Huntington Beach’s 27-year-old declaration on human dignity could be in jeopardy

Huntington Beach Mayor Tony Strickland, center, and the City Council listen to concerned residents Tuesday night.
Huntington Beach Mayor Tony Strickland, center, and the City Council listen to concerned residents during Tuesday night’s meeting at City Hall.
(James Carbone)
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Huntington Beach City Councilwoman Natalie Moser looked down at her notes and took a deep breath.

It was just past 1 a.m. Wednesday, and a marathon City Council meeting that had already lasted more than seven hours was winding down. Besides council members and city staff, only a few people remained in the chambers.

The council was discussing its last agenda item of the night. The seven members were debating an item introduced by Councilman Pat Burns regarding whether they should amend or cancel the city’s longstanding “Declaration of Policy on Human Dignity,” first introduced in 1996.


What happened next surely woke up anyone who was getting a bit groggy.

Moser had just mentioned the original document talks about the Holocaust. She turned to her left, where Mayor Pro Tem Gracey Van Der Mark was sitting.

“Mayor Pro Tem, in the past it’s been brought up that you questioned whether the Holocaust happened,” Moser said. “I have never heard you ... “

Van Der Mark interrupted, offering an immediate rebuttal.

“OK, no, I never did that, so stop lying,” she responded. “I’m sick of your lying. All you’ve done is lie about me for years. You sit here and you shake your head up and down every time somebody comes and accuses me of denying the Holocaust, which I never did. They call me a Nazi, and you sit there and you’re like, ‘Right on.’”

This stunning exchange on the dais demonstrated just how deeply divided the Huntington Beach City Council remains nine months after Van Der Mark, Burns, Mayor Tony Strickland and Casey McKeon were each elected, forming a new conservative majority. Their council colleagues, Moser, Dan Kalmick and Rhonda Bolton, are all Democrats.

Shirley Dettoff, left, speaks to the Huntington Beach City Council on Tuesday night as Elaine Bauer-Keeley, right, listens.
Shirley Dettoff, left, speaks to the Huntington Beach City Council on Tuesday night as Elaine Bauer-Keeley, right, listens. Dettloff and Bauer’s father, Ralph, helped form the Huntington Beach Declaration of Policy on Human Dignity as council members in the mid-1990s.
(James Carbone)

The City Council is a nonpartisan body, per the California Constitution, so party affiliations do not appear on the ballot during election season. But in Huntington Beach, the political divide is obvious: Nearly every vote is carried by the conservative majority, 4-3, including Tuesday night’s votes to introduce 11 possible charter amendments and eliminate certain boards and committees, including the Human Relations Committee.

Burns’ agenda item on forming an ad hoc committee to review the Declaration of Policy on Human Dignity also passed with a 4-3 vote. Strickland had selected his fellow conservatives Van Der Mark, Burns and McKeon to serve on the committee, leading Moser to say, “I have questions,” and setting up the exchange.

With Moser’s query, a member of the council minority group brought up the elephant in the room for the first time. Van Der Mark responded in part to the Holocaust question on Tuesday night by saying that her husband’s uncle had been killed by the Nazis in World War II.

“How dare you,” she said, responding to Moser again. “You would know that if you would have had a conversation with me, instead of standing here making false accusations all of these years.”

Both Strickland and City Atty. Michael Gates stepped in on Van Der Mark’s behalf, calling the question inappropriate. But Moser maintained that it was relevant, given that Van Der Mark was to be put on the ad hoc committee for a declaration that deals with human rights.

“I don’t care about that,” she replied during the meeting Tuesday night when Strickland remarked that Van Der Mark’s husband was part Jewish, though Moser said in an interview Thursday that she regretted that remark.

“I would take that back,” she said. “What I meant was, ‘That’s not what I’m asking you about’ ... I wasn’t planning to do this.”

Natalie Moser, left, welcomes newly sworn in Rhonda Bolton to the City Council in 2021.
(File Photo)

The accusations that Van Der Mark was a Holocaust denier have followed her for years. Others have decried her alleged relationships with far-right organizations.

Moser specifically referred to a public playlist on Van Der Mark’s YouTube account, titled “Holocaust hoax?,” that featured anti-Semetic videos. OC Weekly also reported about the playlist, which was then deleted, in 2018.

“You can be in pictures with people, and that doesn’t mean you’re doing the same thing,” Moser said. “But how many times?”

In May of the same year the playlist was deleted, Van Der Mark was in the midst of an unsuccessful run for the Ocean View School District Board of Trustees when she was booted from two school district committees after allegedly referring to minorities as “colored people.” Van Der Mark, who is Latina, then appeared in front of the City Council and said the videos were on her YouTube account “for research purposes only.”

Van Der Mark said five years ago during her public comments that she was questioning the content, not supporting it, while adding that she was not antisemitic and did not deny the Holocaust. She echoed those sentiments in an interview Thursday.

“I’ve listened to [Moser] libel and slander me for a long time,” Van Der Mark said. “None of that is true. If she would have sat down for five seconds, she would have heard my side of the story. But instead, as an elected official, she sits up there and repeats these lies. She’s held at a higher standard than most people, given her position. She needs to be very careful ... that was a very personal attack on me.”

Van Der Mark said she had been told that there were people who deny the Holocaust, and she was sent videos. The title of one of the videos was called “The Holocaust Hoax,” so that was why she labeled the playlist with a question mark, she said.

“I never even watched the videos,” she said. “When you grow up in a low-income, Hispanic community, all you worry about is if you’re going to have a roof over your head, are you going to have food on the table for your kids. We don’t talk about any of this stuff.”

Huntington Beach Mayor Pro Tem Gracey Van Der Mark, center, laughs as Mayor Tony Strickland mentions her in March.
Huntington Beach Mayor Pro Tem Gracey Van Der Mark, center, laughs as Mayor Tony Strickland mentions her during his remarks at the Mayor’s Breakfast at the Senior Center in Central Park in March.
(File Photo)

Moser said Thursday that Van Der Mark’s past made her seriously question her ability to impartially amend or review the Declaration of Policy on Human Dignity. In 2018, the Anti-Defamation League called for her removal from the Huntington Beach Finance Commission, though the councilman who appointed her, Patrick Brenden, eventually elected not to oust her.

“To me, those things are a red line, especially the Holocaust hoax piece,” Moser said. “Those associations, and that history, I think it can be seen as indicative of bias that would compromise her capacity to ensure inclusivity and respect for everyone in the community. In my mind, they undermine her suitability for the role that she was given on that ad hoc [committee], which is what I was speaking to specifically.

“Personally, I think that they undermine her ability to do the role of being a council member, as well, but that’s not what I was referring to on Tuesday night. Her past history is public, it’s available, and it’s relevant to the review, amendment or cancellation of this document.”

Van Der Mark said Moser has never sat down with her to have a discussion about any of these issues since she was sworn in, despite the fact that they have an office on the same floor of City Hall.

Moser confirmed that was true Thursday.

“The only person that I’ve met with personally, from the four, is Tony before the second meeting of council,” she said. “I’ve never met with any of them other than that, and they’ve never reached out to have any type of dialogue, either. After that first meeting where they were sworn in, frankly, I was so offended by their decorum or lack thereof at that meeting.

“It isn’t my place to reach out, at that point. There was no olive branch passed on that night. It was chaos in the room. It was like we were in the Colosseum in Roman times.”

Natalie Moser and Gracey Van Der Mark, center left and center right, listen to public comments during a June meeting.
Huntington Beach City Councilwoman Natalie Moser, left, and Mayor Pro Tem Gracey Van Der Mark listen to public comments during a June meeting.
(File Photo)

As for the Declaration of Policy on Human Dignity, it was expanded in 2021 by the previous City Council. But Burns said during Tuesday night’s meeting that it could be on the chopping block.

“We have equal laws right across the books through our Constitution and every level of government that protects people in the same matter,” he said. “That’s all I’m doing, equal application of law for everybody.”

Shirley Dettloff, who constructed the original declaration with the help of the late Ralph Bauer, then-Huntington Beach Police Chief Ron Lowenberg and city staff, hopes it survives. Bauer and Dettloff were elected mayor in 1996 and ’97, respectively.

Dettloff and Bauer’s daughter, Elaine Bauer-Keeley, both spoke in favor of saving the declaration during public comments at this week’s meeting. The document was created after the 1994 murder of a Black man and the 1996 attempted murder of a Native American, both crimes committed in the city by white supremacists.

“I met with Pat Burns and let him know why this certainly was not the time to dismantle the Human Relations Committee and certainly the Declaration of Human Dignity,” Dettloff said Thursday. “I think it’s a very strong position, and it’s a position that our City Councils and our citizens have accepted since 1996. If the council would read it word by word, they would know that this is the kind of city all of us would like to live in — one that protects everyone that lives in that city.”