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Where All Voters Are Landlords : San Fernando: Lease agreement for old police station will be decided in November election. Special ballots could cost $13,000 to $15,000.

October 16, 1994|ERIC SLATER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If small-town governing is sometimes a quirky business--with the local police chief acting as mayor, or a law on the books mandating church attendance--San Fernando has a favorite quirk of its own: 5,920 landlords overseeing its old police station.

In most American cities, officials manage city property. Here, the voters are the keepers of 120 MacNeil St. And they manage by election.

Needless and costly elections, say critics.

"It's a pain in the neck," longtime City Councilman Doude Wysbeek said of the unusual 8-year-old ordinance. "It's a thorn in our side."

And the thorn is pricking for the third time since the law was passed in 1986, as the city, seeking to lease the building to the Los Angeles city attorney's branch office, has been forced to place the issue on the Nov. 8 ballot.

The law is the child of disagreement.

Carmillas M. Noltemeyer, who spearheaded the effort to pass the ordinance when she was a councilwoman, said it may rub some people the wrong way but it was necessary to mitigate "the poor decisions of the San Fernando City Council."

In 1986 it became obvious to all that the time had come for a new police station in San Fernando. Four of the five City Council members voted to swap the old station, at 120 MacNeil St., for a nearby piece of land belonging to Los Angeles County, and build a new police facility there.

Noltemeyer, however, didn't like either the land swap or the notion of building a new police station. The old one, she said, should simply be refurbished.

So she rounded up supporters, collected a little more than 1,000 signatures and put the ordinance on the ballot. It passed.

The city, saying it would take too long to get voter approval for the swap, purchased the county lot and went about building the new police station.

The law, supporters say, is a way of keeping tabs on city "shenanigans" and making sure the town of 22,000 gets the most from its property.

"I think anything that has to do with city-owned property should go before the voters," Noltemeyer said, adding that the lease on the November ballot was a poor deal for the city.

Defending the ordinance, she said: "It isn't my saying it. The people said they want it."

Indeed, voters upheld the ordinance in 1990, narrowly defeating an initiative that would have rescinded it.

But every time the issue makes a ballot, the city coffers shrink. The November vote--asking if the Los Angeles attorney's office should be granted a $6,300-per-month lease for five years--will cost San Fernandans between $3,000 and $4,000 just to piggyback on the countywide ballot. In terms of administrative hours, the cost is much higher, officials point out.

The 1990 effort to overturn the ordinance cost the same amount.

Two years later, voters were asked this question: Lease space to the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, yea or nay? This time, the measure cost very little because it joined others on a city ballot for an election that was being held anyway.

Although it has not yet happened, should the city have to hold a special election on the future tenants of the building, that would cost $13,000 to $15,000 in election costs alone, said City Administrator Mary Strenn.

On top of all that, some question what caliber of landlords voters make, especially when they may be inadequately informed about the terms of the leases or the prospective tenants.

Mike Moon, the city's director of finance, said leases and other land matters are often complicated, esoteric deals that are impossible to explain in a ballot measure. So, he said, residents may not understand the question even as they cast their votes.

The ordinance "screwed up the whole process," he said.

Supporters of the ordinance--many of whom have criticized the City Council on other issues--say the cost of putting such proposals to a vote is small when compared with the money that might be lost if the city entered into a poor business deal.

City officials, whether they agree or disagree with the premise of the ordinance, have taken it largely in stride. Quirky or no, this is the law of the land in San Fernando.

"The issue may have long passed," said Strenn, speaking of the land-swap controversy that prompted the ordinance, "but the requirement remains. It's obviously unusual and costly, but . . . it is the law, and so we are following it."

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