The Malibu political campaign season officially opened last week with the first political forum. All six candidates gathered in a very low-keyed affair at the Malibu Community Center to state their positions and answer questions from the community.
The forum, sponsored by the Point Dume Homeowners Association, provided a road map to the issues that promise to dominate the race for City Council.
Early cleavage lines among the candidates became visible, even though the six candidates — Councilwoman Joan House, former Councilman Jeff Jennings, Planning Commissioner Ken Kearsley, Councilman Walt Keller, Mayor Carolyn Van Horn and former General Plan Task Force Chair John Wall — were painstakingly polite to one another and relatively subdued.
The major issues that emerged were:
Code enforcement. As might be expected in a Point Dume forum, people were concerned structures on their lots, particularly rental units and other unpermitted structures, were the target of a new, and what they perceived as a very aggressive, code enforcement policy, including threatened large fines and jail sentences. Grandfathering of older, nonconforming structures was the buzzword, and there was talk of an enforcement moratorium.
School funding. The serious shortfall in funds for the Santa Monica-Malibu school district, amounting to several million dollars and necessitating cutbacks in the schools for things like nursing care and library support, was another hot issue. The city of Santa Monica traditionally gives $2 million-plus per year to the school district and this year is contemplating upwards of $6 million-plus to cover the shortfall. The city of Malibu, which forms 20 percent of the school district population, committed $150,000 to the schools at the last council meeting only after a large group of parents and students petitioned it to do so. There were indications budget problems just over the horizon may limit Malibu’s ability to participate financially in the school district’s future.
Budget problems. According to House, the city’s budget will run about $250,000 in the red this year, and thus it must draw from its reserves. Additionally, next fiscal year the city will lose about $750,000 in budget subsidy that the state annually provides for road maintenance, which goes to all new cities for a limited number of years to help them over the initial financial humps. The Malibu subsidy has run out. Also, the Sheriff’s department may be asking for a major increase, possibly as much as 45 percent, well over $1 million-plus; the city may have to choose between paying more or taking less police protection. Several said the Adamson Hotel, which could produce $900,000 per year in revenue to the city, but which had been cut down to 106 or so rooms, was apparently dead or, if not dead, appeared to be on life support with limited prospects for immediate resuscitation.
Fairness and special treatment. The Streisand/Brolin project is a controversial one on the Point, particularly on Zumirez, and several questions related to whether the city was softening the rules for certain people with political clout but enforcing the rules for the rest of the population. The Streisand matter returns to the council at its next meeting.
Ballfields & community center. This issue came up, but the candidates ran out of time before they could talk about ballfields and the proposed city/Malibu Bay Company development deal.
Who’s to blame. That depended on whom you asked. Challengers Jennings, Kearsley and Wall were clear that the problem was a long-entrenched group of incumbents, who no longer listened, had voted for a zoning ordinance that was harsh and didn’t work, and were pursuing a code enforcement policy that was heavy handed and punitive. Additionally, one or the other saw the council plunging the city into financial trouble, having spent dollars “recklessly” on things like a $250,000 buyout for the former city attorney. Some predicted a worsening financial picture in the future.
The incumbents were of very different mind as to whether or not there were any significant problems that needed to be handled. House, who took pains to separate herself from Keller and Van Horn, characterized some council actions, like the Lunita-Balliard project, as a disaster because the city had rejected a settlement for six single-family residences in West Malibu as a compromise of the dispute and ended up getting a court-mandated 38-unit condominium project, which is now being built.
Van Horn and Keller saw many of the city’s problems as merely the reality of a work in progress or as failures of the city staff or the failure of the state, the county and FEMA to give Malibu the money it was entitled to receive. They suggested closer supervision of the staff, more aggressive lobbying of those agencies and, a little more time, like four more years, to work out the problems.