The Very Plugged-In Mayor of Long Beach

Bob Foster is a former energy-company president, but expertise in that subject isn't the only thing he brings to his city.
by | October 29, 2012 AT 11:00 AM

Bob Foster, the mayor of Long Beach, Calif., has been driving the same car for the last 11 years. A lot of people drive old cars, but Foster's is unusual. It's an all-electric Toyota RAV4, one of a fleet leased for meter-readers at Southern California Edison that he used as his company car when he was president of the company. When he retired from the company in 2006, the year he was first elected mayor, he bought the car and continues to drive it, making him probably one of the longest-term users of electric cars in America and almost certainly the only mayor who drives one.

The car might be seen as emblematic of Foster's long career in energy, on the public side as well as in the private sector. He has a degree in public administration from San Jose State University, and early on in his career he worked as a student intern for the energy committee of the California state Senate. Eventually he became chief of staff for the California Energy Commission, where he established statewide energy-efficiency standards that are still enforced today.

Energy and the environment are certainly important issues for Long Beach, but Foster said the main lesson he learned from his experience as a private-sector executive was that when a problem arises, you attack it immediately. With an issue like the need for public-pension reform, for example, the earlier you address it, the more options, resources and political support you will have. The natural tendency is to put problems off, but Foster believes that kicking the can down the road--that seemingly favorite political solution for so many issues--just makes things worse by narrowing options and draining resources.

Mayor Bob Foster and his electric RAV4
Mayor Bob Foster and his electric RAV4
As with cities across the country, the No. 1 challenge facing Long Beach is financial, the result of the decline in revenue from property taxes and other sources, including reductions in the state aid that formerly was a major revenue source. Foster says that despite an initiative passed a few years ago to limit the state's ability to impact local-government revenue, "the state has played a lot of games." Nevertheless, the city has balanced its budget by making lots of program cuts and running a much leaner and more fiscally responsible municipal government. That has meant compromises. Although Foster campaigned on adding a hundred cops, the financial situation has made it possible to do only half of that.

Another major challenge for the city is managing the environmental impact of a major economic asset, the Port of Long Beach. It is one of the largest ports in the world and the second-largest container port in the United States, and exhaust from the ships and trucks combines with the prevailing winds to cause Long Beach to suffer some of the worst air pollution in the country. Cleaning up the port was one of the main issues Foster campaigned on, and in that area he has been remarkably successful. In less than three years, the Green Port Policy established by the city has succeeded in reducing pollution at the port by 70 percent. Today no truck older than 2007 goes into the port, and a thousand of the trucks run on natural gas.

So how does a mayor who comes from the energy business view the issue of climate change? While he's a signatory, along with more than a thousand other mayors, of the U.S. Conference of Mayors' Climate Protection Agreement, he acknowledges that there's science on both sides of the issue. But rather than getting into the debate, he simply says, "I'm a believer in doing what's prudent and being smart about the way we use energy resources." That means energy efficiency and using renewable energy, and, yes, driving an 11-year-old electric car.