Mark McDermott

The Great Hadley Debate: The politics of the pandemic cause a rift in Manhattan Beach 

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Manhattan Beach Mayor Pro Tem Suzanne Hadley speaks at protest in favor of business reopening in May. Photo by JP Cordero

by Mark McDermott 

At the very end of a five hour Manhattan Beach City Council meeting on November 17, Councilperson Hildy Stern made a seemingly innocuous motion to add language to the heading on an agenda item for the December 1 meeting. The item was about the council’s reorganization of its mayor and mayor pro tem positions, which automatically rotate every nine months. 

Stern said the agenda typically just identifies who is going to be the city’s next mayor and asked for a broader discussion. 

“I was wondering if we can change that heading, that item description, so we can get some information on the history of how we select the mayor positions, and then discuss the mayor rotation process and who the next selection of our mayor is,” Stern said. 

Councilperson Nancy Hersman —  who, this being in the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic, was sitting at her kitchen table on the Zoom call — seconded the motion. In another Zoom tile, Mayor Pro Tem Suzanne Hadley sat stone-faced. Absent discussion, Hadley was slated to become mayor December 1; with discussion, her ascension to mayor could very much be in question. 

More than any other councilmember, Hadley has been at the center of her own city’s version of national skirmishes over the handling of the pandemic.

In early October, she signed the Great Barrington Declaration, a document that emanated from a libertarian think tank called the American Institute for Economic Research. It argued on behalf of pursuing herd immunity as an approach to the pandemic rather than imposing broad societal restrictions, such as stay-at-home orders, business restrictions, and school closings. The declaration argued that such restrictions do more harm than good. 

Signatures have also been collected against Hadley. Two petition drives on Change.org have gathered over 800 signatures seeking not only to prevent her from becoming mayor, but asking for her resignation. One petition referenced a comment Hadley made in a council meeting September 1, “All lives matter, not just COVID lives,” and asked, “Is this someone we want representing Manhattan Beach?” 

The mayorship in Manhattan Beach rotates between councilmembers not by legislative fiat or any formal process but rather by tradition. It started in the mid-70s as a means of depoliticizing how the City Council chose its mayor. Rather than requiring a three-vote majority, the rotating mayorship is automatic, thereby discouraging the forming of factions on the council. 

But 2020 has been a year in which everything is political, even the decision to wear or not wear a mask. It is also a year in which many traditions have fallen by the wayside; everything from the Manhattan Beach Hometown Fair to the concession of the presidential election has run into the sawmill of pandemic non-traditionalism and Trump-era norm-breaking. 

Stern’s motion was not an idle move. In order to consider anything beyond the expected rotation of the mayorship and not violate the Brown Act — a California law that has strict transparency requirements — a broader discussion needed to be explicitly agendized or the automatic rotation would occur. The day after that council meeting, on November 18, Hadley shot back. She issued an open letter to local media outlets arguing that tradition should be honored and she should be mayor.  

“I am aware of a whisper campaign among some who want to upend this tradition and pass me over for the mayor’s position,” Hadley wrote. “I understand my colleagues have even received a few emails from residents sharing such a sentiment. While some of them assert that continuity is important at a time like this, I understand they’re more about me than anything else. They don’t point to any high crimes or misdemeanors; it’s more about some folks not liking some things I’ve said or how I’ve said them.” 

“I want to make it clear to everyone that I get it,” Hadley wrote. “I also want to make clear that I still think we should honor our traditions, not just for me, but for everyone who follows. And I want to make it crystal clear that I wish to serve as your mayor, and will do so with respect, compassion, humility, and cooperation.” 

What Hadley has said has indeed drawn attention. In one instance, she attracted national attention. On June 30, as LA County prepared to close beaches over the 4th of July weekend, Hadley appeared on an MSNBC television news segment. Standing on the Manhattan Beach pier, she suggested to an MSNBC reporter that such COVID-19 restrictions were pointless. 

“This is not the plague,” Hadley said. “I don’t know anybody who has died; maybe you do. We can’t prevent drunk driving by banning alcohol. We can’t prevent car fatalities on the highway by closing our highways and preventing cars. The role of society is not to prevent death. 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.”  

Mayor Richard Montgomery issued a statement via social media that same day distancing the city from Hadley’s remarks. 

“The comment Mayor Pro Tem Suzanne Hadley made on MSNBC today is NOT a reflection of how I feel as Mayor of Manhattan Beach, nor does it reflect how the entire City Council feels on this subject,” Montgomery wrote. “We are in the middle of a serious pandemic and are taking precautions to protect our communities’ health. The beach closure was NOT in Manhattan Beach’s control, but we stand by the decision LA County Dept of Public Health made to prevent large gatherings and further increasing the spread of COVID-19.”

In an interview at the time, Hadley apologized, noting that she had not intended to represent Manhattan Beach with her remarks; she said it was Montgomery’s role as mayor to speak on behalf of Manhattan Beach, not hers. Hadley, who often describes herself as a student of history, said her comments had a larger context, and stood by her argument — that COVID-19 historically speaking was not among the worst pandemics, and that Manhattan Beach was not like the rest of LA County and should not be forced to follow the same restrictions. 

“We don’t have bodies stacked up. We haven’t lost 50 percent of our loved ones,” Hadley said. “So I’ll stand by the data: the data in Manhattan Beach fits Phase 3 reopening guidelines of LA County, despite the fact that we’re closing down indoor dining, despite the fact that we’re closing the beaches.”

Hadley was likewise not retreating from the larger battle over what she considered governmental overreach by the State of California and the County of Los Angeles. The next fray she entered, however, was even more fraught —  the battle over the opening of schools. 

Into the fray

Positions on the City Council are non-partisan, but of course nearly everyone who serves has party affiliations. In Manhattan Beach, two party-aligned political machines have emerged in recent years — a Republican machine backed by former mayors Russ Lesser and Bob Holmes (which attempts to be non-partisan) and a fledgling Democratic machine backed by former mayor Amy Howorth. Every candidate who has gained election in the past few election cycles has had the support of one of these two groups. 

Hadley is married to former Republican Assemblyman David Hadley, but other than that arrived on the political playing field with no previous experience. She’d been a stay-at-home mom for 23 years after leaving a successful career in corporate finance to raise four children. In her campaign for election in 2019, she ran on exactly those qualifications. 

“Again, I go back to being the mother of four kids,” she said in a campaign interview. “I believe in doing the basics well. I will stay in my lane at City Council. I consider police and fire a core municipal service. That is why you live in towns and cities —  public safety police, fire, trash, sewers. It’s not sexy, it’s not glamorous. Being a stay-at-home mom with an MBA for 23 years is not sexy and not glamorous. I did it willingly, I did it with honor, I did it patiently. I will keep police and fire in-house. I have the financial chops to make it work. Will there be tradeoffs? Absolutely. I’m not going to promise you the moon. I didn’t promise the moon to my kids. I’m used to people not being happy with me, for 23 years. When you are raising a family, you are not looking to be best friends.”

Hadley grew up in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, a town of 5,000. After her parents split up when she was 13, Hadley experienced financial hardship that would be formative in how she would live the rest of her life. After graduating from Badger High in her hometown, she went to Mount Holyoke College, one of the prestigious “Seven Sisters” universities historically founded as an all-women’s Ivy League equivalent. She studied economics and Russian and spent a semester in Moscow during the very last days of the Soviet Union, a time of food shortages and increasing dissident activity in which she became involved, sometimes covertly, including a cross country skiing rendezvous in a birch forest just so they could be sure to speak safely. “It was a very meaningful time in my life,” Hadley said. 

She eventually obtained an MBA from Tuck Business School at Dartmouth College, but abandoned her career after marrying David Hadley and starting a family. During her campaign, she was unusually forthright about how challenging she found motherhood. 

“I was not a natural mother. I had a really hard time,” Hadley said. “My whole life went up in smoke…I struggled as a new mom. My husband is my rock. I said ‘You know, I’m not one of these women who can do it all.’”

When she won election, Hadley credited her plainspokenness. 

“I’m a real person with a real family and a real life,” she said. “I think that resonated. The voters are real people. That sometimes gets lost at City Council.”

When the pandemic arrived, Hadley was among the first local elected leaders to fight against public health orders issued by the state and the county. She did so both at council meetings — where she advocated the outright flouting of the County’s public health order — and at the very first local public protest, which occurred in May in front of the Manhattan Beach Public Library. Hadley and her fellow protesters argued on behalf of small businesses. 

“I tell you there are people from the state of Illinois streaming over the border into Wisconsin to get their nails done, their hair done, to get a massage, to get their physical therapy, to have a beer and have a restaurant meal,” Hadley said. “So I would like people streaming in our city to take advantage of our retailers and our residential businesses and our restaurants.” 

After her appearance on MSNBC, Hadley more or less held her fire for the better part of a month. But in August, as schools were about to begin a new school year in distance learning, Hadley emerged as an advocate for parents who wanted in-person learning. She posted a letter to “MB K-12 parents” on NextDoor in which she told them not to blame Manhattan Beach Unified School district leaders, but rather to focus on LA County leadership, particularly Supervisor Janice Hahn. Her argument was that Manhattan Beach’s COVID-19 numbers were better than most of the rest of the County and thus schools should be allowed to reopen. 

“My message to Supervisor Hahn would be that the decision to re-open schools (especially elementary) should be based on conditions on the ground in MB and the South Bay,” she wrote in her post, which stirred up a hornet’s nest, with 524 comments, mostly from frustrated parents. 

No single sector of our society has struggled more with the pandemic than schools. In March, schools had to adjust on the fly to transition to distance learning. Chaos ensued; many students, aware that grades would not be affected by anything that occurred in distance learning, gave little attention to online classes. Even those who did struggled with learning in isolation. And parents suddenly had to take responsibility for having a de facto classroom in their homes populated by bored, lonely, and often disgruntled children. 

MBUSD administrators worked all summer to find ways to better deliver distance learning while at the same time devise plans for students’ eventual return. All scenarios were unprecedented, and all preparations were made under the shadow of vast uncertainty as the pandemic continued its uncharted course. 

Things boiled over in Manhattan Beach in late September. Earlier that month, state and county public health agreed on guidelines to allow special needs students back on campuses as early as September 14. Yet as the month wore on, MBUSD had yet to bring any of those students back. More than 100 parents showed up for what one described as an “emotional and devastating” Special Education Advisory Committee meeting via Zoom on September 22 in which fury was unleashed towards district leaders. 

On October 4, Hadley aimed her fire directly at MBUSD leaders. She wrote a lengthy Facebook post that was accompanied by the school district’s logo. 

“MBUSD schools are closed — and there is no date to reopen,” Hadley wrote. “From where I sit, the closures are becoming a city-wide issue.” 

“It’s very sad that MBUSD has not yet reopened to our special-ed and higher-risk students… What makes me especially sad is that MBUSD has not yet even submitted a plan to the County to allow these children to return. Why? What does this say about the (lack of) urgency in our district in planning for the safe and soon return of our TK-2nd graders?”

On October 5, MBUSD Superintendent Mike Matthews announced in his weekly “Monday Message” that the district would indeed be bringing back high needs students. At the October 6 City Council meeting, Hadley raised the issue during an agenda item regarding the consideration of additional COVID-19 measures. 

“I’m not going to give myself any credit here, but I am feeling like more has happened since I kind of got involved, and that’s great. Maybe it’s an accident, and maybe I should never have posted it at all. I am shining the spotlight, and spotlights are uncomfortable sometimes,” Hadley told her colleagues. “And I get that, but that’s life in the public sector. There’s a lot of money and there’s a lot of kids’ lives involved. These parents are calling me crying and despairing and moving, buying second homes and driving an hour [to schools] in Orange County. And that breaks my heart….I’m just sad and I did something about it and some people are mad. And I’m sorry, but I have 300 parents who reached out to me thanking me the same day. So I throw this out to my colleagues.” 

Her colleagues were perplexed. Hersman, who formerly served as an MBUSD school board member, said the council’s role was not to advise the school district. 

“Their job is to run the schools and we need to stay in our lane,” Hersman said. “I understand your heart breaks for them, and I get it. But we have to respect their judgment, we have to respect the fact that they know how to run schools. That’s why they’re there. We don’t know how to run schools. That’s not why we were elected, to run schools. They were elected to run the schools. Mike Matthews is there because of his expertise in running the schools.” 

“We should not be in this fight. And in fact, it is a fight,” Hersman said. “With all due respect, I do feel like you’re causing a wedge between our City Council and our school district. You’re being very divisive on this. And that is a real concern to me. We need to be together right now. We all need to be supporting each other. And this ‘them against us’ is not what we need right now.” 

Councilperson Steve Napolitano questioned the objective of bringing the matter “to the feet of the council” because it has no authority on the matter. 

“We are going to say ‘Pretty please?’” he said. “I guess I have to wonder, what is it that we don’t think the district board hasn’t heard, or Mike Matthews, for that matter? What pressure hasn’t been brought on them? What pressure do they not feel, and what has not been said to them already, that anything we say is going to change that? …I know that they’re trying, and I understand that some folks don’t think that’s enough. But as far as the council goes, we can’t say, ‘Okay, step aside, school board, we’re going to take over.’” 

Hadley didn’t back down. She continued her advocacy for the opening of schools. On NextDoor, she waded into a discussion regarding the school board election. At one point, she engaged with Parth Badwhar, a supporter of candidate Jason Boxer, who is 29 and does not have children. 

“With all due respect, do you think a young person with no children should be elected to school board?” Hadley wrote. “There is just no way for that person (even as a teacher) to put himself in the shoes of parents who are paying the bills and putting their own kids’ educations on the line. IMHO, being a parent— full stop— is a minimum requirement for school board.” 

Badwhar replied that he himself was a senior at Mira Costa. 

“A diversity of perspectives are needed, and having someone who is able to truly connect with students and relate to them is essential,” he wrote. 

In early November on a Facebook forum for Manhattan Beach residents, Hadley engaged directly with Shawn Chen, the president of the Manhattan Beach Unified Teachers Association. The union had just signed off on the TK-2 waiver program that would enable the district’s youngest students to return to classrooms part-time. But the previous weekend, a group of local parents had taken 24 youth soccer teams to compete in games in Arizona, and Chen expressed concern.  

“If parents continue taking students out of state for sports activities and family gatherings of more than three households, it will endanger staff and other students attending school in person,” Chen wrote. 

The comment elicited an immediate rebuke from Hadley. 

“If parents cease doing fun and fulfilling family activities like sports and family gatherings, it will endanger the lives and well being of their children,” she wrote. 

Hadley argued that schools are essential businesses that should be open, and chided Chen for commenting on parent activity. 

“Let’s keep teachers (and unions) focused on reopening, not on what families do in their personal time,” she wrote. “It’s not appropriate, it’s well outside their jurisdiction, and should neither be condoned nor tolerated.” 

Chen, in an interview, said Hadley’s advocacy has been “reckless and unsafe” and her argument that Manhattan Beach should be considered apart from LA County is illogical.  

“In general I think it’s not wise to ignore the fact that Manhattan Beach is not ‘a bubble,’” Chen said. “And it’s our social responsibility as part of the social contract to participate in creating protocols and adhering to safety measures that protect the citizens of the county and not isolate ourselves and expect that we should have our own rules.” 

School board member Karen Komatinsky, in an interview, said Hadley’s involvement had made the district’s job more difficult. 

“When you’re a public official, the whole concept here is you’re a public servant,” Komatinsky said. “It’s beyond one’s own belief systems, and beyond one’s own interests. You’re serving on behalf of the community. And I think that there’s been some times where Councilperson Hadley has not done that. When she makes comments on social media, our phones start blowing up with parents expressing concern and frustration. And you know, the district is so hamstrung right now. It’s such a hard place to be; it’s such a hard job, and there are delicate conversations that need to happen, intricate details that need to be evaluated. It’s not just opening our doors and welcoming everybody back in. It’s complicated, and we really need our community’s leaders to be a part of that, not working against us.” 

“I mean, we are in really uncharted waters. And I think that Richard Montgomery and the council has done a really nice job in leading us through some issues we’ve had recently. But Councilmember Hadley’s commentary relative to schools I feel like has been laced with her own personal beliefs, and her own personal agenda.” 

Councilmembers Suzanne Hadley and Hildy Stern being sworn in after winning election to the City Council last year. Photo by Mark McDermott

Mayoral outcry

Hadley was one of the organizers of a rally at Polliwog Park on November 18 that called for the reopening of schools. But after it became apparent at the previous night’s council meeting that her ascendance to mayor might be brought into question, Hadley chose not to attend the rally. In her letter, she acknowledged that her outspokenness had at times been problematic.  

“For the record, I do take COVID-19 very seriously and have, along with my colleagues, fully supported the measures we’ve taken to reduce the spread and prevent infections and death,” Hadley wrote. 

She promised to rein in her advocacy efforts on behalf of school reopening. 

“I also fully support our MBUSD school board and district, and their hard work to safely reopen our schools,” Hadley wrote. “If anything I’ve said or done has been interpreted differently, I’m sorry for that and will do better…I love this district; I want it to thrive for current and future MB families. As mayor, I’ll need to step back as a local advocate. There’s more than enough work to do at City Hall.” 

The position of mayor is broadly considered to be ceremonial, something Hadley noted in her letter. The mayor runs the council meetings but still only has a single vote, the same as a council member. But during the pandemic, the position has taken on new importance. The mayor has been at the forefront of communicating all public health directives, and has sat in on weekly meetings with LA County public health officials, as well as with fellow South Bay mayors, and biweekly calls with Governor Gavin Newsom and his office. Montgomery has formed close ties with Newsom’s office and Supervisor Janice Hahn. Because Hadley has been so openly critical of the state and county, those relationships have been brought into question. 

The issue of Hadley possibly being passed over as mayor has elicited a firestorm. Though Hadley and her colleagues on council all declined to comment on the issue, they acknowledged they’ve received a nearly unprecedented amount of public input both for and against Hadley’s ascension to mayor. Hersman has suggested, via emails to several residents, that Hadley’s term could potentially only be delayed for six months in order to ensure continuity during the pandemic. Hersman said that some residents have asked that Montgomery remain mayor until then. 

“Some said that no organization should change leadership in a crisis,” Hersman wrote. “Others argued that Mayor Montgomery has done a superior job of leading our City during this unprecedented time. He has a very good relationship with our County and those handling the crisis, as well as the Governor’s office and our school district. His steady hand of leadership has led our City through this difficult time and it would be beneficial to our entire City to continue through the next six months.”

Resident Adam Goldstein wasn’t buying this logic. 

“If just ‘some’ residents made a request that could basically upset a 50-year tradition, seems to me to be a significant request, and not a casual issue to consider,” he wrote. “I am also a resident, and I am wondering how many residents it takes to become a quantity of ‘some’? I am asking for you to NOT consider this issue at the 11th hour, and if the council wants to debate the issue and allow public input, and proper procedure for creating and implementing something new for future transitions, or future situations, then by all means that would be appropriate.” 

Resident Brenda O’Leary wrote that Hadley’s stance on COVID-19 seems similar to that of President Trump and his advisor Scott Atlas. 

“In more normal times, I would say people are entitled to their political opinions. However we are moving into a very critical time with this pandemic with cases spiking worldwide as we go into the holidays and kids simultaneously starting back to school. We need true leadership based on science,” she wrote. “Suzanne is like taking on another Trump —   she will divide the community along the lines of science and conspiracy theories. At the national level this has led to many deaths; there is no reason to think it would be different at the local level.” 

Most of the concerns over Hadley center on her potentially leading the city’s response to the pandemic. As a supporter of the Great Barrington Declaration’s argument in favor of herd immunity —  a stance which would protect the most vulnerable while allowing a certain percentage of the otherwise healthy population to become infected with COVID-19, thereby eventually stopping its spread —  Hadley’s stance is directly opposed to the public agencies, such as the state and the county, that she’d be tasked to work with as mayor. 

Councilperson Stern declined to comment directly regarding Hadley but did say that she found any argument for herd immunity troubling.  

“We have the model for the misguided strategy of herd immunity in Sweden where this approach drastically, and fatally, failed,” Stern said. “Proposing this as a solution to COVID puts millions of people’s lives at risk, not to mention the number of illnesses and the resultant impact to our healthcare system and first responders. Allowing our citizens to be that vulnerable is irresponsible given what we now know.” 

Other than on Facebook, Hadley has not explicitly voiced her support for the Great Barrington Declaration. But nearly all her public comments regarding the pandemic  are in keeping with arguments for an approach that aims at herd immunity. At the Nov. 17 council meeting, she acknowledged that COVID rates are increasing but argued that this was mostly among young people, who are less vulnerable. Hadley noted that her own daughter, who goes to college in Ohio, had contracted COVID-19 but was able to isolate without spreading it and felt better after 48 hours. 

“Yes, cases are going up,” Hadley said. “The good news is they’re going up in the 18 to 50 year old categories. And I would just submit that the costs of the pandemic shutdowns are, in my opinion, approaching a higher social and emotional wellness cost than the virus itself.” 

Hadley said that Manhattan Beach found itself in “the crushing bearhug” of LA County and that surges occurring elsewhere should not dictate policy locally. 

“A county of 10 million people far away from us should not drive fear and panic here,” Hadley said. 

Regardless of what happens on December 1, Hadley might still become mayor. Council candidate Joe Franklin, who is closely aligned with Hadley, leads in election tallies and could be seated on the Council by December 15. Possibly, she could then rally the votes to become mayor. But even in this scenario, the concept behind the rotating mayorship — the avoidance of forming council factions — would be lost. 

Former mayor Russ Lesser, in an email to council, recounted the history behind that tradition. He was on the council just after the rotation system was established by former councilman Jack Cashin. “The new system allowed [that] everyone whom the citizens elected to be on the council served a term as mayor and eliminated all the politics and personalities from it,” Lesser wrote. A decade later, Lesser recalled,  Gil Archeletta was elected. Archeletta frequently clashed with Lesser and his political allies, but when a movement arose against Archeletta becoming mayor, Lesser opposed it. 

“We stated clearly that he had been elected by the voters and deserved a term as mayor and all three supported him. That was the principled thing to do,” Lesser said. “In summary, I think it would be a huge mistake to change our current system which has worked well for almost half a century….this is not about Suzanne.”

 

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