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Rebel With a Cause Rattles City Hall

January 20, 1986|HEIDI EVANS | Times Staff Writer

As each of his City Council colleagues took a swipe at his plan this month to ban noisy leaf blower machines in Costa Mesa, an impatient Dave Wheeler smirked, his dark eyes slowly moving back and forth like the eyes of a Felix-the-Cat wall clock.

"I'll be back in six months to tell you it's not working," Wheeler warned the four council members, referring to the council's decision to shelve his proposal and allow the 4,000-member Southern California Gardeners' Federation to voluntarily muffle the loud machines.

A Determined Presence

It wasn't a crushing defeat, but to Wheeler, a new and determined presence on the local political scene, it was just another example of knocking his head against bureaucratic walls and of city officials choosing the rights of business over citizen concerns.

"The good old boys have been running the city for their own purposes for too long," Wheeler said. "They view me as the leader of the threat to business-as-usual. And they're right. I am. They don't want the boat rocked. I'm rocking the boat."

It has been just 14 months since Dave Wheeler, a 30-year-old former UC Irvine campus radical and candy machine mechanic, was elected to the Costa Mesa City Council, and in that time, he has earned a reputation as a the council's resident iconoclast.

Wheeler aggravates many Costa Mesa developers and businessmen with his anti-growth stands. And he disgusts his more conservative colleagues, who frequently pass him notes during council meetings admonishing him to stop making faces at builders and to tone down his trial-lawyer style of grilling city bureaucrats.

To his admirers, however, Wheeler is a breath of fresh air in Orange County, a political original whose freewheeling style and independence are needed at a time when this suburban town of 86,000 is at a crossroads, bursting with urban possibilities.

Magnet for High-Rise

In the last year alone, Costa Mesa officials have processed $290 million worth of private development, including a 3,000-seat Performing Arts Center and the expansion of a 2.9-million-square-foot regional shopping mall. Once a sleepy bedroom community nestled against the borders of Santa Ana and exclusive Newport Beach, Costa Mesa has become a magnet for modern high-rise buildings, hotels and restaurants, many with striking architectural designs.

For some, including Wheeler, these dramatic changes are unwelcome.

'A Fraternal Order'

"There has developed over the years a fraternal order involving the corporate community, city staff, developers and council members," said Larry Agran, an Irvine city councilman who shares Wheeler's cautious philosophy about the unbridled development of southern Orange County.

"It has been so cozy, each one scratching the other's back, but the question has not been asked often enough, 'Is all of this serving the broad public interest?' I give a lot of credit to people like Dave Wheeler who are willing to ask the tough questions.

"Clearly," added Agran, "That is going to make a lot of people uncomfortable."

The bulk of Wheeler's disagreements with the council have arisen when builders and developers have come before the city seeking permission to build new projects or expand existing businesses or real estate holdings.

Wheeler, an attorney who was elected in November, 1984, by a grass-roots coalition that wants to retain the city's quiet, residential character, has stubbornly voted against virtually all of these requests.

"There is a land-use decision at almost every single council meeting that can negatively impact the people of the city in terms of traffic, pollution, crowding and noise," Wheeler said. "Orange County is going to grow. There's just no way to stop that. The question is how much and how fast are we going to allow our little segment to grow? And I say a helluva lot slower than in the past."

Not surprisingly, Wheeler's election has irked Costa Mesa's builders.

"He's very confrontational and he's made some very irresponsible statements over a period of time, whether it's regarding our business with the city or other things," said George Argyros, president of Arnel Development Co. and owner of the Seattle Mariners baseball team.

'Rather a Tragedy'

"We just try and avoid him," Argyros added. "It's rather a tragedy in many respects."

Adds Donn Hall, who is perhaps Wheeler's biggest critic on the City Council, "I guess the thing that ruffles most people (about Wheeler) is his rather antagonistic method of courtroom cross-examination. Everybody seems to be an adversary. It would probably take a psychiatrist to analyze why he does these things--insecurity, a persecution complex, it's in there somewhere."

Clashes over a city's future landscape are not unusual in Costa Mesa or any other Orange County community. But the tensions generated by Wheeler's manner have created rifts between him and his colleagues.

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