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Break up the family

Don Knabe is a county supervisor, and his son, Matt, is a lobbyist. They should keep their careers separate.

February 05, 2007

WHEN BROWNING-FERRIS Industries needed a permit for the Sunshine Canyon landfill in Granada Hills in June, the company had a powerful weapon: lobbyist Matt Knabe, the son of county Supervisor Don Knabe. And the senior Knabe made the difference, casting the deciding vote in the 3-2 split in favor of his son's client.

Now BFI is coming back, this time to seek county approval for an increase in the amount of garbage it takes in, under a proposal already signed off on by the city. (Sunshine Canyon straddles the city limits.)

Matt Knabe's company, Englander & Associates, is no longer on board and is not lobbying Don Knabe. That all ended last year. So there's no problem. Right?

Wrong. If Don Knabe again casts the swing vote for BFI, he will be following a course set last year when the family-lobbying-voting tie was in place. If the supervisor votes against BFI, it looks like he only sided with the company in the first place because of his son. He's in a tight spot, but one of his own making.

Don Knabe should have recused himself in June, and he should abstain now. His son has every right to make his living as a lobbyist, and his son's company has every right to represent clients in front of the Board of Supervisors. But close familial ties boost the perception that county government is an inside job, with all the details worked out over the breakfast table. It's up to elected officials, like Don Knabe, to keep the government above suspicion.

BFI is just one of several companies that hired the son's firm last year to take business to the Board of Supervisors. Matt Knabe told The Times that his father gives him no special treatment, and that may well be true. But the public shouldn't have to just take his word for it.

Los Angeles County already operates as a kind of family, closed and secretive, suspicious of outsiders and indignant when its integrity is called into question.

Not long after Don Knabe was elected in 1996, for instance, he and his colleagues were astonished to discover that they were being asked to sign off on a legal settlement that would mean nearly $1 million in attorney fees -- to the son of the board's lawyer, who just happened to run the office that recommended the settlement.

Legal? Perfectly. Common? Yes. Acceptable? Never. The county, like other government entities, must run at arm's length. The reputations of both lobbying and government have suffered enough without throwing family connections into the mix.

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