The changing of the guard in Culver City this week turned from what traditionally is an uneventful rotation into a power play that bumped Councilman Jim Boulgarides from his turn as mayor and bared for all to see a political rift that has been growing in the City Council.
For 16 years, the largely ceremonial post of mayor has rotated among City Council members, and Monday night Boulgarides was expected to take over the office. Instead, Paul Jacobs, who most recently served as mayor in 1988-89, was elected after he, Jozelle Smith and Mike Balkman voted as a bloc. The three generally make up a council majority on development issues.
Outgoing mayor Steven Gourley voted for Boulgarides. Both of them were elected in 1988 on slow-growth platforms.
Rae Reiter, vice president of the Fox Hills-Ladera Democratic Club, was witness to the proceeding. "It was a disgusting display, a very clear-cut power grab," she said after the meeting. Her club has supported Democrats Jacobs, Gourley, and Boulgarides in council elections.
"That was the most depressing election for mayor we've had in a long, long time," said Howard Welinsky, who is active in city politics and is a friend of all three men.
Boulgarides, who was on the council from 1972 to 1980--during the time the mayoral rotation began--said the tradition was started to eliminate just the kind of jockeying for the position that occurred on Monday. "It de-emphasized the role, it created more harmony," he said.
The mayoral post provides valuable exposure to incumbents during an election year, because the mayor is invited to community events and makes speeches as the official spokesman for the city. Both Jacobs' and Boulgarides' terms expire next year. Jacobs said he hasn't decided whether to run for reelection. Boulgarides said he will probably run again.
This is the fourth time Jacobs, a councilman since 1976, will serve as mayor. Reiter said a testimonial to the rotation tradition is the fact that Jacobs took his turns as mayor despite being at times a member of the council minority.
Except for Balkman, who has only a year's experience on the council, Boulgarides was the only member who had not served as mayor in recent years. According to his supporters, it was his turn.
But instead, Jacobs was nominated by Balkman, with Smith seconding.
An angry Gourley challenged them to voice their objections to Boulgarides, a 67-year old business professor. "Is it because he fights for what he believes in? . . . Because he wants to protect the residential character of the city? . . . Because he asks tough questions of staff? . . . Because he's the elder statesman of this council?" Gourley asked.
Balkman and Smith in later interviews said they opposed Boulgarides as mayor because he doesn't have time for the job, a statement that Boulgarides disputes. "You really have to be out in the community, representing the City Council at any number of functions," said Smith, who was mayor in 1989. "I very, very seldom see him at anything," she said.
And, Balkman added, Boulgarides is not "representative of the majority of the council, and I think we need to have a mayor that is representative."
Jacobs refused to comment, saying after the council meeting, "I'll let others speculate about reasons."
Gourley said that it appeared that the arrangements for the upset were made secretly, "in political back rooms."
After the meeting, Jacobs denied any secret attack plan. "We make the decisions out here, we vote out here . . . the discussion was made openly. "
"Council members are always discussing items with each other. There are no decisions made beforehand," he said.
But in an interview, Smith said that last weekend, she, Balkman and Jacobs decided about the nominations. "I can't even remember how we decided. . . . One of us, Mike or I, would nominate Paul as mayor."
"They made all these decisions before we went into the meeting, which is interesting in light of the Brown Act," Boulgarides said. The act, also known as the open meetings law, requires that all meetings of legislative bodies be open and public. Any quorum that discusses public business without being open to the public could be a violation of the law.
Smith noted that the selection of mayor had always been unanimous before, and Monday's divided vote is "sort of a reflection of the kind of division we've been seeing, in majority and minority voting, in the past couple or three years."
"It would be great if we all thought and felt the same way," she said, "but being from diverse backgrounds, we maintain philosophical differences, that's reflected in lopsided votes."
Further evidence of the council split was seen as other positions were filled at the meeting.
Boulgarides was unanimously voted vice mayor after being nominated by Smith. Then Balkman beat Gourley for the chairmanship of the Redevelopment Agency. Jacobs nominated Gourley for vice chairman, but Smith was chosen when Gourley declined the post.
Gourley was offended by the second-seed offers to him and Boulgarides. "I'm not about to take bones off Paul Jacob's plate," Gourley said in an interview.
Some residents blamed Jacobs for denying Boulgarides the mayoralty and said it was killing the rotation system and creating a political rift in the town.
"The real damage to the town is exactly what the rotation system was designed to prevent," Welinsky said. "The town is very split" with lots of "disappointment and anger (over) Paul Jacobs essentially abusing the prerogatives the people gave him by making him councilman. I suppose his act, which is basically designed to increase his personal power, is symptomatic of someone who's been in public office too long."
Welinsky said he thinks Jacob's maneuvering may backfire. "I hope he can salvage his term on the council, because I think he's hurt himself politically very much," he said.
Reiter, of the Democratic Club, agreed, saying that many Democrats were already disenchanted with Jacobs' allying himself with the more conservative, pro-business and pro-development side of the council. "If he's planning to run again, he's going to lose the support he always got his victories with," she said.
Boulgarides claimed the political maneuvering was Jacobs' "sour grapes" stemming from a building height limit measure that voters approved last year. The council majority of Jacobs, Smith and then-councilman Richard Alexander voted to put a competing measure on the ballot, which candidate Balkman also favored. Jacobs was furious that Boulgarides signed ballot arguments against the council measure, Boulgarides and others say.
But Boulgarides said he is not bitter about the political coup. "My mandate doesn't come from the people sitting up here," but from the voters, he said on the council dais Monday. "I could care less whether Paul Jacobs thinks I should be mayor."
Outgoing Mayor Gourley, known for his spicy words and occasionally unorthodox ideas, continued in that style on Monday at both the council meeting and an earlier fund-raiser. Gourley said he stands by the suggestion he made last month that the United States close its borders to undocumented immigrants. He apologized "to all those people who perceived those comments as racist," but said the the country is threatened with a "Malthusian nightmare on our borders" and the "inundation and destruction of our institutions by illegal immigration and by overpopulation."
Later, he wondered aloud: "If (Boulgarides is) not acceptable, I don't see why I am. It would seem I'm the more controversial member of the council.
"He (Boulgarides) is in touch with the community, he's active in the community, he's articulate. . . . What more do you need to be mayor?"