The new mayor of Manhattan Beach will be the first to tell you that she doesn’t take herself very seriously.
“That’s always been my mantra,” Mayor Amy Thomas Howorth said on a recent afternoon inside her Sand Section home over a bowl of homemade rivel soup, her grandmother’s recipe. “‘Take any job seriously but don’t take yourself too seriously.”
Howorth — who turns 50 this year — would never describe herself as such, but she’s actually proven to be a savvy political player, repeatedly breaking the mold in her adopted hometown of Manhattan Beach. Last month, she became the ninth female mayor in the city’s 100-plus-year history. When voters first elected her onto the City Council in March 2011, she was finishing out her second term on the school board. It’s not a common trajectory, jumping across the two disparate worlds.
“This is really bland,” she noted after a few spoonfuls of soup. Gesturing to the salt and pepper, she suggested adding as much as needed.
On this particular day, the Ohio native is dressed for comfort — leggings, sneakers and a loose gray cardigan. She had just been at a morning meeting at City Hall, one that unexpectedly carried over well past lunch time. She’s candid, as with much else, in expressing her frustration with long, unproductive meetings belabored by process.
At her first City Council meeting as mayor last Tuesday, Howorth shocked everyone in the Council Chamber when she gaveled into silence a particular citizen known to repeatedly make heated and unfounded accusations about city staff and Council members. It happened during the portion of public announcements of upcoming events.
“I am anti-theft of public time,” she said sternly from the dais, cutting him off mid-sentence. “This is absolutely not about a public event. Sit down, sir, or be removed.”
To many, she is a refreshing presence in the dry land of city governance hampered by laborious City Council meetings, stuffy suits and hours of circular dialogue. Her self-deprecating attitude and no-nonsense personality makes her simultaneously relatable and respectable. Her public Twitter feed is cluttered with evidence of her allegiance to the Buckeyes (she graduated from Ohio University) as well as quips like, “If IOS 7 really wanted to impress me, wouldn’t one of the options for Siri’s voice be Clooney?” In turn, she’s really not trying to impress anybody. She’s just being herself.
In the 1990s, Howorth and her husband Mark, who then worked for Bain, were living in Berkeley–prior to that in San Francisco, where Howorth worked for several years as photo editor of newly founded Wired Magazine–when Manhattan Beach came under their radar. Mark’s company was relocating him to L.A., and at the behest of several friends, the couple decided to give the beach town a shot. In 1997, with their two kids Ari and Jack in tow–then ages 2 and seven months–the couple made the move into a cozy home in the Sand Section.
“We almost didn’t want to sell our house in Berkeley,” she recalled. “I thought, Southern California…but within two weeks of living in Manhattan Beach, I was like, this is the best place on earth.”
She quickly became enamored with the small-town vibe: familiar faces on the streets, kids playing outside in walkways, and most significantly, the level of community engagement in the schools and at the city level. When her oldest son entered the school system, she jumped on the bandwagon of being an active parent. In 2003, she decided she wanted to make a bigger impact, outside the bounds of one classroom. She ran for a seat on the school board.
“I enjoy the discussion of ideas and trying to figure out what the right answer is,” Howorth said. “For me it wasn’t about my idea winning but trying to figure out what the right idea was.”
Seven-and-a-half years later, under her belt two board president-ships and a slew of new experience as an elected official, Howorth made a decision to leave her second term prematurely to run for a seat on the City Council.
She was enticed by the challenge of serving a larger constituency with a broader swath of issues. She felt badly about not finishing out the term, but the City Council election was in March and her term would expire that November.
“I felt that other people would be able to give new perspective and some fresh energy to some of the things we talked about,” she said. “And I felt that I had fresh energy to give to the Council…City Council has a more diverse set of concerns, a broader group of constituents and it’s been an incredibly great and real growth opportunity.” She then added in a self-deprecating mutter, “Although it shouldn’t be the public’s concern whether Amy Howorth gets growth out of it or not.”
But she was being earnest: learning about the intricate ways the city functioned, from proper process to storm and sewage drains, enthralled her, she said. And in return, she had experience to offer back to the city, such as running public meetings and undertaking the hiring process for two district superintendents. Coincidentally, one of her big assignments in her nine-month mayorship is to find her community a new city manager.
She explained that the city recently sent out the RFP for the search firm that will guide the Council in the selection process. She wouldn’t elaborate on the Council’s decision last October in firing former City Manager Dave Carmany, but she said she’s looking for a particular type of manager.
“I’m interested in what the public thinks we need; there are a lot of different styles of city managers,” she explained. “I guess I want a city manager who’s like some of the superintendents I’ve worked with, those who have been really strong in organizational behavior. You have to maintain a strong corporate culture–organizational culture–and you need a really strong person at the head of it. Someone who is open to ideas and out in the community.”
Finding that individual is at the top of her priority list, among other hot-topic issues like downtown zoning. Last November, the Planning Commission considered an ordinance that would impose new zoning regulations on office use in downtown. It was primarily aimed at curtailing the growing number of real estate offices and banks in pedestrian-friendly spaces, which groups like the Downtown Business Professional Association argued should be prioritized for businesses that generate sales tax revenue for the city. The Commission ultimately rejected the proposal.
Howorth said she wants to get “beyond that categorization of real estate offices versus retail.” Rather, she sees it as a collaborative project among all downtown business owners, residents, realtors, architects and the like–to first visualize what our downtown should be, then work to achieve that.
“Is it a free market philosophy or a slightly planned-out philosophy? That’s the crux of the matter,” she said. “What we need to do is to spend some money and come up with a specific plan for downtown. I just don’t want three years from now to say, ‘I wish we would have done something.’ It’s a really hard decision and a hard solution, but the answer has to include input from all the people who will be affected.”
Howorth also wants to do something about downtown’s aging streetscape, which the Council has “talked about” for two years, she said. She brought up Hermosa’s recent freshening of its own downtown.
“I’m not saying we wanna be like Hermosa,” she added, “but I’m saying we need to look at the whole picture…If you have a really cute charming downtown, that’s gonna help keep your property values high to help the real estate. It all works together.”
When the conversation turned to the topic of her sons–Ari, now 18, and Jack, 17–she visibly lightened up like any proud mother would. Ari is taking a gap year before college and Jack is knee deep in his junior year at Costa. She explained that she tries to be home every day from 3 to 6 p.m. except on Council days.
“As a mother you’d think that when the kids grow up they can do more things on their own, but it’s actually more important than ever for me to be at home,” she said.
It’s evident the Howorth household has a good time together. From her iPhone she shared a picture from Jack’s birthday this year–“we went to the horse track because his birthday is January 1st and there’s nothing to do”– and one of Ari getting photobombed by Jack. Laughing, she admitted she makes fun of her kids all the time. “They’re really fun. They’re the best.”
She is wary of falling into the stereotypes of a mom, but she believes raising two sons was useful training for serving on the City Council.
“We’re used to multitasking,” she explained. “We’ve got a long view because we want our kids to grow to be decent human beings or go to college, but we can deal with the fires, the present dangers, several of them at once. I think companies would be well-served by hiring more women who are reentering the workforce to be leaders.”
As the only woman on the City Council, she is very aware that she offers a much-needed representation on the dais. Men and women scientifically differ in their wiring, she explained, and the community is better served by having both types of brains working on solutions to its problems. She admitted that she used to be more timid in standing up to her colleagues, but in the last three years she’s grown confident in her duty to the women and girls of Manhattan Beach.
“When I first ran for school board, somebody said to me, ‘You know Amy, have fun. Have fun while you’re campaigning because what a great privilege,'” she recalled. “And I made a decision that I wasn’t gonna change my personality and who I was because I wanted to enjoy myself and be me. Otherwise, It’d be too hard.”
“I feel really lucky that the community has allowed me to be me,” she added. “Through all of this, I’ve still been Amy.”
Mayor Amy Thomas Howorth will deliver her State of the City address next Wednesday at 8 a.m. at the Joslyn Center. The event is presented by the Manhattan Beach Chamber of Commerce.
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