Take a quick glance at Mayor John Sibert’s lengthy resume, and you can see why City Councilman Jefferson "Zuma Jay" Wagner calls him the "Science Guy." Sibert, who was appointed mayor Monday, is replete with academic credits in chemistry and loaded with consulting credits for some of the most intellectual ventures around, including NASA, Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Sibert’s extensive experience in water-related research and consulting is a boon for the city, as water quality continues to be one of Malibu’s top civic issues.
Sibert knows about water. The Marine Corps veteran chaired the National Coastal Research Institute; he served with the League of California Cities Water Task Force and worked to establish Marine Protected Areas in Alaska. Sibert also studied the catastrophic effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound.
Locally, he is credited with helping to stop the county's plan for a large Malibu sewer system with a testimony he gave to the Board of Supervisors nearly 25 years ago. Also, he was part of a group that recommended a small sewer system for Malibu in 1989.
Sibert said in a recent interview with Malibu Patch that he is pleased with “signature successes” since he joined the in 2008, and looks forward to tackling future challenges.
“As mayor, you get to cut ribbons, but you have to take more heat and you still only get one vote,” Sibert said. “The last two and a half years have taught me that Malibu is not totally governable, and there will always be those who are against anything. But we’ve gotten some good things accomplished.”
Sibert said the city's purchase of a portion of and the creation of are among the accomplishments of the council he is on and the recent councils. He also praised the establishment of and the purchase and renovation of the new (expected to open in March), following 10 years of “growing pains” that at times seemed insurmountable.
“We got Legacy Park financed and built and City Hall remodeled all under budget, on time and while maintaining our AA bond rating,” Sibert said. “And we’ve managed to keep a healthy reserve account of more than 40 percent of our annual general fund budget. The challenge going forward will be in sharing red ink with the county to keep our fire and library departments as healthy.”
Moving forward, Sibert sees limited population growth in the city, which should keep out large “big box” retailers that thrive on churning traffic, and will allow the city to maintain its rustic and isolated charm.
“Our zoning for limited commercial expansion will likely keep us from growing much,” he said. “Fortunately, we haven’t been hit too hard by the recession. There has been no big decline in property taxes or sales taxes, but things are still dicey elsewhere, so we might have to re-assess some of our capital projects.”
Sibert said a big priority for him is public safety on Pacific Coast Highway. He cited working with multiple agencies to improve bus stops and efforts to reduce speed through the city as “huge issues” that need to be addressed, noting that the city has applied for a $1 million grant to launch a planning process for PCH. He said that there are plenty of challenges to tackle, even if building more city parks is not one of them.
“Problems never just go away,” Sibert said. “They’re kind of like when a shark loses teeth; they just grow back.”
But the biggest challenge for Sibert is with improving the water quality in Malibu—a problem he insists is not entirely the fault of the city's residents.
Malibu has been the subject of a number of lawsuits from environmental watchdogs and regulatory threats from the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, mostly because of the brackish nature of the Malibu Creek and its deleterious effects on .
The city commissioned an extensive study of the problem by the U.S. Geological Survey and, at the November presentation of their findings to the City Council, it is likely that Sibert was alone in fully grasping the intricacies of the testing wells, streamflows and Radon-222 activity.
The upshot, Sibert declared, is that Malibu has good water.
“The high levels of metals and minerals in Malibu Creek come from the Monterey Shale that we sit on top of and we can’t do anything about that,” Sibert said. “The prevailing wisdom is that septics are bad and sewers are good. But even large city district sewers like in San Diego can be overwhelmed. The fact is that our sample wells showed no fecal contamination. So finding a solution to wastewater is a major challenge.”
Sibert said it would be foolish to put money into a wastewater management system until the problem is fully defined. He and other council members have been touring wastewater treatment sites to determine what methods would serve Malibu best. He foresees a phased approach and deep well injection as an ultimate solution, saying, “I ran for council on a clean ocean platform, and that’s what I’ve studied the past 30 years.”
Although there were heated exchanges between Sibert and Wagner during the council election campaign in 2008, Wagner said that he has come to appreciate his former rival’s practical approach to governance.
“John has brought a pragmatism and a more scientific approach, rather than an emotional approach, to decision making,” Wagner said. “It has truly been a pleasure working with him on the council. I appreciate his Marine Corps camaraderie.”