City Council makeover makes first woman-majority, City Hall reopened Fridays

Manhattan Beach City Council has its first woman majority in the city's history as it got two new members this year.

Suzanne Hadley and Hildy Stern were elected in March, replacing termed-out incumbents David Lesser and Amy Howorth. Their candidate competitors were all men.

Nancy Hersman also rotated to mayor this year.

Hadley and Stern, both more than 20 year residents of Manhattan Beach, took off on their first political endeavor by joining council. 

Manhattan Beach has seen some fruit of the newcomers' campaign promises: A blanket tobacco ban is underway, environmental initiatives expanded through banning polystyrene meat trays, prohibiting sale and use of Mylar balloons and the release of latex ones.

Council also in February decided to reopen City Hall on Fridays to better meet residents' service expectations. City Hall had previously been closing every other Friday since 2016.   

Short-term rentals regulated further

Manhattan Beach added more enforcement to its short-term rental ban. The city for a year mulled over ending the 2015 prohibition, but instead imposed stricter regulations. 

Fines are $1,000 per night for short-term rental violations. Even having a property listed for short-term rent online is now considered violating city code.

The city vowed to analyze enforcement of the rule more heavily; accountability was missing in the previous legislation, officials said. Manhattan Beach has also stepped up efforts to locate violators.

City staff since May has seen an 89% decrease in Manhattan Beach properties listed on vacation rental websites, according to Mayor Nancy Hersman. 

If Manhattan Beach hadn't upheld the ban, legal short-term renters would have had a less than 30-day-stay limit, owners could only have 60 days of hosted stays per year and three weeks of non-hosted stays with a consecutive seven-day minimum per year at primary residences only. 

Short-term rentals have been banned in the city for two years, but rental property owners were doing business underground, costing Manhattan Beach up to $200,000 in lost transient occupancy taxes. Some proprietors just decided to sell, like the owner of the hot pink  "emoji house", who was a focal point in August for illegally hosting renters short-term.

To not deplete places for visitors to stay, the city plans to bring in more hotels and has approved taller HVAC and elevator shafts at certain sites for new ones. 

Fire Chief dust-up finally doused

Manhattan Beach got a new permanent fire chief after a year-long search.

Daryn Drum from Heartland Fire and Rescue in La Mesa, CA was appointed in April, replacing interim fire chief Derrick Abell, who is also the city's police chief. Abell doubled as the head of both public safety departments 8 months longer than planned after Robert Espinosa, fire chief for seven years, retired early.

Espinosa first planned to leave Manhattan Beach Fire in 2017, but kept his position until the next year while the city transitioned city managers. He re-announced his retirement in 2018 a following a "no confidence" vote by Espinosa's team, deeming him unfit to continue his responsibilities as fire chief because of increased paramedic response times, excessive spending, alleged workplace intimidation and retaliation.  

The former chief thought postponing his departure would help the city, but Manhattan Beach firefighters said Espinosa was hurting the department more than anything. 

A step closer to desalination 

West Basin Municipal Water District got the green light in November to keep planning a desalination plant at El Porto Beach in El Segundo. The 2016 Manhattan Beach City Council opposed the project. A new council in 2017 had no problem with the plant, but just did not want the facility built on the Manhattan Beach border at 45th street, Mayor Pro-Tem Richard Montgomery said.

The nearly $500 million plant, if approved, would convert ocean water into about 20 million gallons of fresh, drinking water daily. The facility would replace an out-of-service part of the El Segundo Generating Station and draw in ocean water through an offshore pipe once used by the old power plant. 

West Basin is prioritizing a reliable water source in case of an import cutoff, while naysayers argue that the expensive project isn't worth the environmental impact: It would use too much energy and emit too many pollutants. Opponents have offered alternatives to desalinating ocean water, like recycling used water.

The Los Angeles Waterkeeper filed a lawsuit Dec. 20, claiming that the project “falls significantly below the standards required of it by the California Environmental Quality Act."

West Basin currently distributes imported water and recycles roughly 40 million gallons per day to all its service areas. The desalination plant would supplement that, not replace it.

Now, the water district board must do a cost-benefit analysis and create a plan to finance the project before the plant is considered again while battling the lawsuit.

**UPDATE: This article has been edited to reflect Manhattan Beach City Council's position on the desalination plant's fruition.**

Utility poles to go underground 

Neighborhood by neighborhood, Manhattan Beach is planning to "underground" its utility poles—the tall, wooden street posts that string electricity, telephone and cable TV wires.

El Porto residents, between Highland Avenue and The Strand; from 45th Street south to Rosecrans Avenue, voted in October to start burying their wires in February

Residents of another neighborhood, from First Street south to Boundary Place, and from Ardmore Avenue east to Sepulveda Boulevard, petitioned in November to get underground utility poles. Once it gathered enough signatures in favor, City Council approved ballots to be sent to the impacted residents. Their mailed-in votes will be counted and certified Jan. 7. 

Residents said the underground power poles will be safer—eliminates risk of falling on homes or cars—and more aesthetically pleasing. Above-ground wires can also spark flames when fire danger is high. 

This will be the third Manhattan Beach district to get Council's approval for undergrounding since the city in 2017 lifted a temporary ban on doing so.   

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