Apodaca: Huntington Beach faces changes whether it embraces them or not

Visitors chat at the end of the Huntington Beach Pier as a shipping container vessel anchors off the coastline in 2019.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Oh, Huntington Beach. You were doing so well — actually taking steps toward becoming a healthy, evolved, 21st-century city. Now, thanks to a series of ignoble moves by current city leaders, you’re once again looking like the poster child for what my late sister used to call “lockjaw of the mind” syndrome.

Granted, even before the recent episodes, the city still had a long way to go to overcome its notoriety as a magnet for neo-Nazis.

Indeed, it remains saddled with a tragically deserved reputation for being a community that fiercely, sometimes viciously, clings to its racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, and otherwise intolerant roots — a reputation that is reinforced every time a white supremacist demonstration is held or Nazi symbols surface.

So I don’t mean to suggest that this element disappeared. It never did. Yet many of us took heart from the rays of progress that had begun to peak through in recent years.

Two years ago, for example, when Ku Klux Klan propaganda was circulated in Huntington Beach, the City Council issued a full-throated condemnation of the incident — a council that, significantly, included the first black member — and passed three anti-racism measures. The council also voted to fly the LGBTQ Pride flag during Pride Month every year.

These moves toward greater inclusion reflected the reality that Huntington Beach is inching toward diversity in its populace. In the 2010 U.S. Census, the city’s population was found to be 76.7% white; by the 2020 census, that share had fallen to 63.7%. For once, it seemed, the city appeared to be a more welcoming place.

But a majority on the current City Council want to erase the progress, rewind the clock and hurl Huntington Beach back into its exclusionary, intolerant cocoon. Four members of the seven-member council — Mayor Tony Strickland, Mayor Pro Tem Gracey Van Der Mark, Pat Burns and Casey McKeon — have been championing this disturbing vision over the objections of the remaining three members and despite pleas from many residents to reconsider their stances.

That Pride flag? Now it’s banned, thanks to a sly move by that majority to restrict the flags approved for display on city property to those representing the United States, California, Orange County and Huntington Beach, along with the POW/MIA flag and those representing the six branches of the U.S. military.

Daily Pilot columnist Patrice Apodaca believes a new City Council rule that effectively prohibits flying the LGBTQ Pride flag outside City Hall is discriminatory.

They denied the decision was aimed at the Pride flag, even though it was the only one on the previously approved list that was excluded. Burns, who proposed the measure, even had the temerity to suggest the Pride flag — widely recognized as symbol of love and acceptance — is “divisive” and that was justification for prohibiting it.

That vote was followed by another troubling decision by the same four-member majority. Earlier this month, they moved to restrict who would be eligible to deliver the invocations at council meetings. These prayers have been offered by religious leaders who are part of the Greater Huntington Beach Interfaith Council.

The dubious rationale for ditching that system, and instead instructing the city manager and city attorney to compile a list of approved religious leaders, was that the prayers had become “highly political.”

Was that really the reason? Or did the move have more to do with the Interfaith Council’s stated goal of “understanding, respecting, promoting and celebrating spiritual and cultural diversity,” or with the participation by a rabbi who had previously criticized Van Der Mark for posting what he described as bigoted material online?

These actions should also be viewed within the context of another development: Huntington Beach’s costly, controversial legal battle with the state over California’s affordable housing mandate.

It’s a complicated story, but suffice it to say that the City Council refuses to abide by state laws seeking to remedy the severe housing shortage that has priced far too many people out of the market for homes, contributing to homelessness and decisions by residents to move out of the state.

These are problems that were caused, or at least exacerbated, in large measure by NIMBYism; now Huntington Beach is pulling the ultimate Not In My Backyard move by blocking the solution. The stated reasons for opposing the mandate center around accusations that it’s a draconian power play that subverts local control and threatens to overly urbanize the city.

But it’s impossible to ignore that the city leaders heading up the charge are same ones that champion other exclusionary policies. It’s fair to ask if their motivations for opposing the housing laws are rooted in an ideologically driven goal of keeping out a certain “element” they consider undesirable.

The four council members who were swept into power in last November’s elections were elected to four-year terms. It’s reasonable to assume they’re just getting started trying to impose their narrow vision of what Huntington Beach should look like.

But that vision won’t last forever. Like it or not, change is coming, and those who operate out of fear of that change will become yesterday’s news. At some point, voters will insist upon leaving Huntington Beach’s disgraceful lockjaw-of-the-mind legacy fully in the past.

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