In the days before John Jurenka became known as one of Santa Monica's most outspoken landlords, he made his mark in a different arena. The time was the early 1950s and the place was Chicago. The game was professional wrestling.
Jurenka, who is nearly six feet tall and weighs 245 pounds, was known to the pre-television sports world as "Monk." The moniker was not a religious reference. It had to do with his simian wrestling style.
"I was too tall to be a good wrestler," Jurenka said. "So I'd have to bend over. I'd practically drag the palms of my hands on the mat."
At 56, Jurenka still cuts an imposing figure. But he makes his points standing upright these days, persistence and conviction counting for more than half-nelsons or toe-holds. Jurenka is a city government watcher, the last of the gadflies from Santa Monica's pre-rent control era.
'I Love This City'
During the last 20 years, Jurenka, the owner of three apartment buildings, has rarely missed a City Council session. His attendance at Santa Monica Rent Control Board meetings since the first one in 1979 is even better. Jurenka said he attends so many meetings because there is so much to be done.
"I don't speak for any organization," said the self-described moderate Republican. "I speak as an individual. I love this city. I see it going downhill. But that's just a phase. One day we'll reorganize."
Jurenka can usually be found studying his agenda outside the council chamber before a meeting. He said he never leaves until the session is over, even if it lasts until 4 a.m. People who follow city business also know him as the man with the booming voice who ends the Pledge of Allegiance by proclaiming: "With liberty and justice for all those who are willing to fight for it!"
Jurenka considers himself a fighter. And he doesn't pull any punches when it comes to leveling symbolic blows at public officials. He calls Republican Mayor Christine E. Reed a "flaming liberal." He considers rent-control advocates "opportunists."
One of his favorite targets is City Atty. Robert M. Myers, who authored the city's rent control law. Last week, when Myers questioned the legal language in a landlord-supported ballot proposal, Jurenka stood up at the council meeting and said: "This is a bunch of smoke. (Myers) is going to be shoveling horse puckey on this whole thing."
'An Interesting Man'
Privately, some officials call Jurenka a bully and a troublemaker. They say he is out of touch with modern-day Santa Monica, a liberal and affluent community composed mostly of tenants. Others say Jurenka's grasp of the minutiae of municipal government is impressive. They also note that he occasionally does accomplish something, such as getting better City Hall visitor parking.
"John is a very interesting man and I think council watchers provide a real service to the city," Reed said. "He basically doesn't have an ounce of respect for the city. But that's OK. I don't think he's disruptive."
"He seems to act personally hostile toward anyone involved with rent control," said Councilman Dennis Zane, a renter activist and one of the stronger critics of Jurenka. "His hostility undermines his effectiveness."
"I like him," said Councilman David G. Epstein. "Sometimes I'm appalled by the things he says. . . . But he gives voice to some real concerns."
Jurenka agrees that he is hostile. He contends that hostility comes with the turf when one's job is serving as a self-appointed watchdog. But Jurenka can also be jovial and even self-deprecating.
"When people ask my wife what I do, she says I attend meetings," Jurenka said. "I don't chase women and I don't bowl. This is what I enjoy. If I had the flu I'd still go to a meeting just so I could give it to the council."
"John is a real freedom fighter in Santa Monica," said James Baker, a fellow apartment owner. "He's a diamond in the rough."
Jurenka has lived in Santa Monica since 1967. He entered the real estate business in 1968, when he bought his first apartment building.
He started attending City Council meetings about the same time. He said he was immediately struck by the cleanliness of Santa Monica politics in comparison with what he had seen in the Chicago area's Cook County.
In the beginning Jurenka was a quiet observer, content just to watch from the back of the City Council chamber. But by the early 1970s he had emerged as a major force in the drive to rid Santa Monica of the historic pier he considered an eyesore.
Mayor Reed launched her political career by opposing Jurenka's plan, landing a council seat as a pier supporter in 1975. And the city has since committed to a multimillion-dollar pier restoration effort. But Jurenka still maintains that the city is wasting its money.
'I Was Right'
"I led the fight to get rid of the pier, and I'm glad I did because I was right," Jurenka said. "Our pier has done nothing but deteriorate. It's an ongoing problem . . . and it sits at the front door of the city."