Jen Ezpeleta

The Book of Henry

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A legend of Manhattan Beach City Hall retires after 48 years

by Mark McDermott 

March 1973 was a time of disarray. The Watergate scandal was engulfing the Nixon Administration and the last American troops were about to leave Vietnam. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon had just been released, speaking to the sense of desolation taking hold of society. Meanwhile, the Russian lunar rover Lunokhod 2 began its third round of exploration around the actual moon’s surface, just as NASA ended its own manned missions, which had once seemed to signify the endless possibilities of America, itself. 

Meanwhile, on March 12, a tall, dapper young man arrived at Manhattan Beach City Hall. The city was in the midst of pulling itself out of the rubble of the 1971 earthquake, so City Hall was housed in a collection of trailers. Henry Mitzner had just left a short career as an engineer in the aerospace industry, which was in a tailspin. He had worked odd jobs, gone to night school to become an accountant, and come to Manhattan Beach to begin a second career in municipal finance. 

The Bronx native vividly remembers his first impressions of Manhattan Beach. 

“Whoa,” he thought. “This is fantastic.” 

Over the next half century, Mitzner would work his way up the ranks to become City Controller. But more than that, he would become a cornerstone of city government. Mitzner will retire on December 30, marking the end of the longest career in Manhattan Beach municipal history. But it has been the quality of those years, not the quantity, that have made Mitzner legendary. He played a key role in the city’s ascension to a AAA bond rating and its recognition as one of the most financially sound municipalities in California. 

“You can’t overstate exactly how much Henry has contributed to the City of Manhattan Beach,” said City Manager Bruce Moe, who has served 32 years with the City and worked alongside Mitzner in his capacity as finance director 21 years. “Because Henry is, of course, fiscally conservative. But he’s the controller, and he knows how to control. That sounds very simplistic, but we always had enough money in the bank to do the things we needed to do. He knows accounting like the back of his hand. When you talk about rating agencies, they want to see that your audit reports are clean, and Henry for years was involved with the city’s annual audits…. He contributed greatly to our top rating because of how clean our books are and how well run we are.” 

“The City Council deserves a lot of credit for that as well,” Moe said. “But Henry is the worker bee who was making all those things happen as they should, and getting us the credit we deserved from those agencies.” 

As important as Mitzner has been as City Controller, however, he’s served another, equally revered role — as City Hall’s most beloved philosopher. Two of his sayings have been so oft-repeated as to become axiomatic among his colleagues. 

Mitzner’s first dictum: “The most important thing is the good health of you and your loved ones, your honor, your integrity and your good name.”

Mitzner’s second dictum:“When it’s bad out there, it’s good here, and when it’s good out there, it’s great here!”

Mayor Suzanne Hadley first came to know Mitzner, before she was elected, as something of a man of mystery. Hadley works in the Manhattan Beach Public Library and noticed Mitzner was a frequent visitor and stalwart volunteer for the Friends of the Library. 

“I first met Henry in the winter of 2016, while I was working at the library,” Hadley recalled. “He was sporting his customary U.S.S. Constitution ball cap and short-sleeved shirt, despite the chill in the air… . On his way into the building, I noticed Henry return a massive non-fiction tome; and on his way out he checked out some new bestsellers. I was captivated: Who is this guy? He donates almost daily time to FOL, he’s strong as an ox, reads voraciously, loves the City of MB, and he’s conversant in ancient history, current fiction, economics, and finance.” 

Hadley remembers thinking, “I’ve got to get to know this guy better.” She soon learned he was a longtime city employee. As she formed a friendship, Hadley also learned that he was a native New Yorker; she and her husband, David, formerly lived in New York City, and this became another topic in their wide-ranging conversations. 

“Henry possesses an encyclopedic knowledge, with a deep wisdom about life — concealed beneath his broad sense of humor and twinkling grin,” Hadley said.

Finally, when Hadley ran for council in 2019, her conversations with Henry broadened to include the municipal wisdom he’d garnered over five decades. 

“His wisdom and perspicacity were sources of humor and insight,” Hadley said. “Henry was never grumpy or unkind. He was unceasingly chivalrous, and a quick study in human nature and the ways of the world.” 

Of all the things missing during the pandemic of 2020, Hadley said library conversations with Henry neared the top of her personal list. She hopes he’ll still come by the library when the coast is clear. 

“When I grow up,” Hadley said, “I still want to be like Henry.”

Former mayor Amy Howorth said that when she first ran for public office, activist David Watchfogel advised her to sit down with Mitzner to understand the city budget. “Because he knows where the bodies are buried,” Watchfogel told her. But when Howorth met with Mitzner, she realized he knew a lot more than just that. 

He didn’t just understand the numbers, but he also understood the story those numbers told,” Howorth said. “And he was just the consummate professional. But also what I loved about him is he was the most charming person.” 

As their acquaintance grew, Howorth and Mitzner discovered a shared love of 1930s and 1940s Broadway show tunes. He used to play a game, trying to stump her with songs and Broadway trivia, which resulted in him singing her songs every time she walked through the corridors of City Hall, and her singing back to him. He sang, for example, “Once In Love with Amy” from the show “Where’s Charley,” which, naturally, Howorth knew. Then asked her who sang it. “Well, Ray Bolger in the movie version,” she told him. “Because I knew this stuff,” she said. “From my mom, and from growing up in Ohio, because there’s nothing else to do in Ohio….And I always thought, when I was interacting with him, I was interacting with Fred Astaire. He’s just so very graceful.” 

Mitzner scoffs a bit at the comparison. “Fred Astaire could dance,” he said. “I can’t dance.” 

Howorth’s reverence for Mitzner is indicative of what he brought to those around him over the course of his five decades in Manhattan Beach. During an era when graceful conduct, humble erudition, and something approaching a code of honor began to feel like things of a bygone era, Mitzner served as a beacon for his colleagues. At a ceremony marking Mitzner’s 45th year of service in 2017, finance director Steve Charelian expressed gratitude for his quiet, behind-the-scenes leadership. 

“You talk about honor, integrity, and your good name,”  Charelian said. “And we live by that philosophy.” 

 

Bronx to the beach 

 

Mitzner grew up in the Bronx, the son of a butcher. His father, Max Mitzner, taught him the value of hard work. 

“I always thought, if I’m going to get paid, I have to earn it,” Mitzner said. “That probably came from my father. He had a butcher shop, and if he didn’t work, we didn’t eat.” 

His father frequently required Henry to help in the shop, or to shovel the walks and push cars out of the snow during New York winters. He imparted upon his son the simple, dignified practicality of possessing a work ethic. 

“I knew what it took to make a buck, I’ll put it that way,” Mitzner said. 

He also grew up knowing life wasn’t all about work. He was an avid sports fan who went to baseball games at the old Polo Grounds, the historic stadium built in the 1880s, and the equally revered Ebbets Field, home of the Brooklyn Dodgers. He witnessed some of the baseball greats play the game, including Jackie Robinson, Frank Robinson, and Willie Mays. One of the happiest days of his childhood was October 4, 1955, “the day that Johnny Podre beat the Yanks” by throwing a shutout in Game Seven of the World Series. It was the first championship in Dodger history. 

“Going home from school at 10 years old to watch the Dodgers win the World Series in 1955, that would be the highlight of my growing up with sports,” said Mitzner, who never forgave the Dodgers for leaving Brooklyn. “The only good thing about the Dodgers was Vin Scully, and he grew up a Giants fan.” 

 

Henry Mitzner’s second role was city hall philosopher. Photo by Steve Charelian

 

Mitzner also loved books. His voracious curiosity and hardscrabble work ethic made him a gifted student. He gained entry to the Bronx High School of Science, the prestigious public magnet school. The school’s motto is, “Inquire, Discover, Create,” and its alumni tend to do just that —  eight have become Nobel laureates. 

Mitzner then attended City College of New York, obtaining an engineering degree before heading out west to work for Lockheed Martin in Burbank. He’d been inspired by America’s space mission to go into aerospace. Shortly after arriving in California, he remembers driving down the coast and being struck by the beauty of little seaside Manhattan Beach. “I do remember the old City Hall, even just driving by,” Mitzner said. 

He also remembers knowing then and there, standing on the California coast, that he’d never go back to New York. 

“In New York, all you had was concrete buildings,” Mitzner said. “It was radically different from the way I grew up…. So I thought, ‘I’m not going back to winter in New York, that’s for sure. I’m staying here.’” 

He was resolute in this even after the aerospace industry declined and he was laid off by Lockheed Martin. His father, Max, gave him some advice: “Go into accounting, because you’ll always have a job.” He attended UCLA Extension classes by night and worked various day jobs, including a stint at a grocery store, and obtained his degree in accounting. He applied for an opening in the finance department in Manhattan Beach. 

“I took a trip to Manhattan Beach, they called me up in February and made me an offer. I took a physical and started work March 12, 1973,” Mitzner said. “And the rest is history.”

On Tuesday night, after that history was honored by the City Council with an unusually heartfelt ceremony, a visibly moved Mitzner retained his customary precision, noting that the day was his 17,445th day as a city employee. When he began, the finance department had two IBM Selectric typewriters connected by telephone wires to a mainframe computer in El Monte. “As far as number crunching was concerned,” Mitzner recalled, the city had two electromechanical machines, each weighing about 40 pounds. They used punch cards to store information.

“Everything else was pencil and paper,” Mitzner said. “Which isn’t that bad. After all, that’s all Einstein used. I’m still a pencil and paper guy; when I need to think about a problem, I get paper and push a pencil.” 

What his colleagues marvel at is that even though Mitzner has worked through an era of vast technological change, he has typically been the master of those changes. He was adept at early computing languages FORTRAN and COBOL and became equally adept at Excel. 

City Treasurer Tim Lilligren, who began working with Mitzner in 1988 when he served on City Council, said Mitzner was the city’s go-to expert in every one of the city’s many sets of complex accounting rules and finance systems. 

“There’s just so much institutional knowledge in that guy that it’s going to be a real shame to lose it,” Lilligren said. “He knows so much, not only about what has happened in the city, but he’s an expert in PERS (the California Public Employee Retirement System), and LAIF (the Local Agency Investment Fund) and GASB (the Government Accounting Standards Board) and how to assemble the CAFR (Comprehensive Annual Financial Report) and what’s needed and what works and what doesn’t work. He just knows it all.” 

Lilligren is not alone in that, for him, Mitzner became a compass of sorts —  whenever there was a question about almost anything to do with city government, he found himself either asking Henry or asking himself what Henry would do. 

“He had so much knowledge in the areas that we deal with that you knew if Henry was involved, it’s right,” Lilligren said. “In fact, that would be the question that, if I didn’t ask it, I thought it —  and that is, what does Henry think about it? Just about anything, really. I held his opinion in the very highest regard. If he agreed with me, that went a long way, both while I was on council and as treasurer.” 

City Manager Moe feels an immense sense of gratitude for the role Mitzner played in his own career. Moe had an unlikely path to city government. He’d originally intended to be a photographer and, like Mitzner, had a wide-ranging curiosity — albeit, earlier in life, with a little less focus, spending a decade in college before finally emerging with a business administration and marketing degree. He was somewhat shocked when he was hired by the Manhattan Beach finance department in 1988, but hit the ground running —  in no small part because he and Mitzner became fast friends. A decade later, Moe was named finance director, which was also unusual because he didn’t have an accounting background. 

“I’m just glad that I had him when I was finance director all the way through, because he made such a difference for me, and for the city,” Moe said. “We couldn’t have done so many things without Henry. He’s one of the smartest people I know, bar none…. And he is probably the most selfless person I’ve ever met, as well. You know, everybody has a little bit of selfishness in them. But when it came to Henry, he always put the City of Manhattan Beach and our residents first. He’s always been so grateful for all the opportunities that this city has given him.” 

Charelian, the current finance director, also began his career in 1988. He learned early on, by observing Mitzner, that that traditional 9 to 5 workweek meant nothing —  weekends, early mornings and late nights, he’d see Mitzner come to City Hall when there was work that needed to be done. Through the years, Mitzner peppered him with words of wisdom from his own heroes —  often from the likes of football coach Vince Lombardi and basketball coach John Wooden. 

Charelian recalled one of those Wooden quotes at Tuesday’s council meeting, one that was particularly apt for the occasion: “Success comes from knowing that you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.” 

 “What an inspiration you are,”Charelian said. “We do share a common wall between our offices, and your love for classical music from Tchaikovsky to Beethoven comes seeping through the thin walls, and maybe even an old Western musical like Big Country, circa 1958. And I say to myself, ‘Is he doing line dancing in there?’” 

Councilperson Hildy Stern has only known Mitzner since being elected two years ago. But he made a deep impression with the very first words they spoke. 

“I remember the first conversation that I had with you when we were passing each other in the plaza area outside City Hall and you greeted me with that warm, bright smile,” Stern said. “And I don’t remember how you were able to leave so much into such a short, five to ten-minute conversation, but I walked away learning about philosophy and history, a little bit of politics, some economics, and a lot of literature. You quoted world leaders, and you made [reference to] passages from books…I just stood there with so much awe.” 

She went home to her husband and told him, “I think I have just met one of the smartest people I’ve ever had the privilege of being around.” 

Councilperson Steve Napolitano, who was first elected in the early ‘90s, said that Mitzner was an inspiration for his own career in public service. 

“I think that unfortunately sometimes jobs are just a means to the ends to folks,” Napolitano said. “You put your heart and soul into your work here and you did it not for yourself, and not for council or Bruce or anyone else…but for the 30,0000 residents of Manhattan Beach. You made it a higher calling. And you are an example I have tried to follow and will continue to try to follow.” 

Lilligren said thinking of Mitzner always made him think of a story about Ludwig Beethoven. “He was at a party and some kind of a French prince talked down to him, and pissed off Beethoven a bit,” Lilligren said. “Beethoven replied, ‘Who are you but a lowly prince? There have been 1,000 princes and there’ll be 1,000 princes after you. But there is only one Beethoven.’ I kind of feel the same way about Henry. There’ll only be one Henry. He’s high rank —  really, really high rank.” 

Mitzner, in an interview, offered gentle rebuke to most of the praise. Of the city’s AAA rating and his role, he said credit was mostly due to the kind of people who make Manhattan Beach home. 

“The highest level of professionals make their homes here,” he said. “It’s such a desirable place to live. So the economics that drive the AAA rating of Manhattan Beach are the underlying factor of the success of the City of Manhattan Beach. I just put a postage stamp on the envelope.” 

City Manager Bruce Moe describes Henry Mitzner as a city controller who “knows how to control.” Mitzner is retiring after nearly 48 years in the city’s finance department. Photo JP Cordero

He called Moe “the John F. Kennedy of city managers” and heaped highest praise upon the generations of city employees he worked beside. “It is more than just a building, City Hall —  it’s the people you work with,” Mitzner said. “I’ve worked with the finest people.”

He said he’d fixed his mind on retiring at the end of this year some time ago, before the pandemic. He felt it was time to let another generation take the reins, but promised to be available to his successor. 

“Life is full of ups and downs,” he said. “Manhattan Beach has many, many more ups than downs. You couldn’t ask for a better deal than I’ve been dealt here. I love Manhattan Beach and wouldn’t change my cards with anybody…. But you have to know when to quit the court.” 

The council gave him a parting gift, not just a plaque, but the announcement that his words —  “When it’s bad out there, it’s good here, and when it’s good out there, it’s great here!” —  will be written large on the wall at the entrance of City Hall alongside a display about the days when a wise man named Henry Mitzner graced Manhattan Beach. 

Mitzner ended his own remarks with a book recommendation, John F. Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage,” offering the hope that the council could find wisdom in its pages. 

“The council will inevitably be called upon to make decisions that will help both in the short term and the long term,” Mitzner said. “Some of those decisions will be hard, and not popular…. On the other hand, there are times when we need to find a common ground.” 

“Far be it for me to offer any advice,” Mitzner said. “But if I could offer you a gift, it would be that of wisdom. Thank you for giving me this opportunity to speak. I will never forget my time here.” 

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