Q&A: Foster Reflects on 8 Years
From Issue: Volume XXII - Number 1
[Editor’s Note: The following comments were excerpted from a recent televised edition of “Straight Talk” with host Art Levine and Mayor Bob Foster.]
Art: We’re delighted to have as our guest for the entire show the Mayor of Long Beach, the honorable Bob Foster. You’re coming to the end of your eight years as mayor and as most of our viewers know, you chose not to run as a write-in which you legally could have and the polling indicated that you probably would have been successful in that effort. Tell us why you decided to not run.
Bob: I’ve enjoyed the seven-plus years so far. I think it has been a great experience, a rewarding experience. The deciding factor was a very close friend of mine became diagnosed with a terminal illness and that caused me to reflect on what I wanted to do with whatever years I have left. And I decided it would be better for me and my family to not run for office again and to pursue some private pursuits; spend more time with my grand kids, do some things in the private sector. I’m still going to be active. I’m going to do a number of things. Overall what I really want is the freedom to pick-up and do something on a moment’s notice and you can’t do that in this job; this job is 24/7. I may want to go to Italy for two months and really learn the language. I may never do that but I’d like to have the ability and the freedom to do it.
Art: Let’s look back over your years and what would you say are some of the more significant accomplishments? I know pension reform has to be near the top of the list.
Bob: Well pension reform is actually part of the overall fiscal discipline of the city. Your primary job is to [make] the city better than you found it. This last seven years have been very tough. No one anticipated the financial difficulties that the country would have and certainly that’s gone down into local government so I’m leaving this place much better on a number of accounts. Financially we have a surplus this year. We will be balanced, really balanced structurally for the next three years, and from a financial standpoint we’re in very good shape. We have crime at historic lows. I’ve been able to help bring technical training back into the schools. We’ve cleaned up the environment; the environment is much better, particularly at the port and I’m proud of those things.
I count pension reform as part of the overall financial discipline. When I announced it almost three years ago people thought, “You’re never going to get that,” and fortunately we not only were able to obtain pension reform, but we did it at the bargaining table and I want to point out I would have gone to the ballot if I had to. I stated publicly it was not the right way to do this. And the cities that have gone to the ballot on pension reform -- San Diego and San Jose in particular -- they’re still in litigation. They have not received one dime in terms of savings from pension reform. We will get ... I think it’s a little over $11 million to the general fund this year and it will save the City of Long Beach from all funds $250 million over the next ten years and we started getting those savings immediately.
Art: Absolutely. What would you say was your major disappointment?
Bob: A major disappointment was not being able to get the infrastructure bond passed. We have $62 million this year in one-time money to do capital improvement so we’re making some progress toward streets, roads, water systems, our public structures. Not as quickly as I’d like and not in the quantity as I’d like.
Art: I know also that you campaigned when you first ran for mayor on increasing public safety; the number of police officers up to 1,000 and because of a variety of factors including the recession, were down to about 750-780 and that has to be one of your disappointments.
Bob: No, no actually... The standard here is to have crime low; it’s not just having more bodies on the street. This police force with this leadership has done an excellent job.
Art: Bob let’s look at the present challenges facing the city. There’s some dissention at the port and there have been some cost overruns with the bridge that they’re building and the headquarters. Give us your take on what’s happening at the port?
Bob: I think the port needs to recognize some of the deficiencies that it has. It has embarked on some very ambitious construction program, about $4.3 billion over the next 10 years; the combination of the bridge, the middle harbor project and other port-related projects all of which I think are meritorious and needed because ultimately what you need the port to be is very efficient. You need to handle greater volumes at greater velocities. That’s what will make it an attractive port for people to ship their cargo through; in or out.
I do think that it is pretty clear that in terms of fiscal discipline and in terms of construction discipline, they need some help. They are over on the bridge, they are over on middle harbor, and even on the temporary office building they were substantially over. Now we’ve worked with them to scale that back. We’ve brought the temporary building a little bit more in line with their help. They’ve been very cooperative. Now I don’t mean this as a criticism. Any time you embark on an extraordinary construction program, you need to make sure you are prepared for it. Now I think they needed to be better prepared and I think they’re making those changes.
Art: Let’s talk about the new Civic Center. This was much in the news recently. You seem to suggest that it would be a good idea to have a new Civic Center to replace the old one, the current one, and there may be a port building beside it.
Bob: Well or the port would be part of it. I think the concept is this; look the existing structure -- City Hall -- is not earthquake safe. And in fact, we went and did a peer review recently and another analysis and it actually came back a little worse.
Art: The question people raise; is the cost of the retrofit as much as the city says it is?
Bob: Well it is what it is [laughs]. You know the estimates we have is about $170 million. It is not worth spending $170 million. But here’s the concept; we believe that we can through a design competition, if we can get a brand new civic center that’s usable keeping the park, integrating the library and have it at a cost to the city no more than we’re paying now for the maintenance on that building.
Art: And that’s the Triple P Partnership?
Bob: That’s correct. And we now have three very good and sophisticated firms who say they can do that; that was the hallmark of this. It has to cost us virtually the same. You want to make sure this is a usable, iconic civic plaza. We can also use the existing courthouse property and the idea is to bring as many [government] offices in that location as possible. We would love to have the port there...
Art: Bob let’s talk about leadership. You’ve said publicly and so has the president of Long Beach State that you can’t have a great city without a great university and you can’t have a great university without a great city. The trustees recently changed their policy so they no longer require campus visits by the three finalists [for CSULB president]. And a lot of the faculty feel that it’s appropriate that the finalists come to campus and give everyone a chance to meet them. I want to know your view of this change in trustee policy.
Bob: Well quite frankly I wasn’t aware of it but I would prefer campus visits and I am part of the advisory committee on this search right now for the new president so I don’t know what the logic was for whether or not... But I’m part of the process and I’ll ask them why they’ve changed.
Art: Give our viewers the criteria that you as a voter would look for in the next mayor.
Bob: First of all, I think you want someone to at least have confidence, has executive ability; the ability to really stand up, make a decision, take a tough stance, and stick with it and do it quickly. Secondly, first and foremost, you have to have someone that really understands financial discipline and fiscal restraint. We are not yet out of all of the problems that could happen with this city, particularly on the pension side from the state of California and other things the state may do. We need to make sure we keep our reserves, we build our reserves, we keep the financial policies such as not using one-time revenue for ongoing expenses. And third, I think ultimately you have to have somebody ... you cannot be a good leader unless people trust you. And I think you have to look at all the candidates and say, “Who is it I really trust here?”
As I started this interview by saying, you’re in this job ultimately to leave this place in better condition than you found it. You cannot do that unless you meet problems squarely and you have to do it with the spirit that it’s not to advance yourself; it’s not to put yourself somewhere else. In fact quite often if you address problems squarely when they come up, you’re putting yourself at political risk. That’s your job. You need to do that.
Art: I think we’ve been fortunate to have a mayor with the quality of Bob Foster who has done the things that he has accomplished. Not a perfect record, but a very good record and Bob we thank you for your service to the city and to the community.
Bob: Well thank you Art. I guess as I begin my exit I’d like to say it has been a marvelous experience, it has been an honor to serve the people of Long Beach, and I hope that when I exit they will look back and believe that I merited the trust they placed in me. It has been an outstanding experience and an honor.
Straight Talk airs in Long Beach and 40 surrounding cities on Saturday and Sunday at 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. on LBTV Channel 3 and FiOS 21, and at 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. on Charter Channel 101. The show is Viewable on Demand at www.StraightTalkTV.com.