Members of a Pacific Palisades community group contended Monday that Los Angeles City Councilman David Cunningham should not vote on the sensitive Occidental Petroleum drilling plan because of a $50,000 loan his campaign committee made to another firm that wants to drill for oil elsewhere along the coast.
Cunningham is chairman of the city's Board of Referred Powers, an administrative body that met Monday to consider whether to uphold or overturn a zoning ruling last December that blocked Occidental's plans.
The board delayed any decision Monday for at least a week, and Cunningham made no response to the complaint.
Tuesday, however, his press secretary said Cunningham had no financial connection with any oil-drilling company. "His only connection with an oil company is the same as yours and mine, when he buys gasoline," said the press secretary, Cheryle Grace.
"I think it's very unfair to imply misconduct," she added.
The Pacific Palisades Residents Assn., which opposes Occidental's plan to drill along Pacific Coast Highway there, said in a letter made public Monday that Cunningham should excuse himself from deliberations because the loan represents a financial interest in the future of coastal oil exploration.
Campaign disclosure reports filed by Cunningham show a $50,000 loan in 1984 from his campaign committee to Bentley International Trading Co., a Liberian gold-mining firm with political connections in California.
A major figure behind Bentley, Kenneth A. Ross Jr., is the leading partner in Ross Petroleum, a Santa Monica company seeking a state permit to drill for oil in the Malibu hills. The two firms also share local offices.
John Murdock, an attorney representing Palisades residents, said the loan's connection to Ross Petroleum poses a potential conflict of interest because the pending city decision on Occidental's plan could influence the state Coastal Commission as it evaluates future drilling proposals.
However, Deputy City Atty. Anthony Alperin said Monday he saw no conflict of interest.
Grace said the councilman did not know of any links between Bentley and Ross Petroleum. "He was not even aware that there was such a thing as Ross Petroleum," Grace said.
The loan was made to Bentley because "the councilman thought their endeavors in Liberia were laudable, and because one of the things a campaign tries to do is increase the fund," Grace said.
The terms of the loan were not disclosed in the campaign reports, and Grace said she could not reveal them. But, she said, "it's being serviced and payment is being made on schedule."
The complaint Monday was the latest of several conflict issues to emerge since the Board of Referred Powers was called on to decide Occidental's appeal of zoning administrators' ruling last December that the oil drilling plan would seriously harm the beach environment.
Ordinarily, such appeals are heard by the Board of Zoning Appeals. But the board was disqualified on a conflict-of-interest point, so the issue went to the Board of Referred Powers. This "backup" board, composed of five council members, decides on city matters in cases when the normal agency is disqualified--such as by a potential conflict of interest.
Residents opposed to drilling have complained that four of the five council members had earlier voted to back Occidental in the City Council and had accepted campaign contributions from the company.