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Town Tattler : Publications: Most neighbors just don't want to talk to outsiders about The Balance Sheet, which many call 'that rag.'


TOPANGA CANYON — These days, the second week of the month swoops down on Topanga Canyon with all the foreboding of a full moon over Transylvania.

That's when the normally civil gossip of this mountain village turns into shrieking denunciations and outraged denials.

The consternation is about an eight-page newspaper, The Balance Sheet, dedicated to "stirring up controversy and saying upsetting things about some people in the community." It caught Topanga by surprise in December when it showed up in each of the town's 2,900 mailboxes.

Combining the venerated American tradition of the town crier with a Libertarian viewpoint, a streak of dark humor and the voice of a banshee, The Balance Sheet brazenly promised to expose "how the good ol' boy network appears to control the town by two means: The power to reward and the power to harm."

No one was spared, nor was any particular decorum observed. A county Health Services Department inspector who had been summoned to investigate a property owned by the publishers--Kathleen Kenny and Art Starz--was quoted as telling a patron in the town cafe, "Tell Miss Kenny I will be at her house next week with the sheriff, a witness and a bazooka." The inspector said the comment was merely a joke.

Even more biting was the attack on popular Topanga architect Bob Bates, who is also a longtime officer of a civic group called the Topanga Assn. for a Scenic Community. The Balance Sheet reported that Bates had been seen cashing a TASC check in the local market to pay for two bottles of red wine and $70 of Lotto tickets.

Bates declined to comment to The Times, but, in a letter published in The Balance Sheet later, he said the check was reimbursement for out-of-pocket expenses and denied buying wine and Lotto tickets. The Balance Sheet insisted that the story is true, saying its reporter witnessed it.

With barbs such as these flying about, most people in Topanga just don't want to talk to outsiders about The Balance Sheet--generally referred to as "that rag." Even the editor of the town's established newspaper, The Messenger, declined comment, except to say, "My heart goes out to you as a reporter." Those who would talk said they simply hope the journalistic venture will soon go away.

The origin of all this spleen appears to be a festering dispute involving several neighbors on Cave Way, a leafy one-lane cul-de-sac of tightly packed homes.

From disagreements about such concerns as killing gophers and growing roses in place of native plants, the conflict escalated to a disputed property line and allegations of illegal building, progressing along the way from name-calling to rock-throwing, rifle brandishing and complaints to county authorities before one of the combatants turned to the ultimate weapon--desktop publishing.

Reaction to the newspaper was swift and equally shrill. The second issue, out in mid-January, contained an obituary page for their advertising revenue, publishing letters of several merchants pleading to have their ads withdrawn. Beside them was a transcription of a phone message that one advertiser received from longtime resident Joel Axelrod, warning, "We . . . will talk to friends urging them to never have any contact with you or your commercial ventures unless you contact the community and disavow any contact with 'Balance Sheet.' "

Axelrod did not return phone calls from The Times.

In some ways, The Balance Sheet is only an extreme manifestation of the type of neighborhood dispute that is not at all uncommon in Topanga, a collection of dwellings--from antiquated shanties to space-age mansions--scattered along circuitous backcountry roads. Inhabitants follow the credo that one should live and let live--as long as no one crosses the line.

"In Topanga you could walk nude down the street smoking dope and no one would notice you," said Gary Harryman, an agent for Malibu Realty. "But God help you if you cross over their property lines, pester their dogs or molest their garbage cans. Then you're in trouble. I don't think they'd hesitate to shoot your ass."

The disputes that sparked The Balance Sheet pit several residents against Kenny and Starz, her longtime boyfriend. The couple bought four small lots on Cave Way in the early 1980s after returning from a two-year cruise to the South Seas on a 27-foot boat. Kenny, 51, and Starz, 56, put their savings into the Topanga properties while supporting themselves by selling a book that Kenny wrote on celestial navigation and a marine flare device that Starz invented.

They bought three lots at a county auction and the fourth later, two in Kenny's name and two in Starz's so they wouldn't come under county requirements to consolidate contiguous lots.

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