After a series of forums that has left even some City Council candidates yawning, a motion picture advertiser is being credited with injecting a dose of adrenaline into Malibu's incorporation election campaign.
Not everyone, however, is giving Malibu resident Brian Fox rave reviews.
Depending on to whom you talk and their views on cityhood, Fox is either a catalyst for genuine debate or a cheap-shot artist bent on damaging sterling reputations.
For three weeks, he has taken out full-page ads in one or the other of Malibu's two weekly newspapers, attacking several of the 30 candidates as smooth-talking, pro-development wolves in sheep's clothing who are ready to do the bidding of developers if voters approve cityhood June 5.
"If nothing else, I hope the ads make people think," said Fox, who owns B. D. Fox & Friends, a Santa Monica advertising agency. "Some of these people have realized that they can't beat cityhood from the outside, so they're trying to do it from the inside out."
His targets thus far have been land-use attorney Paul Shoop, retired Municipal Court Judge John Merrick, and real estate brokers Richard Idler and Jack Corrodi.
The ads accuse Merrick of leading the campaign that defeated cityhood in 1964, when he received enough votes to have been elected to the City Council had incorporation not failed. Shoop, the ads claim, "stands to make millions" from land he owns in the Civic Center area if a pro-development council is elected. He similarly accuses Idler of favoring "gross overdevelopment," and calls Corrodi, who is one of two candidates openly opposed to cityhood, the "Joe Isuzu of Malibu."
But while those attacked have been stung by the accusations, several slow-growth, anti-sewer candidates who privately agree with much of the ads' contents are concerned that the ads may backfire at their expense.
"Negative campaigning is not my cup of tea," said Carolyn Van Horn, who was co-chairwoman of the Malibu Committee for Incorporation before entering the race for City Council. "Besides that, I think there is some concern that the ads give the impression of creating a slate for these people."
Others in the slow-growth camp worry that by giving Shoop, Idler and Corrodi equal billing with Merrick, the ads may have already given their candidacies a valuable boost. The soft-spoken Merrick, 72, is among a handful of candidates, including Walt Keller and Larry Wan, who is most often mentioned as a near shoo-in to claim one of the five City Council seats.
"Here you've got a guy who has either married or buried half the people in Malibu," one observer said of Merrick. "And besides that, he even looks like an elder statesman."
For the most part, Merrick and the others have responded with righteous indignation.
Merrick insists that he played only a passive role in opposing cityhood in 1964, saying his opposition was based on doubts about the way boundaries were drawn and about Malibu's ability to support itself financially.
Shoop acknowledges that he and his wife own a 50% interest in nine acres in the Civic Center area, where a San Luis Obispo firm wants to build about 75 condominiums, but he chafes at the charge that he is a developer. "I've never built anything in my life," he said. "And look, people have enough sophistication to know that as a member of the City Council, I could never participate in a land-use decision involving property in which I have an interest."
Idler contends the ads have smeared him as a developer unconcerned about the environment and insists that "nothing could be farther from the truth. . . . Anyone who knows me knows I'm very much concerned with quality of life in this community."
But while dodging such accusations, even the targets of Fox's barrage acknowledge that the ads have probably helped more than they have hurt.
"Look, it has done me a favor," Corrodi said. "From a political strategy standpoint, I've never felt it was a good idea to advertise your opponents."
Fox, meanwhile, says he plans to continue the ads for the remainder of the campaign.
He said the ads grew out of discussions among a "an informal group of friends that something needed to be done to expose some of the people we regard as pro-development candidates from sneaking onto the City Council."
"After the long struggle to achieve cityhood, the ultimate irony would be if the developers were able to put their own people in control," Fox said.
Although the ads are identified as being sponsored by Friends of Malibu Cityhood, Fox said he has paid for the ads himself. He is listed as the group's treasurer.
He insists that no council candidates were involved.
"The problem with what I like to call the good-guy candidates is that a lot of them are just regular Joes. They don't know how to advertise, and they don't have a lot of charisma. I figure they need all the help they can get."