The Reverend Jesse Jackson, once a young apprentice of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and who later ran “Rainbow Coalition” campaigns for president in the 1980s, showed up before the Brea City Council on Oct. 1 at the invitation of Dwight Manley, a businessman who owns much of the city’s downtown. In the area to celebrate his 78th birthday, the subject of 1980s “Run Jesse Run!” fever gave an unscheduled invocation at the start of the meeting.
“I’m really here as a friend of Dwight,” Jackson said. “He wanted me to see this marvelous City Council in Brea.”
The reverend followed with brief words of prayer in the name of reconciliation everywhere. “We turn to each other, not on each other,” said Jackson. “We ask Brea to be that light in darkness.” After a quick, understated “amen,” he shuffled back to his seat.
Later, Manley saw himself as just such a luminary in opposing Brea acquiring Birch Hills Golf Course, deeming it a toxic dumpsite, as Jackson looked on from a few rows back. “You’re basically taking on Three Mile Island in the middle of Brea,” Manley warned the council. “I used to walk that golf course [and] licked golf balls as a child. Maybe I got cancer from that. I don’t know. You should not touch it!”
Manley left certain there wouldn’t be so much as even a vote on Birch Hills, as he had met with two council members over the issue that morning. He had already retreated to the Yard House restaurant in downtown Brea when his phone started lighting up with text messages. The council voted 4-0 with one recusal in favor of taking on the property and keeping it an executive 18-hole course.
“I didn’t even come to my office for two days after that,” Manley says as he leans back in his desk chair a couple of weeks after the vote. “I had a migraine, and it was literally like the heart was ripped out of me.”
Raised in Brea, Manley’s return to his hometown veered through an assemblage of extraordinary life experiences. He’s an accomplished rare-coin collector, a former sports agent to NBA greats, a property owner and—as Manley found out thanks to a DNA kit given as a Christmas gift two years ago—the biological son of Mike Antonovich, who served 34 years on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors as a Republican.
But it’s Manley’s own outsized political profile in Brea—a small city of 43,000 residents—that has the town talking, albeit in hushed tones. In the past five years, he has put his wealth into supporting City Council candidates, reshaped the balance of power at City Hall, hung giant-sized political banners from his properties, tried to start a local newspaper and taken his civic crusades to the Nextdoor private social network, from which he’s been banned multiple times.
To Manley’s detractors, he is an oligarch involved in damn near every facet of Brea’s civic life. “City Council is beholden to him, while at the same time afraid of him,” says John Koos, a former Brea Chamber of Commerce chairman and onetime planning commissioner. “That fear permeates the entire bureaucracy.”
Others count him as a Brea blessing beyond downtown. “He cares about Brea,” says Rick Clark, the Manley-friendly scribe behind the Brea Matters blog. “People vilify him, and it’s uncalled-for. There’s not a week that goes by that he doesn’t put sometimes several thousands of dollars into the community in donations.”
The future of a golf course appearing to be Manley’s chosen hill to die on seems politically perplexing. But it’s a vote consequential enough to have him rethink his future in Brea, though not without also contemplating the political future of those whom he believes wronged him—and, of course, the city.
“I’m telling you one thing: The word recall is going to be brought into the Brea landscape in the next 12 months,” Manley vows. “This is not going to wait two or four years for certain people.”
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An outspoken man with famous friends, Manley recalls a shy childhood during his days at Brea’s Laurel Elementary School. Early on, he struck up a hobby that would prove fortuitous. “I found a 1909 cent in a coffee can when I was 6 and was fascinated by it,” he says. Soon, Manley befriended a fellow coin collector who hipped him to a shop downtown he hadn’t been to. There, he only became further immersed.
“Coins were everything,” says Manley. “It was like Fantasyland.”
When Manley graduated from Brea Olinda High School in 1984, he moved out, skipped going to college and continued life as a budding numismatist. “When I graduated, I had $5,000 to my name,” he says. “I drove cross-country for a job that paid me $20,000 a year. I didn’t inherit money. I have never been given anything.”
Within five years, Manley became a millionaire. Self-made. At age 23.
A friendship with NBA legend Dennis Rodman forged at a Las Vegas casino by a mutual acquaintance led to a seemingly unlikely career shift in 1995. “Dennis, who I was friends with for two years at the time, asked me to help him make some money one summer,” says Manley. “Dennis had black hair when I met him, and then I have him in a wedding gown on Fifth Avenue.”
Manley managed Rodman during his infamous Bad As I Wanna Be book tour, as the “Worm” morphed his persona partly through flamboyant fashion that GQ now hails as prophetic. The following year, Manley became Rodman’s sports agent and enjoyed a clientele that grew to include such premier NBA talents as Karl Malone, Doug Christie and Vernon Maxwell.
Through representing Rodman, Manley met Jackson. The reverend married Manley and his now-ex-wife in 1999. He and Jackson traveled to Ghana in 2007 to celebrate the African nation’s 50th anniversary of freedom from British colonial rule. “He represented the people without a voice and the oppressed,” says Manley. “In Brea, I have a voice here. I use it for the people that I feel are getting screwed.”
But palling around with Jackson didn’t lead Manley back to Brea.
That journey began at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean off the Carolina coast with the sunken spoils of the S.S. Central America, the fabled “Ship of Gold.” It took Manley nearly two years to pull off the purchase of most of the ill-fated 1857 voyage’s recovered treasure, but once he did, an estimated value of more than $100 million made it the largest numismatic acquisition in the world.
“It’s the greatest loss of treasure in American history,” Manley told Coin Television last year during an expo in Long Beach. “It came from the California Gold Rush.”
The yield becoming profitable allowed Manley to get into real estate. When his mortgage broker brought three properties on Birch Street in downtown Brea to his attention, Manley originally passed. Six months later, though, he changed his mind and purchased them for $13 million. “Hometown Kid Invests Wealth in Brea,” read the headline of a glowing 2003 Los Angeles Times profile.
“As time went on, other properties came up for sale, and I got the calls,” says Manley. “One by one, I started buying all the pieces on the Monopoly board, basically.” He owns most of downtown Brea and moved back to the city in 2012, into the northern hills compound he calls home.
“I love Brea because it’s my roots,” says Manley, now 53. “You’re only from one place.”
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A coffee table in Manley’s downtown office is covered with cards that he receives from the elderly who thank him for his monthly donations to Brea’s Senior Center. From his desk, he turns to retrieve a framed photo showing Karl “The Mailman” Malone posing with Brea police in celebration of defibrillators donated to them by his former NBA agent. Plaques commemorate feature articles in major publications about his storied life.
But the political tale of the past five years in Brea remains largely untold.
When returning to live and work in Brea, he counts a major mistake in not making any political waves earlier. “I didn’t speak out when Tim O’Donnell was the city manager because I was being manipulated,” says Manley. “He ruled with an iron fist. I probably would’ve never gotten the downtown turned around had I done that then.”
A “family-friendly” downtown with a good mix of entertainment, retail and dining became ground zero for a political dispute that soon arose around its next puzzle piece: a $13 million parking structure behind the old Tower Records building.
Mayor Brett Murdock, who won election in 2010, became Manley’s first big political target, as he called him “dishonest” and “bad” for Brea. He made it a priority to ensure voters wouldn’t return Murdock to the dais in 2014—a political ambition that put him at odds with Koos, a former acquaintance of Manley’s who helped to elect the mayor.
“Dwight and I were actually very copasetic,” says Koos. “He wrote checks to many people but didn’t really jump in and try to affect the outcome of elections. To this day, I think it was about the parking structure. Murdock and some of the previous council members had the position that the downtown business owners should pay for some of it.”
The late City Councilman Roy Moore called for a “clean sweep” to shake up City Hall. Aside from contributing $25,000 (mostly through the California Homeowners Association Political Action Committee) to ensure the sweep, Manley debuted a more readily visible tactic, hanging huge anti-Murdock banners from his properties.
The election results proved devastating for Murdock. While non-incumbants Cecilia Hupp, Glenn Parker and Steve Vargas easily claimed victory, the incumbent mayor placed a distant fourth, earning just 13.7 percent of the vote.
“A sitting mayor going away?” says Manley. “That’s a phenomenon. The people spoke, and we got a clean sweep.”
In September 2015, Brea city council approved spending up to $10.3 million on the parking structure project, a mix of 2011 bond and community benefit and economic development funds. Final financing included a $2.9 million loan from the general fund. Critics called the vote a sweetheart subsidy to downtown, a consummation of pay-to-play politics.
Manley denies that he bought a council majority to gain a free parking structure. “I didn’t pay anybody,” he says. “Parker voted against it, and I gave him more money than anybody. If everybody that donates to somebody is guilty if something goes their way, then politics is permanently ruined.”
But a review of campaign filings provided by Brea show Parker received the least Manley-related contributions; California Homeowners Association PAC spent no money in support of his candidacy.
In 2018, Brea voters had the opportunity to re-evaluate the clean sweep. Bill Hall, a former Brea Olinda Unified School District trustee, ran for a council seat as a self-funded candidate who’d been critical of the use of general-fund money to finance the four-story, 476-space garage. “How does the City Council give up money like that without understanding the financial-payback time and the impact to their community?” Hall asked. “The idea that it has helped can’t be proven.”
The Brea Chamber of Commerce endorsed Hall, as it did Hupp, but only Hall’s nod came under attack by Brea Matters. Downtown business owners turned up the heat on the chamber for Hall’s supposedly anti-business stance on the parking structure. “You create a narrative, a false one,” says Hall. “You say it loud and often, and people begin to accept it. It’s better to never be questioned and be seen as the omnipotent Wizard of Oz than to actually have somebody willing to say, ‘Listen, we ought to look behind the curtain.’”
Only Hall didn’t get that chance. All won re-election, with Hall placing a distant fifth at 12.7 percent.
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Heading into the 2018 elections, Manley had another mission in mind: reviving local journalism to educate Brea voters. Financial troubles caused the Orange County Register to fold the already-merged Brea/La Habra Star-Progress the previous year. Manley saw a void in Brea’s civic culture and decided to do something about it. The opinionated developer registered Brea News LLC with the California Secretary of State’s office on June 15, 2018. He readied an inaugural issue with Editor-in-Chief Daniel Langhorne, a former Register reporter. The name of the new bi-monthly community paper: Brea/king News.
“I was becoming an investigative journalist digging into things that, in the past, newspapers would’ve been on,” says Manley of the impetus behind the project. “The council and school board are voting on things that they personally have no idea about. They’re 100 percent dependent on staffs who have their own agendas.”
Others saw the effort as just another power play to control the narrative with an all-too-telling double entendre in “Brea King.” But they didn’t have an opportunity to flip through the paper to confirm their suspicions. A dispute between the owner and the editor halted Brea/king News’ July 4, 2018, launch, leaving it with the ironic tagline “Where journalism never dies.”
“It was not editorial at all,” says Manley. “I did not believe Langhorne was the right person for what was happening.”
Langhorne declined to comment when reached by the Weekly.
The never-distributed debut featured stories about park projects, high-school sports and, of course, a front-pager on Manley as the man behind the paper. Clark penned one of the guest columns as an in-kind contribution. Years before Brea/king News, the longtime public-relations-industry veteran started the Brea Matters blog in 2011, drawing his inspiration from Moore, a 16-year councilman who passed away in 2015. In Clark’s opinion, Brea’s “old guard” is the problem. “Once they leave office, they play kingmaker,” he says, cryptically. “They know who they are.”
Brea Matters touts that there are “two sides to every story.” Lately, it champions Manley’s various causes, owing its biggest hits to his open letter to the school board in September about its health-insurance benefits. “Manley emailed a [link] to his father,” says Clark. “Mike was proud of his son and proud of his work and shared it with people on his email list, and it exploded. That’s pretty unusual for a little blog about Brea.”
Just like his Brea/king News column, Clark says his blog runs all on his dime and that its pro-Manley bent doesn’t come with any strings attached, financial or otherwise. “Dwight and I share a common goal of making Brea a better place to live,” says Clark. “There’s been a number of times we’ve butted heads, but we work it out. It’s a good relationship.”
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About two dozen teachers, parents and students gathered in front of Brea City Hall on the evening of Nov. 18. They had donned red shirts in support of public education and held signs reading, “Let Brea Vote” and, “Brea isn’t a Monarchy” before filing into the City Council meeting, where the fate of trustee health-insurance benefits and a $123 million bond being put on the ballot would be decided. Jodi Balma, a Brea resident, parent and Fullerton College political-science professor, helped to organize the rally.
“Without board members Carrie Flanders or Paul Ruiz allowing the bond to go to a vote, they have, in essence, crowned Dwight Manley king of Brea schools,” said Balma before the meeting. “I know he doesn’t want the kingmaker title, but he has a crown on his head.”
It’s not the first school-bond battle for Balma. In 2016, she joined the Measure K campaign, a $148 million bond effort hoping to allocate funding to repair Brea classrooms, make school sites earthquake-prepared and retain teachers. “When it rains, my kids have seven or eight buckets on the desks because there’s so many leaks,” says Balma. “When my daughter was in kindergarten, one of the kindergarten rooms was shut down because of mold.”
She didn’t anticipate an entrenched, well-organized opposition, one that included Manley prominently in its ranks.
True to form, Manley dropped a huge anti-Measure K banner from the backside of his downtown office building during the campaign. That year, he also founded Brea First in Moore’s “clean sweep” spirit. “Brea First was intended to identify experts in areas of government and to share that knowledge with citizens so they may form intelligent decisions,” says Glenn Vodhanel, a Brea First board member. For Measure K, the group hosted a presentation by Will Swaim, the Weekly founding editor who’s now with the pro-charter schools, anti-union California Policy Center.
In reminiscing on the fight, Manley scrolls through his phone before showing a picture of Rodman holding a sign in downtown opposing the bond. “I spent $900 to oppose that measure,” says Manley. “They spent a quarter of a million, but the people spoke.”
The anti-Measure K camp did try to overstate their case. Former California State Treasurer John Chiang sued them over a “false and misleading” partial quote plucked from a press release that year of him saying school bonds “do nothing but inflate taxpayer bills and reduce resources for students.” A judge ordered the Orange County Registrar of Voters to immediately delete the sentence from the Argument Against Measure K signed off on by Manley and others; it would’ve otherwise appeared on official voter guides and sample ballots.
A slim majority of Breans voted against Measure K, which set the stage for the current effort to put a bond on the ballot next year, one that came with an unexpected hurdle at the board.
At the Nov. 18 meeting, a chance to break the impasse arrived, albeit through addition by subtraction. Flanders spoke in support of nixing health benefits and linked it to the viability of the bond passing. “We need to fight for our district’s needs, which benefit the entire community, [and] not make it about a person,” she said. “I just want to give up benefits and let’s get this thing done.” Alongside Flanders and board president Gail Lyons, trustee Nicole Colon accepts health insurance from the district. Since Lyons and Colon take cheaper benefits, the annual cost to the district is less than the $120,000 maximum figure cited by Flanders. An increasingly tense exchange between Colon and Flanders took place before trustee Keri Kropke interjected.
“This is a hostage situation,” she said. “A very wealthy man has tied benefits to this bond issue. I don’t like being extorted. And yet, I want our schools to be modernized.”
After a spell of silence, Kropke became the third swing vote to kill board-member health benefits by 2022. The moment left much of the audience shell-shocked. Soon after, the board unanimously voted to put the bond on the ballot, and a sense of relief finally washed over Flanders’ flustered face.
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A Wall of Honor plaque hangs at the Brea Museum and Historical Society. Manley’s name tops all contributors as a benefactor who has donated more than $100,000. Inside its exhibitions, the tale of Babe Ruth swatting home runs during a baseball game in town on Halloween night 1924 is well-told. Manley believes Jackson’s visit and invocation before the City Council in October will be similarly regarded in time. “This, in a hundred years, will be a big thing,” he says. Only, the council apparently didn’t appreciate the moment before them.
“I was embarrassed that the council members and staff—not one of them—said, ‘thank you,’” Manley says. “Unbelievable.” Mayor Christine Marick did give thanks moments after Jackson concluded his invocation.
Tiff aside, the council meeting Jackson attended and the Birch Hills vote may more immediately influence Brea’s political future and Manley’s long-term commitment to downtown. He wants to revive a dormant Brea First and remains hopeful that Brea/king News will finally launch one day. “If I’m making a difference, I want to give my all,” says Manley. “If I can’t make a difference, that’s a different question, and that’s where we’re at today.”
He counts Birch Hills alongside the downtown parking structure as the fights that turned him around politically in Brea, calling the former a “giant fraud.” Earlier this decade, traces of arsenic and other contaminants had been found on the golf-course site. Arsenic was dug up and replanted beneath a parking lot that Chevron owns on-site. Highly concentrated polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, were also removed.
Brea stands to make $300,000 to $400,000 per year by keeping Birch Hills as a golf course. And if the city ever needed a zoning change, it’s not impossible, but it would require approval from regulatory agencies and, ultimately, Chevron under the tight agreement.
Hupp did ask questions about the land’s potential value for housing development, but the council didn’t do its due diligence, Manley says as he turns visibly irate.
“They could have sold the back nine and collected $79 million just for that,” he says. “Because it’s a toxic dumpsite and the center was kept by Chevron, and they re-dumped all the shit in the middle, it’s for all intents and purposes way too expensive to remediate to make any money off it ever! I was devastated seeing our guardians—four of them—screw Brea. They need to pay for that. They need to never be in charge again!”
Manley denies having any desire to pursue a mixed-use development there, especially with his Mercury housing project expected to go before the planning commission next year. A proposed Hampton Inn hotel is also in the works, to be built next to the downtown parking structure. Manley describes downtown Brea as the Siamese twin of City Hall, hopelessly interconnected to each other. One way to change that relationship is through divestment, if experiences such as the Birch Hills vote continue, Manley believes.
“I’m contemplating a lot of different things,” says Manley. “I will always have my house and property here. Will I have the downtown? I don’t know.”
Gabriel San Román is from Anacrime. He’s a journalist, subversive historian and the tallest Mexican in OC. He also once stood falsely accused of writing articles on Turkish politics in exchange for free food from DönerG’s!