King Creon: there had to be one man who said yes. Somebody had to agree to captain the ship. She had sprung a hundred leaks; she was loaded to the waterline with crime, ignorance, poverty … No is one of your man-made words. Can you imagine a world in which the trees say no to the sap? … Animals are good, simple, tough. They move in droves, nudging one another onwards, all traveling the same road…
Antigone: Animals, eh, Creon! What a king you could be if only men were animals!
Bert Stites is getting angry. You can tell he’s getting angry because he doesn’t look angry. But his finely sculpted hair, somewhere between a flat top and a pompadour, has gone iron stiff. His jaw doesn’t move. For the moment, he has turned into a statue, tilting slightly to one side. Around him, the councilmen and the crowd are a blur of heated emotion. But Stites has gone into his distant stare. He’s getting ready to explode.
As mayor of Imperial Beach, Stites says he is trying to lead his community into the corporate age, out of an era of what he considers decay. Stites says he is sick of getting up each morning for six years to face the never-ending threat of municipal bankruptcy, the lack of services, the lack of growth. A town exists on two sources of revenue, he says, property tax and business tax, and in I.B. property tax is always going up while business tax is, at best, dormant. The way Stiles sees it, the corporations are going to be marching into the city one of these days anyway, so why not prepare for the invasion and make the best deal possible. A sort of Vichy government.
Three years ago, Stites and the City Council majority voted to form a Development Agency to prepare the beachfront property and the areas adjacent to the beachfront for massive development by big investors. The primary tool the city needed was eminent domain, the ability to buy up private property – even forcing people, directly or indirectly, from their homes – in order to make room for massive private development. This night (December 7) is supposed to be the final vote on eminent domain.
A good solution for the common good, Stites thought. Reasonable, modern, practical. But now he is looking out over a lot of angry citizens. On each side of him the councilmen are throwing wicked glances at each other or rolling their eyes for theatrical effect. While outside the packed City Council room lingers a whole horde of what Stites likes to call “the flea-bitten bum winos, the trash, the hippie element, the bugs-and-bunny bunch (environmentalists)” They’re out there all right, but not all of them are counterculture folks. There are senior citizens, middle-class homeowners, potential politicians. They’re out there in the cold, slapping their arms. A lot of them have homes in the condemnation area, and they’re desperately afraid of losing them. A few are land speculators and absentee-landlords worried about losing money.
Jim Whitaker, 69, who was lived in Imperial Beach since 1958, says, “If this goes through I’ve got a cloud on my property.” Even though the ordinance calls for “participatory agreements.” Under which homeowners, as long as they continue to live in their homes, can avoid having them condemned. Whitaker says, “Who’s going to want to stay in the neighborhood when highrises start going up all around us? The way it works, even if I want to sell my home the only buyers who will be interested will be the city or a big developer.”
A middle-aged homeowner, Leslie Probleck, lives just outside the development area. As yet, her home is not being threatened by condemnation, but she’s out there in the cold with the protesters. “If they can do it on the beachfront, they’ll do it to me sooner or later.”
One of the leaders of the formal protest group, the Citizens Action Group of Imperial Beach, Chris Barret, calls eminent domain “a police action.” He insists the city councilmen have set the stage by “refusing dozens of permits to small developers. They’re waiting for one big corporation to completely re-do the beachfront.” The group is milling. The leaders race back and forth with whispered messages. As a Channel 39 television crew rushes past them into the doorway, one of the protesters takes a reporter aside. “They’ve planted spies back here,” he hisses. “Look, most of us here tonight love I.B. And what we love about it is it’s still a small town. We love it because it isn’t La Jolla. Or Chula Vista. Money isn’t everything.”
The way the protesters see it, “They’re destroying a town in order to save it.”
But the protesters aren’t the only ones ready to drop Stites off the end of the I.B. pier. Councilman Elvin Ogle and Henry McCarty, and the as-yet unseen development interests, are looking at Stites with a mixture or horror and disappointment because they had hoped he would be a good spokesman for their interests. But he bumbles. He gets emotional and angry and flustered and passionate and profane, instead of using the cool, clipped, precise economic eloquence of the briefcase set. Right now, in fact, Stites is fouling up the works by picking nits from an amendment to the development ordinance. Instead of just greasing the wheels and sliding the amendment through, he’s locked into some kind of concern over military families not having their houses taken away if they get orders from the Navy to ship out. Stites, fiercely patriotic, isn’t about to see our fighting men treated the same as some of the “vermin types on the beachfront” he wants the wording of the amendment to be exact. Down the bench from Stites, City Attorney Clifton Reed, who is also city attorney for Chula Vista, just wants the amendment, vague as it is, passed, done with. Reed, the technician, who pulls the microphone to himself instead of leaning into the microphone, is looking at the ceiling. Stites is forcing the technicality when it could all be so smooth; this going to mean the final approval of eminent domain will be delayed another week. There have now been weeks of this bickering, and even Reed, whose cool is as finely tuned as a Porsche engine, is beginning to sputter.