Twenty years ago this Monday, more than 600 people gathered at the auditorium to witness the installation of the first Malibu . It was a joyous event, and the spirits were high. This was the culmination of a long battle that began nearly three decades earlier.
For many years, rural Malibu was ruled by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, which governed from a distance in downtown Los Angeles. Three times the county brought proposals for sewer system before the Malibu voters in what activists said were attempts to ease the pathway for big development. Local voters rejected each of these proposals. But attempts at creating an independent city of Malibu also failed in 1964 and 1976.
By the late 1980s, the sewer proposal was back, but the threat was stronger. This time, the county did not need the consent of the voters because it had gotten Malibu declared a health hazard. In late 1987, the Malibu Committee for Incorporation was formed, and more than enough signatures to put cityhood on the ballot were collected by early 1988. But the county continued to fight the effort.
“Every time we would hit a hill, we had to climb it, and when we got to the other side, there was another one,” said Lucille Keller, who with her husband Walt (Malibu’s first mayor) headed the cityhood effort. “And it was just on and on. I don’t think the county fought the incorporation of any other area like it fought Malibu cityhood.”
The county was unable to stall the process forever. In early 1990, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Dzintra Janavs ruled an election must happen, and one took place that June. The vote was almost unanimous, with 84 percent of the people choosing cityhood in an election with 67 percent voter turnout.
“If there was ever a textbook case how people in government could lose the consent of the governed, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors circa 1989 to 1990 is it,” said Tom Hasse, who served on the City Council from 1998 to 2002 and was what he called a “foot soldier” in the cityhood campaign. “They did almost everything to P.O. their constituents in Malibu to such an extent, you see the results— more than 80 percent in favor of cityhood.”
Also in that election, the people chose five members for the first City Council from among 32 candidates. Those picked were Keller, Larry Wan, Carolyn Van Horn, Mike Caggiano and Missy Zeitsoff.
Still, the county continued to fight, and managed to stall incorporation for almost another 10 months. Malibu finally became a city March 28, 1991. The festive first council meeting took place that day, which was a Thursday. A weekend celebration organized by Joan House (who went on to become Malibu’s longest-serving council member, from 1992 to 2004) took place. It included a parade, skydivers and even a party, with the Kellers having the first dance “like it was our wedding,” Lucille Keller said with a laugh.
Hasse said what impressed him the most about the cityhood effort was that the leaders were ordinary people who battled a county government of professionals.
“These people were not experts in planning and zoning and creating a city or municipal law,” Hasse said. “But they took the time to learn, and they raised the money to hire the experts they needed. They were just inspiring citizen activists. They were exactly the type of people the founders of the country envisioned citizens to be.”
Lucille Keller agreed that the county had the edge on sophistication.
“They had the money, they had the lawyers,” she said. “We had to fight and raise our own money to do it. There is nothing more I hate than getting on the phone and asking somebody for money. But you just had to do it if you were going to see it through.”
And many agree that the fight was worth it, as they prevented Malibu from becoming an area of high-density development. Walt Keller shared this view during the inaugural council meeting.
“When the state and county governments looked at Malibu, they saw a land ripe for freeways, marinas, power plants and hotels,” Keller told the audience, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times covering the meeting. “But the residents of Malibu had a different vision."
Keller went on to serve on the council for seven of the next nine years, until he was soundly defeated in the 2000 election. He and his wife have disagreed with city leaders during the past decade on various issues. Keller joked, “At least we don’t have to drive so far to complain as we did with the county.”
Despite some differences of opinion on specific issues, most people agree that Malibu looks much different today than it would have looked had it remained directly under the county government.
“We’ve been able to control a lot more than we would have been able to control had we not been our own city,” Mayor Pro Tem Laura Zahn Rosenthal said. “We’ve had a lot of growing pains, but we were a very new city. We’re leaving our teens. We’re about to become 20 years old, and I think we’ve accomplished a lot. “