Attempting to reverse Long Beach’s sagging fortunes after ”years of structural deficit, mismanagement and scandal,” the city council voted Thursday night to hire a 59-year-old African-American woman with a lengthy background in municipal finance as its new interim city manager. She is the first woman and African-American to hold the post.
In a brief special meeting, the appointment of Donna Gayden, who most recently has served as interim finance director for the cities of County Club Hills and Bradley, both in Illinois, was approved 4-0 by the council. Council vice president Karen McInnis was away on business. Some social media posts noted that Gayden comes to the city manager’s post with a tinge of controversy from one of her previous jobs.
Gayden also comes in at a time of significant change for the city.
The council two weeks ago held a public hearing on a proposal to strip the city manager of the authority to hire about a dozen key personnel, including the police and fire commissioners. A vote is to be held on the proposal soon, possibly as soon at the next full meeting Tuesday, March 4.
She also must develop a budget for the city by its April 10 due date. Additionally, several city unions, including the police, are negotiating new labor contracts.
Gayden made no public comments, but said she would be meeting with city hall staff immediately.
City officials said Gayden will “assume the post immediately,” taking over from John Mirando, who told council members Monday he wanted to step down after only six months in the job. Long Beach has had three acting city managers in the last two years. The city has not had a permanent city manager since Jack Schnirman, now Nassau County comptroller, left in 2018.
Gayden, who holds masters degrees in both accounting and tax law, sat quietly in a front row seat while city council president John Bendo lashed out against previous city councils and city administrations as the prime causes of Long Beach’s fiscal problems.
“The No. 1 problem is finances,” Bendo said from his center seat on the council dais. “For years, this city has been spending more than it brings in. The city is in an unsustainable trajectory. We needed somebody from outside who owed no favors to anyone. Politics got us to where we are now.”
“The vitriol and venom has been disgraceful,” said Bendo, referring to the snappish political climate that has characterized Long Beach’s politics for years. “We should be a little ashamed of ourselves. The person (hired as city manager) must have a thick skin. We need someone with an iron fist and a velvet glove.”
Bendo said Gayden had been hired through an executive-search firm and had been vetted by the city council.
Gayden was hired under a six-month contract at a salary of $178,000. The contract says she can be hired for at least one additional three-month period. City officials said over the past three years, city managers have earned annual salaries of $174,000, but Gayden will not be accepting any health benefits. As a result, Bendo said, Long Beach “will be saving money.” He said she would be taking up residence in the city’s West End.’
City officials Thursday night made no effort to hide Long Beach’s financial problems. In a press releases handed out before the meeting, the city said Gayden was hired to “turn around the city’s finances after years of structural deficits, mismanagement and scandal.”
Long Beach has had two consecutive tax increases of over 8 percent. Most recently, New York State Comptroller Tom Di Napoli’s office released a scathing report of the city’s financial condition and an ongoing payout scandal still under investigation by the Nassau County District Attorney and the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District.
About $750,000 in payouts was made to about a dozen current and former city employees, including Schnirman. Schnirman returned about $52,000 in payout money.
Long Beach officials are banking on Gayden’s lengthy municipal finance experience to reverse the downward slide. She holds masters degrees in both the science of accounting and tax law. She has a certificate in state and local government from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government as well as in leadership and management from Governors State University and investigation and prevention of commercial fraud and cash management fundamentals from Northwest University. She is also a certified fraud examiner and international city/county management association credentialed manager.
Gayden worked for two years, beginning in 2015, for the village of Hazel Crest in Illinois. The mayor there, Vernard Alsberry Jr., said Gayden was “instrumental” in hiring a consultant with multiple fraud convictions. Alsberry, according to an article in the Chicago Tribune, said he assumed Gayden had vetted the consultant, who never faced any charges for her work with the village. Gayden had said the consultant had done business with the village before Gayden was hired and she was not aware of the consultant’s record.
A resident, Roy Lester, said the issue of the controversy. “There are a ton of red flags” in the hiring, but added that they do not mean Gayden will not do a good job. Lester said he objected primarily to “the way (the hiring) was done.” He said the public was given only 24 hours to digest Gayden’s hiring before she was sworn in last night. He said he wondered why the hiring could not have waited until Tuesday’s regular meeting. He said the council should have made the hiring after it passed a revised charter. “This is ass-backwards,” he said.
Bendo responded that Long Beach needed to get Gayden working as soon as possible. “She needs every minute humanely possible,” Bendo said.
Gayden received a round of cheers after she was sworn in.