LA JOLLA TOWN COUNCIL - 50 YEARS
By Mike Townsend
We take pride in 50 years of selfless, grassroots, in the trenches, get your hands dirty community building. Yes, in the final analysis, that's what the La Jolla Town Council has been doing for the last half century - building - and not building in some narrow sense of that word, but in its largest context.
To research that building we visited the La Jolla Historical Society. They have extensive materials on La Jolla's past and we found many examples of what the Council's been up to. Fighting growth and stimulating growth; getting potholes filled; debating parking meters; giving kids, and now their kids' kids, the thrill of marching down Girard Avenue in the Christmas Parade - first held in 1952; starting or fostering such community institutions as the La Jolla Half Marathon, Concerts by the Sea, the Halloween Window Painting Contest, the Rough Water Swim, Crime Stoppers, and so many more; planting trees and conducting periodic street cleanups; placing street benches and trash cans; painting the rail at the dip sky blue, but painting out graffiti - all over town; fighting the construction of coastal skyscrapers; conducting forums and giving La Jollans a chance to speak their minds; keeping an eye on our elected officials; building community consensus; staking out reasoned positions on Pepsi machines in the park, seals at Children's Pool, large office buildings downtown, the burning of toxic waste on Torrey Pines Mesa, and the proliferation of street signage all over.
As you can tell, that partial recap indicates we've been quite busy this last 50 years. But it still doesn't tell the whole story. Take for example the last item - signage. Signage proliferation is a bane to most communities, but not in La Jolla. How many non-incorporated communities do you know that have no real estate signs posted or lack flashing neons and billboards? The Town Council didn't just solve the problem; its solutions were cutting edge, especially 30-40 years ago. Always able to tap into the tremendous resources inherent in this community, no less of a talent than Dr. Seuss, who was a Council Trustee and avid supporter, was recruited to draft a booklet against signage abuse. That whimsical booklet, of which you all have a copy, is a powerful statement against unwarranted outdoor advertising. It helped win the day and our sign ordinances are now a crucial part of why La Jolla has such a special character.
That is how the Town Council has been able to get so much done - because of its extraordinary volunteers. Thus, when a delegation goes to the city to argue a point or make a case - the expected housewives and beach bums materialize into leading world experts in their fields. That's more common than you might imagine.
Remember too, that La Jolla has always had a rich history of activism. The early history of the Town Council is especially alive with the contributions of literally hundreds, people like: Bob Mosier, Eric McNaught-Davis, Edward Mehren, Keith Hall, Armand Richter, Fred Schutte, Andrew Andeck, Cassius Peck, and Margaret Fleming. These were all leaders in the founding groups that formed the Town Council. In fact, 37 separate groups joined together under the slogan "United For Better Living" in a specific attempt to get the San Diego City Council to listen to La Jolla's concerns. (Boy, does that sound familiar!) Those groups included the Chamber of Commerce, the Merchant Association, the local USO, the Hotel Owner's Association, the Civic League, the Planning Council, and the Conservation Society.
In a move that had to be extremely daring, considering how incomprehensible it would be today, all these disparate groups simply folded together. Bylaws were crafted for the new Town Council modeled after New England prototypes, agreements were made for their separate mail to be delivered to the single office, and meetings were thenceforth held in common.
Karl Zobell, a 26 year trustee, past president, and the organization's last Chairman of the Board explained that for many years the Council was actually composed of two separate entities: a Board of Trustees and an Operations Committee. The various committee chairs met under the aegis of the Operations Committee and were headed by the Town Council President. Decisions were then deferred to the Board of Trustees to approve under the leadership of the Chairman of the Board. This eventually proved too awkward and the current system of a Board of Trustees operating under the leadership of the Town Council President was adopted. Thirty-six trustees were the rule until this past decade when the number was reduced to its current twenty-four.
Did you know that Karl was the only Town Council President to be impeached? It was claimed that his efforts to craft a general plan for the La Jolla community were seen as nothing less than a communist plot. Fortunately, his impeachment failed by a 34 to 1 margin and Karl continued many years of service. He also faced harrowing days in the sixties when to ease racial tensions the Council sponsored a town meeting and invited black leaders to attend. He actually received threats that he'd be shot should he take the stage. The job doesn't seem quite so tough now does it Courtney?
Th original home of the Town Council was the old USO building on Eads Avenue - now the St. James Hall. Offices were then moved to 7923 Herschel Avenue, which La Jolla Federal Savings provided at a nominal rent from 1955 to 1977. This office was noted for its double or Dutch doors - the top half of which was always kept open except in bad weather to help better serve visitors. Interestingly, the current office was moved several years ago back to Herschel Avenue and, amazingly, also has the same Dutch doors.
Before we move too far ahead in this story, mention must be made of the very important events of 1951. La Jollans were outraged about a proposal to build 350 homes on 50-foot lots on Muirlands Mesa. 400 hundred irate citizens met at one of the Council's general meetings - which were held 4 times a year and designed to encourage citizens to speak their mind. So united was the citizenry, that even the Real Estate Broker's Association and the Women's Club came out in opposition. It was exactly what the new coalition needed - a rallying cry. An old clipping from the time states that "So enthused have La Jollans become about their Council, that there is now a full scale membership drive underway." Hundreds joined the Town Council at the price of $5 for a residential membership, but just $1 for junior membership. That might sound like a pittance, but those new homes on 50-foot lots in Muirlands were to sell for just $12,000!
Capitalizing on such citizen indignation has been the source of much of the Council's growth and strength over the years and this controversy put it on the map in 1951.
Not long after the Muirlands crisis, Bailey Gallison, perhaps known as Tiger because of his fierce energy and enthusiasm, became Executive Director until he left in 1963. His was one of two golden eras for the Town Council. Bailey cites contributions from seminal figures such as Dick Irwin, Doug McKellar, Walter Dewhurst, Silbey Sellew, William Dwinnell, Roger Revelle, Roy Drew, and Hale Ashcraft, who cut his teeth at the Town Council before going on to the State Assembly.
The issues that provoked activism among those talented people were such things as the fight against parking meters, rezoning to require larger lot sizes, the institution of a height limit in reaction to the building of 939 Coast and the Seville, and the imposition of the suburban/coastal zone to regulate signs. They rallied the community to widen Torrey Pines Road, it was only 28 feet wide in spots, and kept tempers in check when construction limited it to one lane for a year. (We might want to reread their notes this next year as we prepare to reconfigure the La Jolla Shores intersection.) They also planted scores of palm trees throughout downtown La Jolla in 1957 and those 43-year-old specimens are some of La Jolla's crown jewels today. Trustees also journeyed to Berkeley in 1959 in an unsuccessful attempt to persuade the Board of Regents to retain the name University of California, La Jolla. A partial list of accomplishments from the early fifties shows how busy they were in a given year: 813 requests processed for trimming trees and shrubs and cleaning empty lots, 189 requests processed for road repair, 3013 brochures sent to inquirers, and 23 different events sponsored.
Another prominent past member of the Town Council was Bill Mitchell. Bill parlayed his Town Council activities into a position as City Council member - much like our favorite son Scott Peters has done just this past week. Bill's lofty position had very humble origins. Originally, he simply wanted to convince his neighbor to clean up his yard. He proposed that the Council hold clean up contests. Of course, as we all know, such enthusiasm usually mean you get placed in charge and Bill became the Beautification Committee Chair. His contests were very successful and La Jolla actually tied for first in a statewide "Clean Sweep" contest.
Later, Bill took an interest in a community crime watch program, but faced considerable opposition from the Police Department. However, their opposition vanished when he became City Councilman, and he feels great pride that this program - which had originated with the Town Council - became the model for the very successful Crime Stoppers program used throughout the United States. Bill's one regret is that after many years of community service, he never was able to get his neighbor to clean up his yard!
The second golden era of the Town Council was during the tenure of Executive Director Dave Ish from 1982 to 1991. Dave was the kind of guy who was first to show up and the last to leave at most every event and committee meeting throughout the 80's. Past Town Council President Mark Steele points to the many spin-offs from the Town Council as its greatest achievement. Many of these spin-offs occurred during Dave's watch. The La Jolla Half Marathon, Concerts by the Sea, the Teen Senior Firehouse, much of the work on the Planned District Ordinance and Promote La Jolla. Dave, in fact, worked tirelessly to help create and guide the formation of the Business Improvement District that now makes PLJ possible.
Of course, there have been hundreds of others involved with the Council over the years. We hesitate to mention other names in fear of leaving someone out, but certain folks can't be forgotten. Purposely excluded are those who are currently active save for saying that mention must be made of Nancy Ward who followed her father's footsteps as a trustee and held that position for 29 years. Or, can any us who knew her, ever forget the amazing Nell Carpenter. The one person who always boldly and loudly spoke her mind, pulled no punches, and was not only our Parliamentarian for years, but also our conscience. Or how about the Kellogg family? Always great supporters of the Town Council, it was William Scripps who hired Bailey and William Crowe who hired Dave Ish.
We're also reminded of the great work of Ken King, Tom Henry, Virginia Grizzle, Bob Marguiles, Ed Lawrence, Peg Finn, Bob Warwick, Clarence Burdette, Martha June Strauss, and most of all, the scores of dedicated volunteers who have staffed our office over the years - people like Helen Burton, Enid Nealy, Paul Ferrara, Fran Alces, Betty Dawson, and many others.
Yes, the Council has a grand history of which it can be proud. But, lest we come off as too much like Polly Annas, we'll point out that it hasn't always been easy.
Throughout our history we have had peaks and valleys. When activism is low, volunteers are scarce. When activism is high, there are often differences in opinion. And, after 50 years, you can imagine we may have more than a few who were on the losing end of Trustee votes. It's the nature of the beast! The side effects of grassroots politics can be tough - especially for a voluntary, membership organization.
Perhaps that then is the greatest aspect of our success. That despite 50 years of everything from neighborly disagreements to fratricidal politics and the constant need to keep the organization afloat during every economic down cycle - we have survived! And we have done so with the reasoning that only an organization that represents the whole community - businesses and residents alike - can be effective. In fact, Bailey said it well in an article celebrating our 25th anniversary. ‘We were formed by businesses and residents and our successes have been a result of the give and take between them.'
In conclusion, let us challenge you with a question regarding our future work. Could we expect anything less than the best from our Town Council considering La Jolla is such a fine place to live?
With a perfectly benign climate, a delightful blend of urbanization surrounded by the greatest expanse of wilderness on the face of the earth, the presence of a truly great university, a per capita income that ranks in the highest percentile, a history wonderfully rooted in both a small town and a bohemian art colony past, and a tradition of outstanding philanthropy and community service best evidenced by our beloved Ellen Browning Scripps. We are truly blessed.
No wonder that La Jolla until just recently was the only non-incorporated community to have its own postmark and still is the only one in the United States with a US warship named after it. No wonder our high school regularly ranks as one of the finest public schools in the land and the university ranks in the top five nationwide for federal grants. Indeed, even our retirement communities are ranked in the highest echelon in the country.
Is it any wonder then that our Town Council ranks as one of the largest west of the Mississippi or that Mayor Pete Wilson once singled out the La Jolla Town Council as the "superstructure" to which all the other loosely formed councils in the city were compared?
In fact, perhaps we should ask another sort of question, have we done enough? Can't we do much, much more? Can't we ask how we can take our community's great resources and become like Augustine's "city on the hill" - a beacon for the world? We have been given much. There is no excuse for us not to become that beacon in return.