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Mayor Dumps Head of City Panel

Javier Nunez, president of the L.A. Building and Safety Commission, was said to have received special treatment on his construction projects.

October 18, 2006|Patrick McGreevy | Times Staff Writer

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has removed the president of the Los Angeles Building and Safety Commission two months after it was reported that Javier Nunez was one of nine current and former city commissioners who received special treatment from building officials for construction projects.

Word of the removal came when Nunez's replacement was disclosed during the commission meeting he presided over Tuesday.

He declined a reporter's request for a comment afterward, and the mayor's letter advising the City Council that he was replacing Nunez gave no reason for the action. But at least two others said the controversy had played a role.

Thomas Saenz, the mayor's chief counsel, said Tuesday that the decision to replace Nunez was part of a process in which Villaraigosa is reviewing commissioners appointed by his predecessor, James K. Hahn, with an eye toward replacing most of them with his own appointments.

"As part of that, the mayor made the decision not to retain Mr. Nunez," Saenz said.

Asked if a report by The Times in August about labor leader Nunez and other city commissioners was a factor in the decision, Saenz said, "Certainly we are aware of what is reported about various commissioners."

Nunez denied in August that he had received special treatment as a commissioner in getting city approvals to renovate a church in Arleta.

But one source familiar with the mayor's decision said the controversy surrounding Nunez weighed against him in the decision on whether to let him serve out the remaining three years of his term.

"Whatever chance he had of being retained dissipated after that," said the city official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the matter involved sensitive personnel issues.

Nunez will not step down officially until the mayor's choice to replace him, architect Helena Jubany, is confirmed by the City Council, Saenz said.

Jubany, whose nomination is scheduled for a council vote Nov. 1, said she had the impression in talking to Villaraigosa that her appointment was part of an effort to address concerns raised by past controversies in the department.

"That's part of it," she said. "That was a clear message from the mayor, that he wants things done right."

The decision to remove Nunez was welcomed by Kathay Feng, executive director of the nonprofit watchdog group California Common Cause. "It sends a positive signal that [the mayor] takes ethics seriously," Feng said.

The removal is just the latest development in a controversy that has prompted Villaraigosa to order new guidelines for building permits to make sure nobody is getting special treatment based on political influence or insider status.

Nunez, appointed to the panel in 2004, is the second president of the commission removed by Villaraigosa in five months.

Former President Efren Abratique was taken off the panel by Villaraigosa in June after Abratique voted at least three times to approve permits for Psomas Inc. while that engineering firm was paying a company he headed $10,000 a year for services.

Abratique's actions were reported in August by The Times, which also disclosed at that time that nine current and former city commissioners, including Nunez, had received special treatment by the city Building and Safety Department for their construction projects.

The commissioners' projects were referred to the department's little-known "case management unit," which assigns an expediter to selected cases. The expediter then calls a meeting of all involved city departments to work out any difficulties.

Nunez is a vice president and business agent for Laborers' Local 300 and a board member with Victory Outreach Ministries of the San Fernando Valley.

In the latter role, Nunez was listed in city records as the contact person for the church project in Arleta.

On Jan. 21, 2005, just months after his appointment, Nunez participated in a conference call with Building and Safety General Manager Andrew Adelman and other top city officials, records show.

Gabriel Linares, the department's case manager assigned to the case, invited representatives of seven city departments to meetings to make sure all issues were covered, and later sent an e-mail to other officials saying he "helped ... Commissioner Nunez with planning application submittal."

Another note in the file warns department officials to "notify Andrew when meeting."

The project won city clearance on environmental issues last Nov. 16, and a zoning administrator approved a determination in favor of the project in March.

Nunez said the Building and Safety unit is "not about preferences."

"It's about reaching out and helping people," Nunez said then. "I may be a commissioner, but I don't have all the answers."

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patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

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