Could SeaWorld buy a San Diego council seat?

Jim Ellis close-up

Jim Ellis: “She was at one meeting I was at. waving her arms and yelling something like, ‘out goes Alan Hitch, in goes Jim Ellis.’ "

Jim Ellis: “She was at one meeting I was at. waving her arms and yelling something like, ‘out goes Alan Hitch, in goes Jim Ellis.’ "

It's too bad. Someone is really going to ruin Jim Ellis. Ellis is one of San Diego's two recently elected new City Councilmen and he simply hasn't been around the briar patch of politics long enough to be careful. He just says all kinds of things that someone more careful, someone like Mayor Wilson, would never say. Ellis, for instance, will tell you about today's changing morality by describing how he and his friends used to sneak inside the drugstore in his Colorado hometown to see the then-scandalous “Petty Girl'' in Esquire. He'll tell you that he thinks the biggest problem facing San Diego is growth, that he is in favor of the Pill, not in favor of abortion, and that his 13-year-old daughter pleasantly surprised him the other day when she announced that when she gels married she will have one child and adopt one child. A more experienced public figure might fill your time with numbers and graphs and uninteresting stories, but Ellis is unashamedly personal. He says he's trying to do his part in saving fuel by driving to work on Mission Gorge Road to Friars Road to 395, to downtown, but gosh, probably the most important answer to our pollution/congestion/energy problem is a smaller car. “Heck, I do almost all my driving myself. I don't need a big car — we have to develop something smaller for alt of us to drive — even the VW is too big."

Ellis, who represents the district including San Diego State and the mushrooming tract-home Del Cerro-Serra Mesa-Tierra Santa expanse north of Highway 8, is a Protestant, Republican, and wears blue socks with his blue suit, blue eyes, and strawberry blonde hair. Though his 21 years as a Navy officer, including stints at the Navy Postgrad School in Monterey and at the Naval War College in Rhode Island, gave him polish, his personality is still pretty folksy; his voice and his laugh seem to come from his early boyhood in Oklahoma (when he was 14 his family moved to Colorado). His “gosh and “wash" sound like “garsh" and “warsh" and his laugh comes a little fast but not especially forced. You wonder how the folksiness of a Jim Ellis will stand up to the less ragged personalities of fellow Council members Maureen O'Connor, Floyd Morrow, or Pete Wilson.

Certainly Ellis will stand to the right of the others in his voting record. Not so frankly as Barry Goldwater, but more frankly than Richard Nixon, Ellis says he is a conservative. He says he's "probably the most conservative member of the Council.” He explains that he believes in “the rights of the individual" but “there is no such thing as complete freedom. When people come to live together in society they have to sacrifice part of their freedom. If you were one man on an island, it'd be different..."

But then Ellis clouds his position by saying he’s a “conservative on economic matters but a liberal on civil servants." On civil servants?

Yes, he says. He knows what it's like to be a civil servant because he was in the military and “the military's a corollary of the civil service system." (A corollary?) When he was a brand new ensign in the Navy 24 years ago. he and his wife scraped along on their S200 a month budget and rented a place for $75 a month. The people across the street were renting a house for $100 a month and that was really something! So he has a lot of sympathy for civil servants — a sympathy that's not so dumb politically in a town where the City bureaucracy has grown from 5000 employees to 6500 in the past five years. So I ask Ellis what he'll do if a department like the City's Planning Department finds itself with nothing to do. Would he riff some of these civil servants like a good conservative and save the taxpayers money? Or could his sympathy for civil servants be translated into featherbedding? Well, he says deftly, he doesn’t think that'll be a problem; he explains how people thought automation would destroy jobs, but “we've replaced buggies with cars and have created more jobs.”

Although Ellis says the main problem facing San Diego is growth, he holds to conservative economic principles when discussing the environment. “Developers only develop if they have a demand for a product. A developer's not going to go to the desert. The big problem in San Diego is “Can the City provide the necessary services if a development is made?" Ellis also says “you can't just pack people in so tight that they can't breathe" and that he is “a firm believer in open beaches." He thus maintains a belief in a floor space ratio requirement rather than strict height limitation. “What good would it have done to restrict buildings on the east side of Mount Soledad to a height of thirty feet?" Ellis says he's against billboards in certain areas but claims that “looking at a Coca Cola sign in San Diego's South Bay sloughs wouldn't bother me."

During the campaign Ellis became known as the candidate of the developers most specifically because of the contributions from Sea World president George Millay and other Sea World executives and their wives. It was alleged that George Millay and his friends, some of whom were also members of the pro-developer SEED organization, formed a group called “The Group" in order to support conservative and/or pro-developer candidates. Ellis's opponent, Evonne Schulze, a leader in the 1972 local McGovern campaign, made more hay of the Sea World contribution than any other issue, charging that Sea World was trying to buy influence and that Ellis should tell the truth about “The Group.” “She was desperate.” laughs Ellis, referring to Schulze as “that woman.”

“She was at one meeting I was at, waving her arms and yelling something like, ‘out goes Alan Hitch, in goes Jim Ellis.’ But. you know, people are fed up with attackers like that.

“There's nothing to those charges. Of course not. I never met with any ‘group.’ And besides, the contribution by the Sea World people was so small. Nine people donated $700. My biggest contributors in that election were attorneys. The second biggest was the San Diego Car Rental Association; that’s who the Schulze people should’ve gone after.” Ellis walks out of the office and carries a clipping back in. The clipping, from the Evening Tribune, quotes Ellis as saying that he has made sure that his car rental company has ended all dealings with the city so as to avoid a conflict of interest. “You know, the Sea World people were tenth or twelfth on the list of contributors. ‘Course they're the most visible. It’s like ITT. Everyone knows it. It’s easy to point the finger at."

Ellis says no he wouldn’t disqualify himself if the Sea World lease came up for vote by the City-Council. “That would be admitting I did something wrong.” But he would disqualify himself for a vote on something related to the car rental business. "That's just like Leon Williams having to exempt himself when FedMart comes up.” Williams, San Diego’s lone black councilman, is a counsel to FedMart. “You have to avoid conflict of interest.”

And then Ellis gets a phone call. Someone wants to buy a station wagon. Ellis says something about “sixteen or seventeen” ($1600 or $1700?). And then, embarrassedly, after the conversation is over, he says something about getting calls about his work in the City Council offices. “They wanted to buy a station wagon. Imagine that — what with gas prices and everything." In my mind and with a few facial gestures I tell Ellis I understand. I could imagine Leon Williams getting phone calls from FedMart in his office, or Floyd Morrow getting a call from a legal client in his office. Ellis is so careless and honest about it (why didn't he ask the person to call him back after I had gone?), that although I begin thinking about how much City facilities are used for private business — stationery, secretaries, office appointments — I am charmed by at least this amount of candor.

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