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Column: Yes, you can fight city hall. Huntington Beach retirees are waging a revolution

Huntington Beach, CA - January 16: Former Huntington Beach Mayor Shirley Dettloff, center, joins Protect Huntington Beach, a group of concerned residents of Huntington Beach who want to increase residents' awareness of proposed charter changes during a protest outside Huntington Beach City Hall Tuesday before council meeting Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Former Huntington Beach Mayor Shirley Dettloff, center, joins Protect Huntington Beach, a group that wants to increase residents' awareness of proposed charter changes, during a protest outside City Hall. (Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

They’re angry. They’re insulted. They’re embarrassed.

And they're not going to just sit there and take it.

Protect Huntington Beach — a revolution led by retirees — is waging a spirited fight against what the group sees as a City Hall attempt to screen, and perhaps ban, library books with sexual content, reel in Pride flags and suppress voting rights.

A posse of six or seven hell-raisers in their 60s, 70s and 80s agreed to meet with me Tuesday night as they geared up before a city council meeting, but before long, the group had grown to 10, then 15, then 20. Some of them were new to activism; others have histories.

“I took my bra off in the '60s,” JoAnn Arvizu said proudly.

“I’ve never done this before,” said Carol Daus, who added that she and her husband, Tony, were out posting signs late one evening. “This is our new hobby, I suppose. It’s midnight, and we’re out driving around. I have a torn meniscus, I’m going up a hill, there’s railroad tracks and for a minute I thought, ‘How crazy are you?' "

“We’re dedicated,” said one rebel.

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“No, we’re mad,” said Tony Daus.

Former Huntington Beach Mayor Shirley Dettloff, who’s almost 89, didn’t hesitate to join the resistance.

“We’re really the people who built this city, and we’re proud of what we did,” Dettloff said. “And this new council is diminishing all that we worked for.”

Several residents protest outside City Hall with signs.
Members of Protect Huntington Beach protest outside City Hall before a city council meeting. (Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

Dettloff said there’s long been a conservative strain in the city, which once had a John Birch Society presence and led the mask-resistance forces in the early days of the pandemic. But when she served on the council in the '90s, Dettloff said, there was always civil discourse and respectful compromise. The focus was on managing the city for the betterment of residents, not on culture wars.

So what’s changed? Dettloff had a two-word explanation.

“Donald Trump.”

The former president unleashed “a whole new way of politics being done,” Dettloff said. And the current majority on the Huntington Beach City Council — Mayor Gracey Van Der Mark and council members Pat Burns, Casey McKeon and Tony Strickland — has joined the conga line.

As mayor, Dettloff said, she was co-author of a human dignity policy after reports of a skinhead presence in Huntington Beach. But in September, the council voted 4-3 to remove references to hate crimes from the policy, and it added a line saying the city "will recognize from birth the genetic differences between male and female..."

Huntington Beach city council members listen in chambers with flags behind them.
Huntington Beach City Council members from left: Pat Burns, Mayor Gracey Van Der Mark, Tony Strickland, and Casey McKeon listen to speakers from Protect Huntington Beach. (Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

And that wasn’t the only waste of time or insult to civility that set off Dettloff and others. They were steamed about a council discussion on whether to continue observing Black History Month, and about a March election that will cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more, to put three controversial measures before voters.

One would effectively ban the flying of the Pride flag on city property, one would require voters to produce ID and allow drop-box monitoring despite the absence of any evidence of voter fraud, and one would grant more mayoral power in what the Orange County Register warned “can be misused to reduce public access and limit dissent.”

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“Vote no on all three,” a Register editorial advised, and “encourage the council to get back to governing rather than political theater.”

That’s precisely the message the protesters carried to City Hall on Tuesday evening, where I expected them to clash with political foes. There’s a reason, after all, that four conservatives were elected to the seven-member City Council.

But the several dozen people who gathered outside City Hall were all on the same side of the skirmish, while supporters of book bans and voter suppression apparently stayed home. And roughly 90% of those in attendance were in their 60s and older.

I spotted one Protect Huntington Beach lad of 39 years, who was shooting video of the protest, and asked how he ended up in the company of so many people twice his age.

“I saw a group of senior citizens start to step up, and I joined one of their meetings,” said Michael Craigs. “I realized that their presence on social media and video content wasn’t going to reach younger generations, so I volunteered to help with that.”

Cathey Ryder rallied the group with a barb aimed at the City Council majority that wants to crack down on perceived rigged elections.

"If there's so much fraud and mistrust, how do we know the four of them got elected?" she cracked.

“We will be mailing out 30,000 postcards,” Ryder said. “We will be knocking on doors and leaving campaign literature to between [12,000] and 15,000 voters.”

The crowd then moved indoors to confront the City Council, filling most of the auditorium and some of an adjacent spillover room with a video feed. Of the more than 40 people who signed up to speak, almost all were 65 and older, and all but a few denounced the ballot measures.

“They stink,” said Andy Einhorn.

“The City Council needs to get about the business of running the city,” said Tony Daus, who ripped council and staff for unspecified and unnecessary election costs.

Carol Daus speaks at a lectern in front of the Huntington Beach city seal.

“If I ran a business like this, I’d be fired,” said his wife, Carol, who warned of litigation costs if the state follows through on a threat to block any voter suppression tactics.

Barbara Shapiro opened a gift-wrapped box and pulled out three sausages labeled Measures A, B and C, along with a piece of paper.

“Oh, it’s a bill,” she said in mock surprise. “Oh my gosh. We’re going to be paying millions of dollars for these sausages.”

Two days after the meeting, Carol Daus shared with me some social media feedback from Huntington Beach residents on the other side of this fight.

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“So much frosted hair,” said one post, while another referred to Dettloff as a “leftist granny.”

“Maybe they did too much LSD at Berkeley,” said another post.

I was prepared to visit with the other side, but if that’s the level of discourse, maybe I’ll pass.

When I met with Protect Huntington Beach before the council meeting, two people said that if the ballot measures pass, they may move out of the city.

Kathryn Goddard, 82, said she's staying put.

“I’ve been here 30 years and I feel like my job is to not let this happen,” she said. “This is my town, and I’m going to fight.”

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.