Murrieta Incorporates

The Windmill restaurant on Jefferson Avenue, where John McElroy, George Walker, and Tex McAlister met for breakfast on a February morning in 1988 and first discussed the idea of cityhood for Murrieta, was torn down years ago. On the site now is an empty parking lot where a car dealership used to be. 

"We didn't plan it," McAlister said recently about that fateful, but not unusual, meeting. The trio often met for breakfast at the restaurant or a doughnut shop on Washington Avenue to discuss the issues of the day. 

"John got there first and was reading the newspaper about what Temecula was trying to do," said McAlister. "He didn't like it at all." 

A month before, members of Rancho California's incorporation committee met to consider forming a 79-square-mile city in booming Southwest County that would have included the communities of Temecula and Murrieta. 

The effort to include the 100-year-old farming community, which in the late 1980s was experiencing unprecedented residential growth just like the Temecula area, didn't sit well with many Murrietans. 

"The Rancho California people overlaid us with a map," McElroy told The Californian back then. "Naturally, that disturbed people locally." 

Over breakfast, Walker, a banker; McElroy, a developer/farmer; and McAlister, who built a horse ranch in Murrieta in the early 1980s, decided to form Murrieta Citizens for Cityhood.

Walker, who had been involved in the successful incorporation of Norwalk years before and served a term on the council there, made the suggestion. 

"George said (incorporating the city) would be easy," McAlister said. "He said it would only take a few months to get it done." 

McElroy was chosen chairman of the group, and each man contributed $5,000 to start the cityhood drive. 

It wasn't easy, and it took longer and cost more money than any of the three men first envisioned ---- but on Nov. 6, 1990, Murrieta residents voted overwhelmingly to become a city. Seven months later, on July 1, 1991, a parade was held, a time capsule buried, and Murrieta became the 24th incorporated city in Riverside County. 

More than two decades later, McAlister is the lone survivor of the three men who sat down at The Windmill that morning and began planning Murrieta's future. 

Getting to Work

After their breakfast discussion, Murrieta's founding fathers quickly enlisted the help of about three dozen volunteers. John Reidy, Joe Romine, Carol Kravagna, Ron Jones, Joann Clark, Marv Zepede, and Dottie Renon were among those who assumed leadership roles on the committee. 

A statement of purpose from the committee declared that cityhood would benefit Murrieta by providing local government control, better police protection, local spending of tax revenues, and control over planning and zoning. 

A March 16, 1988, meeting at Murrieta Town Hall drew 200 residents, many irate about the Rancho California incorporation plan. 

"Regarding any conflict that may arise throughout our cityhood effort, we will address the issues like ladies and gentlemen," McElroy told the gathering.

In the meantime, the Rancho California group decided to press on, with or without Murrieta. 

"Our study is being done in such a way that should Murrieta decide to separate, that portion of the study can be lifted out with no detriment to the rest of the study," committee Chairman Jimmy Moore told his group. 

Within six months, Murrieta Citizens for Cityhood had fulfilled the initial requirements to put its cityhood proposal on the ballot and filed a 35-square-mile map with the Local Agency Formation Commission. The group also collected more than 1,000 signatures on cityhood petitions and paid for a feasibility study and filing fees. Money for the campaign ---- which wound up costing about $150,000 ---- came from donations, raffles, barbecues, and auctions. Items auctioned off included a thoroughbred racehorse and a day-old calf. 

"I remember John even donated a couple of cars that were auctioned off," McAlister said. 

Border Wars

Both incorporation groups submitted maps of their proposed boundaries, which led to the major controversy between the committees. 

An 1884 map of the area showed the Murrieta portion of the Temecula Rancho extending south past Banana Street -- today's Winchester Road -- to Apricot Street -- today's Overland Drive. 

The Murrieta group felt the best compromise would be to put the boundary at Winchester Road. 

Murrieta wanted that area because businesses already located there would provide sales tax revenue for the new city, McAlister said.

 "We didn't have much in the way of income," he said. 

Heated boundary negotiations between the cityhood groups went on until January 1989 when the boundary-setting Local Agency Formation Commission decided the dispute.

Murrieta's southern boundary would be at Cherry Street, not farther south at Winchester Road. Losing the planned industrial and retail area between Winchester and Cherry was a blow to Murrieta's proposed tax base, and the Murrieta group appealed the decision. On March 23, 1989, LAFCO announced its original decision would stand, clearing the way for Temecula to hold its incorporation election in November of that year. Voters there approved the incorporation, and Temecula became a city in December 1989. 

At the same time, LAFCO, by a 5-2 vote, put Murrieta's cityhood proposal on hold to allow further development of a tax revenue base. Developer Donahue Schriber had plans to build a 1.7 million-square-foot shopping mall on 60 acres of Murrieta dirt between interstates 15 and 215 dubbed the "Golden Triangle." "Coming Soon: Murrieta Springs Mall" read the sign put on the property in the late 1980s. The mall, with Sears, Robinsons-May, and J.C. Penney as the anchors, was planned to open in 1993, the developer said. 

With the prospect of the sales tax revenue from the mall, LAFCO established July 1, 1991, as Murrieta's incorporation date, as long as the plan was approved by the voters in November 1990. 

A Crowded Field 

Nineteen candidates entered the contest for the five seats on the first City Council. The campaign was relatively free of controversy, and there was little opposition to the incorporation measure. 

On Nov. 6, 1990, a crowd gathered at Murrieta Town Hall to celebrate and cheered loudly when it was announced that cityhood was winning. The official tally was announced around 1 a.m., with voters approving incorporation 4,095 to 845. 

Murrieta Fire Protection District Battalion Chief Jerry Allen was the top vote-getter, followed by Murrieta Fire Capt. Joe Peery, California Highway Patrol Officer Gary Smith, engineer Fred Weishaupl and general contractor Dave Haas. 

Allen would become the City's first mayor. Haas, who is now 76 and lives in Lone Pine at the base of Mount Whitney, said recently that he entered the first council race because he didn't like the way Riverside County was governing Murrieta. 

"I thought maybe I could make a difference," he said. "But it was difficult to run against the Fire Department guys and a Highway Patrol guy." 

Haas said he and Weishaupl had both worked extensively with other city governments in their professional lives and also brought private-sector experience to that first council.

"None of the rest of them knew anything about putting a city together," Haas said. "They didn't know anything about processing plans and the other things a city does." 

The First Year

Before incorporation, the council hired Jack Smith to be the first city manager. Smith had held that job in Cathedral City and Carson. 

Smith set out to hire the small staff needed to get the city up and running. Of Murrieta's nine original employees, employee Nos. 4, 5, 7, and 9 -- Linda Mejia, Phyllis Powell, Elena Bloxton, and A. Kay Vinson -- are still on the job (as of this writing). 

"I remember we were at just nine employees for quite a long time," said Vinson, No. 9, who has been Murrieta's city clerk since the beginning. "Jack Smith said to remember those days because it's the best it will ever be." Bloxton recalled getting handwritten paychecks. 

"I was the only full-time employee in the Planning Department," she recalled. "All the others were contract workers." 

Bloxton works now as the secretary to Murrieta's fire chief. 

Each employee, in addition to their assigned duties, wore other hats, Mejia said. 

"It was really neat; we were really like family," said Mejia, who has been a code enforcement officer since the beginning. "We really depended on one another." 

Powell was the city's receptionist when the small staff moved into an interim City Hall on Beckman Court. 

"The first year, we got a ham as a bonus from the City Council," said Powell, who today is an account assistant in the business license department. Each woman recalled handing out sodas and hot dogs to residents at the city's first birthday party, held at the California Oaks Sports Park. 

"Each of us wore a blue T-shirt to that party that read 'I survived the first year,"' Powell said. 

He Likes What He Started

Twenty years later, McAlister says he's hard-pressed to think of anything he doesn't like about the way Murrieta has turned out. 

"I can't pick out anything I don't really like," he said. "The City Council did a lot of fighting in the early days, but now it's pretty good." 

McAlister recalled fondly the work of the incorporation committee and the excitement 20 years ago when Murrieta became a city. 

"They buried a time capsule that day that was supposed to be dug up after 25 years," he said. "That's only five years from now. I'd like to hang around and see that."

. . .

George Walker was born in Colorado in 1918, and as a young man, ran off to join the circus. He later served in the U.S. Navy. After his military days, Walker became a pilot for TWA. He was also a successful businessman and banker who served a term on the Norwalk City Council before moving to the La Cresta area, west of Murrieta, before the cityhood drive. 

Walker's experience was key in moving the Murrieta cityhood drive forward. Walker and his wife, Mary, moved to the Grass Valley area in the mid-1990s but came back to Southern California around 2000. George Walker died in Huntington Beach in October 2001 at age 84. 

John McElroy was born in Illinois and lived most of his childhood in Canada. He eventually moved to Los Angeles, where he opened a car body shop, met his wife, and fell in love with flying. 

McElroy, who moved to Murrieta in 1968, was said to have owned as many as 130 airplanes in his life and built a small landing strip on property he owned along Los Alamos Road.

As president of the Murrieta Citizens for Cityhood committee, McElroy's leadership during the incorporation drive was largely credited with the success of that effort. 

"One good thing about John, you never had to worry about where he stood on an issue," committee member John Reidy told The Californian in 2005. "He was adventurous, strong-willed, and very opinionated ... there wasn't much gray area with John." 

McElroy died in January 2005. 

Tex McAlister, 82, is retired and still lives in Murrieta with his wife of 62 years, Charlene. McAlister founded RPM Construction Co., which has built homes, offices, and industrial buildings in Southwest County. The company is now run by his son and other family members. 

Of the original five council members, only Gary Smith still calls Murrieta home. Joe Peery lives nearby in Winchester. The three others have moved away. In addition to Haas in Lone Pine, Jerry Allen lives in Brenham, Texas, and Fred Weishaupl lives in Rapid City, S.D.