The Local Agency Formation Commission does not have the authority to grant Los Angeles County jurisdiction over sewers in Malibu if the beachside town becomes a city, according to officials from the state legislative committees that oversee local government policy.
Peter Detwelier, principal consultant to the Senate Local Government Committee, said that the county's request last week to retain control over sewers in Malibu exceeds even the broad powers LAFCO has to impose conditions on new cities.
"I don't know of any specific statutory authority that would allow them to do that," Detwelier said. "And the courts have consistently held that LAFCO only has the authority that the Legislature gives it."
Although the Legislature provides LAFCO with the ability to order new cities to maintain current assessment districts or form new ones, Detwelier said the state panel must turn jurisdiction of such districts over to the cities. The county counsel's office, which advises LAFCO, however, disagrees.
County supervisors voted 4 to 0 last week to ask LAFCO to suspend its vote favoring Malibu's cityhood petition and approve a proposal containing a condition that would give the county control over several assessment districts that the county formed to study sewer issues in Malibu and pump water out of landslide areas in Big Rock Mesa. LAFCO commissioners will hear the county's request at a meeting Wednesday.
Casey Sparks, Detwelier's counterpart in the Assembly, said it is doubtful that the county's request would be considered one of the "reasonable" conditions local agency formation commissions are allowed to require of new cities.
"They're free to impose a lot of conditions, but I doubt if that's a valid one," said Sparks, principal consultant to the Assembly Local Government Committee. "Basically, there is a longstanding principle (recognizing) that a county is a county and a city is a city and that they don't muck around with each other."
Sparks added that the case could end up being decided by the courts--a familiar fate of many cityhood applications.
However, Bill Pellman, senior assistant county counsel who advises the LAFCO panel in Los Angeles, said that while there are no specific provisions in the government code that address the county's unprecedented request, "it would appear to be an appropriate condition" for LAFCO to consider.
"None of the subsections in the statute say that the LAFCOs can do this specific thing," Pellman said. "But I do believe that the condition, or at least the concept as approved by the board, is legal. If anything, there may be a need for some particular refining of the language (of the county's request)."
Pellman said that the sewer condition addresses a "regional concern" that goes beyond the Malibu cityhood issue.
Sewer Project Jeopardized
The supervisors said that they asked LAFCO to reconsider its approval of Malibu's incorporation proposal because they are concerned that a Malibu city council might block the county's plans to build sewers in the coastal community, especially since the cityhood drive was launched by still-angry residents opposed to the county's proposal last October to build an $86-million sewer in Malibu.
In addition, the supervisors said they are concerned that a council might stop ongoing projects like the one set up in Big Rock Mesa to pump water from the hillside, in an attempt to help prevent landslides in the area.
The county has been hit with numerous lawsuits filed by Big Rock homeowners whose homes were destroyed by a massive landslide in 1983. Potential liability in the web of lawsuits against the county, state and various insurance agencies has been estimated at $200 million to $500 million.
County officials contend that the only way to stop septic tank leaks from entering the ground is by installing a large sewer system in the area.
But Graham Ritchie, the attorney for the Malibu Committee for Incorporation, said it is "ridiculous" to think that a Malibu city council would put a halt to projects needed to reduce environmental hazards in the community of 20,000 people.
"If there's really a public health hazard or a need for a sewer system, I'm sure the city would try and resolve it," he said. "It would seem to me that the county has a better chance of coming up with a moderate sewer program and then getting it approved by working with a city council."
In approving the original petition, LAFCO commissioners said they wanted to grant the wish of cityhood backers to place the issue before local voters in November. Supervisors can do little with a cityhood application once it is approved by LAFCO other than place the issue on the ballot for the next countywide election. But the supervisors can delay that action well beyond the Aug. 9 deadline that must be met for the measure to make the November ballot.
Ritchie said the county's request to of LAFCO succeeds only in muddling the cityhood issue.
"What the county has done is like saying, 'We'll let you incorporate, but you can't control land use issues until we feel that the zoning we want is in place,' " he said. "You can't take away the basic legal rights of a city."