In Closed Session

Long Beach's City Council will rush through a light meeting agenda next Tuesday night — they have a date.

All nine council members, and for that matter anyone else connected with Long Beach city government, will be at the Terrace Theater that evening for a party — a party wrapped around a speech called The State of the City.

The party begins at 6 p.m. — the council meeting will start at 4:30 p.m. to make sure everyone has time to get to the Terrace — and if past history is any gauge, more than a thousand people will be in their seats for the hoopla.

There is a serious reason for this particular shindig. The city's Charter requires that some time in January the mayor report the state of the city to the people and the city council. And, at least for the last quarter-century plus that I've been attending Long Beach State of the Citys (or maybe States of the City), the speeches are legitimate news events.

That's because the mayors have used the State of the City to convey some serious messages. Sometimes, the message is an attempt to put events of the past year in context. Beverly O'Neill was a past master at this. She once confided in me that in the dark days when she first became mayor (the mid-1990s), she would literally spend hours searching for positive things to say about the state of Long Beach.

The "year that was" approach is important. Of course the mayor wants to put a positive spin on what the city has been through under his or her leadership. If there have been big controversies or big problems, now's the chance to point out that some good things happened too.

To give the last three Long Beach leaders — O'Neill, Bob Foster and now Robert Garcia — credit, none have shied away from the big problems, either. True, it typically comes up in the context of what great things the city (read mayor) has done to handle those problems.

But Foster, for example, knew that the only way to deal with the recession and a city budget bleeding red ink was to attack it head on (pretty much Foster's approach to everything). He used the State of the City to prepare the public for lean times ahead, and to rally people behind the effort to keep the city solvent.

Foster also used the January speech to announce new initiatives — one of the most important purposes of the State of the City. He let it be known in no uncertain terms that employee pension reform was key to balancing the budget, and that he expected the city's unions to come to the table and help. When he was able to say that the police and fire unions had agreed to significant adjustments (at least for new hires) as well as more employee participation, it gave him the hammer he needed to pressure the other unions to come along.

Garcia, who has raised the showmanship of the State of the City to a completely different level, has had his own problems to deal with, and initiatives to announce. Tuesday will be his sixth State of the City speech, and the two major themes have been addressed in the five previous talks — housing and education — will play a major role in this one as well.

Affordable housing has been inextricably linked to homelessness — often called the number one issue facing Long Beach (and the entire state). Considering the oxymoron that the phrase affordable housing is in Southern California, coming up with enough units to supply the working poor, let alone those on the brink of homelessness, is a herculean task.

But Garcia says we're getting there. For the past two or three years, each state of the city has a segment talking about all the housing units "in the pipeline," and how more are waiting in the wings. This year, expect a bigger segment than ever to talk about year-round shelters, subsidized housing and more.

Everybody loves education, and Garcia loves to be the leader of this particular band. He has tweaked both ends of the education timeline, putting more emphasis on early education and pushing internships and job preparedness for those going into the world. He's used the speech to introduce more education initiatives as well as to brag about progress made.

There's a long back story about the changing shape and presentation of the State of the City, but save that for another time. Watch for the substance in the speech. It will be important to your, to our, future as a city.

Harry has been executive editor of Gazette Newspapers for more than 26 years. He has been in the newspaper business for more than 35 years, with experience on both weekly and metropolitan daily papers in Colorado and California.

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