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With Laguna Beach Mayor In a Pickle, Opinion Flying

Wayne Baglin is a longtime fixture, so folks aren't shy about defending or attacking him after an indictment over a property sale.

November 02, 2002|Christine Hanley and Stanley Allison | Times Staff Writers

Along the narrow streets lined with restaurants and galleries in downtown Laguna Beach, everyone seems to know Wayne Baglin.

Maybe they voted for him -- he's been a member of the City Council for eight years and a political figure in town for two decades. Or maybe he helped them buy their homes -- he's one of the town's top Realtors.

Now, Baglin stands accused of mixing public life and private business in what Orange County prosecutors call a felony conflict of interest.

Baglin, the city's mayor, was indicted Thursday for representing the sellers of two downtown properties the city purchased last year. Though Baglin didn't vote on the deal, he made a $36,000 commission.

Laguna Beach prides itself on its small-town atmosphere. So as word of the indictment spread through the city of 26,000 on Friday, feelings were passionate and personal.

To his supporters, Baglin is a committed environmentalist and public servant being punished simply for trying to make a living. To critics, Baglin crossed the line by profiting from business before the city and should be punished.

The indictment makes Patricia Truman angry because "I don't see that he did anything except conduct business in a businesslike manner."

"He ran [for office] as a Realtor," she said. "That's his profession. There's no secret. Everything he did was out in the open."

But Benjamin Jones, who had stopped in a coffee shop to get his wife a gift certificate, took the opposite view.

"If you're a Realtor, there's a code of ethics, and he should have stayed out of that transaction altogether," he said. It didn't matter that Baglin recused himself from the vote, he added. "He profited."

The case dates to January 2001, when the City Council, in search of land for a senior center, voted to buy a pair of adjacent parcels on 3rd Street.

The owners, Edgar and Dorothy Hatfield, were clients and friends of Baglin's.

Though Baglin recused himself from the council's vote on the land and disclosed his relationship with the sellers, he represented the couple during negotiations with the city.

Some say Baglin should not have relinquished his role as a councilman in favor of clients.

A videotape of a public meeting in December 2000 shows City Atty. Philip Kohn asking the council for a recess to consult with Baglin once the discussions gave rise to a possible conflict of interest.

"I did take the initiative to raise the matter with him at a public meeting when the issue of Baglin's connection with the property came up," Kohn said Friday.

But what was said between them during that consultation, and any other conversations, remain secret, protected even from prosecutors by the attorney-client privilege.

Baglin's attorney, Michael Molfetta, said Friday that his client does not think he is taking any risks because he is confident he did nothing wrong.

"He's either stupid, which he is not, or he's innocent," Molfetta said.

Molfetta said he also sought to clarify a few facts in the case. For one thing, he said, Baglin earned a $36,000 commission, not the widely reported $54,000. And all that money was paid by the Hatfields. Baglin could have collected an equal commission from the city, but didn't, Molfetta said.

Molfetta said he and Baglin "tried to work with the district attorney's office to put this to rest, so the taxpayers wouldn't be burdened."

He said the two sides had different philosophies on how to resolve the conflict of interest. He would not elaborate.

The charge is a felony, punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 or imprisonment. Those found guilty can also be barred from holding office in California.

Molfetta said the case is being driven by small-town politics, and that Baglin would be cleared.

"It's petty. It's boring," he said. "And at the end of the day, we'll see."

Resident Ernie Quigley took the defendant's side: "Somebody's out to crucify Wayne Baglin. It's that simple."

Whatever the outcome, residents said the city will cope.

"Our city can stand anything: fires, floods, mudslides," said resident John Gabriels. "This is no big deal."

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