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Bill Would Dilute Law on Conflicts of Interest

February 09, 1986|MARK GLADSTONE | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — A tough conflict-of-interest law at the center of a land-use dispute between the City of Agoura Hills and Los Angeles County would be weakened by legislation introduced last week by Assemblyman John R. Lewis (R-Orange).

The bill would allow elected officials who sit on any of the state's 57 local agency formation commissions to vote on certain matters. Currently, they must disqualify themselves from voting on issues that could benefit anyone from whom they have received a campaign contribution of $250 or more in the past year.

The bill was introduced on behalf of Los Angeles County Supervisors Mike Antonovich and Pete Schabarum and the Orange County Board of Supervisors.

Fear Inadvertent Conflicts

Lewis said the commissions, formed about 20 years ago to decide cityhood issues, annexations and boundary disputes, have been hampered by the law because some elected officials have refused to fulfill their duties "out of fear of inadvertently voting on something" that would affect a campaign contributor.

Los Angeles County officials have attempted to change the law since last summer. They were prompted, in part, by the dispute between Agoura Hills and the Los Angeles County Local Agency Formation Commission, known as LAFCO.

At issue was the commission's decision in early 1985 to limit Agoura Hills' area of influence, essentially, to its current boundaries.

The city sought a larger planning area and challenged the ruling in court, charging that Los Angeles Councilman Hal Bernson and Supervisor Antonovich--both members of LAFCO--violated the law by participating in commission action after receiving campaign contributions from landowners affected by the decision.

Vote Scheduled This Week

In December, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Irving A. Shimer set aside the commission action because of the participation of Bernson and Antonovich. The commission is scheduled to take another vote Wednesday on the Agoura Hills case.

The commission consists of seven members. Three represent the San Fernando Valley: Antonovich, Bernson and Bert Boeckmann, owner of Galpin Ford, who holds a seat designated for the Valley under state law.

LAFCO's other members are Schabarum, West Covina Councilman Kenneth Chappell, Huntington Park Councilman Tom Jackson and public member Henri Pellissier, a Whittier businessman.

Assemblywoman Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), author of the 2-year-old law, which was sponsored by the state Fair Political Practices Commission, said she would resist any changes "unless I hear that it's impossible to administer."

John Keplinger, executive director of the Fair Political Practices Commission, said he plans to recommend that his watchdog agency oppose the Lewis bill because "we don't believe the law is difficult to apply. It's not that complicated."

The law imposes a much more restrictive standard on elected officials who sit on these commissions than the officials are required to meet on city councils and boards of supervisors.

"It's the only state law that I'm aware of that puts any limitation on campaign contributions," said Kathryn E. Donovan, a lawyer with the Fair Political Practices Commission.

Elected officials did not begin to realize until last summer that the law could restrict their votes on some issues, such as annexations, when they sit on local agency formation commissions.

Lobbyists Ran Out of Time

Los Angeles County lobbyists in Sacramento last summer attempted to amend a bill to exclude local agency formation commissions from the law. They ran out of time as the Legislature rushed to complete its session.

As the controversy over the law has mounted, commissioners in Los Angeles and elsewhere have grown increasingly uneasy about voting on issues on which they might have a conflict.

In early January, for example, Antonovich and Schabarum disqualified themselves when the commission voted 4-0 to annex an 803-acre Playa Vista development owned by Summa Corp. to the City of Los Angeles, said Ruth Benell, LAFCO's executive director. The land is situated between Marina del Rey and Playa del Rey and is expected to provide homes for 20,000 people and include nearly 3 million square feet of office space.

Schabarum said he has attended only one or two commission meetings since the Waters law went into effect because he wants to avoid potential conflict. "I don't need any more criticism," the supervisor said.

Opponents of the current law also contend that another problem could arise when the commission receives petitions for incorporation that are signed by thousands.

"How is the supervisor supposed to know if anyone on the list gave $250?" Benell asked. But the FPPC's Donovan said that merely signing a petition would not qualify someone as a participant in a case before a commission.

Benell has raised her concerns about the law with Michael Montgomery, a former mayor of South Pasadena who is currently on the Fair Political Practices Commission.

Montgomery, who said he supports Lewis' legislation, last week asked the FPPC to consider supporting Lewis' legislation. The matter is on the commission's March agenda.

"I do not believe a $250-donation is going to influence a Los Angeles County supervisor," Montgomery said.

In contrast, Rochelle Browne, deputy city attorney for Agoura Hills, said groups appearing before local agency commissions "are concerned about the influence of campaign contributions" and commissioners should avoid the appearance of violating the law.

The law authored by Waters, besides spelling out conflict-of-interest rules for members, also channeled about $660,000 to the Fair Political Practices Commission to crack down on local officials violating the state Political Reform Act.

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