Pacifica doesn’t really have a lot of claims to fame. People love the ocean and the hills, but other California towns have those naturally occurring gems.
One historical anomaly that longtime Pacificans know about, however, is the time the national media paid a little bit of attention to the distaff management, the female electeds, the women who ran the town.
Yes, I’m talking about the time even the National Enquirer, along with the San Francisco Chronicle, Elle magazine and any number of other publications focused their laser-like eyes on our Coastside burg: When women ruled the roost.
In the early 1990s, Pacificans booted out four members of the City Council because there was an effort to establish a clever revenue stream called a “Lighting and Landscaping Assessment District.” The truly unique aspect of this effort was that it did not require a public vote.
The City Council at the time, aware of what was clearly an anti-tax sentiment within the general populace, took a big swing and thought this might be a way to fund some important elements in the city. Perhaps the new revenue, used for “Lighting and Landscaping” could relieve the pressure on the city budget.
Now, keep in mind that Pacifica has always had an ongoing debate about whether there is enough money to pay for the various civic responsibilities weighing upon the heads of the good people of the city. History has shown that folks like to pony up payments for school districts, but not for the city itself, except for a recent vote to increase the sales tax, which is actually viewed as getting outsiders to pay more of the city’s bills.
A public meeting was held to discuss this unique political decision. Something like 600 people showed up. They were not happy. While the five members of the City Council had discussed the possibility of implementing the special assessment district, when it came time for them to publicly vote on it, Bonnie Wells was the one who changed her mind as she looked out on the crowd.
The other four stuck to their guns, including John Schneider, the brother of actor Rob Schneider. Turns out those guns were shooting blanks and the community was having none of it. A recall was launched and all four of those sitting Council members were booted out of office. Bonnie Wells kept her seat.
Five times in Pacifica’s history voters have mounted recall efforts of elected politicians: four times aimed at the City Council and once aimed at a school board. Only one was successful. Back in 2003 there was one that targeted four sitting members based on fiscal complaints. There was a lot of animosity and frustration, but the Council members were not recalled.
Four were recalled, however, in 1992. When the Chronicle wrote about the 2003 recall effort, supported by former City Council member Vi Gotelli, they quoted her as saying, “I don't know if it's the fog or the sound of the ocean, the salt air, I just don't know. But I know people have real cases and causes. This is not frivolous.”
Gotelli had been on the council that is the subject of this remembrance. She was one of five women elected to manage Pacifica as the world-famous (sort of) “All Women City Council.”
Maxine Gonsalves, Barbara Carr, Ellen Castelli, Dorothy Edminster and Vi Gotelli became that rarest of political entities in 1994, two years after the aforementioned recall — a council lacking any men. That caretaker council after the recall was actually lacking any men as well. Maxine and Dorothy replaced Bonnie Wells and Julie Lancelle, continuing and solidifying what began after the recall, when voters chose five women. Turned out it wasn’t a fluke and the voters really wanted women in charge. Barbara Carr even managed a somewhat risqué joke about women that would probably not be acceptable today.
It should be noted that while Pacifica has enjoyed a period of complete female domination on its City Council, it has never, ever had an “All-Men City Council.”
You don’t have to know about San Mateo County (or American, or world) politics to realize that’s pretty rare, too. In fact, this year, 2023, there is only one man on the Pacifica City Council, current Mayor Tygarjaz Bigstyck. On the flip side, there is only one woman on the five-member San Mateo County Board of Supervisors.
The truth is that folks in Pacifica elected people they believed to be the most fiscally responsible. The burr in the saddle of Pacifica’s history is the challenge of creating revenue for a city that is basically funded through property tax. That was true in 1992, 2003 and every other year. It was also true in 1957, when it took several elections for voters to agree on incorporating the valleys into a city.
It’s still a challenge and the arguments are pretty much the same as they have ever been. Whether or not Pacifica ever returns to an “All-Women City Council” remains to be seen.
Chris Hunter is retired but was once editor and publisher of the Pacifica Tribune.
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