After contentious debate, Hadley becomes mayor of Manhattan Beach

Mayor Suzanne Hadley. Photo


The City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to name Suzanne Hadley mayor of Manhattan Beach. 

The vote followed two weeks of intense citywide debate and included voluminous public input for and against Hadley’s ascension to mayor, a position that for the last 42 years has rotated automatically every nine months. 

Things were far from automatic this time around. Hadley, a political newcomer who was elected to council 19 months ago, has been outspoken in her contempt for pandemic-related restrictions emanating from the State of California and the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. She has argued vociferously —  in venues ranging from the virtual council dais to social media to public rallies —  in support of opening businesses and schools in defiance of COVID-19 guidelines. Her stance gained national attention when she appeared on MSNBC prior to the 4th of July weekend to argue against beach closures. 

“The role of society is not to prevent death,” Hadley said in that appearance. “It’s to inform adults of the risks and the opportunities of life and to let them choose those opportunities and risks. It’s not to wrap everybody in bubble wrap…. If a disease is contagious and yet is non-deadly, then there is nothing we can do to keep it from spreading through.”  

Councilperson Hildy Stern requested discussion of the mayoral rotation at the previous council meeting on November 17. What followed was a firestorm, led by a public letter Hadley released that decried a “whisper campaign” against her and in which she vowed to serve as a more unifying figure as mayor. 

“My one intention in serving as your mayor will be to unify our community, work with my colleagues and community leaders, and listen to our residents and businesses to make Manhattan Beach the best that it can be,” Hadley wrote. “I want to make sure all voices are heard. Being mayor isn’t going to be about me, it’s going to be about us, about Manhattan Beach. I fully understand that I will be representing all of council and all of our community when I say or do anything and it’s on me to put Manhattan Beach in the best light and act with dignity and respect for all at all times. This I promise.”

On Tuesday night, more than 150 residents attended the council meeting via Zoom. Dozens weighed in on the matter, most in support of honoring the tradition of the mayoral rotation, many praising Hadley. But a significant number also opposed Hadley as mayor, largely over concerns that she would not work with the state and the county and not safely lead the city through the pandemic. 

That storm abated when council discussion began. 

Richard Montgomery, who was still mayor as the night began, defended his colleagues for agendizing the discussion. 

“Because it’s on the agenda, people knew about it and can offer up comments, rather than the last minute at the dais that we saw in other cities,” Montgomery said. “We don’t do that here. This is the right process. And to those of you who asked about transparency, this is transparency…. If I had been more awake that night two weeks ago at 11:30 p.m., after a 4 p.m. start, I’d have been the second [to Stern’s motion]. Councilmember Stern was smart to put it on the agenda.” 

City Clerk Liza Tamura gave a brief report on the history of the rotation mayorship that was as homespun as the tradition itself. Little public record exists as to why the rotating mayor tradition began, other than it was brought forward for discussion by councilperson Jack Cashin in 1978 and apparently began shortly thereafter. 

“Unfortunately, we’ve searched and no plan was ever brought forth,” Tamura said. “But councilmember Cashin’s nine and a half month rotation was put into place.”

Without much further ado, Montgomery made a motion to make Hadley mayor. Councilperson Steven Napolitano, noting that his usual joke every nine months about the “peaceful transition of power” had a different feeling this time around, seconded the motion. 

Napolitano, the council’s most avowed traditionalist, played a key, behind-the-scenes role, advising Hadley to issue her public letter two weeks ago and to let go her advocacy for school opening by not appearing at a protest she’d helped organize on Nov. 18. On Tuesday, he expressed hope that Hadley would live up to the aspirations put forth in her letter. 

“There’s really only one person who can fix the situation, by being the mayor we all want her to be, and that’s Suzanne Hadley,” Napolitano said. “She can’t do that unless she’s given the chance tonight. I think she deserves that chance.”  

Councilperson Nancy Hersman, who’d supported Stern’s motion two weeks ago, ended any suspense by announcing right after Napolitano’s motion that she would vote in favor. Hersman has openly clashed with Hadley and Tuesday expressed her concerns —  that Hadley would not be able to work with county and state leaders, about her overall judgment reflected in statements about the pandemic, that she would not follow “science and the laws,” and that she did not respect the Manhattan Beach Unified School District as a separate governing body. 

“She says she has heard the concerns and will do better,” Hersman said. “She says she wants to unify the community. I do hope that can be done, because I’ve never seen our community as split apart with divisiveness in my 22 years here. Now, at a time when we need to be unified against the coronavirus, we are taking sides. We cannot continue this way. We all have to work together to make changes.”

“I know that I will disappoint a number of people whom I respect because I have decided to support Suzanne for mayor,” said Hersman, who did not run for reelection and will depart from council at its next meeting. “Not because of tradition, and certainly not because of the things she has said and done, which have hurt and divided our community. But I will support it for what I hope she will say and do. I am hopeful that her self reflection is real. And she understands that her words have impact.” 

Stern defended the decision to discuss the mayoral rotation and rebuked critics  —  many who accused her of partisanship, one whose public testimony accused her and Hersman of “not smiling” —  for ignoring the reasons for the discussion. 

“So here we are in an uncomfortable but necessary place. Let’s not forget how we got here,” Stern said. “We got here because for months since May, residents have been contacting us and speaking out about their concerns for their safety…. The extent of these concerns cannot be ignored, and nor should they be. It would be irresponsible of any of us to be contacted as much as we have, and not take this seriously.” 

Stern praised Montgomery’s steady handling of the pandemic as mayor, which she noted has not been a ceremonial position during the pandemic, when Montomery has met weekly with public health officials and LA County Supervisor Janice Hahn, and biweekly with Governor Gavin Newsom and his office. 

“It was his established relationships, willingness to sacrifice his time and energy without complaint, and his truly own open-minded, collaborative approach from which each of us benefited,” Stern said. “We have not received any significant concerns or criticism of Richard’s steady leadership. But unfortunately that has not been the case with respect to the Mayor Pro Tem Hadley.” 

Stern then addressed Hadley directly. 

“This isn’t easy to say and it’s certainly not comfortable,” she said. “This is your opportunity to speak to our whole community and explain how you will address their health and safety. I’ll paraphrase some of those concerns. Will you continue to ignore the advice of health experts and defy the laws established by the state and county leaders that you were sworn to uphold? Will you continue to minimize the fear and reality that people have died from this disease? How will you heal the divisions you have caused in our community in a time when cohesion and cooperation are so important? How will you repair the relationships with our own city partners, especially the school district, when you call for the reopening of schools against the advice of health experts and the efforts of our school district? How will you approach the governor, our state representatives, the county supervisor and county health officials who you have openly criticized?” 

Montgomery told Hadley she didn’t have to respond to any questions at that time. But Hadley spoke directly to Hersman and Stern. 

“Hildy and Nancy, I love discussions,” Hadley said. “I love open debate, as you know, and I’m gratified that you brought forward the concerns of the community….I hear you. I will work with compassion and humility. I meant every word of my statement. I am a very flawed human being. I’ve been happily married for 28 years and a mom of four for 25 years. Anyone’s welcome to ask my family how imperfect I am —  no one knows more than my loving family. I am an open book. What you see is what I am. And that that’s not an excuse, but there is nothing hidden about me. So I just welcome a clean slate. I welcome a fresh start…I have work to do, and fences to mend, and relationships to repair. I will take that seriously.” 

“So I thank you for this. I am humbled and chastened….I would just love to move forward. I thank all my supporters, I thank the rule of democracy, and residents speaking their mind. I love an engaged and informed public.” 

After the vote, which Stern made unanimous with her support, Montgomery said that he’d made plenty of mistakes his first time as mayor. 

“That’s part of my learning process. I didn’t come out of the box knowing all the angles, and I didn’t know all the rules,” Montgomery said. “..[It] doesn’t reflect mine, or all of ours together, but she has her own opinions. I think you heard her tonight talk about how she’s going to dial that back and, as mayor, represent all of us….We all speak our minds. But when it’s over, it’s over; you represent the majority. Whatever the majority is, that’s your voice going out the door. And [when] the media calls you that is your voice, whatever the majority is.” 

“Everyone deserves a second chance,” Montgomery said. “Everyone.” ER 


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