CHUCK ABDELNOUR: A IMPERIAL COUNTY NATIVE, son of Lebanese immigrants, Chuck Abdelnour retires next month as San Diego’s longest-reigning city clerk. Abdelnour earned his undergraduate degree at San Diego State University and received his law degree from Thomas Jefferson School of Law. He began with the city of San Diego in 1974 as an assistant director in community relations and was appointed city clerk in 1977. Among his more notable accomplishments: pioneering legislation to create an “all-mail ballot” and helping to move city government into the cyber age. Abdelnour, who concedes he’s a Groucho Marx look-alike, lives in Bay Ho with his wife, Christine.
TOM BLAIR: Have you always looked like Groucho Marx?
CHUCK ABDELNOUR: Only since I was born.
T.B.: Okay, 311/2 years with the city of San Diego; 28 years as city clerk. And you’re retiring. What’s your hurry?
C.A.: I need a break. A few months. Take a deep breath, and I’ll be looking for opportunities.
T.B.: So what does a city clerk do?
C.A.: I’m not sure I know, but I hope to someday read all the materials I got in the past 31 years. The clerk serves at the pleasure of the council—an interesting challenge. He’s the chief elections officer for the city. He’s chief custodian for all city records. He prepares the docket for meetings. And he sits in the council meetings to be sure the legislative intent is clear. Which, these days, is not always easy.
T.B.: You’ve seen a lot from City Hall since 1974. Downtown’s rebirth. A mayor’s resignation and felony conviction. Three councilmembers leaving under threat of prosecution. Three successful Super Bowls . . .
C.A.: I couldn’t get tickets, but I enjoyed it on TV.
T.B.: Ha. You shared accolades for the country’s best-managed city. Now, there’s the specter of the city’s bankruptcy. What are your three most vivid memories?
C.A.: One, being appointed by the council out of 36 applicants. Almost unanimous; I heard Maureen O’Connor didn’t vote for me. Two, creating the all-mail elections ballot—the first in the country; probably in the world. And for fun? Starting the Halloween costume contest among city employees and their parade in council chambers.
T.B.: Did you have a favorite mayor?
C.A.: Pete Wilson. His era—those were very moderate times. We didn’t have so many special-interest groups. We accomplished so much for the people. Pete was always professional, and kind to me, and we could dialogue. His friend and press secretary, Otto Bos, was so much fun. After Otto died, Pete said the only person at City Hall who kept him laughing was Chuck.
T.B.: You’ve seen lots of colorful characters come through City Hall. Forgetting the elected ones for a moment, who brings the fondest memories?
C.A.: The so-called “ombudscientist,” Roselynn. She had a heavier beard than I did. Every time she spoke, I thought she was going to explode—have a heart attack. Her issue was almost always the same: alfalfa. She’d bring cases of alfalfa to our council meetings. Her thing was promoting synergy. Not easy among politicians.
T.B.: That’s entertainment. But city government isn’t always boffo. What went through your mind as you sat through some of those endless city council meetings?
C.A.: What I’m gonna have for lunch. Really, I learned how to zone out sometimes. You know, by now, I’ve heard most of these issues come around at least four or five times. And I’m sitting here trying to guess which way it’s going to go this time. Déjà vu all over again. But then, this is what Thomas Jefferson wanted. Let them talk.
T.B.: Who’s the most difficult person you’ve had to work with—mayor or city councilmember?
C.A.: Susan Golding.
C.A.: She was tough on people. And she was impatient with me. Her troops gave me a hard time. I didn’t think I was going to survive her term as mayor. People said, “How do you handle it?” I said, “Look at me. When I started I was 6-foot-4, a full head of hair, a small nose.”
T.B.: Who was the most fun?
C.A.: I think current Councilman Michael Zucchet. He has the best sense of humor. He’s sharp. I think he’s a brilliant man. And funny.
T.B.: The city clerk doesn’t often make headlines. But you got more than your share when you gave the go-ahead for Donna Frye’s controversial write-in candidacy for mayor last fall. Did you make a mistake?
C.A.: Absolutely not. What I did was based on the municipal code. Back in 1984, we didn’t have any provision in the elections code for write-in candidates. And so we barred a would-be write-in. But it was appealed, and in Canaan vs. Abdelnour, the state supreme court said it’s unconstitutional to deprive anybody of the right to be a write-in candidate. So we rewrote the nine pages in the municipal code for that. And then, unfortunately, our city attorney, John Witt, did not change the city charter, which still banned writeins, to bring them into sync.
T.B.: Now a city commission unanimously recommends a ban on writeins in runoffs. But the city council is dragging its feet. Do you think writeins in the general election should be banned?
C.A.: No. You know, this wouldn’t have been an issue if Dick Murphy and Ron Roberts hadn’t encouraged Donna Frye to run. They each thought her candidacy would siphon off votes and keep the other one from getting enough to win.
T.B.: What’s your happiest City Hall memory?
C.A.: The moment I was first given the opportunity to serve San Diego, from the first constituent, to planning groups, to leaders of private industry, and the same with all the councils. There hasn’t been one council that I have not learned something from. And I have the fullest confidence we’ll be fully recovered from this current financial mess—because I have a pension, and I don’t want to see it cut.