By Jim Tortolano
Oliver Chi is not your grandfather’s city manager.
An enthusiastic, ebullient 39 years, Huntington Beach’s new city manager is informal and ambitious as might be characterized by two statements.
“I try to avoid wearing ties as much as possible.”
“I don’t see any reason why Huntington Beach can’t be the best beach city in the world.”
Chi took over as Surf City’s top executive officer on Sept. 30, following Fred Wilson, who retired after 10 years in the job. He comes to Orange County after five years as city manager of Monrovia.
“The first thing I’ve observed here is the people here are wonderful,” said Chi in an interview in his City Hall office overlooking an expansive vista of the community. “In the city organization and staff there’s this passion for Huntington Beach that has been remarkable and impressive. As a city manager, you want to work in a place where everyone cares about the community.”
His goals are wide-ranging, from getting a handle on the homeless issue to managing looming financial worries to bringing together a downtown area that retains its “Surf City” heritage but which is also appealing to all segments of the public and visitors.
One of the most contentious concerns for Huntington Beach and most other California cities has been homelessness. The city has identified four locations for potential shelters, but all have been opposed by community protests and lawsuits.
“We’ve learned a lot,” said Chi. “Stops and starts is probably a good way to describe it. The best way to approach this issue is as a team, talking about it with our regional partners across the county. The thing we keep coming back to is that we haven’t fully articulated the city’s strategy going forth,” he said.
“There’s been this persistent focus on building a navigation center or shelter,” he said, adding, “That’s not the final answer. A shelter is a very temporary solution to a long-term problem. The larger problem is that we have a lot of people who are experiencing homelessness. Building a shelter doesn’t solve the problem.”
Shelters, he said, are a way for the city to enforce city rules on camping and loitering. You can’t arrest someone for those violations if there’s not a bed for them.
“The longer-term solution is wrap-around permanent housing with wrap-around services. So what we’ve been trying to do is rethink our strategy a little bit.”
He supports a regional effort to build that housing which would provide a variety of services for the unsheltered in addition to a place to sleep. Homeless people could go to such an emergency shelter for a day or two, “but then you get put into this supply of permanent supportive housing to get the person hopefully more functional. If they don’t want help, then we get to enforce our community standards.”
A location for an emergency shelter is a sticking point. “There’s no perfect location,” said Chi. “Everyone thinks it’s a gigantic city, they ought to be able to find a location where it doesn’t impact anyone. But in a city with 76 parks, in a built-out city that’s primarily residential, there’s not a lot of locations where you can site a shelter without it being controversial and having some impact.”
The keys are finding a way to offset any impact, and deciding to take action, he feels. “I think ultimately it’s going to take some political courage from the council.” Whichever location is finally chosen may still be unpopular with those nearby. “We don’t expect them to embrace it or be happy but we can hold the city to a high standard so that if we establish a center we will do everything we can to offset any negative impacts.”
Another issue of concern to the city – and again, most other municipalities in the Golden State – has been the financial burdens of unfunded pension liabilities. “The city is in a good financial position, and on the pension side, our regular pension costs are affordable,” but the unfunded part may not be.
“Last year, our payment was $26 million. Within the next 10 years it will be $46 million,” a $20 million jump in what the city must pay the state’s PERS (Public Employee Retirement System).
Chi and other city leaders seek “to tackle that in a way that doesn’t require tax increases.” Other cities, such as Garden Grove and Seal Beach, have won 1 percent sales tax increases, but he hopes to avoid that. “Can we live within our means and find out a different way to address that issue?”
Overall, Chi sees Huntington Beach as quite the gem. “This is our city,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine it getting better.” However he does want modernization of the city’s infrastructure and investment in the community’s future.
He wants to unify the downtown area, which he sees now as being a bit divided between 5th Street, Main Street and the resort hotels to the south. He wants a more family-friendly setting that respects the community’s beach town past.
As far as finding ways to fund his ambitions, he said, “We shouldn’t always be chasing dollars. It’s really about placemaking. How do we create terrific spaces that people will want to come to? If you create those spaces, revenue opportunities will come.”
Come to, as Chi forsees it, the best beach city in the world.
Categories: Huntington Beach