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The Man Who Fought City Hall--and Won : Leon McKinney has spent most of his life forcing his adversaries to pay attention. Huntington Beach is just the latest.

October 01, 1995|RENEE TAWA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HUNTINGTON BEACH — He was a chubby kid, an Army brat with big glasses. The other kids called Leon McKinney "four eyes" and "butterball." Until one day, in fifth grade, he beat up the playground bully, and no one bothered him again.

"I hate it when people try to intimidate me," said McKinney, now a 36-year-old self-employed aerospace consultant and local activist. "It never works. It just makes me mad, and whatever it was you wanted me to stop doing, I'm now going to do it twice."

Now, this ex-"Star Trek" junkie, this prankster who once put sugar in his school cafeteria salt shakers, is taking on city government.

Recently, his fight to get salary figures from City Hall led to a court order, forcing city officials to reveal their highest-paid employees by name, position and total salary, including overtime and benefits, for the first time. According to the records, the city's top 25 earners made more than $126,000 in compensation in the form of salary and benefits last year. No. 1 on the list was a retiring police captain who made a total of $174,511, including payouts for unused sick leave and vacation time.

The disclosure touched off a hullabaloo over municipal pay and prompted the release of similar public sector pay records throughout the county at a time when taxpayers are extra-touchy about government spending after Orange County's bankruptcy.

"It's nice to have the Leon McKinneys of the world out there," said William Lobdell, editor of the Huntington Beach/Fountain Valley Independent, which sued the city for the salary information last year after McKinney had enlisted the newspaper's help. "They're the ones who are the watchdogs of the city government."

Others accuse McKinney of headline-grabbing motives at the expense of hard-working city employees.

"I think Mr. McKinney should probably step down off his pedestal and put on a uniform and try to be a policeman," said Richard Wright, president of the Huntington Beach Police Officers Assn. "He obviously doesn't understand law enforcement."

McKinney says he is simply a taxpayer who stood his ground when City Hall said no.

"A lot of people don't like what I do, think I'm a busybody, that I poke my nose into things," said McKinney, a newcomer to municipal politics who addressed the City Council for the first time last year. "But I think a lot of people do like what I do. Basically, over the years, I've developed a distrust of the government. Government a lot of times doesn't serve us. It serves itself. I have a problem with that."

On a recent morning, he worked in his office--a private loft in his peach-colored, three-bedroom house--with a picture of House Speaker Newt Gingrich on the bulletin board and a drawer full of neat files marked "Hillary" (Clinton) and Whitewater.

Downstairs, his wife, Joan, and 9-week-old daughter, Bridget, played while he talked nonstop, invoking Harry Truman and British statesman Edmund Burke, and throwing in asides on the North Koreans, O.J. Simpson and King George V.

He grew up as an only child in Ohio, Kansas, other states and Washington, D.C.--wherever his father's job as a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers manager took the family.

Later, at Purdue University, he studied aerospace engineering and had his first brush with politics as his fraternity's representative on a student government council.

At a student council meeting, a flap erupted over the offensive behavior of a fraternity at a party. McKinney exploded when sorority members demanded that all fraternities ban the offending fraternity from social functions--or the sororities wouldn't socialize with any of them.

"That taught me something," McKinney said. "A lot of times, the people you meet in [politics], they're just playground bullies. They like to intimidate and have power over people. And, unfortunately, a lot of the times government draws these kinds of people in because that is where a lot of power is."

McKinney, who says he has no plans to seek public office, said he didn't think much about politics again until years later, when he worked as an aerospace engineer for McDonnell Douglas Aerospace. In February, 1990, a friend at work invited him to a local school board meeting, where teachers had threatened to strike over a disputed pay hike. At the time, he was single and had no children, but he still plunged into the debate, arguing against the raises.

After that, McKinney got involved in other school district issues and ran unsuccessfully for the Huntington Beach Union High School District Board of Trustees in 1992 and 1994.

He attended a couple of City Council meetings but hadn't followed city issues closely until last year when he first heard about the controversy over "pension spiking," the practice of inflating public salaries during the final year of a city employee's service to boost pension benefits.

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