May 22nd marks the 90th anniversary of what was called “one of the warmest elections ever held on the Mesa.” At issue was an attempt in 1928 to annex 6,000 acres of property to Santa Ana. The strip would have run due south from that city to the Upper Newport Bay, and would have included Delhi, part of Paularino, and most of Costa Mesa.
Pros and Antis
W. Carl Spencer, Costa Mesa property owner and booster, led the annexation efforts along with the Santa Ana Chamber of Commerce and the Santa Ana Register. With annexation, Costa Mesa could share Santa Ana’s services — fire, police, trash, and street maintenance and improvement. Taxes may go up, the pros argued, but so would property values, and insurance rates would go down.
But much more important to Spencer, a fervent advocate of “commerce and progress,” was the harbor. When he saw harbor frontage being bought up by those who wished to turn the harbor to pleasure purposes, he looked on in horror, because meanwhile his fellow citizens were being forced to subsist, in his words, on “kitchen gardens, climate, and mockingbird music.” Santa Ana had both the capital and the motivation to immediately bring jobs and prosperity to the harbor area. Costa Mesa could become a kind of San Pedro of Orange County.
That the harbor should be developed was an issue both the pros and antis agreed upon. The antis only doubted Santa Ana’s commitment and lack of guarantees. They proposed instead a “Harbor Improvement District” for the purpose.
It wasn’t long, however, before an unbridgeable gap developed. Spencer argued Costa Mesa should unite behind a “program of progress” because farming had “passed its zenith.” Farmers, of course, didn’t exactly agree. The town split into urban and commercial interests on the one side (the pros) and rural and agricultural interests on the other (the antis).
Roy J. Wertz, for instance, a self-proclaimed “hay seed,” claimed Costa Mesa was doing very well, thank you, and bucked against what he viewed as meddling “by those whose interests are within a few hundred feet from the intersection of Fairview [todays’ Harbor] and Newport Boulevards.”
“These ‘birds,’” he said, “having no particular business of their own, naturally have abundance of time to muss up the affairs of the community.”
The antis came to view the supposed collateral benefits of uniting with Santa Ana with suspicion and scorn. Led by apple farmer George Waterman, they rejected the idea that the rural community needed expensive police and fire protection, and viewed street paving services as a “pernicious and confiscatory plan” to extract fees. They feared higher taxes, urban zoning laws, and city inspectors. They chafed at the idea of being under the control of a city with only urban interests at heart, a city ten miles distant but with ten times the voting power.
Controversy ignited almost as soon as the proposal was revealed. The annexationists were accused of conducting their meetings in secret so they could foist a fait accompli upon the people. The Chamber of Commerce, which initially leant pro, had to move to a position of neutrality. Pro-annexation business owners were forced into silence, they claimed, by threats of boycotts. Insults flew in both directions, honor and integrity were impugned, charges were leveled. The Santa Ana Register printed a letter calling Costa Mesa “the dumping ground for the whole south end of the county.” And that wasn’t all.
Costa Mesa wanted to coordinate with Newport Beach to build a new high school, but this was an impossibility if the city became Santa Ana. According to Maxwell Burke (brother of the Register’s editor), this was just as well, since any school built by the harbor district would be, compared to Santa Ana Polytechnic, “mediocre.” [Newport Harbor opened in 1930.]
Waterman accused the Santa Ana Register of wielding “that most contemptible weapon of the press, namely to smother opposition under a blanket of silence.” The antis had submitted a letter outlining their position, but the paper refused to publish it, saying it had an obligation to print only the truth. The letter was finally printed 12 days later, interlaced with a point by point rebuttal inside the text itself, a tactic decried as unfair.
The Irvine Company eventually joined forces with the anti-annexationists. They claimed up to 1,200 acres of their land, mainly around Upper Newport Bay, had been included without their consent. The Irvines asserted the proposed annexation included uninhabited land which could not be annexed under the law. The pros countered that the uninhabited and inhabited land was mixed together. The suit went to court, with the Irvine Company asking that the election be nullified should annexation prevail.
To call the election, the pros needed to collect the signatures of 25% of the approximately 1,300 voters in the affected area. Despite early reports claiming a 95% to 100% signing rate, the pros struggled to obtain the needed 325 names. The controversial final tally — which appears to have matched the exact number of signatures required — led to another court battle to stop the election, which the antis lost.
The most serious allegation, perhaps, was that signatures were collected under coercion. In a raucous meeting at the Women’s Clubhouse a week before the vote, one man alleged that W. C. Spencer, requesting his support, had ominously reminded him that he, Spencer, had gotten the man a job. Who was that man? None other than Roy J. Wertz, the hay seed.
A motion was called to exclude personalities from the meeting. But, even so, each time the Santa Ana Register was mentioned, the crowd hissed and jeered.
The boisterous meeting, dominated by the antis, was just the latest indication of the people’s mood. Only a month before, a more modest attempt to annex a triangle of land south of 15th street to Newport Beach was defeated, too, 27-18. The election was held Tuesday, May 22nd, and, surprising no one, annexation was defeated 5 to 1, with 160 votes for and 770 against.