The Story of the First Election of the Ocean Beach Planning Board – May 4th, 1976

by on April 25, 2016 · 1 comment

in California, Civil Rights, Culture, Environment, History, Ocean Beach, Organizing, Politics

 

OB CPG Broc CandFoto

The Community Planning Group slate: from L to R: Maryann Zounes, Jerry Hildwine, Dolores Frank, Frank Gormlie, Lars Tollefson, Chris Bystrom, Ed Riel, Tom Kozden, Judy Czujko, Rich Cornish, Jill Mitchell, Doug Card, Phil Elsbree, (Norma Fragozo absent), and that’s Layla the dog at Gormlie’s feet.

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Editor: This May 4th Ocean Beach celebrates the 40th anniversary of the historic vote that established the very first OB Planning Board and the first popular community plan for the neighborhood. Below is an accounting of that vote and events leading up to it, taken from a larger article entitled “How Working Class Ocean Beach Spoiled the Establishment Plans and Created a Revolution in Urban Planning” – Part 2.

Election Scheduled for Early May 1976

Finally the San Diego City Council set a date for the community-wide election of OB’s first planning committee: May 4, 1976. All residents, all property owners and all business owners could vote, and it would be monitored by the non-partisan League of Women Voters.

The Community Planning Group spun into action and set up a process where local residents vied to be included on an organizational slate for the election. Out of a field of 35 candidates, 14 were elected as candidates to represent the group—including this writer. Internal discussions by the group resulted in a campaign platform that the official candidates had to endorse. This platform was very idealistic, very green, populist, and way ahead of its time.

OB CPG broc coverThe platform called the creation of the Planning Board “a step toward community self-government,” and that planning included things besides density limits and traffic designs, that “economic, social, political, environmental and cultural aspects . . . are just as important. In a word, people.” It stated community residents “should have the right to make decisions affecting all of their lives” which “includes public utilities, health care, the police and fire departments, social services, child care, educational and recreational resources.” Further, the platform set the context, stating that the group and its candidates:

see the fight for a decent plan and environment for Ocean Beach as a struggle between the vast majority of the people of the community, who are tenants, homeowners, and . . . small business people, versus the small group of wealthy elite who would like to turn our community into a playground and resort area for the rich.

It called for a system to funnel citizen complaints about city services, for staffing for the Board, declared “child care is a right” and that “health care is a right.” It called upon the Board to take measures to ensure a “balanced community” to include people of various income levels, of “different ethnic and racial backgrounds” and lifestyles. The platform stated:

“We believe that our society is suffering from its present degree of racial segregation. . . . We support efforts to increase the racial balance of the community. We endorse an effort to recognize cases of racial discrimination in the housing market and seek legal solutions as well as less formal community efforts to abolish this discrimination.

We recognize that many other communities in our society are having serious racial conflict, however, we feel that because of the more open and progressive atmosphere of Ocean Beach, this could be a community where people of diverse ethnic groups could live together “and build a real sense of community.”

These progressive views enunciated in the CPG platform of 1976 reflected the maturation of a grassroots movement that had evolved from protest to now projecting a vision for “community self-determination.”

These views, however, weren’t accepted by all, and once the campaign started, nasty edges emerged. A hate letter signed by “the Silent Majority of OB” circulated, denouncing the election and those involved. Fear-mongering rumors were heard that the radicals were taking over. Soon after, a slate opposed to CPG was formed, which included the president of the OB Merchants Association, a couple of prominent businessmen, a former City Councilman, and some property owners.

More roadblocks were thrown in front of the election. A lawsuit was filed a few months before, seeking an injunction against the entire election procedure. The suit claimed that the City Planning Department had failed to send out adequate notices to all OB residents, property owners, and business licensees, but after the City presented evidence that it used three mailing lists to ensure registered voters, property owners and business were notified, it put out multiple news releases on the election, and plastered dozens of posters around the community the judge threw the lawsuit out. The last ditch effort to forestall the election and the Plan—the inevitable—was over. It was the end of the dreams for the commercialization of Ocean Beach—the final burial of the idea of turning the neighborhood into a mini-Miami Beach.

With finally all the obstacles removed, the election and the campaigning began in earnest. CPG candidates went door to door in their districts, distributing their individualized fliers and the group’s brochure. As it was an election close at home involving the very neighborhoods people lived in, interest seemed to be very high. Dozens of volunteers were enlisted and trained to manage the election, register voters, and prepare for the vote and its count. By the time election day rolled around, it had been ten months since the City Council had authorized it. And if anyone had imagined that the passage of time would wear down the level of activism in OB, they were sorely disappointed, as there was an emotional intensity cresting when May 4th, 1976 finally arrived.

The village had been divided into seven voting districts, with one to two voting sites per district, mainly in front of markets, large and small. The balloting took place all day—and at the appointed hour, ballot boxes were taken to the OB Recreation Center for counting, with everything monitored by the League of Women Voters.

When the votes came in, it was apparent that the election and its turnout had been astounding. Thousands had voted. All told, nearly 4,500 ballots were cast in this special election. With a community population of 13,000, the eligibility rolls included 6,100 registered voters, 2,100 property owners (1,100 inside the plan area and 1,000 outside the area), and 600 business license holders. In District 1 alone, 851 ballots were cast. 1,108 voted in District 2. District 3 had 755 votes. Another 1,085 voted in District 4—the business district (where this writer lost by 8 votes). The lowest turnout was in District 5—with 696 votes. These were stunning numbers.

The big news of the day: candidates from the Community Planning Group had captured eight of the 14 seats on the Board, a clear majority. Some of those elected had been involved since the beginning in the battle for OB’s community plan. They included a mix of Town Council types, counter-cultural radicals and anarchists, a “socialist,” professionals and small business people. The sweep by the planning group candidates was empowering and historic; a small neighborhood organization had grown to be the majority on the first planning board democratically elected in the city’s history.

After the first Board was sworn in, the members selected a woman activist as its first general chairperson, and then got down to the business of figuring out to how to proceed, how to operate. That Board and those that followed over the nearly four decades provide the modern history of development in Ocean Beach. By the time the first Board was installed in 1976, it had been a long, half-decade since the very first Precise Plan had been released in the summer of 1971. Over that time, there were numerous efforts by the establishment, through the city and its planning bureaucracy, to circumvent or out-maneuver the planning activists, to downplay their populism and demands for a democratic election. And all these moves were met with counter-moves by the activists that often upped the ante on the table.

When at the midpoint of 1975 City Hall finally authorized a democratic election by the community for its planning committee, the establishment had accepted the concept that ordinary working people, renters, small property owners and small businesspeople have a say in a community’s development and planning. This idea had been central to the grassroots activists during the entire lengthy battle for a community blueprint. And this is part of the legacy of the first planning board to all those that came later.

Stepping back, we can see that the creation of a planning review board for this small community back in the mid-Seventies was part of the “Revolt at the Coast”—a rebellion by residents up and down Southern California and San Diego, as quality-of-life issues became overwhelmingly paramount to unbridled urban development. The “Revolt at the Coast” included the passage of the signature environmental initiative of the time, the creation of the California Coastal Commission; it included the San Diego voter-initiated 30-foot height limit passed overwhelmingly by voters from all over the city—and enforced to this day. And it included the creation of the Ocean Beach community plan and its call for a democratically-elected planning committee—setting precedent for communities all over the city. When in 1976 the very first newly-elected Board for OB was installed, it also had the distinction of being the very first in the state of California.

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For more, go here.

 

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Avatar Doug Card April 27, 2016 at 10:33 am

Really well written, Frank, about that election just 40 years ago next Wednesday that forever altered the course of OB ….and there was even more drama that election night as, after years of community effort, the results were determined by a handful of votes…..

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