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Manhattan Beach To Review 'Ambassador' Program Expenses

Apr 26, 2021 11:56AM ● By Jeanne Fratello

CSC contractors in the "Ambassadors" program discuss mask-wearing with visitors at the Manhattan Beach Pier

You've seen them with their bright yellow-green vests all around town throughout the pandemic. But does Manhattan Beach need still need its roving "ambassadors"?

At its April 20 meeting, the Manhattan Beach City Council agreed to review expenses for its so-called ambassador program - contracted security staff who monitor crowded areas of town - after the Memorial Day weekend.

These "ambassadors" are tasked with a variety of responsibilities including crowd control, face covering handouts, parking management, patrol assistance, and business and visitor assistance. (The ambassadors do not have the authority to hand out citations so they are not handing out "mask tickets.")

Many downtown businesses and visitors have found the ambassadors to be helpful during the pandemic, especially when police forces were stretched thinner and needed to prioritize more emergency situations. But now that the pandemic needs are waning, some council members are questioning their role and the program's expense.

Since COVID-19 public safety engagement efforts began, the city has spent approximately $330,000 to employ contractors through the Contemporary Services Corporation (CSC) for the ambassador program. (The city continues to finalize invoices related to these programs and the total may not include expenses from the last two months.)

The city expects that some, if not all, of the ambassador program expenses will be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as a COVID-19-related expense. Although city officials have submitted paperwork to FEMA, they have not yet received word about the amount of reimbursement.

At Tuesday night's meeting the city council ultimately voted, 5-0, to review the program expenses at its June 1 meeting.

Helpful Service or Unnecessary Expenditure?

The issue began with some councilmembers questioning the continued necessity of the ambassador expense, which city staff has estimated at between $2,000 and $12,000 per week (with $12,000 being for a peak holiday weekend with sunshine and crowds).

Since the ambassadors do not have enforcement authority, their role has been that of "education" and "communication," primarily about mask-wearing but also about parking, visitor assistance, business assistance, and more.

Councilmember Steve Napolitano said at the April 20 city council meeting that he thought the ambassadors' communications and education about mask-wearing were unnecessary at this point. "We’re paying people to tell other people that [it's] the law. But it's been in the headlines for the past year and half," he said.

Furthermore, said Napolitano, the ambassadors don't have the authority to enforce the laws that the city needs the most help with enforcing.

"It really gets down to, we want the right boots on the ground to enforce the right rules," said Napolitano. "We're talking about skateboarding and bikes. Dogs on the beach. We need more boots on the ground in that respect. That should be our long term goal...We have to transition at some point from CSC. I'm fine with it for now, but it's not sustainable. We don't have the real authority that is needed to enforce the rules that we really want to enforce at this point."

Councilmember Joe Franklin concurred. "As soon as [CSC staffers] talk to somebody, [people] put the mask on, then they pass by them, and they take the mask down...I just see a huge expense that's not very effective."

Councilmember Richard Montgomery, however, said that now was not the time to cut back on having ambassadors in the streets, just before the busy and crowded summer months.

"Even if we don’t get dollar-for-dollar [reimbursement]. I think it’s worth it to have them out there during the heaviest time of year with our biggest crowds," said Montgomery. "Everyone’s sensitive about downtown being squeezed with the loss of parking spaces and dining decks. Now is not the right time to pull back."

Montgomery continued: "I can’t imagine FEMA's not going to give us dollar for dollar, because it is COVID-related perfectly. Why take that chance of cutting it back now?"

Manhattan Beach Police Chief Derrick Abell noted at the meeting that it has been helpful to have CSC staff on the streets supporting MBPD staff during the pandemic. Furthermore, he said, the department does not currently expect to need nearly as many ambassadors out on the streets  as it did last summer, when the ambassadors were posted at the end of nearly every walk street.

At its June 1 meeting, the city council will take a look at how much has been spent on the ambassador program in the previous weeks, with a general accounting of how the ambassadors used their time (educating on masks, parking assistance, crowd control, etc.).

Downtown Businesses Have Appreciated Ambassadors' Support

The ambassadors have provided valuable support to downtown businesses throughout the pandemic, Jill Lamkin, executive director of the Downtown Manhattan Beach Business and Professionals Association, told DigMB. 

CSC gave her the cell numbers for the two ambassador supervisors, said Lamkin, which allowed her to text them at any time for help with even small issues for which she might not have wanted to call police. 

The ambassadors have helped with such issues as managing large groups of kids on skateboards or ebikes, directing visitors to long-term parking, or walking employees to their cars late at night if they didn't feel safe. In one case, when an intoxicated homeless person had been bothering people on the street, the ambassadors engaged the person in conversation and distracted him long enough until he finally left.

"I really have been so thankful for them during the height of all [last year's] issues," said Lamkin.

However, now that things are normalizing, she said, the downtown's needs have changed. For example, kids are back in school so there aren't as many crowds of skateboarders and bikers. Yet there are continuing issues with parking, crowding, and traffic flow - most notably with the new diagonal crosswalks on Manhattan Beach Blvd., at Highland Ave. and Manhattan Ave., she said.

At those crosswalks, pedestrians still don't understand that they're only supposed to cross at the "walk" signal. When they walk at the green light - even though the hand signal is red - it blocks the ability of cars to make right turns and further jams up the intersection, Lamkin said.

This would be the kind of thing that ambassadors could help with, she said, although the city wouldn't likely get reimbursement for it because it isn't a COVID expense.

"Traffic control and these sort of things need to be addressed before summer," said Lamkin. "If CSC is a less expensive way to do it - because [salaried] community service officers can be expensive - then it would be great to have them."

Ambassador Program Background

After the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020, the city, state, and county ultimately adopted a variety of regulations including closures of public areas, face covering requirements, and social distancing guidelines.

In the midst of these new regulations, the city of Manhattan Beach prioritized enforcement officers in the Police Department and Code Enforcement division toward emergency response and construction activity, respectively.

To support the work of city enforcement officers, the city created two different programs - the ambassador program and the (separate) face covering enforcement program - to serve in areas with higher density and potential crowding opportunities. These areas primarily included Downtown Manhattan Beach, Manhattan Beach North End and El Porto, the Manhattan Beach Pier, city parks, the Greenbelt, the Strand, city parking lots, and the beach.

The ambassador program began in the spring of 2020 when the city contracted with CSC for private security personnel. (The city has a longstanding relationship with CSC, which has assisted the city with security for annual special events such as the Hometown Fair, Six Man Volleyball Tournament and more.)

CSC deployment has been managed at the discretion of the Manhattan Beach Police Department. The number of people deployed as ambassadors has depended largely on weather conditions. Generally, staffing ranges from two to eight individuals (at a $26-29 hourly rate).

Since May 2020, the city has expended approximately $2,000 - $12,000 per week for CSC’s services, depending on deployment directives.

While the program comes at a significant cost, city officials say they have received generally positive reviews on the program from the community.

During a period where the city saw heightened concerns regarding COVID-19 transmission, public protests, civil unrest, the bioluminescence phenomenon, shifting vehicular/pedestrian traffic patterns, property crimes, and bicycle/vehicle safety, city officials say that the ambassador program also offered greater staffing resources to assist the Manhattan Beach Police Department’s response and reassure the community.

The city is likely to receive some form of reimbursement for the program, although there have been questions about whether FEMA would classify the ambassadors' work as directly related to COVID-19, or more generally as "education." If it were the latter, it is uncertain how much FEMA would reimburse.

Face Covering Enforcement Was Separate Program

A separate program was the face covering enforcement program. On July 17, 2020, the city contracted with Wildan Engineering to provide staffers (at a $65 hourly rate) with the necessary citation authority needed to enforce face covering requirements.

The Manhattan Beach Police Department managed deployment of face covering enforcement personnel. The number of people deployed depended largely on weather conditions and public areas in the city experiencing crowding opportunities. Additionally, targeted enforcement occurred based on reports of areas with less compliance. Generally, staffing ranged from 2-4 individuals a week.

From July 2020 - April 2021, the face covering enforcement team issued 1,629 citations, warned 12,778 individuals not wearing their face covering properly, and had 17,007 interactions with the community to inform individuals of the city’s face covering requirement. The face covering enforcement program also consistently noted 90-95% compliance with the city’s face covering requirement. The city received positive feedback on its efforts to offer a deterrent to those intentionally not complying with the face covering requirement.

During this time period, the city expended, on average, about $15,000 a month for enforcement purposes. While this program also came at a significant cost, the city expects to be reimbursed by FEMA for most, if not all costs of the face covering enforcement program.

The city council agreed at its April 6 meeting to stop issuing citations for a failure to wear a mask, so this program is not currently incurring any costs.

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