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SAN GABRIEL VALLEY / COVER STORY : Diamond Bar's Loss of Luster : The 5-Year-Old City Is Beset by Lawsuits, Recall Attempts and Other Squabbling

August 11, 1994|KEVIN UHRICH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Now that Diamond Bar is 5 years old, the man who helped found the city and the man who fought it still disagree on the issue.

Diamond Bar was better off when the county ran it, environmental activist Max Maxwell says.

Incorporating was the best thing the people of Diamond Bar ever did, counters Mayor Gary Werner.

No surprises here. Just about the only thing that isn't new in Diamond Bar is the history of squabbles. San Gabriel Valley's youngest city might be school-age, but some observers wonder whether it ever grew out of the Terrible 2's.

"You come out to Diamond Bar and drive around and say, 'Hey, this is a neat little bedroom community,' " said City Clerk Lynda Burgess, who moved to Diamond Bar from Long Beach after she accepted the job when the city was born. "Then you go to the City Council meeting and the politics are just vicious."

The city is in the midst of two separate recall efforts involving four of its five council members. Diamond Bar still lacks a General Plan; the two plans it has come up with were scrapped after heated opposition resulted in a pair of drives to put the matter to a referendum. Slow-growth forces are threatening the third effort.

Lawsuits abound in the city. One councilman sued residents who campaigned against him. The suit was dropped and the residents filed a countersuit against him for slander. A developer sued two council members, saying they pressured the developer to donate campaign money and hold a campaign benefit. One of the recall drives filed suit as well.

And city politics show no signs of simmering down.

Maxwell, 58, opposed incorporation in 1989 and led the two successful referendum drives to scrap the city's General Plan. He's threatening a third ballot measure if, in his view, the city's development blueprint fails to protect scenic hillsides and canyons.

"The real issue is that after five years as a city, (the council) doesn't recognize the citizens. We run the city. They don't recognize what we want," he said.

"Growing pains" is how Mayor Werner describes some of the turmoil that has come to characterize his city of 55,000 residents. But Werner has no regrets. A municipal planning consultant who moved to Diamond Bar from Pasadena 13 years ago, Werner, 43, chaired an eight-member incorporation committee six years ago and won a seat on the first City Council.

Most of the city's spats since then have centered on growth.

Much of Diamond Bar was developed by the time it became a city in 1989, said Jim DeStefano, director of community development. The more recent projects, though, have been among the most controversial because they center on the city's steepest, most picturesque hillsides and on the few remaining undeveloped canyons, the kinds of rustic spots with old oaks and other native wildlife that first drew people to the area.

"These are pieces of property that people live next to and may have thought would be vacant forever," DeStefano said.

For years, Werner often cast the lone dissenting vote on construction projects approved by the previously pro-growth councils.

But last fall, Diamond Bar Residents to Protect Country Living, a preservationist political action group, successfully backed two managed-growth candidates who unseated two of the incumbents. Council newcomers Eileen Ansari and Clair Harmony gave Werner his first council majority. At the same time, the Country Living group launched a recall drive against council members Phyllis Papen and Gary Miller, the remaining pro-development council members.

Even Burgess, the city clerk, has been involved in the fights. In August, 1993, she ruled that petitions to force a referendum on the second General Plan were invalid because each petition should have been attached to a copy of the General Plan, a voluminous document. There were 400 petitions. The Citizens to Protect Country Living sued and won; the judge ruled that Burgess' decision was "tantamount to depriving (the citizens' group) of their opportunity to participate" in the referendum process. The council scrapped the General Plan.

In June, Burgess also invalidated the recall petition against Miller and Papen, saying it lacked the required number of valid signatures. The Citizens to Protect Country Living sued again; that suit is pending.

Meanwhile, as soon as the new slow-growth majority took control of the city, they abruptly fired the city attorney and temporarily replaced him with the attorney who represented Diamond Bar Residents to Protect Country Living in lawsuits against the city.

Evening things up a bit, another group of residents served Harmony and Ansari with recall papers this past June, although they have not yet filed their papers with the city. The residents were frustrated because the council's stalling on approving a canyon development was also holding up plans for school construction.

Meanwhile, Harmony is putting out a newsletter accusing the city of wrongdoing.

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