WHITTIER — The retreat was billed as a three-day City Council meeting, a time when the city's elected officials could leave behind the drudgery of routine obligations to discuss the most important issues facing Whittier. But unlike a regular City Council meeting, these sessions were held 90 miles away at a desert resort, at a cost of $5,005. And although the City Council was officially in session, no formal minutes of the meetings were recorded.
Whittier's mayor, four other councilmen and 14 city staff members attended the retreat in Temecula. The only non-city officials in attendance were about 10 local land developers. The council met the evening of Aug. 1 and for about seven hours each on Aug. 2 and Aug. 3, officials said.
Mayor Victor A. Lopez defended the retreat, the first for the Whittier City Council, saying the many other cities conduct similar meetings.
"This was the most productive thing I've been to," Lopez said. "We were interfacing with staff, and nobody was dumping on anybody."
Lopez acknowledged that the out-of-town sessions were "not convenient" for residents interested in discussing such crucial topics as zoning, earthquake recovery and historic preservation.
"But if we would have tried (to hold the session) here, there would have been interruptions for phone calls all day long," Lopez said.
Councilman Gene H. Chandler conceded that it "probably wasn't necessary" to hold the retreat out of town but said that the City Council was not being deliberately inaccessible.
"I don't feel like we went down and did anything underhanded," Chandler said. "My conscience is clear. . . . It's not like we're spending all of the city's money that we should have been giving to the homeless or some damn thing."
About half of the $5,005 went for $75-a-night rooms at the Temecula Creek Inn. The rest was spent on food and transportation, according to city records.
City Clerk Gertrude L. Hill notified the news media of the meeting in Temecula, as required by state law, but said she did not take complete minutes because the council did not vote on anything. Hill said she took notes and will prepare "a very brief outline of the discussions" for city records. That outline will not be available until next week, she said.
There is also no record of the testimony from developers. Some of the developers' projects have been affected by additional city restrictions on apartment construction north of Hadley Street. Charles Lawrence, who attended the retreat, has asked the City Council to overturn a Planning Commission decision rejecting an apartment project on Dorland Street. Another developer, Joe Cefalia, has filed permits with the city to build 26 apartments on four sites.
"They all felt that quality should be encouraged--but later," one city official said in summarizing the developers' testimony at the retreat.
The same developers have attended council meetings in Whittier to ask the council to exempt projects submitted to City Hall before the restrictions began in June.
Lopez said the developers at the retreat were simply taking advantage of an opportunity to address the council, the same opportunity available to any other interested party.
It is unclear whether the city will compile a report summarizing the council's goals concerning the 19 topics on the retreat agenda. But Assistant City Manager Robert Griego said the goals are likely to appear as proposals presented to the council by individual city departments.
At the retreat, city staff submitted a proposal to establish a Heritage Square, a possible location for the Santa Fe Railroad Depot and historic homes, such as the Dorland House and the Hazard House. Chandler said the council was impressed by a slide presentation on Santa Fe Springs' Heritage Park, which includes the remains of an 1815 residential adobe, and a carriage barn and tank house from one of the city's first residences.
Griego, also executive director of the Whittier Redevelopment Agency, said the top redevelopment project for the next year is bringing new business to Whittier Boulevard.