Hawaiian Gardens is the smallest city in Los Angeles County, approximately one square mile, and one of seven cities in the county that allows casino gambling. The City is currently led by City Manager Ernie Hernandez, who was appointed in January 2017 but has more than 20 years of municipal management experience. Hear from Hernandez on his leadership philosophy and how the City had to dramatically alter its services after the pandemic hit. 

Where is your favorite place in the City? 

The City has invested quite a bit on its recreational facilities.  I enjoy visiting and utilizing various facilities such as the sports complex and pool.

Hawaiian Gardens is a unique city in terms of its partnership with the Gardens Casino. How does the casino affect the culture of the City?  

City Manager Ernie Hernandez

Cities with card clubs, or sometimes referred to as casino cities, have a mutually beneficial relationship with their respective card clubs. Cities are flexible in both facilitating card clubs ability to operate in the City, but more importantly, are flexible in adjusting necessary City procedures to what are constantly changing regulations by State and Federal agencies on that industry. In return, casino cities receive revenues from those card clubs based on their respective established formula.

Even among casino cities, Hawaiian Gardens is unique in that City revenue derived from the City’s card club, the Gardens Casino, accounts for over 70% of the City’s general fund.

Hawaiian Gardens is the smallest city in Los Angeles and less than one-square-mile large. How does leading a small city change your leadership style? Your priorities? How you interact with residents?  

As a working manager, it suits me fine. I’ve always made it a point to get involved in some capacity in most of the City’s operations and, in a small agency, you almost have to.

I have worked for cities as large as Long Beach with more than 6,600 employees and now as small as Hawaiian Gardens with slightly under 100 employees. It’s definitely a different dynamic but ultimately, large or small, you are responsible for the same basic government functions.

As the smallest city in Los Angeles, how has the pandemic directly affected the City as a whole? 

The pandemic has been devastating to the City. As stated earlier, we depend heavily on card club revenues and unfortunately due to the pandemic and State and County regulations, our card club has been closed for the better part of a year. As a consequence, we have cut the City budget by over 30% with upsetting impacts to City services and our workforce. Fortunately, we have strong legislative leadership and together with staff have outlined and approved a path to recovery.

After losing about half of the City’s annual budget and cutting about 40% of the City’s workforce, what initiatives are the City prioritizing? 

As you can imagine, we went down to the basics. The reasons why local government exists – with public safety and maintaining infrastructure as the staples for quality of life. We have tried to deliver services in other areas, in a limited capacity, but recognizing how important it is to find ways to service our youth and seniors.

The City has been working on a 3-year plan to move on with a new budget. How does this plan address the fiscal issues the City is facing? What policies or programs in this plan will help the City move forward from this worldwide catastrophe?  

The plan is fairly simple. It makes significant cuts to less essential programs and services and maintains those cuts throughout the plan’s term. Resources are dedicated to essential government services and critical quality of life programs and services. The lowered expenditure plan is maintained during those years when revenues are expected to return to pre-pandemic amounts.

What is some advice you’d give to other city managers or someone aspiring to be a city manager? 

As fellow City Managers can attest to and as aspiring City Managers will learn, you have to be flexible.  You can come into the workweek with some specific plans in mind and then you are hit with various issues that take priority and may require you completely rethink how to handle a situation. Being flexible with how and when you handle different situations is critical.

If you’re a city manager in California and are interested in being featured in a PublicCEO Q&A, please reach out to PublicCEO Editor Alexandra Applegate at alex[at]publicceo.com.