Beach books – Politics, Hermosa style
Former Hermosa Beach councilman Kit Bobko writes about oil and other controversial issues in his insider’s guide to local politics
by Robb Fulcher
Former Hermosa Councilman Kit Bobko has turned his experience inside City Hall into an entertaining and information-rich book about the triumphs and vicissitudes of bigtime politics in small town America.
“Nine Secrets for Getting Elected” is partly a how-to book for prospective office seekers, and partly a memoir of a tumultuous and transformative period in Hermosa Beach’s recent history.
Bobko captures the long and short of political life in the Beach Cities from the multimillion-dollar matter of potential city bankruptcy, to the jittery importance of opening the Little League season with the ceremonial first pitch.
The book’s how-to lessons are woven into the memoir’s anecdotal flow, revealing the strategies and tactics of electoral politics without slowing down the narrative. Along the way Bobko, an Air Force veteran and self-described Reagan Republican, makes the case that even small-town government can be too big, and too free to impose its will where it’s not needed.
Bobko, who served on the Hermosa Beach City Council from 2006 to 2013, describes fighting what he saw as too much business regulation, and environmentalism run amok. He describes the slings and arrows of his doomed push to privatize the police department’s parking patrol and animal control functions.
Bobko writes about crossing potent constituencies such as the police and firefighter unions, and fending off a false allegation that he did not actually live in Hermosa while he sat on the council. He recounts fighting a surprise move to formally censure him, which was leveled from across the council dais.
He recalls how he was called a “carpetbagger” when he first ran for office as a short-time resident. He responded that his military service caused him to keep moving from place to place, a defense previously used by U.S. Sen. John McCain.
Bobko, a municipal attorney by trade, digs into the details of his role in the settlement of a decades-long, potentially bankrupting lawsuit against the city, and how in his view, doing the right thing destroyed his chances for a third term in office.
The people of Hermosa had a decades-long history of alternately courting and rejecting oil drilling projects within the city. Over time, opposition to such projects solidified, and in 1995 voters banned oil drilling anywhere in Hermosa. However, the City Council had already signed a drilling contract with an oil company. Faced with the will of the people, the council tore up the contract, claiming the drilling project was unsafe.
The oil company responded with a $750 million breach-of-contract lawsuit.
The action wound its way up and down the court system for a decade and a half, and finally stood poised for a hearing on the amount of the award to the oil company. Bobko, who was not on the council when the key oil decisions were made, believed previous council members had simply kicked the oil can down the road, putting off any final reckoning until their tenures were over.
Bobko and council ally Michael DiVirgilio (who is as Democratic as Bobko is Republican) defied expectations by spearheading a complex, three-party settlement. It called for Hermosa voters to 1. approve the drilling project after all, with a cut of the royalties going to the city, or 2. reject the project at the ballot box again, for good, and pay $17.5 million, over time, as part of the settlement.
For perspective, the annual city budget was about $26 million.
Bobko and DiVirgilio thought they had spared the city financial disaster. But oil opponents were livid that the two had opened the door once again to a possible drilling project.
In an interview, Bobko said a chief regret from his time in office is that he did not make a more forceful, sustained defense of the oil settlement, which was approved by the full council.
In his book, he writes about a mediation at which a retired bankruptcy judge held out grim prospects for the city, and worse, a mock trial that did not go well.
“The most sobering and unexpected thing we learned from the mock trial was that many jurors wanted to punish the city for what it had done,” Bobko wrote. “Yes, ‘punish.’ The jurors used that word.”
Bobko revealed some highlights of the mock trial as he delivered Hermosa’s annual State of the City address, but he said that single high-profile speech was not enough.
“I wish [DiVirgilio] and I had gone on a traveling roadshow through our district to educate our constituency” about the ins and outs of the settlement, he wrote, instead of finding themselves at the mercy of someone else’s narrative.
“Half the job is doing your job, the other half is telling people what you’ve done.”
He said a separate book could be written about his political alliance with DiVirgilio, a former aide to Democratic Representative Jane Harman.
“He’s a California Democrat through and through. He lives it. He’s been a vegan as long as I’ve known him, he has no TV in his home, his wife runs a yoga studio, he rides a bus to work, he’s had a Prius for 15 years, and I’m a conservative guy who was in government to have less of it,” Bobko said.
“Michael is a decent guy and I trust him,” Bobko said. “Whatever he was doing, there was always a principle behind it.”
Bobko’s greatest success by acclaim, the spearheading of a $4.3 million reconstruction of iconic Pier Avenue into a decorative, pedestrian-friendly street, did not make it into his book. He said the capital project did not serve to illustrate the book’s main themes.
“I had some mentions of it in the first draft, but there wasn’t a readily extractable lesson from that…even though it was transformative to the city and, I think, sparked a lot of changes in some of the businesses,” he said.
Since publication of “Nine Secrets,” Bobko finds himself fielding questions about another run for a City Council seat.
“I have no immediate plans to run again,” he said. “If the opportunity arises, and it’s the right thing to do, I would be open to it. People have asked, and it’s flattering, but it’s probably not something I’ll do again.”
by Robb Fulcher