Long Beach Police Officers Storm City Auditor’s City Hall Office

By: 
Claudine Burnett
THE FIRST CITY HALL is a small, two-story building with window awnings, visible in the lower right corner of the photo. Central and prominent is the multi-floor second City Hall on Pacific Avenue.

On July 23, 1922, City Auditor Myrtelle Gunsul rose at 5 a.m. to be the first to move into the new City Hall. Other departments scheduled to move were the offices of the city manager, Purchasing Department, Recreation, Civil Service, City Clerk, Water Department, Tax and License Collector.

One of the special features of the new City Hall was the women’s restroom and lunch room, equipped with gas connections making it possible for the city’s women employees to cook their own lunches. This room had been fought for by Miss Gunsul and various women’s clubs in the city who supported her.

Being the first to move in, Miss Gunsul took possession of the coveted room on the second floor that was supposed to house the Water Department. In the original plans, the space was to have been hers. This was changed by the building committee, without Miss Gunsul’s consent. The Water Department, with 24 employees, needed the added space. Miss Gunsul had a staff of three.

Refusing the city manager’s phone calls, Miss Gunsul declared she would not vacate the room until she had completed making up the assessment role, which required the help of several extra employees. On July 27, Police Chief McLendon and a squad of police officers “stormed the fort,” breaking the glass to the office to take possession.

This was not the first time Miss Gunsul had a run in with City Manager Hewes. On July 13 she insisted her department have a private telephone installed in her offices in the new City Hall. Hewes had decided that the new building be equipped with a private switchboard through which all telephone calls in and out of the building be handled.

Miss Gunsul emphatically declared she did not want anyone listening in on her conversations, be they about business affairs or private matters. Though Hewes told her in no uncertain terms that she would not be allowed her own private phone line, Miss Gunsul refused to be frightened.

She quietly ordered the telephone company to transfer her existing telephone equipment to the new building. After all, she was an independently elected official, in no manner beholding to Hewes and his wishes. But the battle between City Manager Hewes and Miss Gunsul was not over. When the police first attempted to take the room in the new City Hall and move out the auditor’s belongings, they found all the doors securely locked.

One of the officers noticed an open window on the outside of the building, but when he got a ladder and crawled up the ledge, one of the auditor’s deputies locked the window. Under orders from the city manager and the City Council to oust the auditor from the room, Chief McLendon authorized his officers to break the glass on the door and get in.

Ester Skonkey, chief deputy under Miss Gunsul, offered no resistance when the officers and members of the Water Department started moving out the auditor’s belongings. Miss Gunsul was not present, having to attend a court hearing in Los Angeles at the time. Chief McLendon vowed if Miss Gunsul attempted to break into the room now occupied by the Water Department she would be arrested for burglary.

This dispute between Miss Gunsul and the city manager had been festering for some time. It was not really over space in the new City Hall, but over a number of issues, mainly equal treatment of city employees and Prohibition.

In July 1922, before the scheduled move into the new City Hall, Miss Gunsul was purposefully late in writing Assistant City Manager Walter Barber’s paycheck. Barber had been out ill but was still paid because he was guaranteed sick leave under the new City Charter. In effect Miss Gunsul was making a point and giving Barber a lesson on life. Earlier, he had refused to pass a sick leave ordinance for day laborers employed by the city. If they were out of work for a few days because of illness, they were out of both luck and money.

They made much less money than the assistant city manager and in Gunsul’s opinion had a much harder job. She revealed her reasoning to the Long Beach Press:

“I am a servant of the people, and my desire is to serve each and every one fairly and justly. Because a man is a day laborer and not in a position to help himself, is all the more reason that he should be treated in a fair and just manner, and his interest protected by the ones in authority.

I feel confident that every taxpayer in Long Beach believes that I am doing right in carefully protecting the interests of these men, who have all the disagreeable outside work to do in all kinds of weather, and subject to every infection from the filth and trash they are obliged to handle. Since every hour and fraction of days had been deducted from the pay of these men by the heads of their departments, I see no reason why Mr. Barber should be shown any consideration in this matter.

Because Mr. Barber and Mr. Hewes personally interfered and held up the payrolls for these men was the reason for such a rigid investigation on my part of Mr. Barber’s illness.” (Long Beach Press 7/13/22)

Then there was the question of booze. In March 1922, a grand jury investigated the alleged secret employment of Charles C. Nevens by Manager Hewes, who had hired Nevens to clean-up the bootleggers of Long Beach. Nevens told the city manager he was a government agent and would rid the city of alcohol for $100 ($1,650 in 2021) a day.

Chief of Police McLendon and some members of the City Council were consulted and Nevens was secretly hired. A demand for $1,589.20 ($26,335) was presented to Miss Gunsul, as salary and expenses for Nevens. Upon the arrest of 22 accused bootleggers, Nevens told City Manager Hewes he needed his money quickly to flee Long Beach because his life was threatened by the alcohol element of the town.

Miss Gunsul, herself an elected official, refused to pay because she felt the demand was illegal and a waste of the taxpayers’ money.

Later mysterious marks, “K.K.K. 27722,” evidently intended to intimidate the city auditor, appeared on Gunsul’s front door. The following day a man she did not know approached Miss Gunsul. He declared the Ku Klux Klan was not behind the threat but that 2900 Klansmen in the city were standing behind her and would protect her in every way. He stated the marks were not made by the Klan.

Councilman Alexander Beck, Hewes and Mr. Peck from the city purchasing office, visited Miss Gunsul and tried to have her return the written request to pay Nevens. Miss Gunsul refused, stating the demand was a legal document in her possession and she would hold on to it. Miss Gunsul started her own investigations and later had Nevens, aka Fred Seay and several other aliases, arrested for impersonating a government official. All 22 of the asserted booze law violators were released.

Myrtelle L. Gunsul would serve as Long Beach City Auditor for 32 years. She retired March 1, 1951, and died in April 1958 at the age of 89.

Claudine Burnett is a retired Long Beach Public Library librarian who compiled the library’s Long Beach History Index. In her research, she found many forgotten, interesting stories about Long Beach and Southern California, which she has published in 12 books as well as in monthly blogs. You can access information about her books and read her blogs at www.claudineburnettbooks.com.

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Wow, a brave soul truly serving the public. Sigh.... Those were the days.

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