Mayor pro tunc? Fangary skipped in Hermosa Beach dais rotation
by Ryan McDonald
City Councilmember Hany Fangary arrived at Hermosa Beach City Hall Thursday evening for the mayor rotation ceremony expecting to be named mayor pro tem, next in line to his colleague Mary Campbell, who was to take the reins as mayor.
Fangary’s night did not turn out the way he thought it would. In a departure from the loose procedures typically associated with the mayoral rotation among Hermosa’s five city council members, Fangary was passed over for his colleague Justin Massey, who was reelected just two weeks prior.
The decision is the most public evidence yet of a bitter dispute involving members of Hermosa’s council and City Manager Suja Lowenthal. Reached by phone on Friday afternoon, Fangary speculated that he was skipped because of his criticism of Lowenthal, including a statement at an Oct. 10 council meeting, two days after the council conducted her annual performance review, that he “lack[s] confidence in the city manager’s leadership for the past year.” Fangary, who was first elected to the council in 2013, said he felt betrayed by his colleagues, most of whom entered Hermosa politics like he did in the midst of the city’s battle over oil drilling, and for whose campaigns he had volunteered.
“I’m just dealing with the incredible disappointment at the actions of people I used to consider friends,” Fangary said.
Campbell said in an emailed statement that she picked Massey as mayor pro tem “because he works collaboratively with the city manager and other council members, which is a vital part of the job, and we don’t want to lose the momentum to move forward with the many projects and initiatives we have underway in the city.”
Fangary said that he does not know what will happen when it comes time for the next mayor and mayor pro tem appointments. Campbell said in an email that she expects that council would “welcome his rotation when and if he is willing to work with the city manager.”
Asked if this was the appropriate way to deal with a council member raising concerns about the performance of a key city staff member, Campbell acknowledged that to be an important responsibility of elected officials, but said that Fangary was not going about it in a professional manner. Fangary, Campbell said, was skipped over because of her concerns that his relationship with Lowenthal had deteriorated to the point that she feared he would be unable to do the job of mayor pro tem.
“He and I had discussed the need for him to be able to work collaboratively with the city manager — something he’s been unwilling to do, or even work toward, for several months. He has publicly stated that he has no confidence in the city manager, and is not speaking or communicating with the city manager in any respect. That’s the situation, and under these circumstances it is unworkable on these critical roles of leadership on the council,” Campbell said.
A city spokesperson did not return a call made after business hours seeking comment from Lowenthal. Fangary declined to go into the specifics of his concerns about the city manager’s performance, saying that state law prohibits him from publicly addressing employee evaluations, or revealing what has transpired in closed session meetings, where the issue has been discussed.
Campbell said that she did not think Fangary would be surprised at being skipped in the rotation past discussions she had had with him about his working relationship with Lowenthal. Fangary, however, said he was “shocked” at Thursday’s events.
Although conducted with the formality of a typical city council meeting, rotation ceremonies are typically light-hearted affairs, closer to photo-ops than substantive discussions. Thursday evening’s meeting began with comments from outgoing Mayor Stacey Armato, who then nominated Campbell as mayor; Campbell was approved unanimously. Campbell switched seats with Armato, and took the gavel.
“As the newly elected, or appointed rather, mayor of Hermosa Beach it is my duty to now nominate the next mayor pro tem. And it is actually with some degree of sadness that I recommend [a] non-customary order, and I would like to nominate Justin Massey to be our next mayor pro tem,” Campbell said.
Campbell then asked “Any comments?” Fangary said nothing, then, after Campbell and the other three council members said, “Aye,” said, “I’m opposed, Madam Mayor.”
In a video of the meeting on the city’s website, Campbell appears to be reading from a piece of paper when she nominated Massey. That, and the rapid sequence of events by which the motion was seconded and passed, lead Fangary to suspect that Campbell may have prepared the plan ahead of time with Armato and Massey.
“It gave me the perception that this was already previously planned. Well, it definitely wasn’t planned by me,” Fangary said. If true, such coordination would constitute a violation of the Brown Act, California’s open meetings law, because it would involve a quorum of the council gathering outside an official meeting.
Campbell said that she takes the Brown Act seriously, and that while she did speak to Armato about the mayor pro tem spot, she did not talk to another councilmember, which would comport with the act. She also said she did not address the rotation ahead of time with Lowenthal. Armato declined to comment for this story, but confirmed Campbell’s account. Massey did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Hermosa’s municipal code empowers the mayor — or, in his or her absence, the mayor pro tem — to declare a local emergency and call special meetings. The mayor is also traditionally in charge of running meetings and often serves as the face of the city for conferences, public statements, and communications with other governmental bodies. Campbell said her motion was based in part on her recent tenure as mayor pro tem, which convinced her that the position requires extensive communication with the city manager; Fangary served as mayor from June 9, 2016 to March 9, 2017, and before that as mayor pro tem.
For cities that do not elect mayor as a separate office, California law provides that after “the declaration of the election results and the installation of elected officials,” a city council shall “choose one of its number as mayor and one of its number as mayor pro tem.” Hermosa’s municipal code offers no guidance about how to rotate council members in and out of the mayor and mayor pro tem positions. A review of past ceremonies, however, shows that it is traditionally handled by the outgoing mayor, not the newly seated one, and that the newly sworn-in councilmembers are assigned a position in the rotation, after those who won a seat in the prior election, based on the number of votes they got.
At the last mayor rotation ceremony, in November 2018, then-Mayor Jeff Duclos used his last act before Armato took the dais to take a motion to appoint Mary Campbell as mayor pro tem. At the previous rotation, in December 2017, Massey did the same for Armato before handing over the gavel. At the December 2017 meeting, the council discussed lengthening the time council members could remain as mayor, because of the decision earlier that year to extend to five years the terms of city council members elected in 2017 and 2019. (Terms were extended in order to comply with a state law requiring cities to align their elections with national ones to boost turnout.) The council agreed to extend the mayor terms to slightly more than a year, rather than the nine months they traditionally served. A report prepared for the evening by City Clerk Elaine Doerfling shows a rotation schedule for several years in the future, in which Fangary would serve as Campbell’s mayor pro tem.
“Just to be clear, that would work, everybody getting their equal time?” Massey asked Doerfling, before the council unanimously approved the extension.
Michael Keegan, a previous mayor, said that he is not especially close to Fangary, but was taken aback when he found out what had happened. He said he has closely followed Hermosa politics for 35 years, and that past council members have had disputes with one another or the city manager, but that those had never influenced the rotation order.
“If I would have known they were not going to rotate, I would have shown up and spoke. I thought we lived in a town where we nice to each other even if we weren’t friends. I think nice has left the city,” Keegan said.
The break with tradition may hint at the extent of Fangary’s distance from Lowenthal and the rest of the council. After Fangary announced his lack of confidence at the Oct. 10 meeting, Armato responded, “Well, on behalf of the four other council members, I wanted to say thank you for the terrific job you’re doing, and to express that we have full confidence in you.”
Previous public meetings have revealed hints of Fangary’s displeasure. In March, as the clock approached midnight after an hours-long discussion of the Greenbelt stormwater infiltration project, the council turned to an item that Fangary had pulled from the consent calendar, the section of the agenda reserved for less consequential items that are usually voted on en masse. Fangary said he had no problem with the item, which dealt with contracts for street improvements on Prospect Avenue, but said that the council had previously instituted a policy in which no expenditure greater than $100,000 would appear on the consent calendar; the street repair contract was valued at approximately $140,000. Lowenthal responded that she was aware of the policy, but thought she was within the discretion the council had given her, because the project had already been approved. The explanation appeared to satisfy the council, except for Fangary.
“We either follow the protocol or we don’t,” Fangary said. During the discussion of the consent item, Campbell addressed Fangary and said, in a friendly tone, “Every time I see these, I think of you.”
But Fangary’s fixation on procedure can sometimes come across as stubbornness, and has occasionally created tension with city staff. He had a similar clash with Sergio Gonzalez, the former city manager who served from May 2017 through March 2018, over the latter’s cancellation of a contract for a firm that sought out grants for Hermosa. Fangary upbraided Gonzalez during a public meeting over the decision, which he said would cost the city money in the long run.
It was another consent item that provided the most recent and starkest disagreement. At a Nov. 12 council meeting, the consent calendar included the appointment of Armato as the city’s negotiator with Lowenthal over a potential adjustment to the city manager’s compensation; Lowenthal’s contract does not guarantee a cost-of-living adjustment but gives the council the choice to approve one. Fangary pulled the item to highlight his displeasure with the previously considered idea of selecting Armato as negotiator in closed session, which he believed contravened the state Government Code. He compared it to what he characterized as a similar violation, in 2015, when he objected to conducting a performance review of then-City Manager Tom Bakaly in closed session, and said that, “because this happened in 2015 and it’s happening again now,” he had contacted the Public Integrity Unit of the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, and would also seek an advisory opinion from the California Attorney General. (Fangary said Friday that he had contacted district attorney’s office, but had not heard back.)
City Attorney Mike Jenkins said that state law allows a city to select a negotiator in a closed session, but that the item was brought onto the consent calendar “as an accommodation to Councilmember Fangary.”
“It wasn’t required in 2015, and it’s not required today,” Jenkins said. “This council desires to be collegial and resolve conflict and so it makes sense to be collegial, when you have the opportunity to do so.”
Brought up for a public vote, Fangary ultimately joined the rest of his council colleagues in supporting Armato’s appointment.
This is a developing story, check back for updates.