Mel Shapiro – San Diego’s ‘Activist’s Activist’ – Passes at the Age of 91

by on November 29, 2018 · 2 comments

in San Diego

Melvin “Mel” Shapiro. Photo by Kathy Blavatt

If you’ve been active in grassroots politics in San Diego over the last 30 years, doubtlessly you came into contact with Mel Shapiro. I certainly did, numerous times. I can safely say Mel was truly the “activist’s activist” in this city.

Following a long illness, Mel passed this week on Monday morning, November 26, 2018 at the age of 91.

Mel moved to San Diego after his official retirement from high finance in the late Sixties. Here’s some of his accomplishments (since his retirement) drawn up by friends and associates.

He was a pioneer in open meeting and public record laws. It’s not a far claim to say he almost single handedly created the San Diego Ethics Commission. He worked on Clean Elections; he successfully sued to halt the Convention Center Expansion.

Mel worked on providing affordable housing; in the 1980s, he grew frustrated seeing more and more seniors on fixed incomes being priced out of their rental apartments and this interest in housing continued with him for the rest of his life.

From the San Diego Union-Tribune story of his passing:

In 1987, he uncovered evidence that led to the firing of the Housing Commissioner at the time, Ben Montijo, according to a biography published this week on the website for the San Diego chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

At his time of death, Mel was focused on the illegal expansion of the Bahia Hotel in Bahia Point Park.

In 2012, the local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists gave him the Sunshine Award for achievements in government transparency and he chose to accept it in the City Clerk’s office, where he spent many an hour pouring over public records.

The San Diego Council will adjourn in memory of Mel on Monday , December 3rd.

Many people knew him, but not many knew much of his background. According to the U-T obit:

A native of Brooklyn, N.Y., Shapiro made his living as a Wall Street accountant and investor before losing interest in high finance. After building his personal nest egg, Shapiro gave up the financial chase at 40 years of age. He retired and moved to San Diego in 1968. …

Shapiro invested tens of thousands of dollars of his own money in uphill battles he waged against policies he believed were harmful to the public trust, his friends told the Union-Tribune this week. …

Here are some comments made by other San Diegans who knew him:

Former San Diego City Councilwoman Donna Frye said Mel was a frequent speaker at City Council meetings. “He would come to make public comment,” Frye said. “He was not staying home and he was not going to be quiet.”

She also said:

“Mel’s calling was to be a civic activist and he was tireless in that pursuit. His passion for holding government accountable was surpassed only by his persistence.  Mel was an inspiration and his open government light will continue to shine.”

Kathy Blavatt, an Ocean Beach activist and historian said:

“Mel was an inspiration to San Diego activists. As a continual watchdog he saved the residents, and the city, countless dollars exposing mismanagement, insider deals, and boondoggles. Not only did Mel have a moral compass, he was the moral compass!”

Former City Attorney Mike Aguirre:

“Mel Shapiro embodied what, as Supreme Court Justice Brandeis called the ‘Public Citizen’.  His loss is not only to his family but for the entire of the City of San Diego.”

Scott Lewis at Voice of San Diego made a statement:

[F]ew people spent more time on the phone with us than Mel Shapiro. He wasn’t always happy — in fact, I’m not sure I remember him smiling. But he was a relentless and fierce advocate for open records and meetings.

His name is part of precedent-setting lawsuits that forced the city to be more clear about what it was planning to do in closed sessions. He was a relentless thorn in the side of city government. He sometimes ventured into outright politicking — like when he put his own money in the campaign against the strong-mayor form of government. And he had a distinct point of view, namely that downtown’s power brokers could not be trusted. …

Democracies are a delicate balance between intensely competitive interests. We cannot have progress unless they make deals. But we cannot avoid corruption without transparency. For decades, San Diego had one reliable warrior for transparency and now, at 90, he has passed. RIP, Mel.

John McNab, a civic activist who knew Shapiro, said his friend stood out among other activists, if only for his stubborn refusal to give up on losing battles when a cause he valued was at stake. McNab said:

“He was above the rest of us because of his consistency and his efforts to make a difference. When it came to caring about the people and how San Diego developed, there’s absolutely nobody who sacrificed as much time and effort.”

We hear a memorial is in the planning process.


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Geoff Page December 3, 2018 at 2:15 pm

It’s kind of a shame that no one else has commented. Shapiro did a lot of good for a lot of people with his activism. I guess it just shows what happens when you live to be 91 years old, folks forget. A tip of the hat to Mel, we need people like this as much today as we ever have.


Kathy Blavatt December 9, 2018 at 5:16 am

MEMORIAL TO HONOR MEL SHAPIRO – An Extraordinary & Fearless Civic Activist
Saturday, December 15, 2018 at 1:00 to 5:00 pm
3025 Fir Street, San Diego, CA 92102
Hosted by the Mel Shapiro Memorial Committee
Please join us.
More to come in OB Rag


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