Vice Mayor/Councilman Robert Garcia
August 14, 2012 - The newest vice mayor of Long Beach admits that he has an obsession with the International City, keeping meticulous statistics on the efforts of his district office and leading the charge to make the city more tech friendly.
Vice Mayor and 1st District Councilmember Robert Garcia, Ph.D., won a special district election on April 7, 2009, and was reelected April 10, 2012, to a full four-year term. At 34, Garcia is currently the youngest member of the city council and first Latino councilmember in the city’s history. He serves as chair of the public safety committee, the elections oversight committee and the Long Beach Housing Authority. He also serves on the federal legislative and state legislative committees.
Born in Lima, Peru, Garcia and his family immigrated to the United States when he was 5 years old. He grew up in Covina and was raised by his mother, grandmother and aunt. Garcia was the first person in his family to attend and graduate college.
His professional career is in higher education, serving as a college educator at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB), Long Beach City College and, more recently, USC. He earned his doctorate in higher education in 2010, holds a master’s degree in communication management from USC and bachelor’s degree in communication studies from CSULB. He is a graduate of Americorps, Leadership Long Beach and serves on the board of Children Today. He is also a member of the Sierra Club.
In an interview at the Long Beach Business Journal offices, Garcia covered a wide range of issues, from the proposed city budget to two local initiatives on the November ballot to open government policies he has initiated or supported, and to his future as an elected official. He also ticked off a list of accomplishments within his districts, such as removing 3,000 illegal signs.
LBBJ: Have you been studying up on Roberts Rules of Order for when you sit in for the mayor at city council meetings?
Garcia: Fortunately, I'm pretty well versed in Roberts Rules of Order. I've had experience running meetings in the past, and being on the council you have to be well versed in it. I feel very comfortable running meetings.
LBBJ: Let's talk about the proposed city budget. Have you had time to review it and, if so, what are your comments?
Garcia: I've been reviewing it. I met with some of our firefighters this morning (August 3) to go over some of the details. Generally I would say that I'm impressed by what has been presented by the city manager and the mayor. I think that we have to be lean. That's really the only option we have. Are there some [cuts] being proposed . . . that I have some concerns with? Absolutely. Particularly the gang unit at the police department. I think anytime you're losing an engine from the fire department, there is always a concern. So those are two areas I will particularly focus on and examine. Overall, I think the idea of trying to do the best we can with less and looking at ways of saving money and really focusing on core services is what we have to do. I don't think there is any other option.
LBBJ: Are you supportive of the proportionate share approach?
Garcia: I have been supportive of the mayor in the proportionate share approach. I don't know if it works all of the time. When you do a budget at home, you don't say, "Well, every part of my life is going to get equally budgeted." There are some things that are more important to you that you put more money toward. I don't think that proportionate share always works.
LBBJ: Going back to the reduced gang unit detail, the budget calls for the reduction of 40 police officers, correct? Are those actual positions?
Garcia: Fortunately, we won't be losing any officers. It will be a combination of attrition, some consolidation of areas and open positions.
LBBJ: But we have fewer officers?
Garcia: At the end of the day, it is still fewer officers. I will say, though, I have been strongly supportive of and advocating for, during the past year, the inclusion of a police academy in the budget. I'm really glad to see the mayor included that. That was the most important piece of the budget.
LBBJ: Does that 40-member class include laterals, or are all of these recruits?
Garcia: These are all recruits. We are doing a lateral class with our firefighters, but it will be a new class for police.
LBBJ: Is there anything else in the budget that jumps out at you that you may make a recommendation on? We know there has been some discussion about parks and recreation or youth programs.
Garcia: Parks are very near and dear to my heart. I'm very proud of the fact that, just in the 1st District alone, we have either opened or are breaking ground on 11 new parks in three years. I would venture that is unheard of in the city. . . . Essentially, we have opened seven parks, we have broken ground on another two and we have two additional parks that are fully funded and will be breaking ground in the next year.
So cuts to parks and recreation is something I am certainly concerned about. Unfortunately, I don't know if we have a lot of wiggle room. I'm optimistic that there is some money we can move here and there, but at the end of the day there isn't a lot of room.
LBBJ: This is the first budget since you've been in office where there is no RDA funding. Weren't some of these parks funded by redevelopment money?
Garcia: Absolutely. The majority of these parks had redevelopment support, and that's what is unfortunate. I'm glad that we have been able to open these parks because we're not going to have additional support in the future. But we also have to maintain these parks. We don't want them to fall apart and not have services, whether it's maintenance or programming.
LBBJ: Let's stick to RDA. Were you supportive of what happened or did you try to convince the Lowenthals [State Sen. Alan and Assemblywoman Bonnie] to not vote to shut down RDA?
Garcia: I was absolutely against what the governor and legislature did. I think it was a huge mistake, not just for the state, but also certainly for the City of Long Beach. Our entire legislative delegation knew how I personally felt. They did what they thought was in the best interest of the state. I think it was the wrong deal. Redevelopment agencies are not perfect entities. But in Long Beach we did as good a job as we could have with the system that was set up. Was it always 100 percent spot on? No. But we should have reformed the agency versus elimination.
LBBJ: You've been in office since 2009. What do you consider your number one achievement of the past three years?
Garcia: My focus has been on a few areas. One thing that I'm really proud of is the work we've done in moving Long Beach toward the future. There are a series of things that I led the charge on that I think have been good for the city. One is making the city a little bit more technology friendly. We have really grown our online presence.
In addition, there are a few other open government policies that I have authored or co-authored. We created the city's first open government policy, which opened a lot of documents throughout the city. We passed the city's first lobbying ordinance, which I co-authored. We now have all of our public contracts online, which I sponsored. Public comment can also be done online, versus having to go in person. That has been a great development. At the beginning of every meeting, we are handed a form that has all of the e-comments on it. We're also upgrading the city's website for the first time in many years. . . . I expect in the next six months we'll have an all-new site that will be much more user-friendly.
We also created really great online applications for smartphones. GoLongBeach, for example, was a personal passion project of mine. Essentially, once you download the application to your smartphone, you are able to go to a broken sidewalk or curb, take a picture of it with your smartphone, and the GPS in your phone automatically captures the exact location. It sends the photo directly to [the city's] public works [department]. We have closed over 1,000 cases through the use of our smartphone application. [Also], I put my calendar online. I've done that since my first day in office.
We need to be a leader in technology and need to be a leader in recruiting these high tech companies. We need to be a leader in transforming our own technological infrastructure. That has probably been the thing that I have focused on most.
Next to that, I would say that I have been focused on ensuring that the infrastructure of the downtown has improved. I'm a data person. This probably comes from my education background. As a quick example: we have planted over 300 trees, we have installed over 110 bike racks, we've placed 70 new trash cans, we've cleaned up over 50,000 instances of graffiti. This is in the 1st District alone. We have removed over 3,000 illegal signs, cleaned up over 1,400 abandoned shopping carts, closed more than 1,700 code enforcement cases, created 500 new parking spaces without actually building any parking lots [by contracting with private organizations for shared parking] and, obviously, we have repaired miles of streets and sidewalks. Opening the parks and fixing the infrastructure have been extremely important, to make it look better and create a really nice place for business.
LBBJ: What still needs to be checked off your original to-do list from when you were first elected?
Garcia: That's a good question. I'll put it this way – when I ran, I focused on four things. You and I [Publisher George Economides] talked about these four things when I first started. I wanted to focus on making sure the streets were as clean and safe as possible. I wanted to focus on opening parks and creating green space. I wanted to focus on making government more responsible and efficient through technology. And the last thing I talked about was economic development. I think on park space, on safety – while we still have some challenges – I think we're going in the right direction. On government efficiency, we've done a phenomenal job. On the last area, economic development, there is still a lot of work to do. There are some things that we have done, which have been great, and there are other areas we haven't focused on. I'd be happy to share those with you.
LBBJ: We're glad to hear you say that, because our next question. Do you feel you have done enough to encourage businesses to locate in your district? And how would you rate the city's overall efforts in economic development?
Garcia: Good question. First of all, I think I've done what I can. Certainly there is always opportunity to do more. For example, I put the legislation forward that created HireLB.com, which is now the city's number one job search engine. Since we launched it, we've actually helped over 13,000 Long Beach residents by connecting them either to work or an application or an interview. What I think helps the business climate, first and foremost, is having a clean city, a safe city and corridors that look good. In the downtown area alone, the area that I represent, we have given over 80 façade improvement grants. In addition, I'm very active in business recruitment. I do what I can. Obviously a lot of that is done by the mayor and the economic development department, but whenever I can I meet with business . . .
LBBJ: . . . Economic development department?
Garcia: I meant our economic development folks, Reggie Harrison and at the chamber, Jerry Miller, and others who are working on that. I always try to meet with businesses. I'm always trying to actively recruit people to come to Long Beach, but we could do a lot more. We haven't done enough of a citywide campaign to attract more business. We've done some things. We give more preference to local businesses. That's been a good thing. I maintain a really good relationship with the chamber. I have since I've been in office. . . . To me, Long Beach is the best place to come and start or create a new business. There are a lot of smart, capable people here. I think people forget that we have one of the largest universities in the country; [our university] creates more creative businesspeople than any other university west of the Mississippi. We produce more artists, filmmakers, that creative class, than any other university. People don't recognize the amount of raw talent we have. What we need to do is capture them. They are graduating. A lot of them are staying in Long Beach, but a lot of them are not. I live in a great building with a bunch of young professionals – doctors, attorneys, teachers, artists. Downtown has changed significantly. I still think that downtown gets a bad rap with a lot of people in the city. I am bullish on downtown. I think the downtown of five years from now will be significantly better than downtown today.
LBBJ: What are your thoughts on the Millworks project?
Garcia: To me, that's a home run. The reality is that the Molinas have been incredible partners down there. They are doing a phenomenal project. We are talking about 900 new professionals dropped into the core of downtown. They are going to activate the North Pine area. They are going to want to go to lunch somewhere, get their dry cleaning done, buy groceries. So that is an incredibly strong economic boost to the downtown. I've been very supportive since the first day they came into the office to tell me what they wanted to do, and we've done whatever we can – bent over backwards – to make it happen.
LBBJ: What is the biggest complaint or concern that you hear from 1st District constituents?
Garcia: The biggest gripe is the lack of retail . . . . I agree with them. I live there. The reality is we're finally at a point where the demographics have changed enough so we can start making a difference. We are turning a corner when it comes to retail. We still have a long way to go in terms of getting things going. The economy is obviously not helping us, but I'm very optimistic about the next five years and the economic retail picture that is going to happen. Things come in waves. Wave one was all of the residents coming in. Wave two is having all of the new restaurants come in. Now the restaurants are there. This is usually how economic development works in cities. You have the people, then you have the restaurants. But we don't have a lot of shopping options. So that's next – filling in some of the retail options for people. I personally, while I don't have full control over the retail picture, I want to make sure that when I leave office that I can walk down Pine Avenue and look at a good looking street that is full of vibrant retail.
LBBJ: The November ballot includes two initiatives: one on the minimum wage and minimum sick leave payable to hotel workers; and the other on changing the dates of the primary and general municipal elections. How do you feel about those issues?
Garcia: I'll start with the consolidation of elections. I generally support that. I still think there are some issues there that we are doing some research on. It's an opportunity for people to not have so many elections. I do think there is an opportunity to save money in the long run. I do think that it makes things simpler for voters.
LBBJ: Isn't there a downside in changing because you've got four months between primary and general, June to November, where right now it's two months? Stretching it out that long, are people going to lose interest?
Garcia: I guess I don't see it as a downside. At the end of the day, people are used to voting in California in June and November. That's when you vote. I think adding additional elections throughout the year makes it more strenuous on voters. And on the issue of the living wage ordinance, I haven't taken a formal position. It's something I will certainly look at. My feelings are this: one, do I think that some of the hotel workers should be making more as far as their wage, particularly based on how long they have been working? Sure. I do think that should be the case. But at the same time, I'm not in a position of management at these hotels, so it's harder for me to make that judgment call. At the end of the day, this is not going to be decided by me, or the council. It's going to be decided by the voters.
LBBJ: Have you had any employees from the Hyatt or the Marriott – those are the two that are on city-owned property – that have come to you or sent you e-mails that say, "We work at this hotel and we don't like it?"
Garcia: I have. Listen, I try to keep a good relationship with everyone. I've certainly met with some of the management at some of the hotels. There have been incidences where I have been concerned about some of the things that have happened. I've talked to them and some of the issues have been addressed. I have met with a lot of the hotel workers. You meet someone who has been working at a hotel for 15 years who is barely seeing any type of increase, yet they are working harder. I think that is a legitimate point of discussion.
LBBJ: Isn't it also true that people should seek opportunities to move their way up so they are not stuck in the same position at the same wage forever?
Garcia: Absolutely. What's great about America and our country is that we believe not only in hard work, which is a value that we put so much faith into, but we also believe in giving people a hand up on occasion. I think that we – whether it's in the corporate world or the public sector – have to have balance. I think that the reason why Congress, on occasion, readjusts the minimum wage is that very same reason. There are moments in history that we need to help those who are having a hard time.
LBBJ: This initiative would increase the minimum wage from $8.25 to $13. That's a huge jump.
Garcia: It is. Like I said, I haven't taken a position on that initiative. I think there needs to be a balance. I think that there has been support on both measures from different types of groups, and I think it will be interesting to see what happens.
LBBJ: But will you take a position before the measure comes to the ballot?
Garcia: I almost always take a position on everything, but that is something I'm not sure about. It's not our decision to make at this point.
LBBJ: How is your relationship with your fellow councilmembers and the mayor?
Garcia: I think it's great. I get along with every single member of the council and have a very good relationship with the mayor and city staff. I think that is probably one of the reasons why I am able to serve as vice mayor. The council is made up of some really great people. They love Long Beach, they care about the communities they live in. Certainly they have different ways of getting to a better city, there are divergent points of view, but they are all good people.
LBBJ: The medical marijuana issue has been controversial. Have you taken a position on the collectives, for or against?
Garcia: It's not black and white. It's hard to be for or against. My position has been consistent this whole time: medical marijuana should be sold in pharmacies. That's where it belongs; prescribed by doctors and available to patients in legitimate locations where other types of medicine are given. I know people with all sorts of ailments, from cancer to HIV to back problems, who legitimately use marijuana for those issues and it is prescribed by a doctor. That being said, it's not the situation we are in. We have a federal government and a state government that really have opposing views of what medical marijuana is because of what the voters have passed in the state. As far as Long Beach is concerned, we have received no direction from the federal government and are about to receive some good direction, hopefully, from the State of California through the legal system. My position has been that we should have some type of access to medicinal marijuana because that is the law, but not at a level where it is not controlled and just allowed to be all over the place.
LBBJ: What does the future hold for Robert Garcia?
Garcia: I'll start by saying that I love Long Beach. It's safe to say I obsess about it. I really love the city, and it's been an honor just to serve the city in this capacity and it's now an honor to serve the city as vice mayor. . . . I always tell people that my love of Long Beach stems from my love of country. Having not been born in the United States, becoming a U.S. citizen to me was the biggest honor I could ever have in my life. It still is, to this day, the best day of my life. So I love serving and I love making the city better. I hope to be involved in helping the city for as long as possible. You don't have to be in elected office to help the city. I think I do just as much good.
LBBJ: So you want to be city manager?
Garcia: I have no interest in being city manager. But to be honest, I do just as much good in the classroom as I do sitting on the council. I don't need to be in elected office to do good. As far as the future, is there a possibility I would stay in office beyond my first term? Absolutely.
LBBJ: Would it be more important for you to be a councilman or a mayor than it would be to be a state assemblyman or congressman?
Garcia: Ideally, if I were going to continue in elected office, I would want to stay in Long Beach. This is my home. This is where I want to make an impact. There are certainly some areas that interest me, particularly education reform and higher-ed reform that are obviously not the privy of the local entity. Those are federal and state issues. Is there an interest there? Sure. Those are issues that I really care about. But I love the city. So right now I'm ecstatic doing what I'm doing. I feel like we are making an impact and a difference, and that's what I want to continue doing.
LBBJ: If Mayor Foster decides not to run as a write-in, would you consider it?
Garcia: I don't ever rule anything out, but if the mayor is a candidate for a third term, I certainly would not be running. Honestly, right now I'm just trying to be the best vice mayor and councilmember as possible. People often ask what I would do if Bob runs again. I'm a fan of the mayor. I think he has done a good job. I don't agree with him on everything, so if the mayor decides to run again and asks me for my support, that's a discussion the two of us will have at the appropriate moment.
LBBJ: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Garcia: I think Long Beach's best days are ahead of us. We have the capacity to really transform into an example of what a great should city should be throughout America. I'm excited to be a part of that.
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