Becoming a City

As the city celebrates its 25th year of cityhood, The Malibu Times talked with the first mayor of Malibu, Walt Keller, and his wife Lucile. 

How long did you and your family live in Malibu before it became a city?

Lucile: We were here many years before it became a city. We bought [our] property in 1959 and, two years later, moved in in 1961. [Our house] burned down in 1978 in a wildfire, and we rebuilt and moved back in. The fire burned down 265 houses in Western Malibu. Everything was gone — burned to the ground.

Walt: Our beginnings as activists started shortly after we moved into the house when our neighbors asked us when we thought about the freeway coming through [Malibu]. We helped them stop it, but it was a battle. It took six years to get [Malibu] off the state highway map.

Describe your involvement in the city’s conception as well as any major obstacles you had to overcome.

Lucile: The first attempt [at cityhood] was in 1964. About every 10 years, there was an effort. Although we lived here, we weren’t involved in those earlier efforts. The city started in our living room by [Walt] calling in a few movers and shakers, and getting enough people to start a steering committee. We just went from there. 

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Walt: Both efforts [we were involved with] started as a subcommittee of the Malibu Township Council (MTC), then we broke off and became independent committees. Part of the process was to get petitions. That’s where the volunteers came in. We had people going all over town getting petitions signed. We had a public meeting about it and handed out petitions there.

Lucile: There were so many parts to this effort and, since Walt had been through it before in the 1976 election, he knew the steps. This was a three-year effort. Walt started the committee and accepted the MTC subcommittee appointment in 1987. It took all our time for three years. We had to sue the county to get an election date, and we had to sue the county to certify the election. The election was in June of 1990. We won by a huge margin. I think 87 percent were in favor of a city. I don’t think we’ve had a turnout like that since then. 

Walt: The Malibu Incorporation Committee ended up being a group of community leaders.

Which individuals and groups helped you most on Malibu’s journey to cityhood?

Walt: This took hundreds of hours and hundreds of different people — Republican and Democrat. Local attorney Graham Ritche stayed by our side the whole time and did all the work pro bono. He was the unsung hero of this whole thing. Actor Michael Landon would show up at our hearings and testify for the effort.  

What were your goals and ambitions for the city at its beginnings?

Lucile: It is embodied in the mission and vision statement that came out in the general plan. I was part of a General Plan Task force and 23 of us sat down and hammered out that language. Our original reasons for becoming incorporated was to govern the area for the residents — not for making money. 

Describe some major social/political issues in Malibu during your terms.

Walt: The starting [issue] was that we had a 3/2 split on hiring Graham Ritchie as attorney. Three people voted against him. 

Lucile: Initially, the major issues were development and sewers. People felt that if we could be our own governmental agency, we could do what we want instead of what the county was doing. 

Describe your most significant accomplishments during your terms.

Lucile: Just getting the city up and running and getting a general plan. [Walt] started the city with two part-time employees.

Walt: A couple of accomplishments were the “if you see a drunk driver call 911” signs. We made a rule that put a six-foot limit on fences. We tried to do the right things. I’d fight the sewers every time they came up.

Discuss any issues within the Malibu education system during your time as mayor, as well as Pepperdine University’s community involvement.

Walt: When we moved to Malibu, there as no local school district — the kids had to go to Santa Monica, and the busses picked them up before dawn.

Lucile: When we started in the system, there were Webster and Juan Cabrillo elementary campuses only. Then, 20 years later, the Point Dume school started, and that came and went because the population became older. For a while, it became a community center, and then the population shifted again to younger families. I don’t recall a real effort ever to separate from Santa Monica. Those efforts occurred later. We’re far beyond having children in the system.

Walt: I certainly support trying to separate. [Pepperdine] students were always very supportive.

What were tourism and traffic like when Malibu first became a city? Do you feel the number of people and cars visiting Malibu has increased?

Walt: There have always been tourists, I don’t think there’s been a big change. We’ve always had trouble with beach traffic. 

Lucile: As a matter of fact, my daughter was due in the summer and I had my labor induced because I was terrified of being stuck on PCH in beach traffic. People have always flocked to the beach. There are a lot more cars and traffic lights, especially at Civic Center. There are a lot more cars coming down from Oxnard as well. One of the good things the city did was put the bike lane in at Zuma Beach because it makes parking a lot easier and you’re not opening your doors into traffic.

Walt: I’d love to see the city hire more traffic control officers. We certainly need it because the fatality rate has gone up since we became a city.

What are your hopes for our city in the future?

Walt: I’d like to see more people vote. What we need right now are knowledgeable voters who know what’s going on and know what’s happening to them.

Lucile: We want people to go back to honoring what the city is all about, and that is governing for the people. 

Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

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