In an opinion that could have a major impact on planning and development in Lawndale, the state attorney general's office has reversed itself and decided that the city can submit its General Plan to a vote of the electorate.
Deputy Atty. Gen. Rodney O. Lilyquist, in a letter made public last week, said that a 1974 opinion on which city officials have been relying for more than a decade was erroneous. In 1974, the attorney general said the city could not put its General Plan on the ballot because to do so would conflict with state procedural statutes.
In a letter to state Sen. Diane E. Watson (D-Los Angeles), whom the council asked to intercede for a state ruling, Lilyquist said that he has concluded that a "general law" city like Lawndale--one that does not have a city charter dealing with such questions--"may, by ordinance, require a referendum to be held with respect to the adoption of its general plan."
The general plan, which state law requires every city to have, outlines how development should take place.
The ruling is a significant victory for Lawndale activists Steve Mino and Herman Weinstein. They and other critics have not challenged the plan itself, but the adoption of it without a vote of the electorate as required by a city law known as Ordinance 82.
Implications of Ordinance
The ordinance was adopted by the council in 1963 in response to a successful petition drive. The ordinance did not come into play immediately because the city had not yet formulated a general plan. After the 1974 attorney general's ruling, the law was thought to be unconstitutional. In a 4-1 vote in November of 1976, the council adopted the General Plan without a citywide vote.
City Atty. David J. Aleshire will report to the council Thursday on the attorney general's new opinion. In an interview Friday, Aleshire said he asked the attorney general's office to rule on whether the city's General Plan is legal even though there was no vote. He was told that state legal officials would make no comment.
Mayor Sarann Kruse was ill Friday and not available for comment, but officials said the council is not expected to make any decision until it receives a recommendation from the city Planning Commission, which is scheduled to continue talks on the subject Jan. 25.
The attorney general's new opinion hit like a bombshell during a discussion of Ordinance 82 at a meeting of the Planning Commission on Wednesday. Chairman Gary McDonald said he called a brief recess to allow participants to obtain copies and read the opinion.
An elated Steve Mino said Thursday that the opinion is a victory for the people of Lawndale. He said he will continue to press the council for a citywide vote on the General Plan. "We are just trying to get those people (the council) to abide by their own ordinances," he said.
Aleshire said there are many questions and ambiguities in Ordinance 82 that will have to be resolved by the council in response to the new opinion. One major issue is that Ordinance 82 calls for an election on the General Plan, but does not require a vote on major amendments to the plan, as proponents of the initiative drive apparently had intended.
Effect of Invalidity
And if the current plan is invalid, officials are wondering, does that mean that all development allowed under it might be declared illegal, throwing the city into pandemonium?
Aleshire said he believes that the various statutes of limitations governing challenges of the plan would have expired long ago, since the plan has been in effect more than 12 years.
He said that in his 11-year tenure as city attorney, he had never heard of Ordinance 82 until Mino brought it up last year and the attorney general was consulted. Aleshire said that when he began to look into Mino's allegations, "I knew this was trouble from the word go."
Aleshire said that when he consulted the city's Municipal Code, it said that the General Plan was to be adopted by the Planning Commission and City Council, not by a vote of the electorate as the 1963 ordinance adopted by the council required. Officials are not sure how this change in the wording and meaning occurred, but apparently it went unnoticed until last year when Mino brought it before the council.
In a report to the council in October, Aleshire suggested a revision of the ordinance that would require voter approval not only for the plan, but for "significant" amendments. Changes would be considered significant under Aleshire's plan if they alter more than 25% of the pages in a particular element of the plan. Also triggering a vote would be changes in land use, traffic or housing elements that would affect more than five properties.
In his report, Aleshire warned that changing the plan, which the council has done numerous times by a simple majority vote, would be more difficult under his proposal. The city would have to submit proposed amendments to election authorities at least six months before an election, and developers might have to wait as long as a year to obtain voter approval, he said.