In a moment of normalcy, Malibu’s elected city leadership changed hands Monday night as newly elected council members Karen Farrer and Mikke Pierson were sworn into office, replacing termed-out members Laura Rosenthal and Lou La Monte.
Following the well-established city precedent, former mayor pro tem Jefferson “Zuma Jay” Wagner was elected by council to serve as the mayor—a position he will hold for the next nine months. Farrer, who earned the most votes in the Nov. 6 election, was elected to be the latest mayor pro tem.
Rosenthal and La Monte, who each served eight years including multiple stints as mayor, received numerous accolades and commendations from surrounding cities—as well as praise (and gifts) from former Malibu City Manager Jim Thorsen, who retired in early 2016 after 10 years at the helm of the city. This was the first time Thorsen had been seen publicly in Malibu since his resignation and move to Colorado, where he now serves as city manager of Cherry Hills Village.
“Job well done,” Thorsen told Rosenthal and La Monte, gifting them each a bottle of whiskey (for them to “put to good use,” he said). Praise and reminiscences also came from representatives of the cities of Agoura Hills, Calabasas, Manhattan Beach, Lomita, Hidden Hills, Westlake Village and others, along with various county offices and other government agencies.
“My goal was to leave Malibu a better place than I got it—and we almost made it,” La Monte said in farewell statement, referencing the recent losses of the Woolsey Fire—a legacy that threatens to overshadow both La Monte and Rosenthal’s list of achievements on council, which include increased regulation on rehab facilities, Legacy Park, the sewage treatment facility and others.
“The city is not the same as it was, and I don’t think it ever will be the way it was,” he added. “But we’ve recovered from those disasters, and we’ll recover from this disaster.”
La Monte then took a strong stance on those who stayed behind to fight the Woolsey Fire—obeying direct orders from the city to evacuate.
“Special thank you for the citizens that stayed behind during the evacuation—the ones that stayed behind and worked hard to fight the fires and saved their neighbors’ houses,” La Monte, a resident of the Big Rock neighborhood, said. “I truly appreciate your efforts, and I think we have to find not only a way to honor you, but make sure… next time.. You will have all the support, supplies and equipment you need—not only you need, but you deserve.”
Rosenthal struck a more measured tone.
“This is a very different speech and goodbye than I envisioned giving a month ago. But our city is a different city than it was a month ago. My heart breaks for the losses and the trauma we have all gone through, some obviously much more than others,” she said. “I hope and I know we will come out stronger, more resilient and a united and loving community as we go forward with our recovery.
“I agree with Lou and I hope we can find a way to thank all of the people—the first responders, the people who stayed behind, the city staff—everyone who worked tirelessly to help save what we could of our beautiful city,” Rosenthal added.
In her initial remarks after being sworn in, Farrer said she was looking forward to representing all of Malibu, not just the people who voted for her.
“If you didn’t vote for me—I want to represent you. I want to advocate for you—especially now. I’m here for the whole city; I’m here for the whole community,” Farrer said. She later addressed the fire—saying she wanted to “help everybody get back as whole as possible, as quickly as possible” and pledged to be accessible and accountable to the public.
Farrer also took a moment for a “public service announcement” to clarify the pronunciation of her last name, which for years has tongue-tied various stakeholders and members of the public.
“The pronunciation of my last name is ‘fairer,’ as in, ‘fair, fairer, fairest,’” Farrer said wryly, invoking laughs from those gathered. “OK? I thought about changing it to ‘Farmer,’ because that’s easier, I recognize, but I’m not doing that yet.”
Pierson’s comments were both lengthier and more pointed, ranging across several topics having to do with the Woolsey Fire.
“No one is going to come save your home,” Pierson said.
“I think the mindset we all need to have is that we do have to take care of ourselves,” he added. Pierson and his son stayed behind to fight the fire and are credited with helping protect many houses in their Malibu West neighborhood. “I mean, hopefully there’s people here to protect us, but I don’t think that mindset can take us forward successfully.”
Pierson, a lifelong resident of Malibu, said he was not surprised the fire happened—but improved architecture can help.
“Part of my answer is we need to build homes that can defend themselves, more than our homes do now,” the longtime planning commissioner suggested. “I am really glad to hear some people already talking about building homes that are more fire resistant.”
Pierson also said improved communication—including perhaps a siren system—as well as improved water resources, evacuation plans and standing orders from the fire department would be necessary.
He also mentioned concern over residents choosing to stay behind for the next fire—people who are neither experienced nor equipped to take on a wildfire.
“You need to know what you’re doing,” he said. “I really worry about that.”
Finally, Pierson suggested appointing “some sort of either independent commission or task force or some group of people that can figure out—I’m not as interested in what went wrong; I think we know that. But what we can do better.”
On Tuesday, LA County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl announced “a motion to convene a working group to review the response to and recovery from the Woolsey Fire and to identify best practices for evacuation and repopulation procedures.” That motion will be voted on during next week’s county supervisor’s meeting.