Published 9/3/2008 on the District Weekly
Rumor had it that Harbor Commission President Jim Hankla—acting on a tip from Third District Councilman Gary DeLong—might be angling to undermine the Long Beach City Council by quietly advancing an independent study of the Long Beach Breakwater that protects their political interests.
Shocking? Well, this kind of thing isn’t exactly unheard of in Long Beach. The city has a long history of government run by invisible strings, misdirection stunts, knowing winks and in-secret handshakes. But, yes, shocking—if it were true. However, even Patrick O’Donnell, a homegrown-boy-become-city-councilman, couldn’t bring himself to believe the Hankla-DeLong scenario. Not these days.
“In the old Long Beach, that would have been the strategy,” O’Donnell conceded. “But in the new Long Beach, we don’t operate that way.”
Hankla and DeLong would have made prime suspects for that kind of end run. Both opposed last summer’s 7-1 council vote—suggested by O’Donnell and Rae Gabelich—to spend $100,000 to study the possibilities of reconfiguring the breakwater, the wall of rock which has smothered Long Beach’s waves for more than 50 years and lately has made the local shoreline one of California’s dirtiest.
Each man would have had a motive. DeLong, who cast the only dissenting council vote, was concerned about his powerful constituents on the Alamitos Peninsula; they fear any change to the breakwater would expose them to flooding. Hankla, who cast the decisive ballot in a 3-2 harbor commission vote against helping the city fund the study, was worried that a full scientific exploration might reach conclusions that would cramp his expansion plans for the Port of Long Beach.
“But it’s not the old boy’s network, always, anymore,” O’Donnell continued to insist. “This is a rumor, as far as I understand—unless Mr. Hankla has his own plan.”
But the rumor is true. Hankla, the former city manager, the newly reelected Harbor Commission President—and Long Beach’s most skillful political machinist in generations—does have his own plan. And DeLong brought it to him. It’s an already-completed study by a retired 72-year-old engineer named Bud Johnson.
Johnson theorizes that lowering a 1,800-foot expanse of the breakwater to sea level just east of the Queen’s Gate entry to the harbor would permit enough tidal circulation to pull much of the surface water pollution out to the open ocean without affecting the Port of Long Beach or the Alamitos Peninsula. Johnson estimates the job can be done in 18 months, at a cost of $10 million.
Hankla likes his initial look at Johnson’s plan, and he isn’t apologizing for moving it to the front of the line.
“Bud Johnson’s study seems to be a rational approach worth taking another look at,” says Hankla, who agreed to a telephone interview although he was on vacation. “It’s not so Draconian as taking down the breakwater. I’ve asked one of our consultants to take a look at it. If that bears fruit, we can take it to the Army Corps of Engineers. If the city is of a mind, it can partner with us.”
Hankla acknowledges that he opposed the city council’s decision last summer—and its request for a 50-50 funding partnership with the port—because he couldn’t be sure where the research might go.
“I thought it was kind of open-ended, yes,” he says.
And Hankla is blunt when asked if he is concerned about interfering with the considered vote of Long Beach’s elected officials.
“No,” he says, and doesn’t say more.
Informed of Hankla’s move and his statement, Gabelich is just as straightforward.
“I think Mr. Hankla is directly contradicting the city council,” she says. “I think there is a level of arrogance there.”
The duplication of effort and expense while Long Beach is facing a $17 million budget deficit doesn’t appeal to Gabelich, either.
For more than a year the city has been paying a senior staffer to oversee its breakwater study, an unprecedented venture that is complicated by myriad government rules and procedures, as well as delicate political considerations. It also recently laid out $100,000 to hire the esteemed marine engineering firm of Moffat & Nichol, which has a long history on the Long Beach waterfront, to conduct the study. And Moffat & Nichol’s study was already going to consider Johnson’s work, which he hurriedly completed in five months so that it could be included.
“When the harbor department brings its budget to us, I’m going to look for what it is paying those consultants that are evaluating Johnson’s study,” says Gabelich. “People seem to forget that the harbor department is a city department.”
The conclusions in Johnson’s study received wide attention in local media last spring. Apparently, that’s when DeLong saw them.
“I talked to DeLong, and he had an interest,” Johnson recounts, “especially when I assured him my study would have no effect on the [Alamitos] peninsula people.”
DeLong acknowledges he helped bring Johnson’s study to the forefront.
“Yes, I do support taking a close look at Mr. Johnson’s analysis, and have met with Moffat & Nichol and made this request,” DeLong wrote in reply to questions he asked we submit via e-mail. “I have also discussed his recommendations with Port of Long Beach officials, as well as included a Port of LB official in a meeting I had with Mr. Johnson.”
Alex Cherin, chief aide to the Harbor Commission, was the first port official to meet with DeLong and Johnson.
“Cherin wanted to talk to me specifically about how this study would affect his area, and he seemed enthused by what I told him,” Johnson says. “He took it back to port, and later set up a meeting with Hankla, him and I. Obviously, I was jumping for joy because obviously you cannot get anything done without the port on your side.”
Hankla doesn’t say he’s on Johnson’s side, but makes it clear he’d like to be.
“Our consultants are running tests on the hydrology—how waves act—to be sure they’ll do what Bud says they’ll do if the breakwater is reconfigured as he says it should be. If Bud is right, his approach is much less expensive—and frankly, a lot more likely to happen.”
It’s unclear how the analysis of Johnson’s study by a port consultant was authorized. A port spokesman said no such proposal has come before the harbor commission and none is on the agenda for the commission’s next meeting Sept. 8. However, if that happens the timing would be perfect—a Sept. 10 fundraiser for the Surfrider Foundation and Friends of the L.A. River at Smooth’s Grille downtown is scheduled to include an announcement that Johnson’s study is being promoted by the Port of Long Beach.
Now that the rumor appears to be true, O’Donnell appears to be simultaneously stunned and outraged.
“I just talked with two port commissioners who knew nothing of this. I just talked to the port’s director, Dick Steinke, who knew nothing of this,” O’Donnell says. “It’s an insult to the process and the policy directives of the city council.”
“As long as Mr. Hankla is being blunt, I will be, too,” says O’Donnell. “This is old Long Beach.”