MAN OF THE YEAR
Barks is former mayor, Sister City prez
by Ryan McDonald
People kept telling George Barks that the city needed him.
It was the early 1970s, and Barks kept hearing from residents about hot-button property rights issues. They thought his pro-business attitude was what the city needed, and urged him to run for City Council. But although Barks was well known in the community, he had not served on a city commission, often considered a stepping stone for a council seat.
So to establish his civic bonafides Barks got involved with the Hermosa Beach Sister City Association. The program, one of hundreds that sprung up around the country during the Eisenhower Administration, aimed to create “citizen diplomats” who would foster international cooperation from the ground up.
Barks, who will be honored Tuesday as the Man of the Year by the Hermosa Beach Chamber of Commerce and Visitors’ Bureau, went on to win that council seat, as well as two more terms. He oversaw an influential period in Hermosa’s history, and the terms in office established a streak of civic involvement that continues till today: he is such a frequent and determined presence at City Council meetings that “I actually agree with George Barks” has become something of a running gag during public comment.
But for Barks, the Sister City Association became more than just a resume filler. He want on to serve as president, remains a board member, and was instrumental in arranging celebrations associated with the organization’s 50th anniversary in 2017. The link between the two reveals what defines Barks’ legacy in Hermosa: a belief in civil discourse, and that temporary disagreements obscure just how much common ground there is in 1.4 square miles.
“I think it’s just as relevant, if not more so, because of all the problems in the world,” Barks said of the sister city program. “These are people-to-people programs, student exchanges, commerce exchanges, learning another country’s culture and way of life. We have so much in common. Everybody wants the opportunity to adequately support their family, more freedom, more democracy.”
Barks grew up in Hermosa, where his family had moved in 1938 and opened a popular grocery store. He worked and developed ties to the city’s business community, and became attuned to civic issues during a council recall attempt sparked by disagreement over Hermosa’s Redevelopment Agency, a state-sponsored local government body designed to clean up blight. (Gov. Jerry Brown eliminated redevelopment bodies in 2011.) The recall went nowhere, but once on the council, Barks helped do away with the agency. Although it meant funds for the city, Barks opposed the eminent domain power they brought with them on principal.
It set a template for his persistent style of advocacy. For decades, he pushed for a plan to combine the fire departments of the Beach Cities, which he said would save money without compromising service and response times. He continued to do so even as Hermosa moved forward with a plan to contract with the Los Angeles County Fire Department.
Hermosa resident George Schmeltzer was a Barks’ colleague on the council in the late ‘70s. The two would often meet for a burger at the Bob’s Big Boy before meetings, and discuss issues in the city. He recalled that, although he and Barks split along ideological lines and often found themselves on opposite sides of votes, “we were always able to talk about things,” adding that Barks’ commitment to Hermosa was impossible to ignore.
People like [Barks] keep the community together. So many people never want to get involved at all, or only stick around for one controversy or issue,” Schmeltzer said.