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SANTA MONICA MOUNTAINS : Conservancy Funds Draw Scrutiny : Land management: Assembly panel urges keeping closer tabs on money and equipment from outside sources.


SACRAMENTO — An Assembly budget subcommittee urged this week that the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy's finances be subjected to greater scrutiny, especially the way it spends money obtained from outside sources.

At the request of a lobbyist for Soka University, which is embroiled in a legal fight with the conservancy over the state parkland agency's attempts to seize the school's campus in the Santa Monica Mountains, an Assembly Ways and Means subcommittee recommended on Monday that the conservancy file an annual report on all funds it receives to acquire open space.

The recommendation will go to the full Assembly Ways and Means Committee for consideration.

The subcommittee also agreed to allow the agency to participate in the management of lands outside the Santa Monica Mountains, specifically about 7,000 acres of undeveloped desert lands in Palmdale. The Palmdale land has been set aside by builders of Ritter Ranch, a large Antelope Valley development, as a concession to the city.

The call for financial oversight of the agency was prompted by questions from Assemblyman Ross Johnson (R-Fullerton), who said the conservancy's finances, especially funds it receives from sources outside the state government, are "somewhat unaccountable."

Johnson said he had recently seen advertisements in auto magazines trumpeting the usefulness of Suzuki vehicles to the conservancy, and asked whether the conservancy is getting something in return from Suzuki.

Joseph Edmiston, the conservancy's executive director, responded that Suzuki has donated 12 vehicles, which might otherwise have been purchased with state funds.

"We are proud not to have . . . taxpayers pay for it," Edmiston told the committee.

Edmiston said it was appropriate to reveal all his agencies' finances, emphasizing "we can account for all the money."

E. A. Melendez, a lobbyist for Soka, said the suggested budget language originated with him as a way to make the conservancy more accountable.

The panel postponed for several weeks a decision that conservancy officials say could add millions of dollars to the cost of condemning Soka's scenic Calabasas campus along the Mulholland Highway, which state and federal park officials want to seize for use as a headquarters for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

In February, a Ventura County judge ruled that the conservancy erred last fall when it secured approval from the Ventura County Board of Supervisors to launch the condemnation proceedings.

The budget panel on Monday considered a proposal that Edmiston said would probably kill the condemnation proceeding by requiring the conservancy and its partners--two Ventura County parks agencies--in the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority to seek approval from the state Public Works Board, as other state agencies do.

Robert McMurry, the conservancy's lawyer, said the cost of acquiring the Soka property could rise by $10 million if the conservancy must renew the condemnation request before the Public Works Board.

One reason for the higher cost is a new state law that requires that when the lands of nonprofit agencies, such as Soka, are condemned, they must be reimbursed for any improvement and relocation costs.


Soka now offers three programs, including English language classes for about 100 Japanese students, foreign language classes for about 100 American students and a research center, said Jeff Ourvan, Soka's director of community relations.

Soka, financially supported in part by the Japanese branch of the Soka Gakkai religious group, would like to expand to 3,400 students by 2015.

In a telephone interview, Ourvan said Soka has been talking to a variety of different lawmakers about its programs and its willingness to share the use of the property with the conservancy.

"We didn't pick this fight," he said. "Joe Edmiston did. We want to have a compromise."

But half a dozen homeowners and representatives of the Sierra Club and other environmental groups told the committee that the Soka site is needed as a park headquarters, not a school.

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