Manhattan Beach 2019 year in review
An Emoji House, an election, Mira Costa’s #metoo moment, and a few more bans
by Mark McDermott
Manhattan Beach prides itself on its iconic pier, beautiful beaches, superb schools, distinct neighborhoods, and its unusual combination of small-town charm and worldly sophistication. Yet in terms of global reach, the biggest story in the history of the town occurred this year. It concerned an emoji of a long-lashed smiley face painted on a house in the El Porto area last summer, the result of a Hatfield vs. McCoys neighborhood feud with a distinctly 2019 feel.
The Emoji House, as it came to be known, headlined the year in terms of the attention it received. It was featured on national television and reached news publications as far afield as Israel, England, and India. But within Manhattan Beach itself, this was an eventful year in other, arguably more substantive (if less symbolic) ways. The city enacted bans on smoking, polystyrene meat trays, and short-term rentals, moved all municipal operations to 100 percent renewable energy, aggressively addressed its homeless issues, kept its fire department local after flirting with LA County, and hired a new fire chief. The election of two new councilmembers, Suzanne Hadley and Hildy Stern, gave the city its first female majority council. And Mira Costa High School encountered physical and emotional difficulties, enduring an asbestos and mold scare and a troubling #metoo moment in which female students protested an alleged sexual assault that they said was indicative of campus culture.
The Emoji House
When Kathryn Kidd commissioned an artist to paint emojis on her house on 39th Street in El Porto, she intended to communicate her feelings to neighbors who’d reported her illegal use of the home as a short-term rental to the City of Manhattan Beach.
“You don’t even have to write a word anymore to let people know how you feel,” Kidd said. “If you are sad you send a sad face, and if you are happy you send a happy face.”
Her message traveled beyond Manhattan Beach. Newspapers ranging from the Washington Post to the Kenya Standard wrote about the neighborhood feud, as did Newsweek and Elle magazine (who listed the Emoji House in its “Top Ten Pettiest Moments of 2019). Every Los Angeles TV news station as well as CNN and NBC national news did segments outside the house. The two large emojis included one with a tongue lolling out of its mouth and another with a zipper for lips, common parlance in emoji communication for “shut up”; both were drawn with comically large eyelashes, apparently inspired by neighbor Susan Wieland’s eyelash extensions.
Wieland was among the neighbors who, after repeatedly warning Kidd, reported her for using her duplex on 39th Street as a short-term rental through Airbnb and VRBO. The city subsequently fined Kidd $4,000 for violating its law forbidding rentals shorter than a month. In early June, Kidd not only had the house painting a shocking pink but also commissioned an artist popular on Instagram, ZtheArt, to paint the emojis.
The emojis look directly at Wieland’s home. On June 8, she came home from a business trip and saw the emojis.
“It just took my breath away,” Wieland said. “I just came home and went inside. We still have the shades shut. It’s definitely directed at me. Every day I get up, I’m so depressed. I can’t look outside. I feel like I’m being bullied, frankly, by her. That word keeps coming up to me: she’s a bully, and she feels she is entitled. She just wants to make things uncomfortable for us.”
Kidd called the property “my happy house” and said the intention of the pink paint and emojis was to provide cheer in the neighborhood.
“You don’t even have to write a word anymore to let people know how you feel,” Kidd said. “ If you are sad you send a sad face, and if you are happy you send a happy face.”
The city was flummoxed. The matter was considered by the Planning Commission who were told by Assistant City Attorney Micheal Estrada that little could be done. “If it’s private property, no public funding or involvement, and it meets the definition of a mural and it is not a sign, we have very little if any ability to prevent it,” Estrada said.
“I don’t know why we’re talking about mural laws,” said Greg Doll, an attorney who lived two doors down from the house. “This is not a mural. This is graffiti… Every mural I’ve seen tries to beautify the city. This is a slash and burn. Destroy the relationship with your neighbors, make them suffer.”
Kidd compared the emojis to a great work of art. “It’s kind of like the Mona Lisa,” Kidd told K-ABC Eyewitness News. “The eyes follow you no matter where you go.”
By year’s end, the matter had solved itself: Kidd, after threatening to add more emojis, put the house on the market for $1.7 million. By December, the property was in escrow. The moral of the tale, as far as she was concerned, was about lightening up.
“Instead of everybody being so gloomy, always so depressed, always in other people’s business, I just wanted to send a message to be happy, be colorful, be positive, and enjoy,” she said. “Everything doesn’t have to be gray. It can be full of colors. Life is full of rainbows. I get tired of looking at gloomy buildings so I do something that makes me smile and probably makes someone else smile, too. That was my inspiration.”
On March 5, Hildy Stern and Suzanne Hadley won election to the City Council. In joining Mayor Nancy Hersman, they became the first female majority council in the city’s history.
Hersman didn’t think the occurrence was particularly significant. She referenced Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s comment, “When I’m sometimes asked when will there be enough [women on the Supreme Court] and I say, ‘When there are nine,’ people are shocked. But there’d been nine men, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that.”
The mayor said it will be more significant if the day comes when it is less noteworthy that women are in positions of power.
“People keep saying, ‘Oh, you’ve got a majority of women,’’ Hersman said. “It doesn’t feel any different, to tell you the truth. We are just us.”
Hadley and Stern emerged from a contentious election that featured a field of eight candidates. Though polar opposites politically, the pair shared a lot in common. Both were political newcomers who were each deeply involved as parent volunteers within the Manhattan Beach Unified School District. In order to raise their children, each left behind promising careers two decades ago, Hadley as an Ivy League-educated businesswoman, Stern as a Georgetown Law graduate who became a Department of Justice attorney.
“She and I share much in common,” said Hadley, in remarks given after taking the dais. “Both of us have four children who were educated in this city’s public schools. Both of us have sons serving in the military, my son in the U.S. Army, hers in the U.S. Marines. I look forward very much to serving with you Hildy.”
Stern thanked outgoing councilpersons Amy Howorth and David Lesser, who’d each served two terms.
“You served our community with respect and with intelligent decision making and in collaboration with those that care about it,” Stern said. “You lead while walking beside us, and you give us a Manhattan Beach that truly is a better place because of you.”
Mira Costa’s #MeToo moment
Two female Mira Costa High School students accused a male Mira Costa student of sexual assaults in incidents that occurred off-campus. Others suggested that several more assaults may have occurred. Although no arrest was made regarding the alleged assaults, which were reported to the police, they created a firestorm on campus and a deep examination of campus culture.
Kailie Macaulay, a senior and editor at the school paper, La Vista, said this student’s behavior on campus was indicative of a larger pattern of male behavior towards females at Mira Costa.
“I personally have never felt safe at this school,” she said. “That’s just my experience here… Guys catcalling, doing stuff like that on campus. I just never felt truly safe. And the administration has never done anything about it.”
Parent and attorney Thomas Loversky said conversations with other parents indicated more assaults had occurred than what had been reported. He argued that Mira Costa’s culture has an embedded sense of entitlement in which male student-athletes’ transgressive behavior is protected. “I don’t want to say it’s a club, but it’s almost like these boys think they are entitled to these girls — to do what they want,” Loversky said. “And you know, what has been the repercussion?”
A group of female students at La Vista vowed to push for change at the school, and were supported by the school board. “This is not the first time this has happened at the school,” said Kyra Williams, executive news editor at La Vista.
“I have a younger sister at the school, she is a freshman, and I don’t want anything to happen to her, so I hold myself responsible,” said Macaulay. “Things have got to change in this district, because this has been going on for a while. I want to change this now, so my sister doesn’t have to go through what we went through.”
“I think it’s an opportunity not so much for a conversation about the specifics of these allegations but a larger conversation about supporting kids emotionally through their high school years,” said School Board President Bill Fournell. “It’s a challenging time in their lives…This is a really good opportunity for us on the school board to talk about what [troubling] behavior looks like and the way support should be played out.”
The ongoing greening of MB
The City Council followed up on its pioneering ban on plastic bags five years ago and its banning of plastic straws and takeout utensils at restaurants with two actions this year: the banning of polystyrene meat trays, and the purchase of 100 percent renewable energy for City of Manhattan Beach operations. Dr. Catherine Pease of Heal the Bay told the council, prior to its unanimous approval of the ban on March 6, that 736,000 pieces of these types of polystyrene had been picked up at beach cleanups over the past 18 years. “These have huge impacts on wildlife and habitats,” she said.
In 2018, the Manhattan Beach joined the Clean Power Alliance, a nonprofit community choice energy (CCE) program made up of 31 public agencies across Los Angeles and Ventura counties that enables residents to buy renewable energy through their Southern California Edison bills. The CPA offers three tiers, at different costs for residents, to purchase renewable energy. The city itself had chosen a 50 percent renewable plan but this year opted to go 100 percent green, reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 44 percent at a cost of up to $90,000 annually.
“It is not an overstatement to say this would be the biggest environmental decision ever made by this city,” Murray said.
“This is a cost to repair…Our earth is leaking. We have to do this now,” Councilperson Hildy Stern said. “We have to find a way to repair that.”
“What is happening today is climate change,” said Mayor Nancy Hersman. “What is happening today isn’t about the long term viability of the city, it’s about the long term viability of the planet.”
Short-term rental ban
One of the biggest issues the city wrestled with over the past few years was short-term rentals, which many residents feared were eroding the neighborhood cohesion that is the heart of Manhattan Beach. A previous council had made rentals under 30 days illegal, so technically a ban already existed, But with little in the way of enforcement mechanisms, local listings on Airbnb continued to proliferate. The issue was at the forefront of the council election, with all eight candidates vowing to more substantively address it. Only weeks after the election, the ban was given teeth, as the council moved to hire Host Compliance to aggressively pursue violators. Mayor Steve Napolitano, in making the motion, recalled that the most important issue when he first served on council three decades ago (at 26, the youngest councilperson in local history) has not changed.
Then-mayor Steve Napolitano said addressing the issue was of utmost importance.
“This is one of the biggest issues [that] will determine the future character of this community that I ever came across,” said Napolitano. “I always ask what is best for Manhattan Beach in making decisions: Does it improve the quality of life, and increase our sense of community? And is this what people really want? Short-term rentals do none of the above, in my opinion. It’s about money, that’s the bottom line — money for the city, money for the folks who do the renting. There’s nothing wrong with money or earning it, but not at the expense of our sense of community.”
The widow Gandall’s home this year finally become an official part of Manhattan Beach history. The City Council on March 20 voted unanimously to declare the little Spanish Colonial Revival style home at 2820 Highland Avenue a historical landmark, the first act of preservation undertaken since the city’s 2018 adoption of a Mills Act program, which gives property owners tax incentives to maintain buildings deemed culturally significant. “What a historic moment,” said Councilperson Amy Howorth.
The home is a modest, two story, 1,432 square foot duplex was built in 1932. It is historically significant in several aspects. Architecturally, the two-story, 1,432 sq. ft. duplex house is both remarkably intact and representative of the city’s early development. Its first owner was May Gandall, a 69-year-old widow who came from New York and arrived locally from Hawaii after her husband’s passing. “As an elderly widow during the Great Depression, she may have built it for financial security reasons, whereby she would live in the lower unit and rent out the larger upper unit,” the city’s historic report said.
The home’s journey to historic preservation was nearly as epic as its first owner’s. Councilperson David Lesser recalled that he and a group of other residents began meeting monthly 14 years ago at the home of former mayor and unofficial city historian Jan Dennis to discuss ways to improve the city’s historic preservation practices.
“There is value to the community in retaining some of our older homes and structures,” Lesser said. “They represent our history and architectural character, and provide a greater definition of the community we love.”
The City Council in November called an end to the consideration of merging the Manhattan Beach Fire Department into the Los Angeles County Fire Department. The council unanimously voted to decline further study and discussion of the matter after an outpouring of opposition from residents.
“We’ve heard you,” said Mayor Nancy Hersman said. “We’ve heard the community is not interested at this time. They want to keep the fire department. People don’t like change, and we understand that.”
The council began investigating the possibility of contracting fire services from LA County in August 2018, when staff was directed to obtain an initial feasibility study from LACoFD regarding joining its Consolidated Fire Protection District. The interest was based on potential cost savings.This year, MBFD cost the city $14.8 million, or about 12 percent of the overall city budget, representing the third-largest cost, behind the Police Department at 23 percent and Public Works at 37 percent, according to city budget documents. A preliminary report submitted by the County and analyzed by city staff failed to answer how much the city could save over a 10 year contract. “Depending on the respective cost increases, the City’s savings range from negative $2,380,173 to $21,995,095,” the report said.
“I understand the city is counting dollars and cents, but there is more to it than just that,” said Jan Dennis, former mayor and the city’s unofficial historian who just this year published a book on the history of MBFD. “The dedication to the community is just unbelievable …We’ve got a good thing going.”
It’s been a rocky time for MBFD all around. Between the city’s flirtation with ending the department, a year without a chief, nearly two years without a contract, and a recent history of strife with their former chief, MBFD firefighters have been living with a lot of uncertainty. So the arrival of new Chief Daryn Drum last March, and especially his collaborative approach in remaking the department’s culture, have been a balm for MBFD.
Drum said every member the MBFD crew possessed the number one requirement for public safety work: a servant’s heart.
“People get into this business because they want to help people,” said Drum, a 31-year veteran who hails from North San Diego County. “It’s a wonderful career, but really, most people get into it for the right reasons… Everybody I’ve met so far was just a great representative of the city, and what they’ve expressed to me is they are ready to move forward. They are not dwelling on the past, and neither am I.”
At its last meeting of the year, the City Council approved a citywide ban of tobacco sales in what Councilperson Steve Napolitano called “a logical next step” after banning smoking in public places five years ago. The ban begins Jan. 1, 2021.
Three public hearings featured extensive testimony from education and public health leaders and local residents overwhelmingly in favor of the ban. The council followed up on an emergency ordinance passed in October that banned vaping and flavored tobacco products with a total tobacco ban. Councilmembers expressed sympathy for the 17 local businesses that will be economically impacted, but a majority said public health outweighed financial concerns.
“This is not an easy decision,” Napolitano said. “People’s lives and finances are going to be impacted. I hope lots of lives can be positively impacted as well… It’s often said, ‘This is a legal product.’’ Well, that’s because there have been years and millions of dollars buying political influence to keep it legal. It is the single deadliest consumer product in history.”
“Someone said, ‘Let’s make history.’ I’m not interested in making history. I’m interested in doing the right thing.”
Desal approved, sued
California has a long history of water wars. Its newest chapter began locally in the last months of 2019 as the West Basin Municipal Water District moved forward with plans to build an ocean desalination plant. The West Basin’s Board of Directors voted 4-1 in November to certify the final Environmental Impact Report for a desalination plant proposed on the coast just north of Manhattan Beach’s border with El Segundo. Board member Carol Kwan, who represents the Beach Cities, was the lone no vote.
“All of this is to secure a water supply for the future, a reliable one,” said West Basin general manager Patrick Shields. “That’s what all of this is about — recycled water, water conservation, or ocean desalination.”
All three Beach Cities city councils had objected to the preliminary EIR three years ago, although it is not certain all will oppose the final EIR. “We want to see both sides of any argument, and want both sides of any issue … This council has not taken a position yet on anything to do with desal,” said MB Councilperson Richard Montgomery.
With or without Manhattan Beach, the plant will face plenty of opposition. In December, a lawsuit was filed opposing desalination on the grounds that it will harm the local and global environment.
“We refuse to let West Basin move forward with a project knowing that ratepayers, our climate and marine environment will pay the price: a price that we, quite frankly, cannot afford in the face of climate change and the decline of our world’s oceans,” said Bruce Reznik, executive director of Los Angeles Waterkeeper, which filed the suit.
Bob Sievers, the unofficial “mayor of El Porto,” was even more suspicious and blunt in a letter opposing the draft EIR.
“You are proposing to put a costly, environmentally unfriendly plant right on top of my neighborhood,” Sievers wrote. “We know the huge contracts are what is driving this thing… We surf at this beach and do not want brine and algae in the ocean you should be concerned with protecting. We will speak and speak loudly.”