By John Earl
Surf City Voice
Photo, L-R: Nancy Meeks, Cindy Ackely, Mary Jo Baretich, Jane Jones. Front row: Summer Taylor. All residents of Cabrillo mobile home park in Huntington Beach.
What do you call a professional politician (besides calling him a professional politician) who tells his constituents not to get political, tries to disconnect them from their government—the government they own and that employs him—and tells them that it will make them stronger?
Do you call him a liberator?
Huntington Beach City Councilmember Matt Harper, that professional politician, says he wants to liberate the city’s mobile home owners from big government by eliminating a city-run citizen-advisory board which exists to “ensure the quality of life in mobile home parks in the city through healthy communication with park owners, manufactured home owners and the City Council” and to “act in an advisory capacity to the City Council on matters concerning the mobile home community,” according to City Ordinance NO 3332.
Harper wasn’t preaching liberation politics when he first hinted at axing the Mobile Home Advisory Board (MHAB) at the July 5 City Council meeting by holding a routine vote to replace three of a total of six vacancies on the board. But he was standing tall for the individual and corporate owners of the mobile home parks whose PACs spent over $13,000 to help get him elected in 2010.
With a “new set of eyes,” he explained in his usual pretentious style, “I always try to ask…, what is the appropriate role for a city.” The board “looks one-sided, where it could be simply an existence of a place where political footballs…could be just thrown in one direction,” he added.
The board has nine members including three park residents, three park owners, and three at-large members meant to form a buffer between the other two groups.
Of the three vacancies to be filled that night one is designated for a mobile home park resident and the other two are reserved for at-large members. Park owners, for their own reasons, have chosen not to participate on the board since about 2005 (except for one who had to resign last year), despite diligent efforts by city staff to recruit them, according to staff and MHAB members. Nominations are made by two city council liaisons subject to a vote of the City Council.
Months ago, Councilmembers Joe Shaw and Keith Bohr, who are the council liaisons to the MHAB, nominated Sharon Dana as the board’s needed resident member and Tim Geddes and Dan Kalmick to fill in the at-large vacancies.
But the council majority of Hansen, Harper, Carchio and Dwyer have prevented a vote on the nominees due to past political differences with them, Geddes in particular, and a council review process that has held up appointments to other citizen boards as well. Since efforts by the city to recruit park owners have failed anyway, none are currently nominated.
One of the two at-large nominees could end up replacing current chairperson, Barbara Boskovich; she is termed out after serving two years past the (two) four-year terms allowed in the MHAB bylaws due to the death of her designated successor, Vice Chairperson Mark Porter.
Geddes was nominated first in line to replace Porter as vice chairman, but the council approved former city council candidate Dan Kalmick instead as a temporary replacement. Now Kalmick’s term has also expired and the vacancies will remain at least until September.
Harper’s concern is not with the three board vacancies that he has helped maintain, but with the vacancies created by park owners who have refused to participate as members. “I’m kind of questioning, what is the role of the Mobile Home Park Advisory Board in this current context,” he told the City Council.
Before the conversation could continue, Mayor Joe Carchio suggested that the MHAB be reviewed by the Intergovernmental Relations Committee (IRC) as part of the process to review all city committees. Harper, Carchio and Councilmember Devin Dwyer are the IRC.
Since then, there have been two IRC meetings and one MHAB meeting (over 60 people attended) at which mobile home park residents passionately defended the continuance of a city sponsored version of the board while agreeing under pressure, primarily from Carchio and Dwyer, to work even harder to recruit park owners and eliminating term limits for its elected officers, who must come from at-large members.
The advisory board was formed in 1996 due to complaints by mobile home park residents of maintenance neglect, harassment and rent spiking by park owners.
Many of the city’s mobile home park residents, a lot whom are seniors who live on low fixed-incomes, bought their manufactured homes thinking they would be able to live out their lives, affordably, in Huntington Beach.
Unfortunately, mobile home park residents are ill-protected by weak state regulations and could see their investment go down the drain on a park owner’s whim to raise rents sky-high, sell the property or convert it to another use, often forcing them to abandon their homes.
The state’s Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) is supposed to enforce health and safety codes and conversion regulations that supposedly guarantee a minimum level of financial assistance for the relocation of displaced park residents in mobile home parks.
But state law is so limited and ineffectively enforced that many California cities, including Westminster, San Juan Capistrano, and Huntington Beach have created their own rent laws and/or citizens boards to assist and protect mobile home park residents.
In 2004 Huntington Beach passed its Mobile Home Park Conversion ordinance which improves upon state law by requiring park owners to pay for the relocation of park residents and the in-place value of their manufactured homes when a park is converted to another use. That’s about the same time that park owners stopped participating as members of the MHAB.
Park owners, led by Vickie Talley and her Manufactured Housing Education Trust PAC (MHET), which helped bankroll Harper’s campaign in 2010 and paid for a pro Carchio hit-piece mailer in the 2005 city council election, sued the city to stop the conversion ordinance in 2006. The lawsuit was dismissed in 2007 by mutual agreement, but the ordinance still stands.
Also in 2006, the city’s mobile home park residents asked the city for help enforcing health and safety codes inside of the parks, which it had done prior to budget cuts. The mayor at that time, Dave Sullivan, proposed studying the proposal. For several years, Sullivan said, residents “have been complaining that they have had little or no response from HCD and the owners of the parks where they reside on various health and safety issues within the parks.”
Past Councilmember Debbie Cook agreed, revealing that residents from two mobile home parks had complained to her about trash and mold in their parks after they got a “lousy response from the state.” The house mold resulted from long standing water underneath, Cook said.
At the same meeting, City Attorney Jennifer McGrath noted that in the previous 12 years the HCD had not once used its power to use local government agencies as a proxy for prosecuting park owners who violate state mobile home park health and safety rules.
Hansen, however, voted against the study after complaining about the “mobile home park police” and urged the council to direct its energy toward working with the city’s state representatives for greater HCD enforcement—a suggestion that came off as a mere ploy considering the state legislature’s antipathy toward government regulation, strongest in its GOP section, that led to the problem in the first place.
Today, except for fire truck access and hydrant testing, the city leaves all code enforcement in its mobile home parks up to the state, according to City Attorney Jennifer McGrath.
And mobile home park owners have come up with a new way to get around state law and the city’s conversion ordinance in order to force residents out and make a financial killing in a bad economy: subdivision. As long as the proposed subdivision complies with the city’s law the council has to approve it; and, by subdividing the property and selling off the plots, park owners legally avoid the conversion ordinance, according to McGrath.
So far, the new strategy seems to be working. Over 300 residents in three of the city’s 18 mobile home parks have been forced to abandon their homes in the past two years in the face of skyrocketing rents and pricey subdivision schemes thrust upon them by their landlords, according to reports gathered by Dana, who lives in Huntington Shorecliffs mobile home park, and Mary Jo Baretich, who lives in Cabrillo mobile home park and currently serves on the board.
In those parks, rents have increased by around $500 up to about $1700 per month in the last year, not including monthly home owners association dues of several hundred dollars. On top of that, many park residents have to make the payments on their manufactured homes, creating a triple burden that many park residents can’t handle. After the lots are subdivided, rents could soar even higher.
In that context, the need for a board that is based on conflict resolution through dialogue and education, with an advisory role to the city council, is clear enough to Dana and other park residents, politics aside.
“Almost all of the meetings have been very informative, very educational, and people who had problems have shown up and asked questions,” Dana told the Voice. “It’s the one place that mobile home owners have to go, a board that concerns them.”
Topics of discussion range from park maintenance, constant flooding, illegal evictions and property conversions, to disaster preparedness and CERT training. Many of the senior residents are unable to get to meetings at city hall, so the MHAB sometimes holds its meetings inside the parks.
Despite having no investigative or enforcement powers, and relatively little staff time spent on meetings (about 2-4 hours a month), the board also helps level the playing field just a bit with park owners by providing a mutually available inside track to city government and increased clout.
That’s exactly the point that Dana and others tried to make at the first of two IRC meetings held since the July 5 council meeting. Harper, Dwyer and Carchio were all present.
“Although some people perceive that the board is biased,” she told the IRC trio, “mobile home park owners have been given every opportunity to participate. Owners have many paid employees and attorneys who work on their behalf. We, the mobile home park residents, do not have such luxuries as paid staff to act on our behalf.”
At that meeting everyone present except Harper—who steadfastly maintained that the board would be stronger if cut off from the city—seemed to agree that allowing park owners to nominate representatives instead of having to appear at meetings themselves, plus eliminating term limits for the board officers (chairperson and vice-chairperson), were good ideas in order to improve the board and keep it going.
Carchio, always the political parrot, echoed Harper’s liberation theme for a moment, but spent most of his time pushing the “being political” theme to absurdity while staking out a supposedly middle ground. Warning that Kalmick and Geddes “are very political,” Carchio sought and received plenty of reassurance from Boskovich, whom he wants to stay on as chairperson, that the MHAB would be apolitical.
Geddes and Kalmick have been involved as volunteers helping mobile home park residents in the city for years; hence they are popular among that voting group and apparently are seen as a political threat by Carchio and Harper. Geddes has also had confrontations, sometimes harsh, with Hansen over the proposed Poseidon desalination project that he voted for.
“I know you Barbara, and I’ve known you for a long time, and I know that you want to do good things,” Carchio mushed. “And I DO not want to turn this into a political football.”
“No. And it shouldn’t be,” Boskovich answered.
Moments later, Carchio pressed Kalmick, point blank, “Well, what do you care about people who live in the mobile home park?”
Flabbergasted, Kalmick shot back, “They’re three percent of the city. I mean, they’re my neighbors. They’re residents of the city. Why shouldn’t I care about how successful or unsuccessful they are?”
Carchio, seemingly mystified by anybody who would take public office for reasons other than personal gain, continued to press. “If you didn’t run for city council, would you still be on this [MHAB] board?”
“I absolutely would be,” Kalmich answered.
Boskovich, for her part, repeatedly validated Carhio’s and Harper’s zero-politics approach to a process which is, after all, completely and unavoidably political. “I have zero,” she said of her own political aspirations, while pushing for an end to term limits and making it clear that she was willing and eager to continue as chairperson.
Boskovich, who overwhelmingly dominated speaking time at the meeting, despite the presence of mobile home owners who also wanted to speak, and who has a habit as MHAB chairperson of blocking out speakers she seems not to like, proved her sincerity moments later during the meeting by becoming aghast when Geddes pointed to the elephant in the room that none dared call by name.
Carchio had just complained that the current system was not fair to park owners, even if it was their fault they weren’t represented on the MHAB, when Geddes point out that, “The owners have chosen to influence local government through campaign contributions” –
“Oh, I don’t want to go there,” Boskovich said, shaking her head left and right with alarm. “I don’t want to hear that. I don’t want to hear that.”
Either did Carchio, of course. “That’s exactly what I’m talking about, Tim.”
Geddes tried to explain. “What I’m saying though, is, it’s been their choice. It has been their choice not to participate.”
“But you see, that’s exactly what I don’t want to talk about,” Carchio concluded.
Carchio and Harper don’t need to worry about mobile home park owners, however, because their PACs spend lots of money on politicians at state and local levels and their voices are heard loud and clear. In the last election they laid a lot of money—directly and through “independent expenditures”—on Mayor pro-tem Don Hansen’s hand-picked slate of local candidates, including William O’Connell, Barbara Delgleize and Harper.
One of those allies, Poseidon Resources Inc., the company that wants to build a huge desalination plant in the city and depends on real estate development for its future customers, contributed $1,500 to Hansen’s slate as of August, 2010.
The Manufactured Housing Educational Trust PAC (MHET), representing the interests of owners of 1,700 California mobile parks, gave $1,560 directly to the Hansen slate running up to the 2010 election. It also spent over $720,000 in California for 2009 and 2010, mostly on right-wing candidates or causes.
By contrast, the Golden State Manufactured-Home Owners League (GSMOL) spent about $40,000, mostly on Democrats, during the same period on behalf of the state’s 500,000 mobile home park residents.
The GSMOL didn’t spend a dime on local candidates, but the MHET and Poseidon Resources each contributed $10,000 to HB Vision 2020, a local PAC, which then made $13,632 in “independent expenditures” for each member of the Hansen slate for a total of $40,896.
With opponents like that, the best recourse for the 5,000 voter residents of Surf City’s 18 mobile home parks against arbitrary park rules, safety and property neglect, rent spikes, condo conversions and retaliation is grass-roots politics, but that hasn’t been enough.
Without the MHAB, “We don’t have a place to vent our concerns or see if we have a way out,” said one mobile home park resident who attended the second IRC meeting held Aug. 2 at City Hall. She was “extremely impressed” by the board and the information it provides and wished she had known about it sooner. Homeowners meetings at her park are intimidating, she said, because park management films them.
“I’m just trying to save what investment I have, which is about 80 grand I’ve got stuffed in there, and I am this close from walking away,” she complained. “So I think this whole process would be a great benefit for me to learn and to try and fight to keep a nice park and make it better than in has been in the 11 years since I’ve been there.”
Throughout the process Dwyer, whose “pro business” vote is always to be counted on, was supportive of allowing the advisory board to continue on a wait and see basis while trying harder to reach out to park owners or their representatives, a process that has already begun. Unlike Harper and Carchio, he also emphasized the value of the MHAB and other city commissions as a bridge between the council and the general public. He may not agree with their advice, he said, “But I still like to hear what’s going on.”
But at the second IRC meeting Aug. 2 Harper went into a sophistic, snappish and almost obsessive-compulsive mode. Without saying why Huntington Beach couldn’t make its own decisions, he kept scouring the Internet on his laptop for websites of Orange County cities, trying to make the point that if cities nearby (Anaheim would be too far, for example) and with like mobile home populations didn’t have a mobile home advisory board there is no reason for Huntington Beach to have one.
“We have a lot of mobile home parks in Westminster and Garden Grove, Santa Ana,” he said, “Do they have a similar agency of the city?” And if they don’t, “Why is it that they’ve been able to figure this out and we haven’t,” he said, directing his presumptuous rant toward a city staff person in the room.
“I don’t see any for Westminster,” he observed from his google search, still obsessed and looking down at his computer, inattentive to the broader points that others around him were trying to make.
But as it turns out, Westminster does have a mobile home advisory board (easily found on the city’s website) that incorporates some of the changes that Dwyer advocates (and which mobile home owners overwhelming accepted at the most recent MHAB meeting) but seems to have more power than HB’s advisory board to hear “all disputes and controversies” and to advise the city council accordingly.
No matter, because participatory government is a form of oppression, in Harper’s view. The city’s mobile home park residents would be better off if the board was independent of the city and able to make its own rules, he insisted.
Without batting an eyelash, Carchio mimicked Harper. Get rid of “Big Brother streaming down your neck,” he advised, and be a “much stronger organization…and then you could rely on us when you need us instead of us calling the shots.”
After a perplexed mobile home owner from San Juan Capistrano, where rent control covers mobile home parks, wondered out loud why Harper wanted to get rid of the MHAB, Harper replied incredulously. “No one here has said anything about getting rid of it. What I am talking about it making it independent, liberating it.”
The IRC will vote on what recommendation to offer the City Council at its next meeting on Sept. at 4:30 p.m. at City Hall in the fourth floor conference room.
Dwyer has invited the staff liaisons from four other city committees under review to attend the meeting also.
“I do feel that Matt and maybe Joe C. would like to detach the Mobile Home Advisory Board, but I don’t believe that decision would survive at the council level,” he told the Voice by e-mail.