As the nation inches closer to a war with Iraq, the city manager of Rancho Palos Verdes learned a valuable lesson Thursday morning: Don't say 'No' to the U.S. Marine Corps.
Last week, City Manager Les Evans turned down a request by the Marines to conduct night exercises in June at the site of the old Marineland theme park. In the past, helicopters and explosions that are part of the exercises had awakened residents in the affluent community and prompted angry phone calls to police.
So, when the Marine Corps asked for permission to conduct the exercises this year, Evans said no. "That was my opening negotiation," he said. "Obviously, I didn't expect it to turn out this way."
Word of his decision spread through town, and by the time Evans arrived at work a little past 7 a.m. Thursday, the local citizenry was quick to express its concern about the perceived lack of patriotism.
"Right now, public opinion is running 6 to 1 against me that I should cut my throat," Evans said.
Evans is a veteran of the Navy Seabees who served in Vietnam. It didn't matter. In his first minutes at work, he received six phone calls from angry residents and two more calls from members of the City Council.
"I was upset," said Councilman John McTaggart. "I know there are people who are annoyed by the noise and don't like it, but if it is a matter of improving skills for our servicemen, I certainly support" the exercises.
McTaggart said many of the complaints about the Marines were from residents whose pets were bothered by the noise.
Evans said his point was to create a better public awareness campaign to inform jittery residents that the exercises were the U.S. Marines and not a terrorist attack.
"I imagine by now he's probably heard from a few other council members who have yelled at him," said Rancho Palos Verdes Mayor Douglas Stern. "But I think the way he was handling it was appropriate. We need to let the public know what's going on. They're on pins and needles with the terrorist alerts going up and down."
Marineland, once a top tourist attraction, closed in 1987. Since then, the old theme park has become a filming location and is used as a training ground for police agencies. A 450-room hotel has been proposed for the site and is awaiting approval from the Coastal Commission.
Marines from Camp Pendleton have used the 100-acre site since the early 1990s because they can approach it by land, sea or sky. Marineland is usually a make-believe city or country in the exercises. A small number of troops -- usually fewer than 100 -- "invade" the park and recover either a person or valuable object, said Col. Pat O'Donogue.
"We'll have some troops approach Marineland by small rubber boat and then we'll have some troops out there looking for them to make sure their military field skills are up to par," O'Donogue said.
Breaching charges are used to blow open entranceways to Marineland during the exercise, and flash-bang grenades and paintball rounds are used to subdue "the enemy." After accomplishing their mission, troops are picked up by helicopter.
"We take our civic responsibility seriously," O'Donogue said. "When we've done this in the past, we've gotten noise complaints that you can count on one hand. But a couple of people have been very adamant about it. Duly noted."
Both O'Donogue and Evans are confident that an agreement can be worked out and that the Marines will again storm the beaches at Marineland this summer.
Evans, who served two tours in Vietnam, joked that "I'm thinking of going home and putting on my uniform" for the rest of the day.