In Malibu, millionaires spar over a slow-growth ballot measure

Measure R, a proposal on the Malibu ballot, would give voters the power to approve or deny future commercial development bigger than 20,000 square feet.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

The two millionaires squared off in the middle of the stage and sized each other up, staring eye to eye, like prizefighters.

On one side stood Steve Soboroff, president of the Los Angeles Police Commission — and developer. On the other stood Rob Reiner, an Emmy-winning actor and director and the public face of a contentious Malibu ballot measure.

The two took the stage Sunday night in a standing-room-only City Hall to debate a proposed slow-growth law that would regulate chain stores in the coastal city. But for a few moments, as the pair stood just inches from one another, the scene more closely resembled the weigh-in before a championship boxing match.


“We do have sheriff’s deputies here,” the debate’s co-moderator Dave Bryan warned the verbal pugilists. Nervous chuckles ensued.

The prize on this night was the hearts and minds of Malibu residents who will take to the polls next week to vote on Measure R — an initiative spearheaded by Reiner that would give voters the power to approve or deny any commercial development bigger than 20,000 square feet. Chain stores would be limited to 30% of the space in new shopping centers under the proposal.

The two men didn’t throw any physical punches. But they tried to land rhetorical knockout blows in testy exchanges.

“The guy exploded,” Soboroff said of Reiner on Monday morning. “When you don’t have the facts and when you’re wrong, that’s what people do — they yell loud.… I lost a lot of respect for him last night.”

Reiner scored the fight differently.

“At a certain point, when you just keep throwing stuff out that is not true, it’s upsetting to hear that over and over again,” he said later Monday. “He may have lost respect for me because I was angry, but that anger came from a very real place. I have absolutely no respect for him now.”

Reiner admitted his anger may have peaked toward the middle of the debate, after Soboroff insinuated that the actor’s camp had made a “backroom deal” that added an exemption to the measure.

Reiner said he was “completely insulted” and called the allegation “100% a lie.”

“When you make a deal, don’t you have to get something for it?” he said, returning to the topic later.

“Where’s my money? Give me the money! I’d love to have a backroom deal!” he yelled, his finger pointing, arms flailing. “I’m sick of that! I am sick of you making those accusations!”

“This is the Rob Reiner I’ve been reading about but never saw,” Soboroff quipped.

“You can’t handle the truth, is that what it is?” Reiner shot back, pulling a classic line from “A Few Good Men,” one of his most successful films.

The debate was high on sarcasm.

Asked by co-moderator and Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez whether Measure R rang of “not-in-my-backyard” sentiments, Reiner turned the longtime Westside stereotype into a virtue.

“I would say there’s a lot of NIMBY-ism. I would say there is NIMBY-ism for the entire city of Malibu. They care about their community. Not in my backyard!” he said. “You bet. It’s 100% NIMBY-ism. Everybody who lives here is concerned about their way of life.”

“Oh, my God,” Soboroff responded. “Can I use [my extra time] to be speechless?”

The ballot measure comes after years of discussion in town forums, planning meetings, and an ordinance regulating chain stores that the City Council passed in July. But supporters of the so-called Your Malibu, Your Decision Act say the council’s ordinance came too late and was not stringent enough.

Some City Council members said Sunday that they’ve become frustrated with the vitriol expressed around town — often aimed at them.

Councilwoman Laura Rosenthal criticized the “portion of our community” that believes “we cannot respectfully disagree.” Councilman Lou La Monte said the proposed measure would create “tons of unintended consequences,” and added that he would vote no.

“It’s Malibu,” said Mayor Pro Tem John Sibert, who also opposes the measure. “We have a bunch of people who have time, money and a sense of entitlement.

But if Measure R passes, he added, “we’ll go out there and defend it because it’s the law of the city.”

By the end of the evening, supporters swarmed both Soboroff and Reiner, lavishing both men with praise on their performance. Only a few hundred people were given tickets to the debate — green tickets to supporters of the measure and blue tickets for those against. Each side made T-shirts and were seated on separate sides of the room.

As it turned out, deputies did not make any arrests or escort anyone out of the building, Lt. James Royal said. But Planning Commissioner John Mazza, a fervent supporter of Measure R, predicted that regardless of how the vote goes next week, the debate over development in Malibu isn’t going to end.

And it’s not likely to get any nicer.

If the measure does not pass, Mazza said, “then we’ll have to do a recall.”

Twitter: @MattStevensLAT