Reporter’s Notebook: Seal Beach City Government 101

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Charles M. Kelly

On a weekend off before the phrase “social distancing” became commonplace, some local people asked me questions about running for office in Seal Beach. It wasn’t the first time, either, so this seems like the moment to go over the basics. I may elaborate on some of these matters as the year goes on. Another time, I’ll ask why anyone would want to hold elected office—either during or after the pandemic.

For now, however, let’s just bottom line it up front:

• The Seal Beach City Council election is currently scheduled to be held in November. COVID-19 might possibly effect that.

• Seal Beach is divided into five council districts. Different districts are in play every two years. In November 2020, the City Council seats for Districts Two and Four will be up for election.

• Council members serve four years per term.

• Council members are limited to two back-to-back terms. I can’t recall anyone successfully winning a third term after going away for four years, but it’s possible that could happen in some future election. (Editor’s note: The day this op-ed appeared in our print edition, Patty Campbell of College Park East called to remind me that Frank Laszlo was on the Seal Beach City Council from 1976 to 1984 and again from 1988 to 1996. So while I couldn’t recall it—it has happened. Local historian Larry Strawther confirmed the Laszlo dates and described Campbell as the definitive source. According to Campbell, College Park East’s Garry Miller finished out the term of Ray Ybaben and then served two terms on the City Council.)

• The mayor is elected by council members at the end of the year. The voters don’t pick the mayor.

• If no one challenges the incumbent council member for a district, the election for that district may be canceled. The incumbent will then be sworn in. This is legal and saves the city money. (Opinion: It is also a rare occurrance in the city of Seal Beach. I have covered a Los Angeles County city that went for about a decade without anyone challenging the incumbents. Voter turn out remains low in that town.)

• A few years ago, a reader asked me when the city manager runs for re-election. The city manager position is not an elected office. The city manager is hired by the City Council and essentially serves at the council’s collective pleasure.

• The council as a body makes policy (subject to the limits of the law) and gives direction to the city manager and staff.

• Yes, you have to live in Seal Beach to run for office in Seal Beach.

• Yes, you have to live in the district in which you run.

• No, you don’t have to own a home in Seal Beach to run for office in Seal Beach. Renters may also run for public office. (I know some people believe the right to vote and run should be limited to homeowners. That wouldn’t work in Leisure World, where only one of the Mutuals allows direct ownership of units.)

• As a practical matter, you will need to have a job, business, or a pension if you want to serve on the City Council. Or a romantic partner who can support the two of you. According to the California Controller’s Office, each of the Seal Beach council members were paid $7,200 in 2018. That’s the most recent data available. (Opinion: Reporters make better money than Seal Beach City Council members. Pizza delivery workers make better money.)

• Seal Beach council members don’t get a pension after they leave office, either. (Some cities do provide pensions for council members. Seal Beach isn’t one of them.)

• You will need to study the part of the Municipal Code that governs running for office. In 2010, for example, the council adopted an ordinance that limits campaign contributions to $500.

• In the summer, the City Council will “call the election” and candidates will be able to file their paperwork. You will need to contact the City Clerk’s Office to get the required paperwork and begin gathering the required signatures.

• Meet your filing deadlines or you won’t get to run.

• If you choose to run, go to the Orange County Registrar of Voters website and visit the Candidate Filing Portal.

• You will need to visit the California Fair Political Practices Commission website to learn about the state regulations governing political campaigns and to find the forms you have to fill out. Take note: Those forms will become public records that may be read by any member of the public. That includes your political opponents and the news media. Of course, you’ll also be able to look up your opponents’ records.

Look up the “Candidate Toolkit” at the FPPC website. Set aside several evenings. It’s time for you to do homework. (No one warned us homework would be eternal.) The good news: it isn’t algebra homework. The bad news: it is dry reading.

More good news: No one is going to grade your homework.

More bad news: getting things wrong—or missing deadlines—can expose you to fines, the criticisms of your opponents, the negative attention of the news media and the mistrust of voters.

Start by clicking “Getting Started” on the FPPC website.

Explore all the information you can at the website. When in doubt, ask for an opinion from the FPPC before you do anything.

• You’ll need to read the section of the Seal Beach Municipal Code concerning political campaigns.

• You’ll also want to read the City Charter.

• You’ll need to learn about the Brown Act—it’ll be more imporant if you win than if you lose, but learn about it early.

Charles M. Kelly is associate editor of the Sun Newspapers.