Chamber Celebrates Unity in the Community

Jenni Billings, president of the Topanga Chamber of Commerce opened the festivities of the 68th Annual Awards Dinner on Saturday evening, April 29, to honor its 2016 awardees, Bill Buerge, Citizen of the Year; Stacy Sledge, president of the Topanga Canyon Town Council (TCTC); and Rocco’s Pizzeria as Business of the Year.

“As we work towards helping members realize their goals through the resources of the Chamber,” Billings said, “we ask that, in return, you support our community in those endeavors that improve and protect the land, wildlife and deep-rooted culture of Topanga residents.”

Keynote speaker Stacie Rasmussen of Rise-Up, a group she founded with Wendy Heimann in response to the current political climate.

“There is a deep divide tearing at the fabric of our country,” Rasmussen said. “Rise Up is a portal to activism and bridging that divide. That’s the hard part because there is no road map.”

To remedy that, Rise-Up put together “20 Daily Promises to Protect Democracy” based on Holocaust scholar Timothy Snyder’s 20 lessons. (See for the list)

Presenting commendations and certificates of appreciation were Janet Turner of Representative Ted Lieu’s office; Fiona Nagel, District Director, West Valley/Mountain Communities for Supervisor Sheila Kuehl; and Tim Pershing, Senior Deputy to state Assemblymember Richard Bloom.

Rocco’s Pizzaria, Business of the Year—In 1980 Frank and Marlene Rocco opened Rocco’s in the Canyon where they supplied the town with delicious pizza, pasta and the irresistible “garlic balls.”    In 2004, they sold it to Lupe Melendez, their longtime cook of 17 years, and his daughter Nora. Lupe, a gentle, quiet man from El Salvador, loves Italian Cooking and, when the opportunity presented itself,  ran with the American Dream of being his own boss. Since then Lupe and his Wife Rosa have maintained the quality of food and service that authentically reflect the Topanga spirit. Rocco’s has always been a family-oriented affair where  scores of local teenagers learn to bus tables or deliver pizzas. The Topanga Chamber of Commerce heartily honors Rocco’ s in the Canyon, 2016 Topanga Business of the Year.

Presenting Nora Duenos, who accepted on behalf of Rocco’s owners, Lupe and Rosa Melendez, Turner said, “The American dream is alive and well. Thank you for providing hearty food, fellowship and community in the heart of Topanga.”

Nagel echoed the sentiment, saying, “Thank you for fulfilling the American dream.”

“Rocco’s has nurtured my body and every body in this room,” Pershing said. “You are an essential part of Topanga.

Topanga Town Council, Non-Profit of the Year—Before presenting the awards, Billings called forth the founders, in 1977, of the Topanga Town Council, Jan Moore and Marti Brastow, as well as a number of former Town Council presidents.

“It’s truly amazing,” Pershing said in his tribute, “that you do this as volunteers. We live in an unincorporated area and don’t have a city council; the county is our government and Stacy has done incredible work, non-stop, as liaison with our government.”

Acknowledging everyone gathered at the podium, Turner said, “People don’t realize the long hours and hard work you put in to work with the county. Tonight acknowledges your exemplary work advocating for the community.” With that she presented Sledge, as well as each member past and present, with a commendation scroll.”

“It’s a pleasure to work with people who are so passionate and have such good heads on their shoulders,” Nagel said. “Thank you for doing a phenomenal job.”

Flanked by Board members, Tam Taylor, Lindsey Zook, Carrie Carrier and John Waller, Sledge said, “The Topanga Town Council is meant to be a forum for citizens to voice their opinions, but it takes all of you to make things happen.” Then in one of many light moments of the evening, she had to brag: “Our youngest member is six-year-old Jack Zook, who helps us process Access cards.”

Bill Buerge, Citizen of the Year—Most Topangans know Buerge as the man who bought the derelict Mermaid Tavern as it was known in 1990. He moved in with the rats, bats, and one feral cat, shoveled horse manure from the floor, and began a harrowing but rewarding journey of rebirth and rehabilitation. In 1993, the Mountain Mermaid was approved by Sacramento as a California Point of Historic Interest, the first in Topanga. and was later declared a wildlife and butterfly habitat.

Passing the torch to Buerge, was the 2015 Citizen of the Year honoree, Roger Pugliese. “Before I do this,” he said to great applause, “I have to acknowledge Jan Moore one more time. She was the founder of the Town Council and the first to sound the alarm about Summit Valley.”

To Buerge, Turner extended Representative Ted Lieu’s, “appreciation for all you have done and using your skills and talent for restoring the Mermaid.”

Shaking Buerge’s hand, Nagel said, “I’m so privileged to meet you and hear about the amazing things you’ve done. It’s not everyone who can see something and put life back into history. It’s a gift.”

“Thank you so much. This is such an honor and a privilege,” Buerge began “My dad told once me, you don’t really own a piece of property outright, you just get to use it temporarily. The Mermaid belongs to Topanga’s history, and in a sense, to all of you, as well. It is only appropriate to open its doors often to invite the community in.”

Buerge thanked some of the people who helped make it a reality: Larry Stevens and John Shea for resurrecting the kitchen, local antique dealer, Tauni Brusten, caterer Marilyn Babcock, Joe and Karla Morrison, Sergio Jiminez, Stevie Montes de Oca, Rita Juarez, and Topanga-born immigration attorney, Alli Acker, for helping Sergio and Stevie become citizens

“I want to thank my beautiful partner, Gail, for all her love and support, and the Mermaid staff for their boundless energy and skill. I am deeply grateful to my neighbors who have put up with me all these years, and to all the others who have supported me in doing what I love to do.”

Billings then presented each awardee with bowls made especially for the occasion by local potter Kirsty Iredale.

Pershing proceeded with the induction of the 2017 Chamber Board of Directors, in what sounds more like a stand-up comedy routine, since some years ago, Zev Yaroslavsky, for some unknown reason did a surprisingly informal swearing in that carries on from year to year in a lighthearted not to end the evening.

Congratulations to the new Board, Jenni Billings, President; Ron Fomalont, Vice President; Ron Kramer, Treasurer; DJ Billings, Corresponding Secretary; Craig Phelps, Membership Chair; Heather Bryant, recording Secretary; and Joseph Rosendo, Community Liaison, who, with his wife, Julie, brought their latest two Emmys with them.

Special thanks to Layne Catering for the scrumptious vegetarian dinner, Canyon Gourmet for the wine, Gail McDonald-Tune for the splendid decorations and coordinating the catering, and to Heather Bryant who was in charge of planning the event, coordinating volunteers and the setup.


Flavia Potenza

Flavia Potenza is executive editor of the Messenger Mountain News. She is also a founding member of the 40-year old Topanga Messenger that closed its doors in 2016. She can be reached at

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