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Open Debate About Closed Council Talks : City Hall: Carol Churchill says private sessions involving a hillside development violate the Brown Act. Other council members say the action is legal because litigation is involved.


SIGNAL HILL — For several months, the Signal Hill City Council has been discussing a myriad of issues regarding a proposed controversial housing project--subjects ranging from location of park trails to which parts of the development should be built first.

But the sessions have been held behind closed doors.

Although a majority of the council argued that the closed meetings are appropriate, Councilwoman Carol Churchill has questioned whether the sessions violate the state's open meeting law, the Brown Act. Churchill raised her concerns during an open council meeting and in a letter to City Manager Douglas N. La Belle.

"Each council member has a responsibility to state their position and talk about every single point they're changing," Churchill said. "It should not be done in closed doors."

Churchill said she is concerned that council members might be making up their minds on a number of significant issues relating to the proposed housing development by Orange County-based Southwest Diversified Inc., which plans to build about 450 houses and condominiums on 125 acres on the hilltop. Issues such as how the project will affect the views of existing housing, she said, should be discussed in the open.

But Churchill's colleagues argue that they are legally entitled to discuss the subject in closed meetings because Southwest has sued the city twice and threatened to take Signal Hill to court again. The Brown Act allows public officials to discuss in private issues that are subject to litigation, they said.

"It's perfectly legal," Councilman Gerard Goedhart said. "There was litigation. There's still potential for litigation in this matter."

Southwest first sued Signal Hill in 1990 in an attempt to force the city to lift its moratorium on development. Both sides settled the case out of court early last year.

The company then filed a second lawsuit in April, saying the city's new plan for development failed to meet terms of the earlier agreement between both parties.

City Atty. David J. Aleshire said the company withdrew its second lawsuit against the city after both sides agreed to try to work out their differences. As part of that agreement, the city gave the company time to refile its lawsuit if the issues are not resolved, Aleshire said. Because Signal Hill is under threat of being taken to court again, the council can discuss the project behind closed doors, he added.

"I don't think there can be any clearer threat of litigation," Aleshire said.

In addition, most council members said they are merely working out technicalities of the project, rather than making major changes.

"We're not really changing major things. We're trying to improve or tie down certain things," Councilman Michael Noll said.

Some of the changes in the project, for example, would obstruct some "minor views" from existing housing, such as those out a bathroom window, Noll said. Major views of surrounding Long Beach from a living room window in Signal Hill, for example, would not be blocked, he added.

Council members also emphasized that they will not give final approval to anything before sending their proposed revisions to the city's Planning Commission, which will hold public hearings. The issue then goes back to the City Council, which will make the final decision after more hearings.

"Your mind is never made up until you hear what the public wants," Noll said.

Councilwoman Sara Dodds Hanlon would not discuss the council's sessions, but she defended the closed meetings. "The process requires a public hearing, and we will have a public hearing," she said.

Aleshire said the council majority has not reached a consensus on any major subject. But he said he understands Churchill's fears because there are "still significant issues on the table we haven't been able to resolve."

"The (council) majority saying they haven't given anything away is true. But Carol's fears that they may give something away is also true," Aleshire said.

Pike Oliver, a vice president at Southwest Diversified, said the differences between the city and his company are mostly technical and deal with small issues. "We're not trying to do any major redo on that plan."

But Churchill said that even the technicalities or small issues could easily add up to millions of dollars for the developer. "Why do you think their lawyers are working so hard to change these little words?" said Churchill, an attorney who has attended the bimonthly closed meetings. "It's idiotic to think these little words are insignificant."

Councilman Richard Ceccia, who in the past has teamed up with Churchill in criticizing Southwest's aggressive approach, said he's taking a wait-and-see attitude.

"I think I have the same apprehension she has, but I'm trying to see what will happen," said Ceccia, also an attorney. He added that today's anemic economy has made him more open to negotiating with Southwest and avoiding a costly lawsuit as long as the council "doesn't give anything away."

"Given the economy, given everything going on around us," Ceccia said, "let's see if we can work this out."

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