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Manhattan Beach City Hall on April 2, 2019. (Daniella Segura, contributing photographer)

Manhattan Beach had its first socially distanced city council meeting Tuesday, with at least one councilmember and some residents concerned that non-coronavirus agenda items such as increasing electricity bills be discussed at a later date.

Mayor Pro Tem Suzanne Hadley said in a phone interview before the meeting she was concerned about new and non-urgent business being on the agenda while public engagement was limited.

“Any new business coming before council could be postponed for a future time when things are normal and the public has full access to comment,” Hadley said. 

She referenced Torrance’s Monday council meeting as an example to follow. That city handled only essential city services and items related to COVID-19, adding she thinks that is a good and appropriate practice during a city-declared emergency.

“Decisions made with full public participation are the best decisions for local government," Hadley said. "In an emergency, all-non essential business should be postponed until residents can be a part of the democratic process, in the name of transparency.”

For Tuesday night's meeting, the community was not allowed inside Manhattan Beach’s city hall chambers. But, residents could call in from home to make public comments while watching the live streamed video. Alternatively, residents could watch the stream from inside the police and fire conference room nearby and provide comments there. 

Some public comments sounded distorted by feedback, and some callers’ connection dropped from the line. 

Three councilmembers and some staff were physically present at the meeting, while Mayor Richard Montgomery and Councilmember Nancy Hersman tele-communicated by phone. 

Hadley said she had an issue with discussing moving all residents and businesses to a default 100% renewable energy plan with the Clean Power Alliance that would increase electric bills, although the change wouldn’t take effect until October. 

“It makes that decision more suspect and less legitimate to pass (it) in the dark of night amid this pandemic,” Hadley said.

The city started using CPA in 2017 to increase sustainability with 36% renewable energy, according to a staff report, and in 2018 set a user-wide default of 50% renewable energy. 

Users can choose to opt up or down a tier, or opt out and go back to Edison, but some older adults and those who pay little attention to electric bills may not have known that, said Hersman.

Seniors had problems understanding the difference between Edison and CPA when the city first adopted the services, one resident who phoned in said during public comment. 

He added that he finds it disturbing that council brings up issues that impact residents when the body has little time to accept public comment and get more information. 

Another resident said that a lot of people don't know how to change their energy selections, feeling as if they’ve been strong-armed into a movement that all residents may not be in favor of.

Councilmember Steve Napolitano said that council should have talked about the matter much earlier than this last public meeting before CPA’s April 1 deadline to choose the new default tier.

“I don't think it's a good decision to make tonight,” Napolitano said, “at a time where people’s minds are elsewhere.”

The city should have reached out months ago, he added, so people could voluntarily move to 100% renewable energy and show that the majority of residents want the higher default setting. 

“We need to meet climate change head on . . . but how we do it is also important,” Napolitano said, adding that letting people know after the fact isn’t right. 

Hadley rhetorically asked the council if they were comfortable increasing residents’ power rates in the midst of the pandemic, at a time where some teachers and part-time city employees have lost their jobs or are not able to afford higher bills at someone else’s discretion.

“I think it would be a gesture of financial mercy to residents to hold this off for a year,” Hadley said.

Napolitano introduced a substitute motion to wait until next April to consider moving to 100% green power, and directed staff to develop an outreach plan to properly inform residents about the transition, allowing them more time to move up a tier at their own discretion. 

The substitute motion passed 3-2, with ‘no” votes from Councilmembers Hildy Stern and Nancy Hersman. 

Napolitano also led the council to continue other non-urgent items to future meetings, such as new regulations for planting trees and shrubs in public rights-of-way.

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