Veteran politicians in Garden Grove hardly expected Shakespearean theater to be a central theme in this year’s races for two City Council seats and the mayor’s job.
But it is. And it also is one key reason why several newcomers in the race were enticed to join the fray.
For the past year, the previously conservative--some would say stodgy--Garden Grove City Council has been almost a free-for-all. The jostling began almost as soon former Mayor Jonathan H. Cannon, a cool politician and referee of disputes, left office in 1987 to become an Orange County Municipal Court judge.
Enter the outspoken J. Tilman Williams, who came out of retirement to run for mayor last November in the election to fill Cannon’s unexpired term. Williams beat longtime Councilman Milton Krieger by a mere 18 votes. Two other councilmen, W.E. (Walt) Donovan and Robert F. Dinsen, finished within 75 votes of the victor.
Since then, Williams and Krieger have sparred at almost every Monday night council meeting. Most of the action has been aired by the Garden Grove television cable outlet, giving citizens plenty of opportunity to witness the exchanges.
This year, Williams and Krieger were expected to go at it again in a rough-and-tumble mayoral race. But Krieger, 53, pulled a surprise move, opting to retire after 14 years on the council because, he said, he was tired of the continual clashes.
Williams, 63, then claimed that the ceremonial duties of mayor took up too much time and instead chose to run for one of the two open council seats in the Nov. 8 election. That has left the mayor’s race to Donovan, Dinsen and a long-shot newcomer, 30-year-old Bill Corey, a schoolteacher.
Krieger’s decision not to run came at the end of a bitter, two-month debate concerning the Grove Theater Co., which traditionally has sponsored a Shakespearean festival with more than $80,000 provided by the city each year.
This year, Councilman Raymond T. Littrell, saying the “hard-hat” residents of Garden Grove did not care for a Shakespearean festival, moved to drastically slash the funding. Williams and Dinsen sided with Littrell, whose term does not expire until 1990.
Amid public pressure, the council later restored $53,000 of the funding, but the weekly quarrels served to focus on the general tension among the council members.
Redevelopment of the city’s cluttered downtown business district and funding for a program to expand the Police Department remain key issues in the Garden Grove races, but the Grove Theater Co. controversy is still receiving a lot of attention from some candidates.
Dinsen, who sought unsuccessfully to have his name changed legally to Taxfighter Bob Dinsen, is still publicly against the Shakespeare festival. Throughout his eight-year stint on the council, Dinsen, 71, has been against almost all funding to special causes.
“We subsidize plays where three-fourths of the attendees are from out of town,” he said.
Donovan, 62, keeps away from specifics and says only that he is running because “I think I have the ability to lead this council.” He has served on the council for 12 of the last 16 years.
Krieger has endorsed Donovan, and the race between Dinsen and Donovan is expected to be close. Corey, 30, is the dark horse. Corey, a bilingual education teacher in the Lynwood School District, is against major redevelopment and claims that working people in Garden Grove are not represented on the council.
“When this Yuppie phenomenon subsides, they will have a bunch of white elephants” in redeveloped areas, he said.
In the council race, Williams and Frank Kessler, former police chief, are counted as the favorites among the six candidates for the two seats being vacated by Krieger and Donovan.
The other four candidates have said the bickering on the present council contributed to their decisions to run.
If Dinsen wins the mayor’s race, the new council will appoint a replacement to fill his council seat. The third-place finisher in the six-candidate council race is likely to get the appointment, although the law does not require it.
Launching strong campaigns for the council are John A. (Gus) Modaffari, a Realtor who lost out for mayor last year, and Mark Leyes, a businessman and director of the Municipal Water District of Orange County.
Given outside chances to win are Barbara Sulzbach, a 65-year-old community volunteer who is founding president of a center for the elderly, and Evelyn (Evie) Schild, community services commissioner for the city and longtime community volunteer.
Kessler, 56, says he wants to focus his candidacy on continued redevelopment and generating funds to pay for the expansion of the police force in the city of 140,000. The police force will add more than 50 new officers under a five-year plan recently approved by the City Council.
Modaffari, also 56, says he wants to clean up the city and negotiate redevelopment contracts that would benefit it. But he also said the present council is “a joke. They haven’t done a thing in a year. We need new leadership.”
Leyes, 30, said the controversy over the Grove Theater Co. should not have been the top priority for “two months, when we have other important issues to confront.”
“I think the Shakespeare festival is one of the best programs in Garden Grove. But the bickering caused a lot of people, even from other cities, to take a look at this council,” Leyes said.
Sulzbach, who has also received Krieger’s endorsement, said the feud over the festival has “impeded” the function of the present council. As a longtime community volunteer, Sulzbach said she had “the time and dedication and the experience” necessary to serve on the council.
“This council has not been functioning well. I have the ability to work to accomplish the goals that are necessary for the city,” she said.
Schild, 50, said the City Council has long engaged in “political football” over many important issues.
“We can’t make decisions. A lot of the things we do in Garden Grove have happened for a long time and we need a change,” Schild said. “We need to focus on redevelopment so we can have the money to invest in our Police Department and enhance our cultural arts program.”
Garden Grove’s mayor and council members are paid $500 a month each.
Voters citywide will decide Nov. 8 between three candidates (left) running for mayor and six (right and below) running for two vacant city council seats.
If Councilman Robert F. Dinsen, whose council seat is not at stake in this election, wins the mayoral race, the new council will appoint someone to fill his seat.
GARDEN GROVE CITY ELECTION CANDIDATES