Photo by Keith May
Garry Brown takes a sip from the bottomless cup of coffee supplied by an open-air caf facing Newport Harbor and looks toward the glistening water, and his eyes seem to look all the way back to his childhood.
“As a little kid, I’d stand on Newport Pier and haul in big bonito fishes,” says the Anaheim native. “I’d walk along the beach, and there’d be seaweed and seashells.”
In high school and college, Brown made it a point to visit the beach as much as possible, to walk the sea-sprayed piers and take in the view of the emerald ocean while driving along Pacific Coast Highway between Corona del Mar and Newport Beach.
Now that he’s 48, the bonito and shells are gone. What little seaweed is left is usually wrapped around trash. So much garbage shoots out of storm drains after it rains that it looks as if one could walk across local harbors and beaches without touching water. Bacteria and viruses breed along the shores after sewage spills. Creeks and man-made channels that used to run into the ocean during the winter now run year-round with urban runoff bearing potentially harmful toxins.
“I remember how the coast was during my childhood,” he says. “I see it as it is now, and I get angry.”
He’s turned that anger into action. In July, he launched Orange County CoastKeeper, a nonprofit group dedicated to protecting local harbors, beaches and watersheds from pollution. Brown is now working and/or fighting with mighty developers, neglectful politicians and red-tape-noosed bureaucrats to clean our water.
“I don’t think the history of Orange County shows a commitment to the environment at all,” he says. “We’re not saying there shouldn’t be development. It’s just got to be better-planned and have greater care for the environment. Nobody’s suggesting developers shouldn’t make good money, just maybe not so much at the expense of the environment.”
With a chuckle, Brown says, “I’m an oxymoron: I’m an environmentalist Republican.”
That’s not the half of it. Brown once represented some of the most pernicious developers ever to scalp the Southern California landscape.
After graduating from Anaheim High School, Brown took morning classes at the University of Redlands, hopped on the freeway for an hour, and then spent late afternoons as foreman of It’s a Small World at Disneyland. He later interned in the Redlands city manager’s office, then moved full-time into City Hall after graduating from college in the early ’70s. The city’s idyllic downtown was about to undergo a much-needed revitalization, but Redlands had no redevelopment director. So the longtime city manager, eager for a new challenge, took on that task and handed most of his day-to-day duties to the twentysomething Brown.
It was an unusually important gig for a young man who also served as the town’s chamber of commerce president. He resigned his job in 1976 but continued to visit City Hall, using his connections in government to lobby on behalf of San Bernardino County real-estate boards. Then—in a really odd twist, when you consider what he does now—he became executive director of the Baldy View chapter of the Building Industry Association (BIA) during the highflying ’80s.
Southern California was experiencing a development boom then, nowhere more so than in western San Bernardino County, the area the Baldy View BIA covered. Former Cajon Pass dust collectors Fontana, Ontario and Rancho Cucamonga experienced unprecedented growth hammered out by good-ol’-boy politicians who were greased by the BIA, which represented the collective interests of builders and developers (including Newport Beach-based William Lyon Co.).
To put it in terms familiar to Orange County residents, the Baldy View BIA was every bit as powerful and politically entrenched in San Bernardino County as the Irvine Co. is in OC.
“San Bernardino County was totally controlled by developers,” Brown says. “I sat in offices and heard major powers get on the telephone and tell [local elected officials] how [they were] going to vote, not ask.”
Once, after a high-profile supervisor “screwed up” and was defeated in his re-election campaign by a virtual unknown, Brown worked his magic. The new supervisor did not have a political machine behind him; he simply won because voters were pissed-off at his predecessor.
“He didn’t even know how the county operated that well,” Brown says. “He was considered an environmental, slow-growth, no-growth candidate. At that time, Chino Hills was going to be blasting through, Rancho Cucamonga was blasting through, and so was South Fontana. No one wanted someone who was slow-growth or no-growth—especially some tree hugger.”
Soon the local newspapers were “on [the new supe’s] ass for being so green,” Brown remembers. “He didn’t know what he was doing.” Worse, he had a $25,000 campaign deficit and no organization—or know-how—to raise money. And he was poised to appoint an environmentalist to a seat held by a BIA favorite on the county’s shadowy and powerful planning commission.
Brown arranged a meeting with the supervisor. “I’m inviting you to a lunch next Wednesday at a little restaurant on Main Street in Colton,” Brown recalls telling the elected official. “There will be 25 or 30 developers there who are all the owners of their companies. All of us just want to have lunch. None of us have met you. So be there, stand up, just introduce yourself, give honest opinions as you see it, and give everyone a chance to ask you questions and get to know you.”
Brown offered to get the newspapers off the supervisor’s ass and—after the lunch—retire his campaign debt in exchange for the planning-commission appointment.
“He thought about it and said, ‘Okay, we’ll try that.’ So I called some people. The newspapers went hush, and everyone knew to come to the lunch with a check for $1,000. And everyone did.
By the time dessert was served at the luncheon, the supervisor had received 30 $1,000 campaign donations. “And he,” Brown concludes, “gave us back a planning commissioner.”
Brown explains that in the 1970s, “the building industry learned it was not in the building industry; it was in the permission industry. With a typical development, you have to deal with all of these various agencies. It takes a tremendous amount of money to do that.
“When I represented Realtors, they had the numbers as far as members, but they made few campaign contributions. Developers, by contrast, were few in number but realized money was needed to get friends in places you need to get permission. Half the battle was permission.”
That battle caught the attention of a few critics. “We were getting deemed by the papers as too powerful and totally running and controlling the Board of Supervisors.”
Was that true?
“Yeah,” he answers.
Brown’s grip on government grew tighter and tighter. In 1982, he served as campaign manager for cowboy-boot-sporting San Bernardino County Sheriff Floyd Tidwell. (Tidwell was to San Bernardino County what former Sheriff Brad Gates was to OC.) Brown would later be named an honorary deputy and member of the Sheriff’s Council, a group of 28 citizens (including the late cowboy star Roy Rogers) who raised funds to assist various projects of the department and other county police agencies.
“I learned a lot,” Brown says. “I was naive in those days, and I got in the middle of a huge power struggle that I didn’t even know was going on.”
Brown blames that struggle for his April 4, 1986, arrest in what authorities and local headlines trumpeted as a “prostitution ring.” He was the most prominent figure among nine people busted in the case. According to court documents, he was paid $18,000 to win approval of a desert massage parlor, which was alleged to be a front for prostitution.
According to Brown, he was framed.
County government had once been in the pocket of businessmen who had been pushed aside by the increasingly powerful BIA, according to Brown. One of those businessmen “had been considered the godfather of the county Board of Supervisors,” he says. All of them were on the lookout for a chance to get Brown and the BIA.
That chance came when Brown sold an acre of land he owned in the desert town of Adelanto for $40,000 to a man who owned massage parlors elsewhere in the county. But there was a condition on the sale: Brown had to use his connections to guide the project through the planning and building stages. Brown agreed and brought in an Apple Valley builder who belonged to the BIA to construct the High Desert Health Spa. Brown claims all members of the Adelanto City Council and planning commission attended the club’s grand opening. “I never kept my involvement a secret,” he says.
He admits Tidwell warned him that the club owner was involved in illegal activities. But Brown claims that by then, he had grown disenchanted with the sheriff because he’d witnessed the county’s top cop “in several compromising positions.” Brown says because he trusted the club owner more than the sheriff, he didn’t heed the warning.
According to Brown, the builder he brought in later tied one on at a local country-club bar and bragged to patrons that he could get them “free BJs” at the spa—even though, Brown says, the builder hadn’t been there since the opening. “It was just drunk talk,” he says. Unfortunately, that drunk talk was overheard by two members of the county grand jury who were sitting at the bar.
Through the builder, Brown later met two men who wanted help building another massage parlor, this one in Palm Springs. Nothing came of the talks—until later, when it became clear that the two men were actually undercover investigators. In March 1986, law-enforcement officials raided two massage parlors owned by the man Brown had represented.
And then life got weird for Garry Brown. The day after the massage parlors were searched, Brown’s 22-year-old wife, Jamie, was killed in an automobile wreck on Interstate 215 outside San Bernardino. Brown says he was waiting for her with a police officer friend at a San Bernardino restaurant. Instead, four other police officers—”pale as ghosts”—arrived at the restaurant and broke the news of Jamie Brown’s death. Before he had much time to grieve, Brown says, the officers asked where his 18-month-old son was. The wreck had been cleared, but the freeway remained closed because baby clothes were strewn across the scene and no child was in sight.
Brown says he knew his wife had dropped the baby off with a sitter, but he went blank on their baby sitter’s name, phone number and address. He tried to direct officers over the police radio to the baby sitter’s house by naming nearby streets and the color of the home. Finally, the house was found. The boy was safe. The freeway was reopened.
Brown retreated to his cop friend’s house, where he was visited by Tidwell. He says the sheriff hugged him, offered condolences—and then warned him that the prostitution probe would not go away. “I told him, obviously, I’ll cooperate,” Brown says. “I hadn’t done anything wrong except eat lunch with two guys who turned out to be deputies. I never said I’d do anything illegal for them.”
But a month later, Brown was arrested by Tidwell’s deputies. He had already resigned from the BIA and returned his honorary deputy sheriff’s badge to Tidwell. “Every builder had one,” Brown said. “You could buy one for a $1,000 donation.”
He was forced to answer to 16 counts involving pimping, pandering, keeping a house of ill fame, soliciting an act of prostitution, prevailing on a person to visit a place of prostitution and other charges. According to court documents, prosecutors based all their charges against Brown on the allegation that he “handled and reviewed” a $250,000 check the undercover officers showed him to prove they were serious about opening a massage parlor.
Brown claims he was dragged into the case by the BIA’s political opponents. The DA “was going to use this case to bring down the BIA,” he asserts. “It was a convenient time to make a big, big thing out of nothing.”
And the BIA-bashing county media—including one paper that had previously termed Brown “the sixth supervisor”—willingly fueled the fire.
“There were stories on me on the 6 o’clock news every night for a week,” he says, “and I didn’t even recognize the guy they were talking about. I got a taste of what the media can do. Even now, when I see a guy raked over the coals in the media, I wonder what’s really going on.”
After Brown’s arrest, deputy district attorney David Whitney announced he was reopening the investigation into Jamie Brown’s death. The California Highway Patrol had ruled that excessive speed caused the wreck, but foul play had not been ruled out. Whitney told the press that Jamie Brown was not on her way to meet her husband at a restaurant but to reveal the prostitution investigation to a friend.
Evidence of foul play was never found. Brown believes the cause was what the CHP initially reported: excessive speed. He says that once, after he bought the Jeep for his wife, she drove alongside his car down the same steep stretch of the Cajon Pass where her accident occurred. He says that when they arrived at their destination, he scolded her for driving too fast.
Prosecutors could never prove Brown was on either massage parlor’s payroll. He says he toyed with filing charges of malicious prosecution against the DA but copped to a misdemeanor plea because he was “so burnt-out” and “mentally beat up.” He was also out of money. Brown claims he and his attorney, with the blessing of prosecutors, came up with his own charge. “I’m the only person in the state of California ever charged with the heinous crime of conspiracy to establish a house of ill fame,” he says of his plea-bargain agreement.
But in March 1989, after noting that Brown was “the one person willing to come forward” and “that he has been very cooperative,” Judge Frederick A. Mandabach ordered that the guilty plea be “vacated and set aside,” and that the case against Brown be dismissed.
In exchange for lawyer’s fees, Brown’s defense attorney took ownership of his gun collection. Considering Brown’s emotional state at the time, removing the firearms from his home was a smart move.
“I’d like to think it’s in the past,” Brown says. “It was a hard lesson in politics. I didn’t realize how the system could bring you down. But I knew it would eventually come up again. It was certainly one consideration in getting involved in anything public again. But it’s who I am. And I am so committed to what I’m doing.”
Sitting outside the coffeehouse, Brown vows that he’s “a totally different person. I look back at my tenure on the BIA, and I’m not proud of what had seemed to me then to be accomplishments. The whole experience humbled me. I look at what I valued, and if I was like I was 10 or 15 years ago, I certainly would not be out fighting for the environment now. I’m a much happier person than I was then.”
After the dust from his bust had settled, Brown “withdrew” for a year, traveling the country with his son, Austin, to buy antiques “as therapy.”
“I gave up everything to raise him,” he says. “It was the best choice I ever made to be his father. Having an 18-month-old baby—if he did not have me, who would he have? Later in life, it hit me: I don’t know who needed who the most.”
He worked on boats and for a trucking company for a while because he wanted to do something he’d never done before, something that would not force him to wear three-piece suits and mingle with power brokers. He wound up back in Orange County in 1991 and lived on a boat in Huntington Harbour. Two years later, he bought the Wrigley family’s yacht. “I spent more on restoring it than I did on buying it,” he says. He later sold the mahogany vessel.
And he has since remarried. Garry and Ellen Brown live with Austin in a Huntington Harbour condominium.
With a partner, Brown opened a yacht brokerage in Newport Beach a few years ago. After waking up in Huntington Harbour and then spending the rest of the day in Newport Harbor, something struck him. “I’d get irate whenever there was a sewage spill in Garden Grove and we’d get the signs saying not to go in the water in Huntington Harbour,” he says.
Brown’s anger over inland sewage spills shifted to all-out rage when his son began regularly falling ill—including vomiting and diarrhea—after scraping the sides of boats in Newport Harbor to earn extra cash.
Brown started looking into environmental groups. He met with a member of Santa Monica BayKeeper and liked what he heard. “No one was doing anything close to what they did in Santa Monica here in Orange County,” he said.
With Ellen’s help, he decided he’d form Orange County CoastKeeper, an independent organization affiliated with the national WaterKeeper Alliance. In exchange for the name—and, more important, access to foundation grants —Brown had to do “an equivalent of a master thesis of Orange County’s environmental problems.” What he learned pissed him off even more. Through research, he identified the top 10 toxic hot spots in Orange County. No. 1 was Seal Beach or neighboring Newport Beach’s Rhine Channel. Seven were in Huntington Beach, where months later, a bacteria scare would close the beach for weeks.
“When development was going crazy in Southern California in the ’70s and ’80s, all of a sudden, we [developers] wrote the book for development, fees and infrastructure financing,” Brown says. “All of a sudden, cities could not handle all this development without fees for schools, for police, for fire protection, for parks.”
He now realizes that dealing with urban runoff and storm water should have entered the equation.
“In all those discussions, no one ever mentioned storm runoff. It wasn’t even on the list. No one ever looked at the big picture. Now that we have 4.5 million people in the Orange County watershed [which extends from Big Bear Lake to the coast], we’re looking back in retrospect and saying, ‘Oh, shit, we have a problem.’ I don’t see why taking care of that problem cannot be added to the potpourri of development issues.
“The precedent has been set: the impact of the developer is well-known. Twenty years ago, it wasn’t on the list. It has to be on the list. I think one of the misnomers that we were under then was all the studies that said new development pays its way. I think, in retrospect, we were wrong. When you look at perpetual care and maintenance, I don’t think any development pays its way. I think that was a falsehood we said then because we didn’t look at the picture on a large enough scale.”
The old Garry Brown would have shot this guy with his gun collection.
The WaterKeeper Alliance dates back to 1983, when John Cronin, a commercial fisherman in New York’s Hudson River, started going broke. Fish were disappearing due to pollution, so, along with other fishermen and folk singer Pete Seeger, Cronin formed Hudson RiverKeeper. The group traveled the river sampling water gushing out of pipelines and discovered the Hudson’s pollution had its source in the region’s chemical plants.
Under the Clean Water Act of 1972, the public can sue the government to correct environmental issues, but River Keeper found few attorneys who would take their case, and those who would charged more than fishermen could afford. Then Robert Kennedy Jr. stepped in and took the case for free.
Like Brown, Kennedy found the Keepers after an embarrassing arrest and subsequent spiritual gut check. One of RFK’s “wild boys,” Kennedy seemed to have settled down and begun following in his father’s footsteps in 1982 when he became assistant district attorney in Manhattan. But 18 months later, in September 1983, he was busted in Rapid City, South Dakota, and charged with possessing .2 grams of heroin.
A condition of Kennedy’s sentencing was that he complete a treatment program and perform 800 hours of community service. Bobby Jr. re-evaluated his life and decided to devote it to environmentalism. To satisfy his sentence, he became a volunteer attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), even though he didn’t know a lick about environmental law.
The Hudson RiverKeepers’ case served as Kennedy’s crash course. After several lawsuits, the Hudson became the first American waterway reverted to its natural state.
Kennedy—who was such a quick study on environmental law that he’s now chief prosecuting attorney for the NRDC and a law professor at Pace University’s Environmental Litigation Clinic (which he helped found)—is now president of the WaterKeeper Alliance, which includes 35 Keepers in the U.S. and Canada.
If Garry Brown is to be remembered for nothing else, it should be for bringing a Kennedy to our little bastion of conservatism.
“Orange County’s conservative political base has made getting established an uphill struggle,” Brown says. “What Orange County has to learn is that clean water, a clean environment, is not a Republican or Democrat issue—it’s good business.”
(The skepticism works both ways. One local activist, who asked that he not be named, says of CoastKeeper, “These guys are all Republicans in Newport. I don’t know if I trust them.”)
Kennedy, who makes it a point to attend opening ceremonies for every Keeper group, spoke to about 150 locals at a Sept. 11 luncheon in a Newport Beach hotel ballroom. Randy Seton, a Newport Beach native (and Republican) who has been disgusted with ocean pollution for years and now works alongside Brown at CoastKeeper, still laughs at something Kennedy said during the drive upcoast from San Diego. Scanning rows of identical housing developments carved into the hillsides, Kennedy remarked on OC’s “cookie-cutter homes and McMansions.”
Dennis Kelly, an Orange Coast College marine-science professor, called Kennedy’s speech—in which he explained how the Keeper movement got started and how our society’s “pollution-based economy” has been a boon for a few at the expense of the many—”very impressive.” Roger von Butow, the founder of South Laguna’s Clean Aliso Creek Association, was so enthused he immediately bought Cronin and Kennedy’s book The RiverKeepers: Two Activists Fight to Reclaim Our Environment as a Basic Human Right. “It’s now my bible,” says von Butow. “It’s a framework for everything we’re doing down here.”
During post-speech mingling, Kennedy took Brown aside and said, “Welcome to the brawl.”
CoastKeeper had actually introduced itself to Orange County several weeks before the Kennedy visit. Using underwater divers, the group publicly tested Rhine Channel’s polluted waters. In the months since, membership has swelled to 150. Seton and the Browns —OC CoastKeeper’s full-time staff—recently moved out of the tiny Lido Village office that was Garry Brown’s yacht brokerage (he sold out to his partner) and into more spacious digs near Sid’s tavern on Old Newport Boulevard. There are now regular meetings. Speakers and newsletters are promised. Grants are pouring in. So are the trouble spots.
“When I went to Santa Monica, I told the guy I hoped I had enough stuff to do for a program in Orange County,” Brown says. “Now our plate is so full we’re going crazy.”
He appeared before the Laguna Beach City Council—at Butow’s urging—in October to put the town on notice that CoastKeeper will use all means necessary to clean up the beach town’s polluted waters, even if it means tying up Treasure Island, City Hall’s pet resort project on the cliffs above the Pacific. That led to a Nov. 16, city-sponsored workshop, where Brown’s speech before the gathering was interrupted five times by applause. Told during a break that he should consider running for office, Brown laughed and said, “I’ve been running away from that my whole life.”
His group filed an appeal of a decision by state water-quality regulators to grant a runoff-discharge permit for the Irvine Co.’s Crystal Cove residential development. If CoastKeeper loses the appeal, a suit is likely, according to Brown, who is also taking his case to the state Coastal Commission.
“Our reputation precedes us,” he says. “People hear I’m from CoastKeeper, and they say, ‘You’re the guys who sue everybody.’ We certainly don’t start out intending to sue anybody. But if it comes to that, we will. We’ve been asked if we’re vigilantes. We say, ‘No, but we’re activists.’ We try to work out all remedies before getting to the point of litigation on any issue.”
To demonstrate that litigation is their last resort, Brown notes that his group is working with those same state water-quality officials to sample waters in Rhine Channel and Huntington Harbour.
CoastKeeper’s “Aqua Cops”—volunteer-operated boats—scan the waters looking for polluters and respond to reports of illegal dumping logged on a 24-hour hot line (1-877-4CACOAST). Their skippers also educate people about ocean pollution. Events are being organized through the Orange County Marine Institute in Dana Point and the Newport Beach Nautical Museum. Brown’s 15-year-old son will dive underwater with a camera and send images up to a video screen for schoolchildren inside the museum, which is a converted paddle wheeler. CoastKeeper is also funding local kelp reforestation.
“We’re doing some really positive things,” Brown says. “Hopefully people will not view us as being hard-line but as trying to be constructive when it comes to both education and enforcement.”
“They seem to be attempting to address these environmental problems very carefully and doing a lot of homework before getting involved,” says Kelly, who provides scientific expertise to CoastKeeper. “Some environmental groups charge out there without knowing the facts. . . . So far, I’ve been very impressed with everything they’re doing. I think there needs to be environmental watchdogs, and they are certainly fulfilling that role right now.”
But does that role duplicate what others are already doing, such as the Surfrider Foundation?
“That’s the question,” says Christopher Evans, Surfrider’s executive director, from his San Clemente office. “I think there is some overlap in what we do, although I’m not completely conversant in their mission. Our position is the more help, the better. We’ve been waiting a long time for others to come and help.”
Indeed, CoastKeeper’s arrival in Orange County may signal an awareness among people other than surfers—who formed Surfrider in 1984—that our ocean’s health has reached a crisis state.
“I think what’s happening now is conservative people from both parties are looking at the business dynamic, in the loss of money from treating the ocean poorly,” Evans says. “Those people are realizing that the ocean is the economic engine that runs Orange County and the rest of Southern California. To have what happened in Huntington Beach—where at the height of the tourist season, the revenues dry up because of ocean pollution—I hope that motivates people who have to make a living here to help out. You can’t treat Mother Ocean like that.”
“The only way this is going to work is if the whole environmental community works together,” Brown says. “If you follow someone else’s lead, it’s important to make sure the goal is to get the job done. You have to put egos aside. It doesn’t matter who gets the credit.”
“There is a lot of spiritualism in this office,” Brown says in CoastKeeper’s hallway. “Everyone believes this is what they were put here to do. The timing is right to be doing what we’re doing.
“This is a six-days-a-week, 14-hours-a-day job. And on Sundays, I get on the computer and do paperwork. But I love doing it because, hell, we’re right. We know in our hearts we are doing the right thing. I am absolutely convinced we can make a difference.”
CoastKeeper eventually plans to turn its attention inland because our coastal ecosystem originates in Big Bear Lake. Brown will likely rub up against people he knew in his former life.
“I already do, all the time,” he says. “The subject [of his arrest] never comes up. People are nice enough not to bring it up.”
And he figures OC power brokers who might see CoastKeeper’s mission affecting their bottom lines probably know of his past. As one local observer informed him, “Garry, by now, the Irvine Co. knows everyone you’ve slept with.”
A political machine chewed him up and spit him out once. Could it happen again?
“It could,” he says. “I’d hope I’m smarter and would see it coming now.”
Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the paper’s first calendar editor. He went on to be managing editor, executive editor and is now senior staff writer.