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Small-Mindedness Knows No City Limits : The bureaucratic mentality, it seems, is alive and well in both Berkeley and Norco

August 21, 1994

Berkeley and Riverside County's Norco may be as different as two cities can be, but lately they share a distinction: They both are battlegrounds in the war against small-minded bureaucrats.

In Berkeley, residents three months ago asked for information about the proposed conversion of a nearby motel into a home for low-income AIDS patients and former drug addicts. Incredibly, those who raised questions found themselves the target of an investigation by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development for possible violation of the federal Fair Housing Act.

At the time, the developer had not yet secured financing or applied for a city permit. When neighbors asked for information about zoning, site selection and potential residents, they instead received a letter from the city attorney's office. The letter stated that City Council members could not discuss the project in private because it might prejudice future council decisions and warned that questions about potential tenants could be construed as discriminatory and put the city and neighbors at risk of violating the Fair Housing Act. Later, HUD broadened an inquiry concerning those residents, who previously had objected to another local housing project.

Last week, in response to an escalating war of words, HUD dropped its investigation. The line between legitimate inquiry and protest on the one hand and discrimination on the other is indeed vague; but clearly HUD and the City of Berkeley crossed it.

Closer to home, the line was drawn between a Norco newspaper publisher and municipal officials. Lucille Oliva, publisher of the Norco News, circulation 5,000, wrote articles about city animal control chief Michael Kulick that he didn't much like. Moreover, city officials contended that on two occasions Oliva physically assaulted Kulick and that a Norco News writer made harassing phone calls to him.

The City of Norco sued the Norco News and Oliva for defamation, seeking $21 million in damages. According to the city, this campaign of "improper harassment" forced Kulick to take early retirement and claim workers' compensation benefits. Oliva and the newspaper should be liable as negligent third parties for all benefits that the city would pay him, the suit said. Oliva's lawyers fought back, filing a motion to strike the suit.

Last week, a Riverside Superior Court commissioner upheld Oliva's motion, dismissing the defamation charges along with charges of invasion of privacy and conspiracy.

The battery charges, which remain, are cause for serious concern and of course are not First Amendment matters. But the press, including the Norco News, must be free to do its job without government intimidation.

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