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WESTSIDE WATCH

Is This Just an Artful Way Around Rent Control?

July 04, 1993

Art for art's sake? Tenants in two Santa Monica apartments didn't have to worry about shopping for art to decorate their rent-controlled abodes.

Instead, they became instant collectors of African art--for a price, of course. The art was sold to them for $350 to $450 a month by their landlords, amateur art collectors Laura and Joseph Ciaramella.

Whether this exchange was simply art for art's sake or a sneaky way around the city's strict rent control law is the subject of a lawsuit between the Ciaramellas and the Santa Monica Rent Control Board.

So far, the rent board is ahead. A court-appointed arbitrator recently awarded the board and the tenants $37,385, finding that the tenants bought the art only so that they could get the apartments, which rent for about $450 a month. A trial is set for December.

But Rosario Perry, an attorney for the landlords, said their separate agreement to buy the artwork--face masks from the Ivory Coast and memorial posts from Kenya--did not constitute an end run around rent control.

As Perry tells it, the landlords sought to rent the units furnished, but, at the pleading of the would-be tenants, agreed to rent them unfurnished for considerably less money with a separate, but legal, side business deal to buy the art as a substitute for renting the furniture.

Perry contends that as long as the tenants entered into the art deal as a separate and voluntary agreement, it's none of the rent board's business what they buy. He said the rent board treats tenants as though they are "wards of the state" rather than adults with free will to make contracts.

As for the tenants, Perry said they lived with the art arrangement for more than two years before alleging that they had been coerced into buying it.

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Frayed alliance: Reps. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) and Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City) went their separate ways in the Los Angeles mayoral race, a further signal of a new aloofness in their political relationship.

Waxman enthusiastically endorsed Councilman Michael Woo after the April primary; Berman sat it out, despite being courted by Woo and the other finalist, Richard Riordan. The race is nonpartisan, but Woo is a Democrat and Riordan a Republican.

"I wanted to be able to work with whoever won and each of them had their strengths and weaknesses," Berman said.

Waxman and Berman, longtime political partners, have grown more distant since the drubbing of their close ally, former Rep. Mel Levine, in the Democratic U.S. Senate primary last year. This was not the first time the lawmakers did not join forces on a big race.

Berman and Levine endorsed Dianne Feinstein in the 1990 Democratic gubernatorial primary over a past ally, John Van de Kamp, then the state attorney general; Waxman remained neutral. But in the mayoral race, they proceeded without so much as consulting each other.

"I made a decision for myself," Waxman said. Late last month, Waxman and Berman joined Riordan at a lunch and Capitol Hill news conference when Riordan made a pre-inaugural visit to Washington.

"We've got to work together," Waxman exhorted.

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Malibu Hard Times: Karen and Arnold York, publishers of the Malibu Times, are in an awkward spot.

Malibu's General Plan Task Force, the citizen group evaluating land use throughout the city, has decided that the Las Flores Canyon neighborhood that includes the rustic, 1940s Malibu Times building is a residential area. If the designation sticks, a newspaper business would be an incompatible activity.

The paper, one of two weeklies in Malibu, has been highly critical in its editorials of Malibu's City Council and the task force. The Yorks say they have been assured that there was no political motivation in the task force action. But "we feel that their action has put us in an entirely untenable position, one where our paper becomes dependent on the goodwill of City Hall," Arnold York said in prepared statement.

Bob Benard, the city's planning director, said the designation is nowhere near a done deal. On Wednesday, the City Council will take up a four-page list of properties that the task force or City Council has said need to be reconsidered, or whose owners have asked for reconsideration.

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Growing pains: The two most outspoken slow-growth advocates are gone from the Santa Monica Planning Commission.

One, Sharon Gilpin, resigned, citing the pressure of business but noting her frustration with a planning process she sees as skewed toward developers.

The other, Jennifer Polhemus, wanted to continue her slow-growth crusade on the commission but was denied the chance. Despite a letter-writing campaign on her behalf, the City Council, on a 4-3 vote, refused to reappoint her.

It is unusual for a sitting commissioner to be denied another term in office, but Polhemus' take-no-prisoners approach to planning issues had earned her a reputation as a principled but uncompromising contrarian.

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