This article is the first in a four-part series on Malibu City Council elections from 1990 to 2000. This week’s focus is on the 1990 election, in which voters were asked to decide whether Malibu should become a city and the five people who should serve on the first city council. The race included 32 candidates who were in the competition for a variety of reasons, not necessarily with the intention to win.
By Jonathan Friedman / Special to The Malibu Times
By 1990, the sentiment for cityhood in Malibu was at the highest level it had ever been. Several times during past years, incorporation movements had formed in the coastal community, stretching from Topanga Canyon to Leo Carrillo Beach. Twice the issue went before the voters, with a landslide loss in 1964 and a near victory in 1976 when just 108 votes separated the noes from the yeses. That loss was blamed on the controversial inclusion of Sunset Mesa in the proposed city boundary since the residents of that area overwhelmingly rejected incorporation.
During the next cityhood effort, begun in 1987, the county government was threatening to install a sewer system that many said would pave the way for unlimited development, turning rural Malibu into Miami Beach. The threat of a sewer was nothing new, but this time it looked like the county was going to get it done, against the wishes of a vast majority of the local residents who felt powerless without a local government.
“That really galvanized the community because they felt the only way they could prevent the sewer was to have local control,” said Larry Wan, who headed the Malibu Township Council and became one of the 32 candidates seeking a seat on the first Malibu City Council. “I think that sold cityhood.”
In the end, it was not even a contest. Cityhood passed on June 5, 1990 with 84 percent of the vote in an election that had nearly 67 percent of the electorate going to the polls. Longtime cityhood activist Walt Keller received the most support with 3,453 votes, still a Malibu record. This actually marked his second election to a Malibu City Council, as he placed third in 1976. Keller included the slogan “Re-elect Walt Keller” in some of his campaign materials.
Also elected to the council were Wan, Carolyn Van Horn, who co-chaired the Malibu Committee for Incorporation with Keller, and longtime activists Mike Caggiano and Missy Zeitsoff. Zeitsoff had the toughest battle to get elected to the council. She had to wait another two weeks to learn she officially defeated retired Judge John Merrick by just five votes. That remains the closest winning margin in Malibu history.
Another item also included on the ballot was the question of whether residents wanted to elect their council members at-large or by districts. Nearly 72 percent of voters chose the at-large selection, and this has been how council members have been selected in Malibu ever since.
The battle to get cityhood onto the ballot
A petition for incorporation was filed in early 1988 containing nearly 3,300 signatures, several hundred more than the amount needed to start the process. Later that year, the Local Agency Formation Commission, or LAFCO, voted 6-1 before a packed house of 500 passionate people to approve the petition. The lone dissenting vote came from Los Angeles County Supervisor Peter Schabarum. The county would continue its attempt to prevent Malibu cityhood from going before the voters for another two years as the issue went through a series of court hearings. Finally, in early 1990, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Dzintra Janavs forced the county to call an election.
Thirty people with a wide range of views and ideas entered the race, and their names appeared on the largest council ballot Malibu voters have ever had. Another two, including current Mayor Pro Tem Jefferson “Zuma Jay” Wagner, joined the race late, and became write-in candidates.
“Everybody was excited and everyone threw their hat in the ring for various reasons,” said Joan House, who, as a minor community activist, finished a surprising eighth in the election. Two years later she would claim a seat, one she would keep for 12 years, a Malibu record that will likely never be broken because of the current term-limits rule.
For most people, they were in the competition with a goal to win a seat on the council. But for some, it was an opportunity to bring pet issues to the spotlight, such as water quality. And then there were those campaigning for a council they hoped would never exist because they opposed cityhood.
“I didn’t care if I was elected or not, but I told them I was opposed to cityhood,” said Doug O’Brien, who said Malibu has gone downhill the past two decades because of incorporation due to what he says are high building permit fees. “That was the only reason I ran.”
Another anti-cityhood city council candidate was Jack Corrodi. He told the Los Angeles Times shortly before Election Day, “I don’t want to be elected, and I hope I even finish last. What I aim to do is rouse the silent majority of this community, who, I believe, think incorporation is a bad idea.”
Unlike in today’s campaigns, with just a handful of forums, the 1990 calendar was inundated with these events. Every homeowners group, service organization, political club and other entities wanted to host one. Meet-and-greet coffees and teas were also more prevalent in the pre-Internet age. The forums were wild affairs as 32 people tried to get their voice heard.
“I remember at one of the debates, there were so many people there, there were not enough chairs and nobody was getting to speak,” Wagner said. “Nobody was able to get into any kind of detail. It was either ‘I’m for it’ or ‘I’m against it.’ That’s all you got.”
House said Sam Birenbaum, who was a write-in candidate, would sing his name when he introduced himself. And Corrodi brought his newly adopted baby to one forum, where the proud father sang a lullaby. “That baby was the best person in attendance,” House recalled.
Mary Abbott, advertising salesperson for The Malibu Times, remembered an event the newspaper hosted, with most of the candidates attending, along with their representatives, as they crowded into the small backyard of The Malibu Times Building.
“It was a new experience for everybody, for us and for them,” Abbott said. “That’s why we invited everybody to come over, because they didn’t even know what to do. Nobody knew what to do.”
But most of all, those who were there for the 1990 campaign remember it as an enthusiastic period in Malibu history. “It was a very positive feeling for a majority of the people,” Van Horn said.
Keller said, “There were not a lot of politicking and dirty tricks, and that type of thing. That was the cleanest of all of them.”
But the love affair did not last long. Almost immediately after Election Day, battle lines were drawn and Malibu’s initial city council meetings were hostile affairs. This would create the atmosphere for the 1992 council campaign, which Times publisher Arnold G. York famously referred to as “Beirut Without Bullets.” More on that next week.
Registered voters: 8,538
Voter turnout: 66.81 %
Measure Y (Cityhood)
Yes: 4,682 (83.99%)
No: 892 (16.01%)
Election of City Council members
At-large: 3,669 (71.85%)
By district: 1,437 (28.15%)
City Council Election
(Top 5 elected)
Carolyn Van Horn-2,287
Seymour “Sy” Sudar-942
John St. Clair-69
Jefferson “Zuma Jay”