A possible conflict of interest arises when a homeowners association’s attorney admits to hiring a city advisor to review a parks plan. The plan is up for review on Tuesday.
By Jonathan Friedman / Assistant Editor
A city advisor’s ethics are being questioned after it was discovered he was paid by a homeowners association’s attorney to review the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy’s parks enhancement plan just days after he submitted comments to the city on the project. City leaders on Tuesday evening were still looking into the legal ramifications of the incident.
Steve Amerikaner, an attorney for Ramirez Canyon homeowners who oppose the SMMC’s project for a variety of reasons including its call for overnight camping in the area, admitted Tuesday to having hired Shane Parker, a member of Malibu’s Environmental Review Board. But he said there was nothing wrong with that because the hiring came in early August, at least a week after Parker had submitted comments to the city as a member of the ERB.
“I have no reason to think that Mr. Parker has breached his ethical or legal duties as a member of the ERB,” Amerikaner said. “He’s a principled and dedicated public servant.”
Parker is a vice president at Christopher A. Joseph & Associates, an environmental planning consultant firm. When contacted on Tuesday, he denied being retained by Amerikaner to review the parks plan at all.
“I’ve worked for him in the past,” Parker said. “And that’s all I have to say about this one.”
Mayor Jeff Jennings, who said he had not heard about the situation until contacted by The Malibu Times on Tuesday, said the situation made him uncomfortable.
“You can’t have people review a project, and then go be hired by somebody whose interested in it, any more than Amerikaner can hire me after I vote on the project,” Jennings said.
The mayor added, “How do I know he didn’t make his comments to the city knowing he would be hired by Amerikaner?”
Jennings would not say whether Parker should be removed from the ERB or if his comments for the council must be taken out of the official record because he wanted to gather more information about the matter.
City Manager Jim Thorsen said Tuesday evening that city officials would be addressing the issue, and that he was in communication with City Attorney Christi Hogin about whether Parker’s comments could be allowed. When asked if an ERB member could be hired by a private entity with a stake in a project reviewed by that board, Thorsen said, “No.”
Hogin did not immediately return a call for comment.
Meanwhile, SMMC Executive Director Joe Edmiston said Parker has “contaminated the process.”
“If this was a state issue, the attorney general would be all over this guy’s [expletive],” Edmiston said.
The ERB is composed of persons with various scientific and environmental backgrounds. It is asked to review major projects and those that have significant environmental issues. The Planning Commission and the City Council use the board members’ comments in the decision process. Parker did not actually make any oral comments at the ERB meeting in July on the parks plan, but rather submitted written ones for the record.
The parks plan is scheduled to go before the Planning Commission for a review on Tuesday. The proposal involves the enhancement of the SMMC’s parks at Ramirez, Escondido and Corral canyons. It also includes development at the city-owned Charmlee Wilderness Park, and the creation of a trail system that connects several national-, state- and Malibu-owned parks. The proposal comes in the form of an amendment to the city’s Local Coastal Program. It will require approval by the City Council and the California Coastal Commission. This is in contrast to a version of the plan proposed last year, which would have skipped the entire city process and only require Coastal Commission review.
Much of the plan still involves many elements that led to a great deal of hostility from Malibu residents last year. The most controversial item is the plan for Ramirez Canyon, which includes the creation of overnight camping grounds. Many Ramirez Canyon property owners have repeatedly stated they are opposed to overnight camping in the canyon because of fire risks and the fear that emergency vehicles would have a difficult time getting there to control fires.
SMMC officials say they have mitigated the possible fire concerns through various methods including the presence of large water supplies, banning the use of campfires and using specific materials in the development.
“If somebody is a pyromaniac, they’re going to be able to figure out a way to start a fire,” Edmiston said. “But what we’re hoping to do is avoid the accidental ignition.”
The other disputed element of the proposal is the creation of overnight campsites at Charmlee Park. This feature was not included in last year’s plan. Previously, the SMMC had proposed camping at Escondido Canyon. But the city and SMMC’s staffs made the switch after a series of negotiations following the threat of both entities to sue each other.
There are several other features of the project.
The Planning Commission meeting will take place at City Hall at 6:30 p.m. The staff report and other details of the project can be accessed online at www.ci.malibu.ca.us.