Photo by James BunoanOn March 2, Huntington Beach residents will vote on Measure E, a citywide initiative whose formal title is "Fair Districts for Huntington Beach." A more accurate title might be "Make Surf City a Company Town Again."
Measure E would reduce the number of city council members from seven to five; each member would represent only voters in their local district, about 40,000 constituents each, as opposed to the entire city.
The initiative's backers claim it will give Huntington Beach citizens direct access to their elected representatives. In reality, Measure E will make it easier for well-financed special interests to control a much smaller council.
Here's why: at the moment, Huntington Beach has elections every two years—the first for three candidates and the next for four candidates. With a total of seven council members, special interests have to finance four successful candidates in two separate election cycles in order to maintain control of the council. But if the council is cut to five people, special interests would only have to fund three successful candidates.
Who would draft such a fiendishly anti-democratic measure? Scott Baugh, a former Republican Assemblyman who now works as a lobbyist for AES Inc., the company that runs the aging and underproductive electrical power plant at the intersection of Pacific Coast Highway and Magnolia Avenue.
AES hired dozens of signature gatherers to get Measure E on the ballot. With Baugh, the company has donated more than $60,000 to pay for thousands of brochures that have flooded Huntington Beach in recent weeks. Those brochures show pictures of dilapidated shopping centers and trees uprooting sidewalks. "It's time for accountability at City Hall and fair districts for us," they read. The brochures also include a quote from Baugh, who says, "The best government is that which is closest to the people—Vote Yes on Measure E."
In an interview, Baugh denied he was still a lobbyist for AES. "I did work for them back in 2001, but I don't do anything with them now and haven't since that time," he said. Baugh also claimed AES hasn't been involved with the Measure E campaign since the firm provided it with start-up money. He said the initiative would force politicians to respond to underrepresented areas of the city, such as the southeast. "They've got the [AES] power plant, people want to put [a desalination plant] there, and they have the dumpsite, Ascon Nesi," Baugh said. "With districting, you'd have an advocate with a position of authority trying to solve that problem."
But critics—including most members of the City Council—point out that reducing the council's size will make it almost impossible for council members to do their jobs. They say each member serves on at least two subcommittees and works at least 40 hours per week—often more—to keep the city's agenda moving. Slashing the council's membership by about 30 percent will all but destroy their ability to thoroughly research each agenda item—whether to approve a controversial water-desalination project, for example—that comes for a vote.
"There is nothing good about districting," said council member Debbie Cook. "The supporters of Measure E are interested in one thing: control. They want good little soldiers to march to their beat and no other. . . . The truth is Scott Baugh drew the districts to eliminate myself, Connie Boardman and Jill Hardy. The development interests do not want strong environmental advocates on the City Council."
Until the early 1960s, HB had just five council members. Then, citizens fed up with a city hall dominated by special interests—primarily oil companies operating through the development firm Huntington Beach Co.—petitioned to increase the number of council members to seven.
"Back in the days when we only had five people on the council, the Huntington Beach Co. ran the town," said Bob Dingwall, now a Huntington Beach planning commissioner. "The Huntington Beach Co. . . . dictated who was on the council and dictated what transpired, and there was nothing anybody could do about it. We recognized that the only way to change that was to expand the council by increasing it to seven members."
"People wanted a say in how the city grew," added Ed Kerins, president of Huntington Beach Tomorrow, which opposes Measure E. "So in order to get greater representation, we had a charter amendment to increase the council from five to seven members. We're really concerned that with Measure E, AES and other special interests are going to take over the City Council."
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"This whole thing started three years ago when the city was going to apply a 5 percent utility tax to AES," Dingwall added. "When the AES plant was owned by Southern California Edison, it was a public utility and was exempt from the local utility tax. But when AES bought the plant, it became a private enterprise, and the city wanted to apply the utility tax as if it were any other business."
AES failed to convince the city to continue treating it as a public utility. They turned to Baugh to run a ballot campaign whose ostensible purpose was to make HB a business-friendly city. The small print made it clear that "business-friendly" meant AES wouldn't have to pay the taxes levied on other businesses.
"[AES] put up ungodly amounts of money and hired people to get signatures," Dingwall said. "They just totally overwhelmed the community with survey-taking and mail every other day for the last 10 days prior to the election, and they got the exemption from the utility tax."
Now, with slick brochures urging voters to pass Measure E, Dingwall says he's experiencing dj vu. "If people really looked at who's putting up the money for Measure E, they might change their minds about voting for it," he said. "Nobody puts up that much money without wanting to get a return on it."