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Downey Redevelopment : New Panel Is of, and by, the People

August 31, 1986|RITA PYRILLIS | Times Staff Writer

DOWNEY — With a lawsuit serving as a constant reminder of how not to form a citizen's advisory committee, city officials left the process of forming a new committee up to the citizens.

The result is a project area committee that was presented to the City Council last week after three long meetings spent narrowing down 200 applicants to 17 members.

The committee will advise the Community Development Commission on a 305-acre redevelopment project along Firestone Boulevard.

City officials say there are no specific projects planned yet for the area, which is part of a redevelopment plan adopted in 1978 to revitalize the city's commercial district.

"I am happy this is over and I am especially surprised at the high level of interest in this," said George Holiday, temporary committee chairman. "Perhaps it was the publicity surrounding the legal conflicts of the past that made people see how important it is to get involved in redevelopment."

Downey CAREs Lawsuit

Indeed, it was a lawsuit filed against the city in December, 1983, by Downey Citizens Against Redevelopment Excesses, Downey CAREs, that resulted in a court order to disband a previous 13-member project area committee.

The lawsuit stated that the city did not properly notify the public that a project area committee was being formed and as a result the members, who were appointed by the council, did not fairly represent property owners and residents in the 616-acre redevelopment area--an earlier, larger version of the project area.

This was clearly not the case this time, according James R. Cutts, director of community development.

"I would say we went above and beyond the call of duty to follow the letter of the law," Cutts said.

The city sent out about 2,400 letters to tenants and property owners in the redevelopment area. It also posted notices in the area and took out newspaper ads and legal notices, according to Cutts.

'Call to the Community'

"All state law says is that you must put out a call to the community. We felt by doing what we did we could not come under any scrutiny for any wrongdoing."

Under state law, a project area committee must be formed when a city adopts a redevelopment plan that could displace low- and moderate-income families.

But according to Mark Huebsch, special counsel to the community development commission, the law is vague on how the committee must be formed.

"We really had to grapple with what the law means," said Huebsch, whose law firm represents more than 20 city redevelopment agencies in Los Angeles and Orange counties. "In this case we decided to send out mailers, publish notices, announce it at meetings. We did everything but get on a bullhorn to elicit a truly representative (project area committee) and I think it worked out."

The result of those efforts was an overwhelming turnout of more than 200 people who crowded city council chambers during the first meeting Aug. 7.

'Things Got Really Crazy'

"Things got really crazy that night," said Councilman Roy Paul, who was appointed by the council as temporary chairman to form the committee. "People were just standing up and talking, grabbing the podium. I gave a five-minute introduction and then just got out of the room so there could be no claim that I had any influence on the process."

With the absence of a chairman and without any guidance from city staff members, who attended the meetings only to answer basic questions on the project area, citizens scrambled to organize themselves, according to Jake Wager, redevelopment manager.

"Can't we discuss anything around here? Does everything have to get run through?" one nominee shouted as Chuck O'Hara, a self-appointed temporary chairman, tried to take a vote on how members would be broken down into categories.

Nominees broke themselves into categories of residential owners and tenants, business owners and tenants, and community organizations. Members were selected from those groups.

A few times during the meetings, special-interest factions seemed to form, according to Holiday, but he said no particular group dominated the meetings.

The most obvious group trying to grab a spot on the committee was Downey CAREs, whose members were denied a seat on the previous project area committee. Michael Sullivan, chairman of the group, said he was not selected to be on the committee, but he added that members of Downey CAREs are among the 17 committee members.

"I don't think I should say who they are, but they are there and they will be watching out to make sure redevelopment is done right," said Sullivan, a Downey dentist.

In hopes of avoiding any legal problems, current project area committee members had planned to ask the council to supply the committee with its own attorney, but according to Holiday, the group will wait until it has written bylaws and elected a permanent chairman before seeking legal help.

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