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'Gadfly' Gets Unusual Reward--a Victory

Self-appointed council watchdog won lawsuit against Lawndale when judge said that a ballot measure was misleading and had to be rewritten.

October 28, 2002|Jean Merl | Times Staff Writer

When voters in the small South Bay city of Lawndale read down to the local section of their Nov. 5 ballot, they can thank -- or blame -- Fred Siegel for what they see. And for what they don't see.

That's because Siegel, after three years of regular railing against what he considers municipal injustice, went to court over a ballot proposal designed to give the city's redevelopment agency broader powers.

And he won.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge David Yaffe last month agreed with Siegel and his attorney that the wording on Measure N was misleading and improperly stacked the deck in favor of a "yes" vote.

Yaffe in essence rewrote the measure. His wording explains that Measure N would repeal the city's prohibition on eminent domain, which is the government's taking of private property, with compensation, for a public purpose. He also wiped out a wordy phrase spelling out all the good things Measure N purportedly would do.

The court victory bestowed on Siegel a degree of success uncommon among his fellow "gadflies," those self-appointed government watchdogs who keep sharp eyes on their city councils and other officials.

Their dedication in scrutinizing agendas and speaking out at public meetings sometimes borders on obsession, and they can become quite passionate -- some would say shrill -- when it's their turn at the microphone.

"They get me all worked up," said Siegel of his many beefs with the officials on the dais. He has lost track of the number of times he has been escorted from the council chamber by the sheriff's deputy posted to keep order at the meetings.

He records all his appearances and listens to the tapes to see how he might have improved his delivery -- or to catch City Atty. William Wynder, "the bureaucrats" or council members in missteps.

Across California, officials often dismiss the watchdogs' many complaints as ill-founded or trivial, a sort of civic form of crying wolf. But occasionally someone is "right and determined enough to get results through the courts," says Terry Francke. Francke is general counsel for the California First Amendment Coalition, a nonprofit in Sacramento that promotes open government.

"It's unusual for someone to follow through and even rarer to win," added Francke, whose organization helps those, including Siegel, having difficulty participating in their governments.

"This gives me more legitimacy," Siegel said of his win. "The city is always trying to cut me down. They say I'm out of order when I try to talk about this at council meetings. This time, they couldn't muzzle me."

Lawndale officials, however, say Siegel has done a disservice to voters by getting the court to strip away the "context" and explanation of how eminent domain could be used to help spur commerce and bring in more jobs and tax dollars. The city also has criticized his behavior.

'Uniformly Critical'

In a court document filed in connection with Siegel's suit, Wynder said Siegel turns up at virtually every council and redevelopment agency meeting and is "uniformly critical" every time he reaches the lectern.

"He objects to, rails against and criticizes the council collectively, and individually," Wynder said. In addition, the attorney continued, Siegel has been involved in several other court matters with the city and is "philosophically opposed" to eminent domain.

Plus, Wynder informed the court, Siegel ran for mayor last April and "received the second fewest votes of all candidates." (That was three: Mayor Harold Hofmann got 1,061 votes, Siegel, 298, and Enrique Salazar, 43.)

Siegel, a slightly built man of 57 who rides his bicycle the few blocks to City Hall from the rustic cottage that serves as his home and the office for his real estate and income tax business, acknowledges that he has battled the city on several fronts -- and that he believes the use of eminent domain is never justified.

He added that it didn't help his attitude when officials included his home, and the rental property he owns next door, in the redevelopment project area. (They are trying to lure a BMW dealer and other lucrative businesses to town and say they need the property condemnation powers to assemble enough land for maximal success.)

Several years ago, voters turned down civic leaders' desire to form a state-authorized community redevelopment agency, but proponents later sold the idea by promising that the agency (whose board members are the City Council) would be forbidden from using eminent domain. (Wynder has said that the prohibition is likely illegal as state law overrides city measures that conflict with it.)

Siegel believes the city's recent criminal prosecution of him for refusing to trim the overgrown hedges (which he insists are trees) at the front of his property was in retaliation for his activism.

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