WHITTIER — Until Tuesday, choosing a mayor pro tem for Whittier was a nearly meaningless ritual. But this time, when incumbent City Council member Robert Woehrmann got the nod by the narrowest of margins, the results foreshadowed a potential power struggle that could have an effect on the city's future.
The 3-2 split divided the council between the trio of incumbents and a pair of new members. The same dividing line could separate members on the hottest issues of the last election: land-use and development.
The momentary confrontation over Woehrmann's selection dimmed what was otherwise a night of celebration for new members Helen Rahder and Bob Henderson as the new council met at City Hall for the first time.
After Thomas K. Sawyer won unanimous council approval as mayor, Sawyer nominated fellow incumbent Woehrmann to become mayor pro tem. Rahder then proposed Henderson for the same post. "I thought it would make a nice cohesive, coalition government," Rahder said later, when asked what prompted her to nominate Henderson. In their campaigns, both new council members criticized incumbents for doing too little on the issues of controlled growth, conservation and historic preservation.
"I know it was felt by Mrs. Rahder that Mr. Henderson had more experience than Mr. Woehrmann," Councilman Myron Claxton said after the meeting.
Henderson served eight years on the council before leaving it in 1984, including a stint as mayor pro tem.
"But my feeling," Claxton said, "was that we should not repeat people in the office of mayor or mayor pro tem unless there is good reason to."
Claxton said a background as Whittier's planning director and an assistant to the city manager made Woehrmann qualified even though he had served only two years on the council.
Neither the mayor nor the mayor pro tem has greater voting power than other council members. The mayor has a higher profile in the community, however, and thus a stronger voice on local issues. He also works more closely with city staff. And, by tradition, the mayor pro tem becomes the next mayor.
The council split on this internal issue may prove a harbinger of events to come. "There could be a lot of 3-to-2 votes," Claxton said. "I don't know."
That cloud was hardly enough to dampen the spirits of Rahder, Henderson, their families and supporters. Nearly 200 spectators crowded into the council chamber designed to accommodate half that many. One man's "Give 'em Helen" T-shirt spoke for most in the audience, which included about 35 members of Rahder's extended family.
Before Rahder and Henderson entered the chamber, the previous council seated itself promptly at 7:30 p.m. "Mom is not supposed to be up there yet," explained 9-year-old Katie Rahder to her younger cousin seated beside her.
The official goodbys for retiring Mayor Victor Lopez and unseated incumbent Gene Chandler, who was mayor during the Whittier earthquake 2 1/2 years ago, took less than 10 minutes.
The partisan Rahder-Henderson crowd waited patiently, respectfully. "We talked to our people," Henderson said before the meeting. "I don't like to see people humiliated. They served our city and they deserved their moment in the sun."
Each incumbent praised his departing colleagues. Claxton grabbed Lopez in a bear hug as the latter left the chamber.
"I always tried to do the best I could," Lopez said.
Then came Rahder and Henderson, to a 45-second standing ovation and the waving of two-dozen helium-filled balloons. "I'm not used to being on this side," said Rahder, a longtime vocal council critic. "I'm going to have to get up occasionally and yell at myself."
Once the meeting began, Henderson wanted to clarify a number of points of fact regarding an intentionally non-controversial first agenda.
"I'm sorry," he said at one point in a folksy baritone voice. "I'm new, and I ask a lot of questions."
Said Rahder supportively: "You're asking some of my questions."
One spectator thought the tone of the council session to be more meaningful than usual. "You brought up questions and had discussions," said Peggy Mathews, a registered nurse, to Henderson after the meeting.
The meeting business, which included tabling the purchase of a new police computer system, seemed little more than an interruption of the pomp and circumstance.
By 8:10 p.m., Katie Rahder had deserted her fourth-row seat to join two playmates in the right aisle.
By 8:30 p.m., the meeting was done.
Although Henderson, who turned 50 Tuesday, could not include the office of mayor pro tem among his birthday presents, he would harbor no grudge. "I'm not going to base four years of council relationships on one item," he said.
"The people who are on the council are good people. They don't want what's bad for Whittier. The real differences are limited to land-use matters."
On that point, Rahder wasted no time in issuing a battle call. She said she would soon propose a six-month moratorium on the building of strip malls and apartments, during which the city could develop what she called "higher quality development standards."
For now, Henderson is optimistic. "They're going to have to work with us," he said of the incumbent council members. "I hope they'll be open to it."