Life with Sandra Massa-Lavitt: the ‘field marshal’ of City Hall

Sandra Massa-Lavitt

“Field marshal” of Seal Beach City Hall, Mayor Sandra Massa-Lavitt, is equally comfortable ensconced in Bogart’s Café sipping caffeine- and sugar-free café mocha with a would-be constituent from Rossmoor.

“Leadership has been my secret insecurity,” she said, “but I just can’t be without people. I’ve always chosen to be active in community projects.” Shef, her husband of 57 years, is sometimes overwhelmed with Sandra’s demanding schedule. Even though she could retire, she relishes the constant challenges and learning opportunities inherent in overseeing the administration of a city. “Originally, I planned to be a history teacher, but that was when so many of the schools were closing. I realized there was not likely to be a future,” she said.

The oldest of three sisters, Mayor Massa-Lavitt was born in Brooklyn, New York. Her family moved to the Los Angeles area (Gage and Figueroa) when she was only 7. “What I remember most was flying on a DC-3 for 10-1/2 hours. Movie star Rita Hayworth (also from Brooklyn) was on that flight and I remember being introduced to her,” she said.

Married at 17, she did not initially seek a career in government. After raising her three children, she returned to California State University at Long Beach to complete her B.A. in Political Science and Public Administration and earn her Master’s Degree in Public Administration.

Her career took off as an employee of Willdan Financial Services, a consulting firm founded in 1964. The firm was contracted with cities throughout Orange and L.A. Counties and assigned Sandra to coordinate operations between city departments. Massa-Lavitt acted as Interim Planning Director, Director of Community Development and Director of Planning and Building for 28 cities. “The best part is I never had to pick up a phone, I never had to market myself cold. Because it was not full time work, I could work for two cities at a time.”

Seal Beach’s population of 24,551 and 13 square miles of shore and charm has a tremendous revenue generating capacity. Seventy-five percent of Seal Beach residents are homeowners. Massa-Lavitt mentioned that she was making a special effort to reach out to the 9,000 Leisure World residents in her district. “I know many of the residents there who are about my age. Most want to keep active in the larger community. There are many more ways Seal Beach and Leisure World can work together.”

An event the mayor recalled with fondness was the celebration of architect Gordon F. Powers’ 100th birthday last year. In 1969, Powers remodeled the City Hall annex in the Spanish Colonial Revival Style of the original 1929 structure.

Sandra credited the smooth operation of the city to her colleagues. “The city manager is the very best,” she said, referring to Jill Ingram, chief administrative officer of the city overseeing myriad offices ensuring City Council policy, Municipal Code and Charter compliance in all operations. “She has good sense and insight,” Massa-Lavitt said.

“Always hire people who are smarter than you are and know how to manage your assets. You’ll look good all the time.”

She recalled City Council meetings animated by the presence of a local gadfly who rarely misses an opportunity to enlighten the council. “Everyone really likes her,” the mayor said, smiling.

While on the subject, the topic of Environmental Impact Reports surfaced.

Constituents attending meetings of Planning Commission and City Council have questioned how these documents are compiled and evaluated.

“Each section of the document is drawn up by a firm specializing in that kind of study. The whole is presented as an Executive Summary along with impact surveys and mitigation recommendations,” Massa-Lavitt said.

In February 2012, all 400 Redevelopment Agencies in California were dissolved and remaining debts and enforceable obligations absorbed by Successor Agencies.

Mayor Massa-Lavitt is eminently qualified for overseeing Seal Beach’s Successor Agency. She chaired Seal Beach Planning Commission four of the seven years she served on that board.

“Seal Beach will have paid all residual debt from its Redevelopment Agency in two years,” she said.

Community Revitalization and Investment Authorities are taking over for the Successor Agencies as stated in Assembly Bill 2280. Critics have argued that these “CRIAs” are merely a reimplementation of the old RDAs but without mandates for complete and fair blight studies and protection of citizens from eminent domain abuse. “That won’t happen,” Massa-Lavitt declared adamantly.

When asked if she had a favorite quote for inspiration, she said, “This too shall pass.”

She carefully considered what a book about her life would be called, she looked thoughtful for a moment, “When Shef is bewildered by my schedule he sighs, ‘Life with Sandra!’”


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