LOCAL ELECTIONS SEAL BEACH CITY COUNCIL : Vote Seen as Referendum on Hellman Ranch Project

When voters go to the polls Tuesday to fill two open seats on the City Council, they will be voting not only for the four candidates in the runoff but also deciding the future of development in this beach community, the candidates say.

The central issue in the campaign is the Mola Development Corp.'s proposed $200-million housing project for the Hellman Ranch property.

Local leaders say Tuesday’s election--which offers voters a choice between a two candidates for and two against the Mola plan--will be, in effect, a referendum on what residents want the city to do with one of the last remaining parcels of vacant land in the city.

“This election is probably one of the most important the city has had in a long time,” said outgoing Councilwoman Joyce Risner, a supporter of the Mola proposal. Risner is vacating her District 3 seat because of the city’s two-term limit.


The council seats up for election represent two of the most diverse districts in the city.

In District 1, which covers downtown and Surfside, the candidates are Marilyn Bruce Hastings, 61, and Joe Rullo, 54.

In District 3, which covers part of the Leisure World retirement community and the area between Pacific Coast Highway and Gum Grove Park, the candidates are Galen F. Ambrose, 49, and Gwen Forsythe, 35.

Rullo and Forsythe support the Mola proposal, while Hastings and Ambrose oppose it. The four were the top vote-getters in their district races in the March 27 election.

Mola’s proposal was approved by the City Council last fall, but an Orange County Superior Court commissioner in March invalidated that approval. Now a new council will begin a new round of public hearings on the project, soon after the new council members are seated May 15.

The current Mola plan calls for 329 homes, 26 acres of parks and 41 acres of restored wetlands. According to Forsythe, who headed the effort to have the parks included in the plan, this project may represent the best use the city can make of the land.

Her opponent, Ambrose, disagrees, saying that local decision-makers are selling Seal Beach’s most precious commodity to the highest bidder.

Ambrose is co-founder of Wetlands Restoration Society, which succeeded in getting the Mola plan invalidated on the grounds that permits for the project were issued under a section of the city’s General Plan that was outdated. Ambrose proposes doing away with most of the project’s 329 proposed units in the interest of saving 100 acres of what were originally wetlands.

Hastings said she believes that slow, controlled development of the tract may be necessary, but that she would fight to do away with the Mola plan in hope of getting a better deal for the city.

Rullo, her opponent, said the plan’s density of 2.2 homes per acre and the public amenities included in the plan would benefit Seal Beach citizens.

If Ambrose and Hastings both succeed in gaining council seats, Mola may have a difficult time gaining approval for the project. Much of the support for the development in the past has come from council members Risner and Mayor Victor S. Grgas. Grgas is also leaving the council because of the two-term limit.

The candidates have been spending much of their pre-election energy pointing out the lack of experience of their foes and defending their own track records.

Rullo accused Hastings of being a Johnny-come-lately who has never been involved in city affairs until this election. “I’m running on experience,” he said. “I have experience, she has none.”

Hastings countered that she has been involved in the city as a concerned citizen since she got involved in a successful fight against a development of more than 700 houses planned four years ago for Hellman Ranch.

Forsythe--described by her opponent, Ambrose, as an “inexperienced housewife"--called the campaign mudslinging “low blows” and said Ambrose resorts to these tactics because he is afraid that he cannot win by running on the issues.

Forsythe, who has helped her husband operate a sign business since it opened five years ago, has been a member of the city Planning Commission since earlier this year.

Ambrose, in a letter to constituents earlier this month, said: “A person can only negotiate skillfully (with developers) if they have education, knowledge and experience.”

He cited his master’s degree in business and his experience as controller of a company with a budget larger than the city’s as qualifying him for the job.

Though many laud Ambrose for his efforts to save the wetlands, Risner--who is supporting Forsythe and Rullo--said Ambrose’s three years as a Seal Beach resident have not given him enough time to understand the city’s issues and the people.

Others question why someone billing himself as an environmentalist would work for a commercial air-conditioning factory, which produces ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons.

“I have to make a living like everybody else,” Ambrose said. “I don’t know of any industry that doesn’t impact the environment.”


District 1

Marilyn Bruce Hastings

Age: 61

Occupation: Property management specialist

Background: Hastings served on the board of directors of Children’s Memorial Hospital Auxiliary in Long Beach and was the founding member of the Long Beach chapter of GOP Juniors. She was also given an honorary lifetime membership in the Long Beach Parent-Teacher Assn.

Joe Rullo

Age: 54

Occupation: Engineering contractor

Background: Rullo has served on the city Planning Commission for three years. He is also active with the Surfside Colony Homeowners Assn. and has served on the Civil Service board.

District 3 Galen F. Ambrose

Age: 49

Occupation: Financial controller

Background: Ambrose helped found and is now vice president of the Seal Beach-based Wetlands Restoration Society. The environmental group, which is opposed to the Hellman Ranch development, won a court battle to have the city take a second look at the project.

Gwen Forsythe

Age: 35

Occupation: Financial manager for advertising agency

Background: Forsythe is a city planning commissioner and has worked on the traffic safety committee and coordinated an anti-substance abuse committee with the Seal Beach Police Department.