in as Beverly O’Neill did. Would you like to tell the audience what your future political plans are?
Bob: They’re a bit up in the air. I think I’ve done a very good job for this city. I’m thinking very hard and giving it a lot of thought as to whether I’ll run again. I need to consult with my wife and family to see if it’s something that they’ll want to do.
Art: Do you think anyone on the council could make a better mayor?
Bob: There are some very good people on the council. My record speaks for itself. I’ve done this the best way I know how, and people have responded to that. I love this city and tried to make it better. It really comes down to a personal choice whether or not my family and I want to pursue that. I’m giving it the kind of thought it deserves.
Art: You considered a statewide office and formed a committee. Is that pretty much off the table?
Bob: I’m not going to pursue any statewide office. However, I’m still going to try to help this city and make it better.
Art: You’ve been mayor for six years now. Is it different than you expected in some ways?
Bob: I haven’t in my business life; I’d been around politics.
Art: The mayor was President of Southern California Edison for a number of years, and saved the company from bankruptcy. He was a hero to the investors and employees, but retired. You could have played golf and enjoyed your various homes, but decided that you wanted to be of service to the city. You had been up in Sacramento a long time and knew the political system.
Bob: I know the landscape and have not been surprised by anything. You really are dealing with both interests, passions and the future. You should never be upset because there’s differences of opinion. I believe in what I think is right, and I will try to accomplish it. My first question, “What’s the right thing to do?”
Art: What’s best for the city?
Bob: What’s the right thing to do? “What’s the politics?” So, where are the interests? Where do the interests line up? I actually don’t weigh that. So, I think -- to me, that’s the right way to do things. I don’t always exceed in that, but I do the best I can, and I -- as I said, whether it’s as mayor or as a private citizen, I’ll continue to try to help the city. I will have an answer by the end of the year.
And, I will tell you, this has been a great experience. I have -- for all -- sometimes the difficulty of being in office and the goldfish bowl you live in -- I really have enjoyed it. It’s been worthwhile.
Art: It is my hope that the mayor will decide to run for a third term as a write-in to help complete the work he has started. Whatever he decides, we should thank Bob and Nancy for their service to our city. And we thank you.
Bob: Well, thank you. That’s very gracious. I do want to say that I couldn’t have done this job without Nancy’s support. She’s been a great first lady, and she’s done an awful lot for this city, and she’s really beloved, and well deserved.
Bob: Thank you.
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