WHITTIER — The feud between historic preservationists and City Hall escalated last week, with the city manager saying he would file a letter from the activists' lawyer under "inane and unintelligible accusations" about historic buildings.
City Manager Thomas G. Mauk said his tart letter in response to attorney David M. Dickerson was appropriate and he does not regret writing it.
"It was a comment from me to Dickerson and it has nothing to do with the city's attitude toward historic preservation," Mauk said.
However, Dickerson, who has represented the Whittier Conservancy in a series of lawsuits filed to save historic buildings damaged in the October earthquakes, called Mauk's action unprofessional.
"It's not the kind of comment that you would think would come from the person who represents the leadership of the city," Dickerson said. "As the top administrator of the city, his views of things tend to filter down."
Dickerson's letter to Mauk asked the city to secure an open door at the Whittier Theater, the 1920s movie house still fenced off because of earthquake damage. In the letter, Dickerson said the door remained unrepaired despite calls to the city's Police Department and Department of Building and Safety.
If the city failed to make sure the property owner protected the property, Dickerson said, then the conservancy would be prepared to pursue the matter legally.
The city manager responded three days later, writing that the city has worked to prevent vandalism and protect the property.
Mauk concluded: "I have placed your most recent letter in a file that I have set up since you have become involved in the historic building issue entitled, 'Inane and unintelligible accusations from David M. Dickerson regarding Historic Buildings' in which the file is building rapidly."
Councilman Myron Claxton, generally a supporter of historic preservation efforts, stopped short of saying Mauk's remark was inappropriate.
"I don't think that's the normal way the city staff would answer a letter," he said, "but oftentimes many of us get irritated by the continual jibes and sometimes we react in a way that we wouldn't ordinarily react."
Claxton added that Mauk's statement does not mean the city opposes historic preservation.
But Whittier Conservancy President Michael Sullens said the letter was "a juvenile way for a city manager to conduct himself. Obviously, it seems he cares nothing about historic preservation. . . ."
The dispute between the preservationists and City Hall began shortly after the Oct. 1 earthquakes, when a group of preservationists formed the Whittier Conservancy in an effort to save older buildings damaged by the temblor.
Conservancy members held a protest march the night before the 99-year-old Lindley Building was scheduled to be destroyed, and extracted a promise from city officials that the building would be reconstructed using the original brick and cornice work.
In February, the Save the Harvey Assn. (an offshoot of the conservancy) sued the city to stop demolition of the century-old Harvey Apartments.
A judge issued a temporary restraining order delaying demolition until he could inspect the earthquake-damaged building. But the next day, demolition proceeded in what city officials said was a misunderstanding between City Hall and the contractor.
The building was destroyed a few weeks later, and last month, the city filed a countersuit against the Save the Harvey Assn., seeking reimbursement for legal costs in the case.
A judge dismissed the city's counterclaim, saying the case was moot because the Harvey had been torn down, said Jane Gothold, president of the Save the Harvey Assn.
Gothold said she is still considering whether to sue the city for contempt for allowing the Harvey to be demolished in violation of the temporary restraining order.
The conservancy also has fought to preserve the Whittier Theater, and is scheduled to be back in court next month on the matter. The city goes to trial May 20 on charges it failed to prepare an environmental impact report before issuing a demolition permit to owner Peter Doerken, who wanted to raze the theater to build a $13-million shopping plaza.
Despite being notified that the conservancy was immediately going to court in an effort to block the demolition, the city issued the permit. Bulldozers had started razing the theater complex when preservationists rushed to the scene with a temporary restraining order to stop the demolition in mid-November, 1987.
The theater, at Whittier Boulevard and Hadley Street, now sits in legal limbo as the city waits for Doerken to prepare a partial environmental impact study required by the court before any changes can be made to the property.
Doerken did not return calls seeking comment.
Whittier Planning Director Elvin Porter said he does not believe Doerken has started preparing the report. The city has not pressed Doerken to finish the report, Porter said, adding, "The ball is in his court."