US: Crude emails reveal nasty side of a California beach city's crusade to halt growth

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Few communities in Southern California have been more successful at saying "no" to large new developments over the last decade than Redondo Beach.

Redondo Beach Mayor Bill Brand is photographed next to the AES Power Plant in Redondo Beach in 2019. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times) © (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times) Redondo Beach Mayor Bill Brand is photographed next to the AES Power Plant in Redondo Beach in 2019. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

The South Bay coastal city of 70,000 blocked a $400-million remake of its waterfront, reduced the size of proposed apartment buildings by dozens of units and even prohibited the construction of mixed-use residential and commercial projects in the city for a year.

One of the masterminds of this slow-growth movement is Mayor Bill Brand, a 65-year-old former airline crew chief who has amassed power on a platform arguing that overdevelopment and traffic threaten the way of life in Redondo Beach. Brand’s influence has extended beyond his city’s borders as he’s become a key combatant against efforts by Gov. Gavin Newsom and state lawmakers to promote more home-building across California.

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The campaigns Brand has run and supported are awash in appeals to preserving the city’s beach town charm. But the mayor and his allies also have been accused of inflaming distrust of outsiders, especially those not part of Redondo Beach’s white majority, to advance their agenda. Now a series of crude emails between Brand and a small group of supporters obtained through a public records request by a developer are furthering criticism against the mayor and his tactics.

In the emails, which were shared with The Times, Brand says he wants to “ram” a proposed editorial up the “cancerous ass” of a political rival who was suffering from colon cancer. Brand, who is white, also jokes with a Black supporter about her becoming an “angry Black woman.” In another email, Brand contends that the "increasingly latino laden Coastal Commission" would dislike a project because it was too luxurious and exclusive. Other emails sent to Brand deride the weight and appearance of a female City Council member.

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In an interview with The Times, Brand said he had believed the emails to be private exchanges and were “cherry picked” by CenterCal Properties — the developer of the failed waterfront effort, which obtained them in its litigation — to vilify him.

The project would have redone Redondo Beach’s pier by building 524,000 square feet of shops, restaurants, a hotel, a market and a movie theater. Brand sponsored Measure C, a ballot initiative in 2017 that ended up killing it and propelled his mayoral election, which was on the same ballot.

“People have been coming after Redondo Beach and anybody associated with Redondo Beach,” Brand said. “It’s basically big developers or investment groups that are trying to get major upzoning to make a lot of money. And myself and others are in the way.”

But others believe that Brand’s emails show that the city’s top leaders are promoting an undercurrent of racism and nastiness to push their agenda.

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Tonya McKenzie, a Black woman who recently ran in an unsuccessful City Council recall campaign against a Brand ally, said groups she believes are run by the mayor’s supporters regularly posted racist comments about her on social media. One post used an image of a hooded and masked rioter lighting stores on fire in Chile to ask whether residents would want McKenzie’s “Oakland-based style of protest” in Redondo Beach. McKenzie grew up in San Jose and has never lived in Oakland.

The emails, she said, validated her personal experiences of tangling with Brand and others.

“That is their way of mocking minority groups among themselves when they think no one is listening,” McKenzie said. “It is not something that is rare for them.”

Tonya McKenzie, shown at the Redondo Beach waterfront, said the offensive emails sent by the city's top leaders are © (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times) Tonya McKenzie, shown at the Redondo Beach waterfront, said the offensive emails sent by the city's top leaders are "their way of mocking minority groups among themselves when they think no one is listening. It is not something that is rare for them." (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Brand, who moved to the South Bay as a child in the 1960s, became active in local politics two decades ago when he opposed the construction of as many as 3,000 townhomes on a 54-acre smokestack-filled power plant on the city’s waterfront. The housing plan and its eventual defeat awoke anti-growth sentiment in Redondo Beach that Brand has harnessed.

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In 2008, he spearheaded a successful ballot initiative that requires voter-approval for any major zoning change. Soon after, he was elected to the City Council and became mayor in 2017.

During his time in office, Brand has helped shrink the size of proposed developments, including reducing a planned 180-unit apartment building, with nine set aside for very poor families, into a 115-unit building without any dedicated low-income housing. Brand also was behind a temporary citywide moratorium on approving mixed-use commercial and residential projects in 2017, calling them “overdevelopment, a sign of change of character of a neighborhood.”

“Redondo does not have a housing shortage, and the crisis we do have really is a traffic crisis and an on-and-off-again water crisis,” he said at the time.

Brand and other city officials argue that Redondo Beach has already taken on more than its fair share of development. It’s larger than neighboring South Bay coastal cities El Segundo, Manhattan Beach and Hermosa Beach and has far more land zoned for apartments than them. The city also has a housing authority offering federal low-income housing vouchers, one of the few coastal cities with its own program, Brand said.

“Why people continue to pick on us is beyond me when there are plenty of communities up and down the coast that aren’t anywhere near our density,” Brand said.

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Nevertheless, like its neighboring coastal communities, Redondo Beach has become one of the most exclusionary cities in Los Angeles, according to a recent study by the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute, which found that Redondo Beach has had limited housing production despite intense demand to live there.

Redondo Beach’s median home value of $1.4 million is nearly 60% higher than L.A.’s regional average and 44% more than it was five years ago, according to real estate firm Zillow. And more than half of Redondo Beach’s residents are white, nearly double the rate of the L.A. area, per U.S. census data.

Brand has taken his efforts statewide, helping start an organization primarily among suburban City Council members and activists alarmed at efforts by Newsom and state lawmakers to push for denser housing construction. He’s now co-authoring a proposed ballot initiative that would amend California’s Constitution to block the state from overriding local land-use rules, including nullifying a recent mandate that cities must accept duplexes and fourplexes in single-family-home neighborhoods.

Backers, who have raised more than $500,000, failed to collect enough signatures for the measure to appear on this year’s ballot, but they’re trying again for the 2024 election.

John Heath, who runs a nonprofit affordable housing management company in South Los Angeles and is working on the statewide initiative with Brand, called the Redondo Beach mayor “the most upstanding, committed public servant I’ve ever met” and said Brand is dedicated to combating gentrification, displacement and other harms of runaway development in communities of color.

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Heath, who is Black, said that Brand's comments in the emails are tame considering the mayor believed them to be political gossip among supporters.

“Folks have conversations all the time where they use words in one context that they would not use if they knew that they were speaking publicly,” Heath said.

Candace Allen Nafissi agrees. In an email exchange from February 2017, Brand told her that she should be proud if she lost her seat on a Redondo Beach city commission in retribution for criticizing the CenterCal project.

“Where’s the angry Black woman in you?” Brand wrote.

“She['s] coming out little by little lol,” replied Nafissi, who is Black.

Nafissi said she was not offended by Brand's comment.

“I refer to myself as that,” Nafissi said. “Plenty of times all of my good friends have made jokes like that to me.”

The leaked emails, said Nafissi, were “100% retribution” by developers and showed just how “nasty” they can be.

In an email from February 2014, Brand refers to then-Redondo Beach Mayor Steve Aspel, a supporter of CenterCal's plan to redevelop the city’s pier. Aspel had colon cancer at the time and has since recovered.

“OK, here is my first pass at an ass-kicking editorial to ram it up Aspel’s cancerous ass,” Brand wrote.

Brand said that the email was a reference to comments Aspel had made at a City Council meeting years before at which Aspel said that Brand and his allies were “more toxic than the cancer in my rectum.”

In an interview, Aspel said he took the most offense over the “hypocrisy” of the mayor.

“Bill likes to create this reputation of being the perfect gentleman and never getting into the fray,” Aspel said. “At least when I say something, I have the guts to do it in the open and not hide behind a keyboard.”

A cloudy day at the Redondo Beach waterfront this month. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times) © (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times) A cloudy day at the Redondo Beach waterfront this month. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Laura Emdee, a Redondo Beach councilmember since 2015, said she frequently faces personal backlash for taking positions that run counter to Brand’s. One of the emails in which Brand is a recipient mocks Emdee’s appearance, saying that “the more weight Laura Emdee loses the more she looks like a man!”

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“I’m not shocked by any of this,” Emdee said. “This is exactly the kind of stuff that goes on all the time and the kind of venomous words that are used all the time.”

Brand's campaigns, she said, frequently appeal to voters' resentments. In an email to a half-dozen activists in February 2016, just as the Measure C campaign was beginning, Brand outlined such a strategy.

“We are in fundraising mode now and need to feed people’s anger and fear with clever sound bites that will motivate them to write checks or donate online,” Brand wrote. “It’s all about convincing people of the urgency to act and act NOW! Time to donate or sit back and watch the city destroy your waterfront with over-development. We need Trump-type slogans.”

One advertisement mailed to voters by the pro-Measure C campaign featured a drawing of the proposed project, with a police helicopter shining a spotlight on a crime in progress.

Emdee, a light-skinned Mexican American, says that because many people believe she is white, they say things to her they otherwise wouldn’t. When she was canvassing against Measure C in 2017, some voters gave her racist reasons for voting to limit development at the pier.

“There were people who, when you’d knock on the door, they said, ‘I don’t want Blacks or Mexican gangs there,’ ” Emdee said. “They were very specific.”

Brand allies now control three of the five seats on the council, and Emdee thinks his supporters could take over the rest when she and another council member leave office in March due to term limits.

Ruby's Diner is one of several closed establishments along the Redondo Beach waterfront. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times) © (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times) Ruby's Diner is one of several closed establishments along the Redondo Beach waterfront. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Redondo Beach’s latest development squabble is a plan by the current owner of the waterfront power plant to build nearly 2,300 apartment units, with more than 450 dedicated for low-income households. The developer, Leo Pustilnikov, is using a little-known provision in state law that could make the city powerless to stop its construction.

In a recent NBC News story about the plan, Councilmember Todd Loewenstein, a Brand ally, said that Redondo Beach was “already full” and that affordable housing belonged inland.

“Everybody deserves a place to live, but the question is where do they deserve a place to live,” Loewenstein said.

Pustilnikov previously had been negotiating with CenterCal and the city to try to salvage the waterfront deal, and he was aware that CenterCal had recently received the emails from Brand and others through its lawsuit. After the NBC story appeared, Pustilnikov asked CenterCal’s attorneys for the emails and provided them to The Times.

“They don’t want outsiders in,” Pustilnikov said. “I see it as an us-versus-them mentality. There is no compromise.”

Through an attorney, CenterCal executives confirmed the authenticity of the emails but declined to comment.

Brand has scored a significant legal victory over the developer. Last year, a state appellate court upheld a $900,000 judgment against two Redondo Beach residents who had sued him and Councilmember Nils Nehrenheim, alleging they illegally coordinated with political action committees during the 2017 initiative campaign against the CenterCal project.

During the litigation, it was revealed that CenterCal, not the two residents who sued, was funding the lawsuit. A Superior Court judge threw out the matter and awarded Brand and the others attorneys fees. The case is now pending at the state Supreme Court.

Brand said that the release of his emails is just another effort in the developers’ years-long attempts to undermine him to no avail.

“They’re pulling out personal emails from years ago and trying to denigrate us and everything we’re doing,” Brand said. "Meanwhile, we just keep winning elections.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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