City of Malibu to celebrate 20th anniversary

The City of Malibu will celebrate 20 years of cityhood on Sunday and Monday. Above, the first Malibu City Council of Walt Keller, Carolyn Van Horn, Missy Zeitsoff, Larry Wan and Mike Caggiano pose for a photo in 1991 before certification.

City leaders look back at the changes Malibu has seen in the past two decades.

By Knowles Adkisson / The Malibu Times

As the City of Malibu prepares to celebrate its 20th anniversary with a community picnic on Sunday and elected officials prepare to conduct a more formal acknowledgment at Monday’s City Council meeting, the city’s current leaders and its founders look back at the changes Malibu has undergone in the past two decades.

Prior to the successful campaign for incorporation in 1990, Malibu faced recurring threats from Los Angeles County to install a central sewer system that many residents opposed. Residents feared a sewer system would open the door for unlimited development.

“[The county’s] clear intent, and stated intent, was to be able to build high-density housing out here, condominiums and things of that sort,” said Mayor John Sibert in a phone interview Monday.

Efforts at incorporation fell short in 1964 and 1976, the latter by just 108 votes. But by the mid-1980s, the county was pushing harder than ever for a sewer system, and it looked like it would happen. Without a local government, Malibu residents felt powerless to stop it. In 1987 a new incorporation campaign was launched. This one would be successful.

Following several years of legal wrangling, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Dzintra Janavs ordered the county to call an election in early 1990. A record 32 candidates threw their hat in the ring to win a seat on the first Malibu City Council. Cityhood passed on June 5, 1990 with an inaugural city council of Larry Wan, Carolyn Van Horn, Mike Caggiano, Missy Zeitsoff and longtime cityhood activist Walt Keller.

Though the county stalled the actual enactment of cityhood for almost a year, the coastal community stretching from Topanga Canyon to Leo Carrillo Beach officially became the City of Malibu on March 28, 1991. Coming on the heels of the Persian Gulf War, the city’s break from the county inspired Glen Campbell, president of the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District, to opine, “There isn’t a city that should feel more liberated except Kuwait… [and] from what I understand the sewers don’t work there either.”

But if the cityhood campaign brought the community together, it could not keep it that way forever. Like any nascent government, newly incorporated Malibu had to go through some growing pains.

Quaint seaside Malibu was introduced to negative campaigning in the 1992 city council election, which The Malibu Times publisher Arnold York dubbed “Beirut without bullets.” Incumbents Caggiano and Zeitsoff were defeated, with Caggiano blaming the defeat on fliers sent out by his opponents the day before Election Day claiming he lied to voters about being a consultant to other cities. Mayor Wan announced at the first council meeting with the new council members that he was resigning, stating that Malibu’s “paradise” had been “blighted by Chicago-style politics.”

Eight years later, longtime cityhood activist Walt Keller was defeated during a campaign in which he said he was unfairly portrayed as “anti-kid.”

Keller told The Malibu Times Monday that he felt cityhood “has been a good thing as far as getting away from the county and the government, but I think politics has taken over the city to some extent.”

But, aside from a more sophisticated, and some might say cynical, experience with electoral politics, other changes have transformed the city. Mayor Pro Tem Laura Rosenthal said the city has gotten younger in the last 10 to 15 years.

“It’s been really nice to see the city and the residents look more toward the families, and what kids and families might want and need out of Malibu,” Rosenthal said.

Those demographic changes coincided with the opening of Malibu High School in 1992 and the reopening of Point Dume Marine Science Elementary School several years later. Today, MHS supports 20 different sports teams, four different vocal music ensembles, an orchestra, a student newspaper, a theater arts program and Advanced Placement academic, art and music classes. That younger population has subsequently led to a demand for more parks and youth programs, Rosenthal said.

“We have more parks now, the camps and the programs that the city and the schools offer are much greater and much more diversified,” she said.

Malibu is certainly busier now, with millions of tourists visiting its beaches each year. Sibert said more than 10 million people visited Malibu beaches last year, six million at Zuma Beach alone. Property values and commercial rents have skyrocketed, and many local businesses have gone out of business as a result. After decades of battles to avoid installing a sewer system, the city is in talks with the county water board to install a central sewage treatment facility in the Civic Center area by 2015.

While many changes have come in the last 20 years, none have escaped commentary and debate by an educated and passionate citizenry that has strong opinions about their home. That, perhaps, is a legacy of the original “Queen of Malibu” Mary Rindge, who battled railroad and highway builders for nearly a quarter of a century in the early 1900s to try to keep Malibu intact.

Twentieth anniversary celebrations will take place at Legacy Park Sunday at noon. Food and refreshments will be available, as well as live music from noon until 4 p.m. If it rains, the celebrations will be postponed.