Santa Claus is scheduled to drop in on Beverly Hills this Christmas season, but not by sled.
Instead, the jolly toy maker is expected by airplane, all the way from Lapland at the expense of the Finnish government.
By the time he arrives, however, Beverly Hills officials may wish that everyone traveled by reindeer instead of commercial airlines.
Santa's visit is part of a joint promotional campaign aimed at increasing tourism and good will in Beverly Hills and Finland. Chamber officials say it is one of the most dramatic projects they have ever attempted.
To lay the groundwork, a local delegation was scheduled in September to visit a village north of the Arctic Circle to meet the press and the designated Santa Claus, an aged Lapp.
The Finns, who were prepared to pay for the delegation's flight, invited Mayor Charlotte Spadaro to head the delegation. She had other plans, so she suggested that Vice Mayor Benjamin H. Stansbury take her place.
As far as the Chamber of Commerce was concerned, the switch made no difference but California law bars elected officials from accepting a free ride on any form of commercial transportation.
So chamber officials suggested that they buy the airline ticket so that Stansbury would not be in danger of losing his City Council seat for flying at the expense of Finnair, Finland's national airline.
But then Spadaro said that such an arrangement might constitute a conflict of interest because of the city's yearly allocations of to the chamber.
Although the state attorney general's office called the trip acceptable (since the chamber is not a transportation company), the Fair Political Practices Commission said that any council member who accepts any good or service worth more than $250 from an individual or organization cannot vote on issues affecting the donor for a year. A round-trip economy flight to Finland costs $2,120, a Finnair ticket agent said.
Stansbury opted to stay home and assumed that his council colleagues would have to follow suit.
"The decision for me was clear," Stansbury said. "Because the city does support the chamber with substantial funds, I could not give up my right to vote on such important issues. Therefore, I immediately informed the chamber that I could not take the trip, nor apparently could any other council person."
Stansbury, who felt that the city government should be represented because increased tourism would help fill municipal coffers, briefed the council on the problem on Sept. 2, at which point he expected the chamber to pick up the tab.
By the time it became clear that that option was out, it was already Sept. 10, four days before the scheduled departure.
There were no scheduled council meetings in time to arrange for a vote on paying for the trip.
"As this was going on, we were running out of time," said Mike Sims, executive vice president of the Chamber of Commerce. "The scale of this thing is probably the most dramatic this chamber . . . has ever attempted. That's why this trip was so important."
At the last minute, former mayor Edward I. Brown was drafted to join the delegation, which flew to Helsinki Sept. 14.
Brown, who canceled a planned Hawaiian vacation to go to Finland, was rewarded with a cold-water dousing in an Arctic Circle initiation ceremony. An over-friendly reindeer also poked him with its antlers.
"We were very well received," said Brown, who was mayor when the plans for the trip were drawn up. He left office in April when his term expired.
Although it was widely reported in the European press, officials in Beverly Hills and local Finnish representatives were reluctant to talk about the planned promotion until a press conference scheduled for Oct. 20.
There were hints, however, that in addition to the arrival of a Finnish Santa Claus, several dozen underprivileged children may pay a reciprocal visit to Santa's home village in Lapland.
Beverly Hills hopes the resulting publicity will show the city in a good light to potential visitors throughout Northern Europe.
Finland is supporting the campaign for several reasons, according to Pekka Karhuvaara, acting consul general of Finland in Los Angeles. "First," he said, "the charity involved in it. We like the charity aspect.
"Then we really want to tell the world that the real, original Santa Claus comes from Finland. Santa Claus is the nicest guy in the whole world, and it's not bad for the whole world to know he's Finnish. . . .
"Also tourism. Lapland would like to increase tourism."
Karhuvaara, who went along on the trip, said Brown's presence added luster to the delegation even though the original idea was to bring along the current mayor.
Having a mayor of Beverly Hills along, even an ex-mayor, made it "very, very prestigious," he said.
"Of course, we were a bit surprised that you have so strict legislation, but I understand it very well," Karhuvaara said.