Hermosa Beach upholds oil ban by four to one margin
by Kevin Cody
Jane Gerlach’s Tuesday vote was the fourth time she has voted on whether or not Hermosa Beach should permit oil drilling. Though she declined to disclose how she voted, or her age, she said she did not vote in the 1933 Hermosa election that first banned oil drilling. But she did vote in the 1958 Shell Oil election, which upheld the ban; and in the 1984 election, which lifted the ban; and in the 1995 election, which reinstated the ban.
The former United Airlines stewardess (who was forced by company policy to retire when she married) was among the 4,815 voters whose Measure O ballots were counted Tuesday night at the city council chambers. A yes victory on O would have again lifted the oil ban and cleared the way for E & B Natural Resources to drill 30 oil wells from the city maintenance yard into the city’s uplands and tidelands.
As estimated 1,500 mail in ballots and an unknown number of provisional ballots remain to be counted. But with 13,898 registered voters, the Measure O vote turnout could exceed 60 percent, according to Hermosa Beach campaign consultant Fred Huebscher.
City Clerk Elaine Doerfling described Tuesday’s turnout as a modern era record, made all the more remarkable because Measure O was all that was on the ballot.
By comparison, approximately 50 percent of registered Hermosa voters turned out last November, when the ballot included include a school bond, two council seats an assembly seat, a state senate and a Congressional seat.
Measure O’s margin of defeat may also be a Hermosa election record. As of Tuesday evening, the vote was 1,016 (21 percent) in favor and 3,799 (79 percent) opposed.
Lines of voters dozens deep had already formed at 7 a.m. Tuesday when poll workers opened their doors at City Hall, the Kiwanis Hall, Clark Hall, the Community Center Gym and Hope Chapel. By 9 a.m, all five polling places had run out of provisional ballots. A city employee made a nearly three hour, round trip run to Santa Ana to pick up additional provisional ballots.
An unusually large number of mail in ballots were cast.
The last time Hermosa ran its own election was in 1999, when voters approved rezoning part of the Learned Lumber property for residential development. Mail in ballots that year numbered about 500, City Clerk Doerfling recalled. By Monday of this week, her office had received over 3,000 mail in ballots, a number that may account for over 40 percent of the Measure O votes.
Doerfling is required to visually verify each mail in ballot signature with its corresponding voter registration signature on the Los Angeles County’s website. Every vote will be counted, she said, despite the fact the number remaining to be counted is insufficient to reverse the election’s outcome.
By law the city clerk has 24 days to count all ballots. But Doerfling said she hopes to present final results to the city council at its March 24 council meeting.
Not since the 1972 South End Redevelopment measure has a Hermosa Beach election elicited such strong emotional feelings. Redevelopment promised millions for the city in additional property taxes. Measure O promised hundreds of millions over 35 years in oil royalties to the city and school district. But in both cases people voted their fears, not their pocket books. Redevelopment was rejected in 1972 by a 68 percent vote (2,571 no, 1086 yes).
Tuesday’s election attracted national attention, including stories in the New York Times and on NPR, because of its statewide implications. Drilling into the tidelands, anywhere in California, is banned by the 1995 California Coastal Sanctuary Act. But Hermosa’s maintenance yard is exempt from the ban because E & B’s drilling permit from the state was issued in 1994.
E & B president Steve Layton acknowledged in 2012, at the start of his campaign to reverse Hermosa’s drilling ban, that winning over voters was a long shot. Those odds worsened in the weeks leading up to the election when oil prices dropped 50 percent, an explosion felt in neighboring Redondo Beach rocked the ExxonMobil refinery in Torrance and the Los Angeles Times headlined a story, “Hundreds of illicit oil wastewater pits found in Kern County.” E & B is headquartered in Kern County.
Even the oil proposal’s independently prepared Health Impact Analysis proved a double edge sword for E & B. While stating the oil project would not negatively impact health, it also predicted “a potential benefit from [increased] political involvement.”
The increased political involvement was unprecedented in Hermosa history. Unfortunately for E & B, the increased involvement came primarily from Measure O opponents.
Traditional political activists such as former councilman George Schmeltzer, Democratic Party activist Dency Nelson, Surfrider chairperson Craig Cadwallader and 1958 Shell Oil veteran Barbara Guild, ran a traditional, door knocking, voter registration campaign against Measure O.
Their efforts were reinforced by a coalition of traditionally apolitical surfers, musicians and artists driven by environmental fears, who turned the no drilling campaign into a showcase for political activism in the age of social media.
No on O signs were projected at night onto the sides of building, including city hall, Vons, Easy Reader’s office and even E & B’s office, just long enough for a photo to be posted on the StopHermosaBeachOil website and its corresponding Facebook page.
Musician Kevin Sousa brought together Pennywise and other prominent local musicians for recording No on O songs at studio 637, adjacent to the proposed drilling site. The recordings were also posted on social media. History Channel documentary filmmakers David Keane and Aradia Berjonneau produced public service announcements. An anonymous artist, created posters in the propaganda style of Shepard Fairey’s Obama “Hope.” Gallery-quality prints were auctioned to raise funds for the No On O campaign.
Professional surf photographers Ricky Lesser, Brad Jacobson and Ken Pagliaro photographed surfers surfing with No on O signs. One photo caught Spyder Surf’s Chris Broman holding one of the posters deep in a barreling wave. Another showed former Mira Costa surf star Payne English racing across the face of a wave, his afro blown back, holding a no on oil yard sign.
Michael Finch, E & B Natural Resources’ vice president of Health Safety and Environment (HSE) and Governmental Affairs spoke to service clubs, high school classes and anyone else who would have him in an effort to focus the Measure O debate, in his words, on “science, not propaganda.”
His problem was that the science was buried in over 1,500 pages of jargon-laden environmental, cost benefit and health reports.
As recently as Saturday, at the Lanakila Outrigger Regatta, it fell to Surfrider’s Cadwallader to explain to a young voter who asked how far off shore the oil rigs would be, that there would be no offshore oil rigs. The drilling would be from land.
E & B conducted a conventional political campaign highlighting the potential $600 million in city and school royalties and enlisting endorsements from the Hermosa Beach Police Officers Association and as many supportive residents as they could convince to brave the threat of personal attacks.
The Hermosa Beach School Board was too intimidated to even to meet with E & B to discuss the company’s royalty offer, should the measure pass.
The Hermosa council was legally prohibited from taking a collective position on the measure. But each council member, some belatedly, came out against drilling.
As the results came in Tuesday night, Layton took Measure O’s defeat with professional detachment.
“I wish a different choice had been made, but it’s still a great day for Hermosa. Three years ago, the city was facing a judgement of hundreds of millions [from adverse court rulings on the city’s oil contract]. I can take satisfaction in knowing that threat has been lifted. And Hermosa’s [oil] resource is still there. Maybe someday circumstances will change,” he said.
E & B’s lease agreement for the city yard remains in effect, keeping the door open for another vote to lift the city’s oil ban.
Schmeltzer agreed with Layton, that the election left the city in a better place than it had been three years ago.
“This is a real community win. And that’s not to take anything away from those who supported oil. I’m sure they thought what they were doing was good for the city. But I think we were on the right side of this. And I think the mayor said it best: “We don’t want to be an oil town.”
An estimated 200 Measure O opponents were already in a celebratory mood Tuesday night at the downtown Standing Room restaurant when City Clerk Doerfling announced the results from the fifth and final precinct shortly before midnight.
After the cheering finally subsided, Sousa called for a song. “And I think you know what song I mean,” he yelled.
The song was the Pennywise anthem “Bro Hymn,” written in memory of a band member who died. The original refrain “Bro, oh, oh oh” was substituted with the refrain“Go, go home, go, go, go home.”
Schmeltzer, a veteran of the 1972 Redevelopment election, said, this election was not as mean spirited. The 1972 council’s support of redevelopment led to an unsuccessful council recall effort
“Mayor Quentin Thelen called me a Communist in 1972. The worst I’ve been called in this campaign is a tree hugger,” Schmeltzer said.
But he acknowledged emotions over Measure O occasionally boiled over, leading to concerns about the election’s aftermath.
“The root of the word ‘sarcasm,’ which has run rampant on social media, means to tear flesh. Is this really what we want to do to our fellow citizens, even in words?” St. Cross Rector Reverend Rachel Nyback asked in a newspaper letter to the editor.
“My question to our community, to the leaders of our city, to the leaders of Keep Hermosa Hermosa is how are we going to be one Hermosa as of March 4?
“My hope, and dare I say my prayer is, that we can begin to look beyond this black and white way of thinking and come together as a community to address our common problems, because we are all one Hermosa.”
Additional reporting by Alyssa Morin. ER