Widman helped preserve small town Hermosa Beach during Good Government era [Updated]

Lance Widman with El Camino College Trustee Bill Beverly and fellow El Camino Professor Art Virge in 2016. Photo by Kevin Cody

by Kevin Cody

by Kevn Cody

One month prior to his death, last Wednesday, former Hermosa Beach City Councilman Lance Widman participated in a videotaped discussion with George Schmeltzer, George Barks and Jim Rosenberger. The four served on the council together during the late 1970s and early 1980s. The discussion was videotaped at the Hermosa Beach Historical Museum for the museum’s oral history project.

Introductions began with Rosenberger suggesting the oldest go first.

“Before he dies,” Widman quipped. 

Lance Widman (second from left) with former Hermosa Beach council colleagues George Schmeltzer, George Barks and Jim Rosemberg, during a recent discussion at the Hermosa Beach Historical Museum. Photo by Kevin Cody

The quip was typical Widman wit, sharpened by two terms on the city council, two terms on the school board, and 45 years teaching government at El Camino College.

Nothing in his voice suggested COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) would shortly take his life. He was 76.

The quip could simply have been the self deprecating humor he used to endear himself to supporters and disarm opponents.

When caught “sniping” (stealing political opposition campaign signs) during a school bond election in 2006, while president of the school board, he told critics, “It’s genetic; I see a sign I don’t like, and I take it down.” He was also caught sniping during an early ‘80s council campaign, he dryly pointed out.

Lance Widman (center) with Carey Bichlmeier and Hermosa Beach City Manager Steve Burrell in 2006 at a Hermosa Chamber luncheon. Photo by Kevin Cody

Widman served on the city council, from 1974 to 1982. He planned to run for a third term until a city hall official said she wouldn’t vote for him again because he was losing his sense of humor.

“I loved being on the city council, but it wasn’t worth losing my sense of humor. You can’t be a teacher if you don’t have a sense of humor, and I wasn’t ready to retire from El Camino,” he said during last month’s videotaping. 

Widman began teaching government at El Camino in 1971, after earning a graduate degree at the University of California, Berkeley, where he lived in Sproul Hall during the Free Speech movement led  by Mario Savio.

“It was in mid ‘60s, the era of sex, drugs and rock n’ roll, and yes, yes, and yes,” he acknowledged during the museum videotaping. After participating in Sproul Hall sit, while Joan Baez sang, he was kicked out of his fraternity.

“I was raised in Fresno, but I grew up in Berkeley,” he once told his family.

In 1973, he moved to the Sea Horse Bungalow Courts at 713 Manhattan Avenue, today one of the few historic bungalow courts left in the city.

“I carried my activism into the classroom. I told my students, if you care about your community, do something,” Widman recalled during the Historical Museum videotaping.

He also listened to his students, one of whom introduced him to Hermosa Beach councilman Hank Doerfling.

Doerfling introduced Widman to former council members Al Valdez, a dentist, and Jack Belasco, a Cal State Dominguez government professor, and their wives Naomi, and Evie. The Valdezes and Belascos had founded the reformist Good Government group to combat the pro development council majority. At the time, the council was backing a proposal for a 22-story hotel on a city-owned lot at 14th Street and The Strand. The city obtained the property by condemning the six story Biltmore Hotel, which had previously occupied the site.

Widman was elected to the city council one year later, at age 25, the youngest ever to be elected. The self acknowledged carpetbagger  credited his 1974 election to his association with El Camino College, which most Hermosans had either attended, or had family members who had attended.

“I mentioned El Camino in big type on all of my campaign literature. I also had a lot of students who needed extra credit,” he said.

“Banging on doors was my favorite part of politics. What makes a successful politician is being willing to listen to people. Even after being elected. I’d meet with anyone, anywhere over a beer,” he said.

Widman’s eight years in office marked a turning point for Hermosa, away from unfettered, private development in favor of community development.

Lance Widman in 2000, with son Brian, daughter-in-law Nicole, daughter Danielle Leavy-Andrews, wife Christine and grandson Jackson Andrews. Photo courtesy of the Widman family

The abandoned Santa Fe right of way, where Santa Fe wanted to build hundreds of homes, became the tree-canopied Green Belt that traverses Hermosa today.

Pier Avenue Junior High, which developers wanted for a shopping center, became the Hermosa Beach Theater and Community Center.

The beachfront Biltmore site became Noble Park, named after former planning commissioner Joe Noble, who once supported the hotel development, and later donated $1 million to landscape the park.

During last month’s Historical Museum discussion, Widman was asked to recall his biggest disappointment from his council years.

His answer benefited from hindsight, but was also a measure of his foresight.

“It was the era of condo conversions. They were cash cows. A cheap apartment could be converted to a $100,000 condo. 

“Hank and I had this off-the-wall idea. We proposed that some of the condo conversions be set aside for seniors and the disabled. There was no mention of race in the proposal. That would  not have flown,” Widman recalled.

After a contentious council debate, the proposal passed 3-2. But the plan was never implemented. 

“There were so many pieces we could never pull it together. It was very disappointing,” he recalled.

Widman lived just long enough to see the State legislature pass SB 9, the California Housing Opportunity and More Efficiency (“HOME”) Act. Proponents say the bill is necessary because local governments have failed to provide affordable housing.

Lance Widman is survived by his wife Christine, daughter Danielle Levy-Andrews, son Brian Widman and grandson Jackson Andrews. A service in his memory will be held Jan. 15 at 1 p.m. at St Cross Episcopal Church, 1818 Monterrey Avenue, Hermosa Beach. ER

 

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