Chili Cook-Off operators brush off criticism

The 29th annual event will take place across Civic Center Way, at the corner of Stuart Ranch Road.

By Jonathan Friedman / Associate Editor

The Chili Cook-Off, Malibu’s annual Labor Day weekend tradition, is quickly becoming an annual controversy. One year after local newspaper photographers were prevented from snapping shots at the event, supposedly to protect the privacy of celebrities, this year’s festival has created a stir even before the event begins with challenges against its permit approval and the status of its operators.

Although the Planning Commission last week approved the temporary use permit for the four-day cook-off and carnival, several Malibu Knolls residents came to the meeting to challenge it. Also, questions were raised about the current status of the Malibu Kiwanis Club, the event’s operator.

Due to the construction of Legacy Park, the cook-off has been moved to the nearby Ioki property, the site famous for its fake deer at the corner of Civic Center Way and Stuart Ranch Road. This places the festival closer to Malibu Knolls. Nobody called for putting an end to the event entirely, but requests were made to modify certain features to make it a less troubling experience for the residents. The commission obliged by putting the music later in the morning than requested by the operator and ending the evening carnival around 10 p.m. rather than the requested 11 p.m.

But this might not put an end to the controversy. Malibu Knolls resident Steve Uhring, who formally headed the Malibu Township Council and is no stranger to controversy with his political activity, said he could deal with what he called tall rides, flashing lights and loud noise from generators if he believed it were an event raising a great deal of money for the community. But he said the club’s tax returns he collected show a different story.

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The local Kiwanis Club is a shell of its formal self when it started the annual tradition nearly 30 years ago. Like most service clubs, it is no longer a group filled with familiar people from the community. Neither its president nor vice president lives in Malibu. And the group’s membership totals eight people.

Uhring said he would not appeal the commission’s permit approval because he does not think he would win at the City Council level, but his battle is not finished.

“I think that the public, if they become aware of the way the Kiwanis Club is managing the Chili Cook-Off, they’re not going to be happy,” Uhring said in an interview after the meeting.

Club President John Paola called Uhring’s documentation “erroneous information,” but he made no effort to challenge it.

“We have an accountant,” he said. “He does our books. He takes care of our business. We don’t have time for that because we didn’t even know about that.”

But others attending the meeting, even some Malibu Knolls residents, were not troubled by the Kiwanis leadership. Longtime resident Bernie James said Kiwanis practices bad bookkeeping. And he said it was difficult to defend arguments that the club is a great benefit to the community financially. But he is still a fan, and said it is a strong community event.

“I don’t think you can measure the spirit of the community by the balance sheet,” James said. “My kids are adults, but they still have left behind two adults who are children at heart. We look forward to enjoying the Chili Cook-Off.”

The commission meeting even included musical entertainment. The ‘Bu Notes, a group of musical women who perform annually at the Chili Cook-Off, performed Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now” with vocals and a keyboard.

This tradition is really important to us,” said Julia Holland, group director. “I think it would hurt the integrity of the Chili Cook-Off if there was no carnival and only the cook-off part. Because we come here every year and it brings the whole community together. It’s a cultural place for us all.”

The Chili Cook-Off will begin on Friday, Sept. 3 with an evening carnival. It will continue on Sept. 4 and 5 with a carnival and cook-off each day, and then conclude on Sept. 6 with a carnival.

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The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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