Column | Newspaper Wars

Part 4: Signal Hill’s Checkered Past

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Illustration by Emma DiMaggio

The following is the final part in the Signal Hill Checkered Past series. The quotes in this piece do not reflect the views of the Signal Tribune Newspaper and are based off historical context.

As mentioned in part 1 of this series, the alleged “political boss” of Signal Hill in the 1960s and 1970s was Thomas W. Denham, Sr. To some Denham was a trusted public servant, revered by many. Others saw beyond his Southern charm, claiming he was looking out for his own interests, using the press, as well as his police chief son, to achieve his own aims.

In 1962, Denham secured a seat on the Signal Hill City Council, a position he held from 1962-1974. He was also mayor from 1964-1965 and again in 1967-79. He took steps to secure his influence. He and other businessmen began subsidizing the Signal Hill Tribune, the town’s only newspaper by purchasing block subscriptions from publisher H. Fred Harris. Signal Hill began publishing its ordinances in the Tribune in type so large it cost the city extra newspaper space. David Caretto, future city manager of the city told the Los Angeles Times in 1981, “The city was subsidizing the newspaper.” As a result, the paper printed what Denham and his supporters wanted them to, ignoring stories of police brutality, and launching scathing stories about their opponents.

The 1968 Election
Thomas W. Denham Sr.’s reign was not without challenge. In 1968, 23-year-old, USC graduate, Sandra Miller decided to run against him. She and her husband Don Bazemore owned the Long Beach Argus, a weekly newspaper in Long Beach and started a Signal Hill edition called the Beacon and later the Green Sheet, in opposition to the Denham-controlled Tribune.

The election became one of the most vicious newspaper fights in Signal Hill history.

Denham survived, but Miller and her supporter Gertrude Beebe defeated two members of the Denham slate. The other city council members, not up for re-election that year, were Denham supporters. The next four years Miller described as the most bitter four years of her life.

Her first legislative act was to remove Fred Baxter, city administrator. Members in the audience supported her, citing corrupt civil service matters and alleged harassment of city employees prior to the election. Only Gertrude Beebe, also new to the council, supported Miller’s move. But public opposition to Baxter continued and in July 1968 he resigned to accept a similar position in Victorville.

The 1970 Election
The 1968 election was a seeming “victory” for Miller, but Denham was not one to lose easily. He shifted his supporters into high gear. “It was a fight for survival,” his son Tom Denham told the Times in 1981. If the women were able to oust one more member of the council in the 1970 election, their anti-corruption platform would have taken over the old-boys’ rule.

Mayor Denham would not let that happen. He called in the press, and the police force headed by his son to help in the battle.

Soon the newspapers entered the fray. The Tribune began by calling the Green Sheet “the Green Thing.” It accused Miller and her associates of fronting for gambling interests. It ridiculed her as “our cute little 23-year-old miniskirted council lady.” It implied she and Bazemore were not married, since she had kept her maiden name.

The Green Sheet, in return, accused Mayor Denham of rail roading street improvements in front of Denham family property. It described him as “King of the Hill.” As police chief, it said, his son “wouldn’t qualify as a dog catcher.”

The war intensified with Denham calling in the police. They arrested Bazemore on suspicion of being drunk. The Green Sheet reported the incident:

“Two policemen jerked both of Bazemore’s feet out from under him while he was spread-eagled over the trunk of the police car. He fell with his head hitting the police car bumper. Three officers then picked him up and threw him into the back of the car. One braced against the next car in the parking lot and with both feet kicked him to the floor of the police car.” (LA Times 10/11/1981 from an earlier article in the Green Sheet)

Long Beach Municipal Court Judge Charlie T. Smith dismissed the charge of drunkenness, saying it was purely a setup. Not deterred by the decision, the Signal Hill police continued to harass Bazemore. In another instance they followed Bazemore into Long Beach and arrested him on suspicion of bouncing a check. He was again taken to jail and beaten. He was acquitted of the charge. He was arrested at least four more times on minor charges such as disturbing the peace.

In another instance, Miller had her car ticketed for double-parking while she and Bazemore loaded their newspaper racks and for obscuring their license plate with a bumper hitch. Police said it wasn’t harassment, it was done to stop them interfering with police work by following officers with microphones and cameras and listening to the police radio – as part of a “power play” to take control of the community. Miller told the Times, “There was an atmosphere of total corruption in the city. There was a constant feeling of oppression.”

Bazemore, who had attended the University of Tennessee for one year before completing his marketing major at the University of Virginia, cast himself directly into the battle by running for city council in 1970 on a platform against nepotism in city government. Bazemore pointed out that one of Mayor Thomas Denham’s sons was police chief, the other a sergeant, and the son-in-law of former police chief William Stovall (now councilman) was also a police sergeant.

Less than half of the city’s 2,276 registered voters turned out for the election. Bazemore secured 239 votes of 1,026 votes cast. He lost to George Papadakis (724 votes), and former police chief William F. Stovall, running for re-election (693 votes), all Denham supporters.

The 1972 Election
In 1972, three of the five seats on the city council were at stake. Thomas Denham had decided not to seek re-election, but incumbents Miller and Beebe were in the running. It seemed certain that Miller and Beebe, would be elected. Miller’s husband Don Bazemore decided to once again cast his hat into the election.

But Bazemore was not able to secure nomination papers for the April election. Every time he went into City Hall, City Clerk Merle Hunt was “out of the office” and had not appointed anyone else to hand out the papers. It was an act which Denham knew would trigger Bazemore’s temper…and it did.

When it came time for public business at the next council meeting Bazemore accused City Clerk Hunt of purposely trying to deny him the proper paperwork to run for office. Hunt denied the charges and Bazemore called him a liar. His temper flaring, Hunt charged Bazemore from his desk, as members of the audience restrained Hunt. Bazemore said they could settle theirdifference outside, but Mayor Stovall ordered Bazemore arrested and charged with “offering to duel.” As Councilwoman Miller started to speak into her council microphone, Hunt lashed out at her telling her to “shut up your big mouth.”

An angry Bazemore demanded to know why he was being arrested. Stovall told him he would find out when he got to jail.

Police officer Malcolm Guleserian and Mayor Stovall wrestled Bazemore to the ground. Guleserian applied a restraining hold across Bazemore. When Bazemore said he couldn’t breathe Gulesorian eased the pressure.

In March 1972, Bazemore was convicted in Long Beach Municipal Court of disturbing the peace, put on two years’ probation and fined $625.

Perhaps it was this act of her husband, who ran the Beacon with Miller, or Miller’s questioning of paying city workers to erect the platform for the Easter sunrise service at Rotary Park which led to her defeat.

In March 1972, Miller wondered why taxpayers should pay for setting up for a religious service. She thought the idea of using volunteers should be explored.

She had been set up by the Denton contingent, just weeks before the election. Mayor Stovall responded that he was sorry that she was against Easter. Miller said she wasn’t against Easter and doubted if the council would do the same thing for Passover. She pointed out the Supreme Court had ruled against using taxpayers’ funds for religious purposes.

At this point Councilman Papadakis joined the spat by suggesting the same objection might be raised against authorizing use of the city park by the Girl Scouts because they referred to God in their oath. Papadakis went on to add that if anyone chose to sue the city, for them to go ahead.

Miller closed the discussion by commenting that a taxpayer’s suit would be terribly expensive and she did not think a taxpayers’ suit would win. Her statements may have cost her the vote of city employees, who had always been the ones who built the platform for Easter services in the park, and the vote of those who thought her anti-Christian.

In the April 1972 election, Gertrude Beebe led with the most votes (404), followed by Keaton King (504) and William Mendenhall (502). Sandra Miller with 365 votes came in 4th .

Under the new regime, Fred Baxter was asked to return to his old job as city administrator, with a $4,500 ($28,000) raise. It was a position the former Air Force colonel would hold for three years, resigning as Signal Hill city administrator following a stroke in June 1975. His assistant, John W. Jameson, was selected to replace him.

The Green Sheet and Beacon died. Miller said the Denham machine went after every advertiser they had, destroying the paper.

The 1980 Election
As the 1980 election neared, Thomas W. Denham Sr. was dead. Richard Denham was no longer the police chief, and Sgt. Tom Denham was a year away from retirement.

Two Denham men on the Council were under attack. One of them, Reginald Balchin, had been accused by Councilman David Bellis of concealing some of his property holdings and voting on issues that would increase their value. The other Denham man, Marion (Buzz) McCallen was accused of violating several city ordinances at his used-car lots, and at his massage parlor.

But for this fight, the Denhams no longer could count on the Tribune.

Publisher Fred Harris had sold the newspaper to Ken Mills, 42, a former editor of the Contra Costa Times. The Denhams approached Mills with offers to help with financing. However, Mills, who wanted to establish the Tribune’s independence, resisted. The Tribune’s total advertising dropped to half a page. Mills’ problems compounded because he refused to block subscription purchases his predecessor had accepted from power groups, such as the Denham machine and oil companies.

Mills said they were unethical – and could cost him his second-class mailing privileges. Mills was going broke.

Tom and Richard Denham tried to buy the paper outright. At the last minute, a group of politicians aligned with the Silent American Majority (SAM) a group opposed to the Denhams, offered to contribute money to keep Mills alive. They solicited other contributions at meetings, the $5 and $10 bills kept the paper going. The Denhams started a newspaper of their own – the Signal Hill Star (1980-84).

Finally, the financial strain was too much. Mills sold the Tribune back to its former publisher, who sold it to the Denhams the same day. But it was too late.

The voters threw Balchin and McCallen out of office in a recall election. Meanwhile brutality claims against the police continued to mount, culminating in the 1981 death of African American Ron Settles, found hanged in his jail cell two hours after his arrest.

In October 1981, maverick city councilman David J. Bellis, who led the successful recall of fellow councilmen Balchin and McCallen survived a recall of his own. However, Bellis, an author and political science professor, lost in the absentee ballot vote. He was suspicious City Clerk Merle Hunt who hand-delivered about half the absentee ballots in the recall did some campaigning while voters filled out the ballot.

Bellis began feuding with council members soon after he was elected in April 1980. Then mayor McCallen asked Bellis to resign after Bellis admitted he once was a heroin addict.

Another citizen asked Bellis to submit to a physical examination and lie detector test to prove he no longer took drugs. Bellis agreed to the physical but refused the lie detector. In the notice of intent to recall, Bellis was accused of concealing his former heroin addiction from voters, making false statements on his candidate and office-holder’s campaign statements, of disregarding the interests of voters and of “conduct reprehensible, intolerable and deleterious to the operation of city government.”

As the drive to recall Bellis gathered momentum, the councilman financed the printing and distribution of The Signal, a 12-page tabloid which he called a “public information bulletin” that criticized local politics. That, and the nationwide media attention over Ron Settle’s death in a Signal Hill jail, rallied support for Bellis.

Councilman Papadakis said: “the media did a job on our city. Bellis used (the media) very effectively. He does anything to gain people’s sympathy.” (LA Times 10/29/1981)

Bellis won reelection in 1984 and remained on the council until September 1986. He resigned after accepting a position as associate professor of public administration at California State University, San Bernardino and moved to Lake Arrowhead. During his term in office he oversaw a change in administration in the Police Department following the death of Ron Settles in 1981. He also oversaw the city’s redevelopment efforts, which brought the Price Club (now Costco) to the city.

Claudine Burnett has written 10 books about Southern California history. For more about her, and to access her blogs, visit her website, claudineburnettbooks.com. Also, visit her Facebook page.