MONTEBELLO — The City Council has decided to ask the district attorney's office to investigate allegations that four of its members held illegal meetings and organized support for a controversial redevelopment proposal that the council recently approved.
Last week's action was prompted by a Dec. 14 letter from lawyer Christopher A. Sutton, who represents South Montebello Area Residents Together (SMART), which strongly opposed the council's decision to give its Redevelopment Agency the power of eminent domain to spur redevelopment in parts of South Montebello.
Sutton accused council members William O. Nighswonger, Arnold M. Glasman, Kathy Salazar and Art Payan of meeting privately with supporters on three occasions to discuss the eminent domain proposal, which won final approval Nov. 28. In most cases, state law requires public meetings when a quorum of council members is discussing and deciding city business. The Montebello council has five members, and the presence of three members constitutes a quorum..
The letter calls on the council to rescind its approval of two ordinances giving the Redevelopment Agency condemnation powers.
Special Meeting Called
Mayor Nighswonger, who assumed the ceremonial mayoral post from Glasman last month, called a special meeting last Friday to decide how to handle the allegations. The council voted 4 to 1 to refer the matter to the district attorney's office. Glasman voted no because he said the letter did not warrant serious consideration.
The four council members have been targeted in a recall campaign because they supported the eminent domain proposal. Glasman joined with Salazar and Payan to give the Redevelopment Agency condemnation powers in two areas of South Montebello. Nighswonger said he supported the eminent domain ordinances, but abstained because he is an officer in a real estate company that does business in the areas. Councilman Edward C. Pizzorno opposed the use of eminent domain in one redevelopment zone. He abstained from voting on the other because his business is within the district.
"We're going straight to the district attorney, show him the letter and ask him to investigate the attorney's (Sutton's) allegations," Nighswonger said in an interview this week. "We have not violated the law and we don't want this thing hanging around."
City Administrator Joseph M. Goeden and City Atty. Henry S. Barbosa were scheduled to meet this morning with a representative of the district attorney's office, a city spokeswoman said.
The first of the allegedly illegal meetings took place Nov. 8, two days before a public hearing on the highly charged redevelopment proposal. The meeting was at the Armenian Center on Washington Boulevard. Nighswonger, Salazar, Glasman, Payan and about 150 other people attended, Nighswonger said.
"At the secret meeting, the four council members discussed the Nov. 10 hearing, coordinated and orchestrated testimony to be given by their supporters, and planned (a) 'stall tactic' to prevent the giving of testimony by those opposed . . . ," Sutton wrote.
The next meeting allegedly took place just before the Nov. 10 hearing, which began at 7 p.m. and ran until 4:30 a.m. the next day. Sutton accused council members of planning a strategy to make it inconvenient for opponents to testify. Testimony in favor of the redevelopment plan was taken first, which is usual procedure. But that testimony lasted hours and those opposing eminent domain did not have an opportunity to speak until about 11 p.m.
"The speakers were coached what they should say and how to say it," Sutton wrote. "The speakers (in favor of the eminent domain proposal) were told to take as much time speaking as they possibly could . . . to engage in a filibuster to prevent the presentation of testimony" from opponents.
Councilwoman Salazar said the lengthy testimony in favor of the eminent domain proposal was not planned by the four council members. She said opponents were given ample opportunity to speak if they chose to stay. About 40 people spoke in favor of the proposal, and another 40 spoke against the plan.
"He's (Sutton is) full of baloney. He really is," Salazar said.
The third meeting took place on Nov. 21, at which time the four council members allegedly discussed final approval of the redevelopment plan with supporters. The council gave preliminary approval to the eminent domain proposal on Nov. 14, and final approval on Nov. 28.
Sutton said the allegations are based on residents' reports, but he declined to release their names.
"It's a delicate situation," Sutton said. "We will be transmitting the names to the district attorney's office."
William M. Molinari, a former councilman who is chairman of SMART, the group opposing the redevelopment plan, said he favored the call for an investigation.
"It (the investigation) certainly would clarify the issue," Molinari said in an interview. "We'd like to see the whole matter reviewed."