The Coast News Group
Joe Kellejian, who retired after 20 years on the Solana Beach City Council, chats with resident Juanita Patterson earlier this year after delivering her lunch as part of the Meals on Wheels Mayors for Meals program. It was something Kellejian was able to do several times since the city rotates its mayors annually and Kellejian served in the position five times. Photo by Bianca Kaplanek

Former mayor hasn’t stopped spending time on his city

SOLANA BEACH — When Joe Kellejian stepped down Dec. 12 after 20 years on the Solana Beach City Council, he said he would continue serving the community. 

He wasn’t kidding.

One week later, instead of staying home and relaxing, he attended a meeting, as the committee chairman, to plan the annual gala for the local chapter of the American Lung Association.

At 71, the five-time mayor has no plans to take it easy. His resume lists more than a dozen service organizations on which he serves as either a member or director.

“A lot of opportunities have come up, both public and private, that I want to explore and I need time to do that,” Kellejian said when asked why he didn’t seek re-election. “I haven’t been able to put forth the time and effort for those groups. I don’t want to belong and not participate.”

It was a desire to make a difference in his community that first led Kellejian into a life of public service. Growing up in what he describes as “a rough area of Los Angeles,” he said he didn’t have a “real good childhood.”

When he and his wife, Mary, moved to Solana Beach in 1978 the city was dealing with a crime and drug problem — something he was unfortunately all too familiar with — primarily at the beach and Eden Gardens areas but it affected the whole city.

“They would steal from houses in my neighborhood and then fence the merchandise,” he said. In 1983, Joe Olson, husband of former Mayor Celine Olson, asked Kellejian if he would be interested in joining the Town Council to help deal with the problem.

After three years he stepped down, but in 1988 he became the chairman of the Crime Commission. “I wanted to continue my quest for a crime-free city as much as I could,” he said, crediting the residents as much as the commission for battling the problem.

“The people of Eden Gardens rose up and said they would turn in their relatives, friends and neighbors,” Kellejian recalled. “They were really the ones, really, who (helped decrease crime).”

Solana Beach gained cityhood in 1986. A few years later, Kellejian learned the state was taking money from city coffers. “I heard people were saying the way to make up for the shortfall was to decrease law enforcement services.”

To ensure that didn’t happen — and potentially negate his work against crime — Kellejian became one of 14 people seeking a seat on City Council.

“I knew I had to do something different to win, so I decided to show them I would work hard,” he said. “I stood at the Lomas Santa Fe intersection every day for one week, waving signs from morning to dusk. It even got the attention of the local news.”

The rest, as they say, is history. Kellejian was elected four more times after his 1992 run. He continued to seek office, he said, because he’s used to “accomplishing things.”

The list of projects he’s taken on and completed is lengthy, but during 20 years, a few stand out.

Regionally he is most proud of convincing voters in 2004 to approve a 40-year extension to TransNet, a half-cent sales tax for local transportation projects.

Locally, he said he is most proud of initiating the construction of the shared-use library between the city and Earl Warren Middle School. “We have great schools but we had a lousy library,” he said. “It was in the basement of a shopping center.”

Kellejian also worked on securing the grade separation at the station on Cedros Avenue that allows trains to run below ground level. “They said, ‘You can’t do that.’ I said, ‘Yes we can.’”

His other pet projects include sand replenishment in 1992 and 2012, as well as the ongoing shoreline protection plan that includes a partnership with Encinitas and the Army Corp of Engineers, and improvements to the Interstate 5 interchange.

Kellejian was also instrumental in making Solana Beach the first city in the continental United Sates to ban smoking on its public beaches.

His biggest disappointment , he said, was a failure to develop the train station. A proposed mixed-use project couldn’t garner community support because residents said it was out of scale for the area. After seven years and five redesigned requests, the developer terminated the agreement in 2008.

Kellejian said the most agonizing part of the deal was losing a $6 million grant from the state Department of Transportation for a parking garage.

The city is working with land owner North County Transit District to potentially create a viable project in the future, and Kellejian has offered to do all he can to help — when he’s not volunteering for other organizations or working as the regional manager for his family-owned recycling company.

“This is a wonderful city that I love to serve,” he said. “Someone said to me recently, ‘You’re a public servant, not a politician.’ That made me feel pretty good because I didn’t do this as a career. It’s been very satisfying to be part of this city as it grew.”