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Appearance of Fairness Important to Malibu

November 19, 1989|BURTON S. KATZ | Burton S. Katz is a retired Los Angeles County Superior Court judge. He lives in Malibu. and

When I worked as a deputy district attorney for Los Angeles County, my colleagues and I were constantly reminded of our dual obligation--to prosecute not only vigorously but also fairly.

And when I served as a judge of the Municipal and Superior courts of Los Angeles, my colleagues and I were constantly reminded that it was a judge's obligation to ensure not only that all parties to a lawsuit received a fair hearing and trial, but also that the appearance of fairness existed throughout the proceedings. It is important that the public perceive a hearing or trial to be fair.

In addressing the issue of Malibu's cityhood, I will leave the substantive issues of sewers and development to those who are more intimately familiar with the details. I would, however, like to comment on the appearance of propriety of those officials who hold positions of public trust.

Malibu comprises a diversified mix of people. It is not, as is sometimes suggested, an insular enclave only for the wealthy. It has laborers, some of whom live together in minimal rural housing. It has underpaid teachers, secretaries, librarians, clerks, court personnel and others who rent or bought their homes years ago when few were willing to put up with the inconveniences and life-threatening vicissitudes of Malibu's fragile and unstable ecology.

The people who live in Malibu endure fires, floods, earth movement--and, in some cases, substandard housing--because of their love and devotion to nature's spirit. Malibu is a place where anyone can come to enjoy the ocean, beaches, mountains and hiking trails. It is a special place to heal, to regenerate.

But it would seem from all public appearances that to the Board of Supervisors (with the significant exception of Ed Edelman), Malibu is nothing more than an under-utilized revenue source that must be exploited by installing sewers and encouraging extensive development. Clearly, they intend to do this before the citizens of Malibu have a chance to vote on cityhood, before they have the opportunity to determine a responsible course, before they can devise a comprehensive plan to protect Malibu's delicate environment for all generations, for everyone.

Supervisors Pete Schabarum and Deane Dana are determined that Malibu will not vote on cityhood until the sewer pipes are in the ground. The Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), the agency responsible for determining whether cityhood is suitable for a given area, has already determined that Malibu has the wherewithal, and accordingly has recommended that the Board of Supervisors set an election date.

The supervisors, however, demanded that LAFCO allow them to retain jurisdiction over the sewer for 10 years as a condition of allowing a cityhood vote. LAFCO's legal counsel declared that condition to be unlawful, and the commission initially agreed, rejecting the supervisors' condition. But then the supervisors turned up the pressure on LAFCO, and eventually won a reversal.

How did this happen? To begin with, two supervisors--Edelman and Dana--hold seats on LAFCO. Other members of LAFCO, meanwhile, often need help for their own cities from the Board of Supervisors. This structure makes it very difficult for the commission to be truly independent of the supervisors, and there is plenty of built-in potential for conflict of interest. Small wonder that at the meeting in which LAFCO reversed itself, one member asked to be excluded because of a "conflict" and another took a vacation.

No election date has yet been set by the Board of Supervisors, though they are required to do so by law.

Meanwhile, the California Coastal Commission has signaled serious concern about the environmental effect of the county's oversized sewer plan and has recommended significant modifications.

The recent landslide and closing of Pacific Coast Highway is but an omen of what the future holds if Dana and Schabarum have their way. Until the mechanism of sewering is in place and irreversible, until the developers rushing to the county to get their projects approved have been given the green light, the county will continue to delay the election process.

Officials who act in conscious disregard of their oath to conduct fair proceedings, who care nothing for the appearance of propriety, who act not on the merits of the facts but on their own personal agenda, are arrogantly abusing their public trust and undeserving of their high office.

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