1977 was a turning point for the city of Long Beach on many fronts. Its new civic center opened, and a new City Manager took the reins in the midst of public corruption.
Residents should be sad that both will be gone this year.
The Civic Center is being demolished, although only 42 years old. It will cost the taxpayers more than $84 million to replace. Inside it will be Council Chambers that apparently the current Mayor and City Council want to name in someone’s honor.
In light of his passing this month, it would be more than appropriate to name the chambers in honor of the man who helped Long Beach regain its integrity: former City Manager John Dever.
Those of us who worked with him knew John as a gentle, quiet man who spoke barely above a whisper, yet commanded with a powerful presence that put Long Beach back on the right track after being badly damaged with corruption and mismanagement. John’s style was not to bully or intimidate but to encourage others to find solutions, albeit with his prodding. He didn’t pit council persons against each other nor staff against each other. He reminded his key staff that on any Tuesday, he and we, could be replaced with five votes of the council and that we were there to assist the council in succeeding at their jobs.
I am biased about John Dever. In 1977, just months after his hiring to replace City Manager John Mansell, he recruited me to leave my Congressional job and to return to Long Beach, where I was born. A citizen task force had called for the hiring of a public information officer and the sharing of information concerning city operations and John asked that I leave my press secretary position with a member of Congress. My task was to deal with the fact that Long Beach was a one-newspaper town whose owner had unusual influence on how the city operated.
John hired several other young aides to take on a number of projects related to improving city government, including total quality management and review of all city commissions, committees and boards. He tried creating the types of friendships that he had with his staff in Sunnyvale. But an entrenched Mansell legacy fed a gossip mill that prevented him from doing so — a fact that saddened him greatly.
He replaced the Planning Director who had been arrested for taking bribes and who had pushed through several development projects that today still cause incredible traffic congestion at Second and Pacific Coast Highway.
As a firm believer in City Council-City Manager form of government, John set about to return powers to the City Council that had been assumed by the former City Manager. Before he returned the power of appointing Harbor Commissioners to the City Council, John made the appointment of the first woman to this important board: Louise Duvall.
John also immediately disbanded the motorcycle police because he felt they exerted too much power over elected and appointed officials in the city. He also appointed a new Chief of Police.
He established a management rotation system which eventually resulted in the first Hispanic city manager being appointed several years after John left.
He tried to encourage Councilwomen Rene Simon and Eunice Sato to push the Council to establish a Status on Women Commission even though it was strongly opposed by local conservatives as a vehicle to promote “lesbianism.”
The reference to “Dever the Cleaver” came because of his respect for the will of the people who passed Prop. 13 and who demanded that excess government be cut. He cut city government and eliminated non-essential positions such as a public information officer. (I transferred to Financial Management and took over Commercial Services with a mandate to clean house and improve utility customer services.)
His desk was bare, as were the walls of his office. He believed that memos should be handled as soon as received. Although he was an esteemed member of the International City Management Association and respected throughout the state, he did not display the numerous honors given him. Instead he had one plaque hanging near his door that was based upon a Greek quote and stated in essence that we were entrusted to “leave the city state better than we found it.”
His legacy should be honored and remembered in City Hall.
Gerrie Schipske is a former Fifth District City Councilwoman.