From the Publisher: Happy Birthday, Malibu

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Arnold G. York

I went to a birthday party last night — the 25th anniversary birthday of the City of Malibu.

It was not an easy birth. Twice before we had tried and it had been unsuccessful. This time, back in 1988, we were in labor for over two years. Finally, the legislature had to pass a special piece of legislation and the governor had to sign it before we could become a city. The County of Los Angeles continued stalling us until a Superior Court judge finally ordered them to set an election date and, even then, the county and its legal team managed to stall for a bit more until March 28, 1991. By the time it got to the polls, everyone was so angry that it passed overwhelmingly. What drove the incorporation drive was the county’s proposed sewer, which many were fearful would lead to uncontrolled growth.

Of course, immediately after we became a city, we lost our common enemy, the County of LA, and immediately fell to fighting each other. As generally happens after a revolution, there is invariably a struggle for power. The early elections were acrimonious, as were the council meetings, and we went through a few city managers until things finally began to settle down and subsequent councils began to learn how to manage a city. Despite the acrimony, there was no shortage of people wanting to run for city council. In fact, there were 30 contenders for the first city council.

Malibu is a difficult city to govern because so much of what we consider to be Malibu is owned or governed by other agencies — federal, state and local. For example, our main street is the Pacific Coast Highway, which is owned by the State of California. We can’t touch it unless they allow us to and that means dealing with Caltrans. We’re 21 miles long and about one or two miles deep; everything north of that city line is unincorporated county, so there is City Malibu and County Malibu. Pepperdine University is in County Malibu, even though it’s in the middle of the city.

In our early formation, a political deal was struck, which seems to have worked out for both sides. Pepperdine wanted out of the city because, I suspect, they were fearful that the city would try to block the growth and development of the campus, which was probably a reasonable assumption. The incorporation groups, I also suspect, weren’t crazy about having a couple of thousand students and faculty living on campus, voting in Malibu city elections, since they would have been by far the largest voting block in the city.

Also, right in the middle of Malibu the federal National Park Service and several California agencies own land, including the California Department of Parks and Recreation, which formerly owned Malibu Bluffs Park, and the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, which owns land adjacent to Malibu Bluffs Park and in many other places in Malibu.

Besides federal, state and county agencies, there are super agencies, like the California Coastal Commission and the Regional Water Quality Control Board that have major impacts on the life of this town. We got off to a bit of a rocky start with many of them but, over time, we learned where we had power and where we didn’t, and how to make allies, when to back off and when to cut deals. Then, in addition to all of the government agencies, there is a bunch of land in our Civic Center that’s owned by private interests who also had to be dealt with.

As I look back over the last 25 years, we’ve done a pretty good job. We are fiscally sound, acquired (or are acquiring) several parks, including Malibu Bluffs Park, Legacy Park, Las Flores Creek Park, Trancas Park, among others. We’ve purchased the Lumber Yard Center, which is turning out to be quite a cash cow for the city and will only get better in years to come. We had the benefit of picking good city managers and overall good staff. Generally, this is a well-managed city.

So congratulations, Malibu, on coming to maturity and here’s to even better years to come.

P.S. That was a great birthday party last night. I couldn’t believe that it was possible to squeeze that many people into City Hall.