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Long Beach struggles to find permanent leadership

The city manager position has not been filled for 10 months, and Long Beach has not had a comptroller for more than a year.

Long Beach residents rallied outside City Hall in

Long Beach residents rallied outside City Hall in July. Photo Credit: Danielle Silverman

Long Beach is struggling to find permanent leadership to run the city while at the center of a fiscal crisis and a state audit of millions in payouts to current and former employees.

City council members say they have received about 40 resumes and interviewed at least seven finalists for city manager, but cannot agree on any one candidate. An interim city manager has been at the helm for the past 10 months, and a former city comptroller is paid by the hour to consult on budgeting issues. 

Council members argue that they shouldn’t rush the process until they can find the right person. They also said a recruiting firm may be hired if a new city manager cannot be found. 

“This is difficult decision and Long Beach is a unique community and it requires as much time as it takes,” City Council Vice President Chumi Diamond said.

The city manager is appointed by the five-member council to act as the top administrator for the city of 35,000 permanent residents and 363 full-time employees. The duties include drafting a budget and presenting policy initiatives for the council to approve.

In the interim, Long Beach Police Commissioner Michael Tangney has served a dual role without taking additional salary to serve as acting city manager, including drafting a $95 million budget, which was approved in May.

The city pays former Comptroller Kristie Hansen-Hightower a $100-per-hour retainer as a consultant. She left in August 2017 to serve as comptroller to the Town of Southold.

At least two city council members said they hope to have a candidate within the next few weeks. Officials say there are no local or internal candidates.

Long Beach City Council President Anthony Eramo said the city has narrowed its finalists to two to three candidates from out of state.

"We all recognize this is the number one thing facing the city right now," Eramo said. 

Tangney got the city through the budget and its peak summer season, but he said the city needs a permanent leader.

“Stability is always better. Where we might be lacking is planning. I’m not making big plans, because I may not know how long I’m going to be here,” Tangney said.

He had initially planned to leave in July, but agreed to stay through the year until a replacement is found. He said he wants to return to the police department by next year.

Municipal credit agencies have taken notice of the city's lack of permanent leadership. 

Moody’s Investors Service, which bases 20 percent of its bond score on a city’s management team, gave Long Beach a negative outlook on its finances in May, potentially affecting the city's interest rate when it borrows to fund projects.

Moody’s noted in an August report that the city was using debt and bonds to cover operating expenses, including separation payments.

“Compounding the fiscal problems, the city has been without a full-time comptroller for a year and a city manager for the past eight months,” the August report states. “An unstable management team has added financial pressure related to Long Beach’s credit profile as a management team that does not stay in place long enough to understand the relevant issues and implement reforms poses a hurdle.”

The city council has come close to hiring a city manager after first posting the position in December to replace Jack Schnirman, who was elected Nassau County comptroller. 

Last month, two different factions of the all-Democrat council met with former city manager Ed Eaton, who served for 24 years. He had agreed to serve as city manager through the end of next year while the city searched for a permanent replacement.

Eaton said the council moved on without holding a vote after they could not get three of the five council members necessary to appoint him.

“They’re rudderless. The city is drifting. Nothing is happening and things are out of control,” Eaton said. “The city needs someone to get this council in line and working together and right now they can’t sit in the same room. They’re fiddling while Long Beach burns and it doesn’t need to be this way.”

Residents have protested and clamored for an independent city manager to stabilize the city’s finances and investigate payouts of accrued time to current and former employees. The state comptroller's office is conducting an audit of the city's finances and payouts. 

The search was put on hold last spring as the council focused on passing the budget that carried an 8.3 percent property tax hike to close a $4.5 million deficit. The city was also facing a shortfall after council members defeated a $2.1 million bond measure to fund separation pay and employee payouts.

The council in July had intended to appoint Long Beach Corporation Counsel Rob Agostisi, of Dix Hills, but he withdrew his name after criticism from State Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), who called for an outside investigation of payouts and the city's finances. 

"The city has a right to appoint who they want but should consider the climate of residents," Kaminsky said. "Residents have to know questions will be raised and know these payouts won't happen again and their tax dollars are secure."

Council members said they are working together to vet each candidate and will conduct more interviews with finalists.

“We want someone who has experience and can successfully demonstrate leadership and help our city in terms of our financial situation and visibility,” City Councilwoman Anissa Moore said. 

Officials said among the challenges in finding a city manager is a residency requirement, which requires the city manager to have a residence in Long Beach within 90 days, in addition to questions of salary, job security and inheriting the city's fiscal crisis.  

Council members are in favor of at least a two-year contract to bridge the next elected administration. The council previously renewed a two-year contract with Schnirman for $173,871 per year. 

The city has had difficulty hiring a comptroller without a permanent administrator at the helm. Tangney said many of the candidates from the private sector do not have experience in municipal government.

“We don’t want to bring anyone in without that knowledge, because there’s a learning curve,” Tangney said. “It will be a lot easier to find a comptroller once we have a city manager.”
 

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