Death of Carson Councilman Mills Stuns City Leaders

Times Staff Writer

Carson Councilman Tom Mills--a former mayor, an ordained minister and a space engineer--died Tuesday afternoon.

Mills, who died of undisclosed causes after a lengthy illness, was 54 and had been in office since 1980.

"We all liked Tom," said Mayor Kay Calas, part of a three-member council faction that usually opposed Mills and his ally, Councilwoman Sylvia Muise.

The death closes out a political partnership with Muise that has been a major factor in Carson politics for a decade. Muise was out of town and could not be reached for comment.

The two, aided in the early 1980s by former Councilmen Clarence Bridgers and Gil Smith, fought for affirmative action in city hiring, more careful treatment of hazardous waste, and the interests of mobile home owners and residents of north Carson.

2 Years of Turmoil

If Mills' death brings an end to that political alliance, it continues a two-year period of council turmoil that began in 1986 when Councilman Walter J. (Jake) Egan was indicted and convicted on political corruption charges and removed from his seat. Because of Egan's troubles and Mills' illness, the five-member council has functioned minus one member almost the entire time.

Three hotly contested elections have been held since 1986--the last one on April 12, just two weeks before Mills' death--and the new vacancy means another might be held in six months.

Under state law, the council must appoint a replacement by May 26 or set a special election on Nov. 8 and operate six more months with only four members. Calas said the council would consider the matter Tuesday.

Among those mentioned as contenders if the council opts for an election are Aaron Carter--the fourth-place finisher in the April 12 election, who was endorsed by Mills and Muise--and Gaddis Farmer, an independent who came in fifth. (Incumbents Calas, Michael Mitoma and Vera Robles DeWitt were all reelected.)

Carter, who announced Mills' death Tuesday to a shocked council, said in an interview that he would have preferred "to let that seat stay with (Mills), but that decision has been made for us. . . . People who are politically astute have told me I should strive for that seat."

He said, however, that it was premature to talk about Mills' replacement "in this short time we have to think about what he has done. . . . Mills is the focus now."

Mills, who was born in Williamson, W. Va., had a bachelor's degree from Virginia Union University in Richmond, Va., a master's degree in engineering from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., and a Ph.D. in engineering from USC.

A senior scientist and department manager at TRW Defense Systems and Space Group in Redondo Beach, Mills began his political career in the late 1970s when he and Muise--both subsequently elected as council members--helped organize Carsonites Organized for Good Government and successfully pushed for the recall of Councilmen John Marbut and Sak Yamamoto following charges that a trash contract was awarded without public comment to a company that had not submitted the lowest bid.

Elected in 1980 after the recall, he was reelected to full council terms in 1982 and 1986, with his strongest support coming from black, well-off sections in north Carson and mobile home parks. He served as mayor from 1982 to 1984.

As a council member, he pushed for construction of the city's Community Center and was an ardent advocate of affirmative action.

He also was a highly partisan member of the council faction led by Muise. In 1986, a political brochure that he helped put out through Carsonites Organized for Good Government resulted in a libel lawsuit, still pending, in which he, Muise, Carter and others are accused of misrepresenting trial testimony. The brochure linked Mitoma, who is a banker, to drug-money laundering. Both sides in the dispute have denied wrongdoing.

Despite political differences with Mills, Calas said: "We will miss Tom. We have already missed him. . . . We were friends off the floor. He was a good family man. I think he was a good man. He represented his constituents and I guess he represented them well. . . . I remember him saying we can disagree without being disagreeable."

Carter said Mills "was the epitome of what everyone would like to be. For myself, he was a leader. I am proud to have known him and wish he could continue to do those things which are necessary. . . . He was a man of the people. He was accessible to his constituents. He truly strived to see that their needs and concerns were answered."

City Clerk Helen Kawagoe said: "He was the one person who would stop on the way in to his office and say, 'How is it going?' He always had a cheerful word."

Last June, Mills had gall bladder surgery. He returned to the council, but soon suffered what he described as complications stemming from the operation. Last fall, however, he was well enough to go to Japan as part of a municipal delegation. After his return, he again became ill.

"He came back drawn and tired from Japan," Carter said. "He said it would be all right in six months. Then it went from crisis to crisis."

Mills last attended a council meeting in January. In several telephone interviews he said he intended to return soon and denied rumors that he had cancer.

"I think it is just of matter of me eating the right things and building my strength back up," he said on March 2.

As Mills' illness stretched on, it became a matter of council dispute, with Mitoma saying the public had a right to know if Mills would ever be able to return and Muise saying it was a private matter.

A spokesman for Kaiser Permanente hospital in Harbor City said that Mills died at 4:10 p.m. Tuesday of causes that the family did not want disclosed.

About 6 p.m., council members were voting on whether to excuse Mills from the meeting when Carter stepped forward. He told the council that Mills had died.

Calas broke into tears. So did City Clerk Kawagoe and her deputy. The mayor called a brief recess, attempted to continue afterward but adjourned the meeting early. She ordered the city to fly flags at half-staff in Mills' memory.

Survivors include his wife, Barbara; sons, Thomas Jr. and William Brian; daughters, Sharon, Cynthia and Audrey, and five grandchildren. Funeral arrangements have not been completed.

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