DOWNEY — A city-funded citizens committee has filed a lawsuit against Downey, asserting its right to exist and to review redevelopment projects over the next three decades.
The court will be asked to decide if the city's Project Area Committee (PAC) is subject to yearly extensions by the City Council, as called for in state law, or if it has a 30-year lifespan under a city redevelopment plan.
The issue arose because under state law, the committee's three-year term expired in July, and the City Council voted to give it a one-year extension.
But PAC members said this action challenged their right to exist free of the threat of renewal or dismissal, which they claim was guaranteed in a previous agreement with the city. Members say the possibility that the council could someday abolish the committee disturbs them, although the city has made no formal move to do so. The lawsuit will settle the question, members added.
The lawsuit was filed in Los Angeles Superior Court last Thursday.
"We feel the city would abolish the (committee). . . . The lawsuit emerged from a feeling that we are under siege," PAC member Sandra Haney said earlier this week.
Under state law, a PAC must be formed when a city establishes a redevelopment plan that could displace low- and moderate-income families. The PAC must exist for at least three years to represent the interests of area residents and property owners. After that, state law permits a city council to dissolve a PAC.
A PAC has limited authority. For example, it takes a two-thirds council vote rather than a simple majority to approve a redevelopment plan that has been rejected by a PAC. But once the redevelopment zone is established, the PAC becomes solely an advisory body.
The dispute in Downey centers on whether the city's PAC is entitled to exist in an advisory capacity for the 30-year life of a city redevelopment zone, which was established in 1987.
City officials point to state law and contend that the life of the Project Area Committee now must be extended every year. Accordingly, the council granted the committee a one-year extension earlier this year, before it was supposedly due to expire.
This extension angers PAC members, who said the council voted in 1987 to maintain the committee for the life of the redevelopment plan.
"That set a precedent that (needed) clarification," committee Chairman Javier Velez said.
The minutes of a July 6, 1987, meeting indicate that the City Council voted to keep the committee in existence until 2017. The redevelopment zone first received approval that night and won final approval two weeks later.
But the legal documents establishing the zone are not specific. They say the "Project Area Committee may continue to function in a purely advisory capacity during the entire life of the plan."
In light of that language, City Manager Gerald Caton said the City Council would decide the life of the Project Area Committee year by year, unless a court tells it otherwise.
Caton noted that the city is in the process of expanding the redevelopment zone, which will automatically renew the life of the Project Area Committee for three years.
"It's a tempest in a teapot," Caton said.
The committee currently meets once a month to discuss what is going on with the Redevelopment Agency, Haney said. It runs on an annual budget of $5,800, Caton said. That pays for an attorney and a staff member to attend committee meetings, and for general office supplies.
At least one council member views the PAC as an expensive hoop through which the city must jump to redevelop Downey.
Robert G. Cormack also took issue with what he said was the adversative attitude of many of the committee members.
"They have appointed themselves to stand in the way," Cormack said. "They have served their purpose, and we ask them to stand back and let us go ahead."
Assistant City Manager Ken Farfsing said the PAC has opposed the city on some redevelopment projects.
Two years ago, for example, the PAC opposed plans to build a car dealership on land that was home to a mobile home park, he said. Committee members were concerned that the people living in the park would be uprooted and unable to find affordable housing, Farfsing said. The tenants eventually were relocated, and the dealership was built, he said.
But PAC member Michael E. Sullivan said it is the role of the committee to try to protect the interests of residents and property owners and that could conflict with city redevelopment plans in the future.
Sullivan is chairman of Downey Cares, a group of Downey property owners that has fought to keep the city from using eminent domain to seize land for redevelopment projects.
For example, the group filed a lawsuit that prompted a Superior Court judge to invalidate another redevelopment zone in 1985. The judge found that then-Councilman James S. Santangelo had a conflict of interest when he cast the deciding vote to create the zone. The Redevelopment Agency would have had condemnation powers in that zone.
Pressure from Downey Cares and other groups kept the City Council from giving the Redevelopment Agency condemnation powers in the redevelopment zones established in 1987. The agency has condemnation powers only in the city's original 125-acre redevelopment zone.
Pressure from Downey Cares also prompted the City Council to allow the PAC to exist throughout the 30-year life of the redevelopment plan, according to the council minutes.
"I want the Project Area Committee to be intact," Sullivan said. "The Project Area Committee gives the citizens a chance to review what's going on with the agency."