Redondo Beach: Unusual Leadership Dodges Red Ink

Aug 1, 2011
Originally published on August 1, 2011 9:34 pm

Part 4 of a 6-part series

The wall in the hallway outside the Redondo Beach Mayor's Office kind of says it all: There is row after row of smiling faces. Almost all male. All pale. Some blond, some gray. All very indicative of what many Americans still think of when you say "California beach city," until the last photo in the last row.

The current mayor is male, but he's Asian, and looks significantly younger than many of his predecessors. That alone would make 48-year-old Mike Gin a break with his predecessors. But he's also gay. And Republican. And extremely popular with his citizenry.

Gin and his husband, Christopher Kreidel, are often seen around town on weekends running errands and kibitzing with residents. (After 14 years together, they got married in 2008 during the brief time same-sex marriages were legal in the state.)

Gin skews more to the political center, a modern version of the Rockefeller Republican that was more common in the '60s and '70s. He says he has always been socially liberal but fiscally conservative.

"I believe there is a role for government," he says, "but we need to make sure our taxpayers' funds are being spent in a wise manner. And we need to keep things in check, fiscally."

Collaborating On Cutbacks

Keeping things "in check" fiscally means doing what his late parents, William and Albertine, raised him to do: not spend more than you make, and stick to your budget. Being a civic cheapskate has been a large part of the reason Gin has been able to pilot Redondo Beach through the choppy red ink that has deluged much of the rest of the state.

"We've been doing very well," Gin says.

Although, he says, with some asperity, the mayors who have managed to stay afloat have been penalized for prudent fiscal management.

"And believe me when I tell you that I'm not happy that the state's budget is being balanced on the backs of cities that have worked hard [to balance their budgets]," he says.

Gin firmly believes the reason Redondo Beach hasn't suffered the bone-deep cuts many other California cities have is an unseen element: "Trust. The trust among our employees."

Gin's open, collaborative nature has allowed negotiations that would otherwise have been painfully contentious to reach a successful conclusion. When he discovered, despite his ferocious fiscal prudence, that there was going to be a 6 percent budget gap last year, he wanted to reconcile the books without the mass layoffs that had ravaged so many other cities. So he called several department heads and the leaders of various city employee associations and unions.

"We told our city staff and management that we wanted to ensure that we don't have any layoffs, if possible, and that we basically wanted to maintain our high levels of service," Gin says.

He wanted to keep the public safety, the clean streets, the generous distributions of parks and other amenities that made Redondo Beach an attractive place for potential home buyers and for the tourists who came to enjoy the beach city.

So Gin took a leap of faith with his employees.

"We asked them to come up with ideas and come up with ways to address our budget deficit — and they did," he says.

Each department or union decided what cuts worked best for them. Some wanted to curb overtime. Others placed a moratorium on vacation time cash-outs. Others asked for employee hours to be shorter. And in the end, it all came together: no deficit.

In the end everyone lost a little something, and almost everyone was OK with it because they'd had input in the process. It's a Gin hallmark.

"People may not always agree with you," Gin says, "but as long as they feel a sense of ownership or partnership in the process, there will always be that respect that's there."

And it runs both ways.

Making 'The City A Community'

"It's going to be hard for you to find somebody to say something bad about our mayor," says businessman Mike Morales, "because he actually listens to the community, and he cares."

Morales is behind the counter at Harmony Works, a boutique that sells lots of hand-made jewelry, artwork and home accessories, like the bright wool pillow with "No Whining" boldly stitched onto it.

He's also president of the business development district in Riviera Village, a group of shops and restaurants and niche businesses at the southern end of downtown. Morales says Gin's spirit of cooperation "makes a ton of difference, especially from a business point of view. When you have somebody who is willing to sit down and plan things and work things out for the betterment of everybody, it makes the city a community, and not just a city."

Morales' assessment is exactly how Gin hopes his citizens are feeling about how he's running the city. Gin will be term-limited out in 2013, and when he thinks about his legacy, he doesn't name a building or a program. He wants something more ephemeral, and to him, more important.

"I hope that after I'm gone, that these partnerships that we've developed will be a part of our community," he says, "and, hopefully, that will always be a wonderful blueprint for our community."

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MELISSA BLOCK, host: Now the latest stories in our series on U.S. mayors and the challenges they face in these tough economic times. Today, we go to Redondo Beach, California that stands apart from many cities because it is not in trouble.

As NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates reports, that is thanks in part to its mayor.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: Mike Gin's office is like him: sturdy, not fancy. The wood-paneled walls are hung with the memorabilia lots of politicians like to keep around - exchange gifts from sister city La Paz, Bolivia, tschotskes from official trips.

Mayor MIKE GIN: We have some relationships with Shenwu District in Beijing, China, so they gave us some cute little souvenirs from the Beijing Olympics.

BATES: There are plaques, and awards, and visible traces of family, like the framed flag that draped his father William's coffin

GIN: That's my dad's, World War II guy. Two bronze stars and he's an amazing man. My husband, right there.

BATES: That's Gin's husband of three years, partner of 14, Christopher Kreidel. For Gin, the fact that he's one of the few openly gay mayors in the U.S. is no big deal.

GIN: You know, for me, it's always just been a part of who I am, just as much as being Asian or being Chinese-American.

BATES: It's no big deal for Gin's constituents, either. He's won twice, running as a Republican in a heavily Democratic state. And his ethnicity and sexual identity are way less important to mixed-income Redondo Beach residents, than the fact that Gin knows how to manage the city's money.

GIN: I've always had a very fiscal conservative outlook in terms of my view of government. And I believe there is a role for government. But, you know, we need to make sure that our taxpayer funds are spent in a wise manner. And that we really keep things in check, if you will, fiscally.

BATES: At a time when California is drowning in red ink, Redondo Beach - population 67,000 - has been spared the bone-deep cuts many other cities have suffered. A lot of the credit goes to Gin, who asked for concessions from several important city groups' - police, firefighters, teamsters.

GIN: What's really helped us is, I think, has been the trust, and has been the partnership that we've developed with our employees.

BATES: Gin told city workers he wanted to avoid layoffs, if possible, and preserve the services that make Redondo Beach an attractive place to live. So he did something radical.

GIN: We ask them to come up with ideas and come up with these ways to address our budget deficit. And they did.

BATES: Each employee group or union did an internal assessment and decided what would work best for them. They made concessions such as shorter work hours, or a moratorium on cashing out vacation time, or curtailing overtime. Every group was able to make the requisite 6 percent cut. And budget managers were very careful. Result? No budget deficit.

JEAN SCULLY: So here's the entrance

BATES: So despite the tanking economy, Redondo Beach was able to build a new, environmentally progressive library on the site of its too-small old one. But chief librarian Jean Scully says there were concessions here, too.

SCULLY: When we opened this building, due to budget issues and staffing issues, we can only be open four days a week.

BATES: That's why it's so quiet here now. The library won't open for a couple more hours. Too bad, given the airy space, the banks of computers, the glass-walled children's room. Scully says she also went from seven paid staff members to three when retiring employees weren't replaced.

SCULLY: That's where we're hurting. So we're very tightly staffed. And to me, the important thing is to be open. You can always take a little longer getting materials back on the shelves. But if you're not open, they can't come in to get them.

BATES: Many city businesses are doing their bit to help Mayor Gin cope with the cutbacks. Mike Morales is head of the business improvement district in Riviera Village, an area of restaurants and upscale stores at the south end of town. Morales owns Harmony Works, a shop with lots of handmade crafts, jewelry and art. Under the thrum of a humming fan, he says Gin's flexibility has been key.

MIKE MORALES: That makes a ton of difference, especially in a business point of view. You want to work with the city and someone that actually wants to sit down and plan things and work it out for the betterment of everybody, it makes the city a community and not just a city.

BATES: And that is exactly what Mike Gin is hoping his legacy will be when he steps down in 2013, as term limits mandate.

GIN: I hope that after I'm gone that these partnerships that we developed will always be part of our community. And hopefully that'll be a wonderful blueprint for future leaders.

BATES: Especially when cooperation could be the key to economic survival.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.