Malibu cityhood proponents, who lost their battle to place an incorporation measure on the November ballot, fear they may have to wait until early next summer for voters to decide whether the famed coastal community becomes a city.
Incorporation backers say they are worried that the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors will delay an election until June or later so that the county can firm up plans to place sewers in Malibu. They suspect that supervisors may use a variety of tactics to stall a requested March vote when the matter comes before the board next month.
However, the supervisors have said that it is premature to speculate about what might happen at the hearing, especially since they have no way to gauge the level of community opposition until the meeting.
The sewer question, which triggered the incorporation drive last October, remains the key issue. A county-appointed committee is studying a scaled-down $34-million waste-water plan that would allow a majority of Malibu residents to continue to use septic systems. County officials disclosed recently that Bechtel Engineering has been hired to update an environmental impact report done by a company that recommended building an $86-million regional sewer system in Malibu. The recommendation, widely criticized, was tabled by supervisors last fall.
Cityhood advocates say they believe that the supervisors, who have fought for 20 years to build a sewer system in Malibu, may hold up the election until they decide which sewer plan to approve. Two supervisors delayed the approval of Malibu's cityhood petition for months when they unsuccessfully lobbied members of the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) this summer to allow the county to retain jurisdiction over sewers in Malibu after incorporation.
As required by state law, the supervisors have scheduled a so-called protest hearing on Nov. 3 to determine if more than 50% of the registered voters in Malibu, or about 4,150 people, are opposed to cityhood. But because almost half of Malibu's 8,300 voters signed a petition earlier this year to place the measure on the ballot, it appears unlikely that there is enough opposition to delay the election.
Still, incorporation campaign officials expressed concern that supervisors, presented with 2,000 or 3,000 signatures, might hold up the election to verify the signatures, even if the number falls far short of the required amount.
Speed Up Count
That concern was exacerbated by Supervisor Michael Antonovich in a letter earlier this month to Walt Keller, co-chairman of the Malibu Incorporation Committee. Antonovich wrote that although he didn't believe that 50% of the registered voters are opposed, in Malibu, "it is not clear, and the registrar's office may be required to conduct the necessary tally, which could delay the election to June. I would hate to see the board rush the election, only to have the courts invalidate the election because the opponents were denied due process."
Keller responded with a written plea that the board only verify the signatures if the number approached 50%, and that the clerk be prepared to count all the signatures on the day of the hearing, rather than taking up to 60 days to check them, as allowed by law. He also noted that there has never been a 50% protest during a cityhood hearing.
"We have a lot of concerns because we would like to have a March election," Keller said. "Unless there is some internal problem of which we are not aware, there appears to be absolutely no excuse to continue the hearing and delay an election."
Opponents of the incorporation drive can file written protests with the county up to the day of the hearing. So far, county officials said, one written protest has been received.
Dave Vannatta, Antonovich's planning deputy, said the supervisor was not outlining a future course for the board, but merely cautioning against rushing ahead.
"The law says that the board has a period of time in which protests can be registered and a period of time to check them out," Vannatta said. "Our point is that we may be penny-wise and pound-foolish to open and close the hearing on the same day, especially if somebody decides to file a lawsuit claiming that they didn't have an opportunity to gather enough signatures.
"We're just telling them that they should be careful about how they approach this and that they ought to think twice about the possibility of a lawsuit over some technicality."
Reason to Delay
Cityhood backers say they are also worried that supervisors may use a lawsuit that has already been filed as a reason to delay the election.
In June, a Malibu landowner, citing concerns raised earlier by cityhood opponents, such as Pepperdine University, filed a suit in Superior Court, claiming that LAFCO, which approves incorporation petitions, ignored the environmental impact that cityhood would have on the area. The lawsuit also alleged that the cityhood petition was inadequate because the signatures on it were not dated.