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ON CALIFORNIA

Minutes That Seem Like Hours

March 30, 1994|PETER H. KING

MALIBU — The Malibu City Council convened Monday at 6:30 p.m. sharp. It adjourned, less sharply, at 1:30 a.m. Tuesday. There had been no close votes, no unexpected decisions, just plenty of discussion. The five council members and their audience had wrangled over bicycle lanes, public cable, residential setbacks, disaster escape routes, indemnity clauses and assorted other municipal issues arising from the vagaries of nature and lawyers.

The tone was often contentious. Citizens wrangled with council members. Council members wrangled with council members. And everyone wrangled with the staff members, who munched secretly on pretzels to maintain energy.

As I write this now on the morning after, benumbed, I have trouble recalling just what theme had drawn me to this marathon of democracy. It had something to do with Malibu's emergence as a symbol of Southern California's run of disasters, and also with a curiosity over how a new government was holding up through its test of floods, wildfires, earthquakes and mudslides. Only three years ago, Malibu arose and shook itself free of the shackles of county government.

"Today," one council member had said early in the meeting, "is the three-year anniversary of Malibu cityhood."

He smiled and waited for applause. It never came.

*

The council met, as it always does, at the Hughes research facility on Malibu Canyon Road. The near capacity audience of about 150 Malibuites was like a Dodger crowd: It arrived late and left in the middle innings. Many seats still were empty when an older fellow with a ruddy face moved to the podium and wove together a complaint about NAFTA, prison construction, J. Edgar Hoover, homelessness, corporate greed, genocide, education funding, Sherman Block and what, it appeared, had been his eviction from a hobo encampment.

"What an idiot," someone in the back hissed.

"Here we go again," sighed another voice.

And so they went, through discussions of the dangers of offshore bacteria, the progress of state "superscooper" legislation, the need for a $50,000 study of bicycle traffic flows on Pacific Coast Highway. In this last matter, cyclists who told gruesome stories of death and maiming on the highway shoulder were challenged, however, by an elderly resident. Sounding a lot like Ross Perot, she held aloft a copy of "Government Racket: Waste From A to Z," and quoted from a chapter entitled "Pork."

Eventually--a useful word when narrating a Malibu city meeting--the council moved to the most volatile issue of the agenda. It dealt with negotiations between the city and residents who lost homes in the last fire. Before granting permits to rebuild, the city wanted written promises that homeowners would not sue in the event of mudslides. "Call me simple-minded," one resident complained, "but I still don't understand what a fire has to do with geology."

Here, things got rough. The next speaker asked for a show of hands from the audience of those who lost homes in the fire. Hands went up everywhere. He asked how many of the victims felt "the city was insensitive to our needs." The hands stayed up. "I see a smirk," he said, staring down a staff member. The council members studied their paperwork, heads down.

*

In the end, most of the burnouts--as they call themselves--went away more or less satisfied, and the agenda rolled forward, to discussions of mudslide remedies, and land use variances, and changes in the Brown Act, and approval of a new city insurance policy.

"We're taking this one right to the wire," said Councilman John Harlow, noting that the old policy expired Tuesday, March 29.

"No," said a colleague, looking at the clock. "We already crossed the wire."

So they did. By now, the audience had dwindled to three--two reporters and a man who appeared to be a consultant for a building project. "Sometimes," he said, "when you want to talk to someone, you have to wait a long time." He seemed cheerful enough; only later would it occur to ask whether he was billing his client by the hour. Who could be expected to think that fast at 1:30 a.m., after seven hours of Malibu city business?

As the meeting wound down--the mayor yawning, the secretary slumped in her chair, eyes closed--I made a note to myself. Any community that has survived as much as Malibu, I reasoned, most likely can survive as well the birthing of a city government. Now, though, in the morning light, I'm not so sure I want to be held to the notion. I could report, in closing these unofficial and greatly expurgated minutes, that as its last piece of business the council discussed, at some length, how to shorten its meetings. But who would believe it?

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