Fred Swegles

By Fred Swegles

If you think it’ll take a bit of homework to navigate this fall’s city council ballot—18 names battling for three seats—imagine if you had twice that many candidates to evaluate.

In April, 1979, San Clemente voters had to decide among 36 candidates for three seats.

It was a raucous period in San Clemente politics, producing six recall drives from 1978-80. Here’s how it played out, as reported in the Daily Sun-Post and the Santa Ana Register.

Prelude: The rollercoaster ride began in late 1977 with controversy over a Pier Bowl redevelopment plan. A political watchdog group, the San Clemente Homeowners Association, petitioned the city council, with 1,908 signatures, to let voters pick among three concepts. The council said no, asserting that an ample public input process had led to the plan. The SCHA threatened to recall any incumbents still in office after the March 1978 elections for three council seats.

March 1978: SCHA president Howard Mushett was the highest vote-getter among 14 candidates. He resigned from SCHA and set out to recall holdover councilmembers Bill Walker and Donna Wilkinson.

Through 1978: A rival campaign targeted Mushett for recall. He tried to get Walker and Wilkinson prosecuted for alleged malfeasances, which the district attorney rejected. Walker and Wilkinson sued Mushett and recall leaders. They countersued. City council meetings became an ongoing soap opera of charges and counter allegations. A recall leader was convicted of illegally tape-recording a city employee.

January 1979: The recall election produced a clean sweep, ousting Walker, Wilkinson and Mushett. All three claimed victory.

Spring 1979: Thirty-six candidates filed for three council seats. Eleven sought to fill the remaining three years of Mushett’s aborted four-year term that would end in 1982, with 25 candidates seeking the Walker and Wilkinson seats expiring in 1980.

April 1979: The election shook up the city council, previously a 3-2 voting bloc of Walker, Wilkinson and Roy Hamm vs. Mushett and Myrtis Wagner. City hall critic Karoline Koester won Mushett’s seat. Ed Kalsched and Richard Ahlman won the Walker/Wilkinson seats. Kalsched and Koester had been backed by Wagner, a city hall critic and Mushett ally. Ahlman, a soft-spoken retired city employee, appealed for reconciliation.

If you think San Clemente city politics have become contentious the past couple of years, you should have been here four decades ago. Photo: Fred Swegles

May 1979: Wagner wanted to immediately fire City Manager Jerry Weeks, replacing him with Mushett, but was advised it wouldn’t be legal. Koester called for blanket resignation of city planning commissioners.

June 1979: The council appointed Cliff Gellatly and Bill Mecham to fill expiring terms on the planning commission. On a 3-2 vote, the council asked three remaining commissioners to resign. They refused. The council fired them, leaving the city without a planning commission, for lack of a quorum.

July 1979: The council appointed itself to serve as an interim planning commission. City Manager Weeks and Public Works Director Howard Benson resigned, citing city hall turmoil. A new watchdog group, Citizens for Responsible Government, targeted Wagner for recall.

August 1979: The new political group also sought to recall Koester, followed by a rival recall campaign against Hamm. Wagner publicly denounced new Councilmembers Kalsched and Ahlman, calling them “turncoats” because of planning commission nominations they’d made. Kalsched proclaimed he was independent, not beholden to Wagner for his election. Ahlman said his intent was a cross section on the planning commission.

December 1979: The council hired George Caravalho, deputy city manager of San Mateo, to succeed Weeks.

January 1980: Wagner, while facing possible recall, died of a heart attack.

February 1980: On a 3-1 vote, the council—Hamm, Ahlman and Kalsched voted yes; Koester, no—appointed businessman Roy Hurlbut to replace Wagner. The action caused a near-riot in the chambers, with audience members demanding election, not appointment. Mayor Hamm, claiming a silent majority was at home that night—wanting the city to move on, rather than “government by intimidation” and nonstop elections—halted the meeting.

March 1980: Hamm announced his resignation, effective one meeting after the scheduled April elections for the Kalsched/Ahlman seats. They didn’t seek reelection.  

April 1980: Elected to those seats from among five candidates were Bob Limberg and Bill Mecham. Both had been planning commissioners. After being seated, they, with Koester, voted 3-1 to appoint Koester mayor. Hamm’s final action before stepping down was unsuccessfully nominating Hurlbut for mayor. The city council appointed Tom O’Keefe, a councilmember from 1966-78, to fill Hamm’s seat until November.

May 1980: Hurlbut resigned, saying he felt ostracized by other councilmembers. Michael McNamara, city finance director, resigned to work for city of Irvine. He said his department had managed to work well despite relentless questioning—”tremendous turnover, sickness, retirement and turmoil.”

June 1980: In her recall election, Koester “staved off a long and expensive effort to oust her from office,” the Daily Sun-Post reported. It was close, she said, but she termed it a mandate since backcountry developers had spent heavily against her. The council, meanwhile, appointed Pat Lane to succeed Hurlbut until November. Lane had served on the city council from 1974-78.

November 1980: Voters elected Alan Korsen and Pat Lane to fill the seats that O’Keefe and Lane had occupied since Hamm and Hurlbut had quit. There were 13 candidates for the two seats. O’Keefe was runner-up. Second runner-up was Bill Wagner, husband of the late Myrtis Wagner.

Epilogue: George Caravalho, arriving in Jan. 1980, navigated this political morass while serving as city manager 4 ½ years. City councils imposed building moratoriums, tightened prior city ordinances to better restrict hillside grading and development, endured lawsuits from developers, enacted a Plan 2000 vision, passed a strict sign code, adopted pioneering fire-prevention laws and issued a long-term concession to the Fisherman’s Restaurant that helped spur Pier Bowl revitalization. By the time Caravalho left in 1984 to accept a bigger job with Bakersfield, city staff turnover had stabilized. Debate over how to manage development was still rife. Voters would enact landmark growth control initiatives in 1986 and 1988.

Fred Swegles is a longtime San Clemente resident with five decades of reporting experience in the city. Fred can be reached at fswegles@picketfencemedia.com.

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