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Attorney Accuses Council of Slighting Duty

Court motion, backed up by a videotape, says panel paid no attention to a request for action.

September 16, 2003|Jessica Garrison | Times Staff Writer

When attorney Roger Jon Diamond appeared before the City Council earlier this summer to make an impassioned speech on behalf of the Blue Zebra strip club, members appeared to pay him little attention.

They talked among themselves or on their cell phones. They listened to aides whispering in their ears. Others got up from their seats and wandered away, munched on snacks, or traded comments on their Hawaiian shirts. (It was Hawaiian shirt day in City Hall). Then, they unanimously voted against Diamond and his quest to allow the Lincoln Heights club to keep its doors open until 4 a.m.

Diamond said he left the meeting outraged at the rudeness of council members, a complaint voiced by many over the years who have addressed the council.

But instead of just going home and grumbling, Diamond fought back. In a motion that a state court judge will hear today, Diamond is arguing that because council members were acting in a judicial capacity during his June 13 hearing, they were required by law to listen to the arguments made before them.

Because they didn't appear to be attentive (and Diamond made a video of the hearing which he says proves it) he wants the decision overturned.

Legal experts said the courts are unlikely to side with the flamboyant attorney. Nonetheless, council members and some in the community said they are insulted by the lawsuit.

"The strip club attorney criticizing the council for not being mesmerized by their every word is like the Detroit Tigers criticizing their fans for not attending every game," said Councilman Jack Weiss, who appears in Diamond's video engaged in an extended and apparently engrossing cell phone conversation as the public hearing goes on around him. "When you ... try to destroy the quality of life in a neighborhood, what do you expect? Our decision to deny the strip club was solidly in the public interest."

But others, even those who hope Diamond never wins another adult business case again, say they think that on this issue he might have a point.

"The City Council has a history of just barely tolerating public comment on any issue," said Don Schultz, president of the Van Nuys Homeowners Assn., who says he has never found himself in agreement with Diamond before.

Until two years ago, council members sat with their backs to the public. Even now that their comfy leather chairs face the hard wooden benches set out for the audience, most elected officials make no secret of the fact that they use some of the time during their thrice weekly meetings to read their mail, catch up with each other or, in the case of recently retired Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, pen a few lines of poetry.

"They don't pay attention to anybody .... These people have become so arrogant," Diamond said. "They just don't care. It's the culture there."

Arrogance has nothing to do with it, say legislators and some community members who defend them. The job of being a council member requires attention to dozens if not hundreds, of issues every day.

To do the job well, "you have to be multitask oriented," said Councilman Ed Reyes, whose district includes the Blue Zebra and who was one of the few members who appeared to be listening at some points on Diamond's tape.

"In defense of my colleagues," Reyes added, "it is possible to do two or three things at one time."

Reyes said the real villains when it comes to not paying attention are Diamond and the adult business owners he represents, who do not heed community members' complaints about their clubs. "I wish I had a legal mechanism to go after Diamond for not listening to us," Reyes said.

Some foes of adult businesses agree.

"They listen to both sides," said Cristi Walden, who said she believes Diamond may be trying to intimidate the City Council, which is scheduled to vote today on stricter regulations for strip clubs across the city.

Other community members who have addressed the council said it is only natural that the lawmakers' attention occasionally drifts.

As long as council members have done their homework, read their reports and thought about the issues, it may not be crucial for them to listen intently to every word spoken to them from the lectern set up for the public, said Polly Ward, who sits on the Studio City Neighborhood Council and comes to City Hall about six times a year.

Although that may be a fine practice when council members are debating laws, Diamond believes that in his case, when the council was hearing an appeal of a decision by a zoning administrator, they were required to listen.

"The City Council ... did not consider any evidence and deprived Petitioner of a fair hearing by paying no attention to either side and by essentially conducting no hearing, contrary to the requirements of Due Process and the Los Angeles Municipal Code," Diamond wrote to the court, submitting his videotape as evidence.

If it sounds like a longshot, Diamond says that he has made a career of championing lost causes -- sometimes changing the law in the process.

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