Building Trust in Hermosa Beach

by Jeremy Loudenback

In his first year on the job, Hermosa Beach City Manager Tom Bakaly has had to do a lot more than just sign the checks.

Tom Bakaly and Raphael Bostic
Tom Bakaly and Raphael Bostic, November 13, 2013

Since coming to the beachfront community in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, Bakaly has had to contend with pressing economic development questions, governance challenges, and identity issues that will have a profound impact on the future direction of the city. In 2014, the city of about 20,000 will vote on whether or not to approve offshore oil drilling. According to the terms of a recently settled lawsuit, that means the city will either share in a windfall of hundreds of millions of dollars over the course of a few decades or face a $17.5 million bill payable to oil companies, which represents more than half of the city’s annual operating budget.

With much at stake, Bakaly has had to quickly build trust among community residents, city leaders, and staff members to ensure that Hermosa Beach is prepared to make a decision that will have far-ranging consequences.

“You learn about engagement and strategic planning here at USC,” Bakaly said. “A lot of times it sits up on a shelf. This time it’s been pretty real, especially when people are yelling at you. We’re engaging the whole community and looking at their values. Rarely does a city have an opportunity to define itself, but that’s what we’re trying to do right now.”

Bakaly visited USC as part of the Bedrosian Center’s Lunch with a Leader series last week, where the veteran city manager shared his experience working in city government for three different communities. From Utah to California, Bakaly has sought to build trust with community members while forging governance structures that build on collaborative relationships with staff members and a strong regard for the guidance of strategic planning and shared values.

Born into a Pasadena family where political campaigns were a regular part of life, Bakaly got the political bug early. After earning his degree in public administration from USC in 1989, Bakaly worked in the finance office for the city of Pasadena before moving on to Park City, Utah. After 17 years working in Park City, including 10 as city manager, Bakaly decided it was time to return to the Southland.

In his first year on the job at Hermosa Beach, Bakaly created a solid foundation for the city by hiring a police chief, a job that had been vacant for some time.

“One of the most important appointments a city manager can make is selecting the police chief,” he said. “We had an interim police chief when I got there, and I needed to make a quick decision about whether to make an internal hire or go outside. We ended up going outside. It took a while longer than we wanted, but we got the right person for the job [Sharon Papa, Hermosa Beach’s first female police chief].”

Bakaly also inaugurated planning processes in Hermosa Beach for the first time last year, and the opportunity to change the culture in Hermosa Beach has presented him with much different challenges than his tenure in Park City.

“[Hermosa Beach] hasn’t done the strategic planning, the economic development, a lot of tactical things, and they haven’t engaged the community as much,” he said.

“It’s been fun for me because we’ve been starting from scratch. We’re building all of that with the community. It’s a lot more hands on for me. Park City wasn’t a big city by any stretch, but the idea of sitting down with eight citizens as I’m going to do tonight and figuring out our economic development plan, that’s not something I did a lot of before. It’s almost getting back to grass roots a little bit.”

Coming into the city government from the outside has been complicated at times, particularly in getting members of the city council to buy into a new vision.

“I’m still on the learning curve, even a year in,” Bakaly said. “I’ve probably spent more time in the first year building relationships with the council, and now in the last six months, I’m starting to do some of the things I want to do with employees and, of course, with the community. I used to wonder why they didn’t trust me, but it’s because they didn’t know me. After a year, I’m just starting to see that change.”

With oil drilling on the horizon, Hermosa Beach now stands at a crossroads. But Bakaly sees the situation as an important opportunity for city residents to define their interests moving forward. Though the process has forced city residents and leaders to wrestle with difficult questions, Bakaly thinks the discussion will yield strong dividends for the coastal community.

“Community has to have that sense of ownership,” Bakaly said. “Whatever you’re doing has to fit back with what you’re doing as a city. It would have been great if Hermosa had defined itself a couple years ago and then decided if oil fit or large hotels along the beach fit. We want a high quality of life and high-quality services, but how are we going to sustain it?

“We’re leveraged right now. Our infrastructure is deteriorating, and we haven’t done raises for other staff in eight years, and we’re going to start losing people to other cities. We don’t have to do oil, but we have to look real hard at what we’re doing. We want people to understand the choices they’re making around the oil.”

Although the visioning process has set up a series of tumultuous meeting with community members, the issue has drawn more community involvement into the city’s planning process, and Bakaly is proud of the strides that many vocal members in the Hermosa Beach community have made to become part of the governance process.

“When we what started out, it was a lot of NIMBYs, worried that their property value was going to be impacted by the oil drilling across the street,” Bakaly said. “That’s was what got them to the meeting and screaming at me. Now they’ve come a long away. Instead of saying no, it’s ‘what are we going to be?’ To me, that’s what grass roots is all about. It’s not just protesting, but coming up with solutions, and I’m watching them start to do that.”