Political Novice Runs Big Developers Off the Beach : Environment: Debbie Cook didn't want buildings on the sand in Huntington Beach. And the voters showed Tuesday in passing Measure C that they don't either.


Debbie Cook sat outside her home Thursday in northwest Huntington Beach. On her lap were a pad and legal documents.

A frown crossed her face. Despite the historic passage of a beach and parks preservation law Tuesday, she fears pro-development forces on the City Council will try to get around the voter mandate and build on beach and bluff land.

"The people don't want it," she said. "Look at that vote on Tuesday. People don't want more buildings on the beach."

Cook was referring to the voters' 3-1 passage of Measure C, a City Charter amendment that forbids sale or lease of park or beach land without a citywide vote. The citizens' initiative, only the second in Huntington Beach's 81-year history, swept to victory despite a determined counterattack by the City Council majority and representatives of major developers.

The grass-roots victory has been hailed by environmentalists around the county. And it has also focused political attention on Cook, the key person behind Measure C. Praised by friends as being courageous and indefatigable, she is scorned by political enemies, who accuse her of being elitist and radical.

"We've always wondered where she's coming from," said Tom Duchene, executive vice president of a commercial mailing service who led the opposition to Measure C. "Some of her talk is more like the People's Republic of Santa Monica than Huntington Beach."

Added Councilman John Erskine: "I think there's a certain degree of elitism about her proposals."

By contrast, Councilman Peter Green and Councilwoman Grace Winchell praise her leadership in fighting for park preservation and against many development projects. "People have no idea how much time she gives of herself and how thankless it is," Winchell once said of Cook.

Who, then, is Debbie Cook? For starters, she is a 36-year-old manufacturers' representative, housewife and mother who had never been actively involved in politics before September, 1989. She grew up in Newport Beach, graduated from Corona del Mar High School and obtained a geology degree from Cal State Long Beach.

"I've never been involved in politics before," she said Thursday. "In college, I was more interested in volleyball and hiking."

But last year, Cook--who uses her maiden name--and her husband, John Fisher, became alarmed by City Council plans to convert a rough-hewn part of Central Park into a commercial golf course. Cook, Fisher and their 14-year-old son, Jody, live in a new home in Country View Estates, a subdivision near Central Park.

Cook and Fisher met with other residents of the Ellis-Golden West streets area. They decided to form an organization, called Save Our Parks, to block the lease of parkland for a golf course. Save Our Parks had no formal president or chairman, but Cook served as its spokeswoman and political lightning rod.

"We became concerned because the city had so many development proposals affecting parks and beaches," she said. "Pierside Village is the big reason we decided to seek a City Charter amendment."

Pierside Village is a long-proposed plan to build some new restaurants on paved land abutting the beach at the pier in downtown Huntington Beach. Supporters, including the city's Board of Realtors, say it would be an attractive addition to downtown. Critics, including Save Our Parks, Huntington Beach Tomorrow and other environmental groups, claim the plan would ruin the view of the beach and hamper public access to it.

Council members Green and Winchell, both foes of Pierside Village, supported Save Our Parks from the beginning. They tried to get the rest of the seven-member council to put a Charter amendment on the ballot but failed. Opponents said it would be "good experience" for Save Our Parks to "test the waters" by having to seek voters' signatures for an initiative.

Initiatives seldom qualify for the ballot in Huntington Beach. "There have only been two to make it to the ballot in the city's history," noted City Clerk Connie Brockway.

Nonetheless, Save Our Parks last fall began its street-corner efforts to get 16,000 voter signatures and to get a parks and beaches proposal on the ballot.

By June, when the petition was turned in, Save Our Parks believed it had more than enough valid signatures. But a check by the county registrar of voters office found duplications. Cook was told that the petition had failed. "That was a dark day," she recalled Thursday.

Something unexpected then happened. City Clerk Brockway began poring over the state lawbooks. "Sometimes the statutes are slightly differently worded," Brockway said.

Brockway found an obscure section of state law that requires fewer voter signatures for a proposed City Charter amendment than for a regular initiative. Brockway notified the city attorney, who double-checked the law and agreed. The initiative was saved. "Connie Brockway is the best city clerk in the world," Cook said.

After making its cliff-hanging way to the ballot, the initiative became Measure C. Then, the City Council majority decided to put a rival issue, Measure D, on the ballot. It would have only prohibited the sale of park and beach land--not leasing of such property. Cook said Measure D was a "developers' sham" and an "attempt to confuse the voters."

Some developer money did go into the Measure D campaign, but the issue failed to get as many votes Tuesday as Measure C. City Atty. Gail Hutton said that Measure C thus becomes law.

Cook said the battle is not over, and that developers are still pushing the City Council majority to try to ramrod Pierside Village to final approval. She said the developers are arguing that Measure C has not yet been certified.

"We've been told by our attorneys, however, that certification is only a technicality and that the measure is effective the date it was passed," Cook said.

Nonetheless, Cook added, Save Our Parks will be vigilant about enforcing the law.

Does the success of Measure C now mean that Cook will seek an elective office? She laughed at the question. "No way," she said. "I have no interest in that."

Fisher, her husband, said there is a good reason Cook eschews running for office. "Debbie has found out she can do more just as private citizen," Fisher said.

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