Jumping to conclusions

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    It’s sort of like waiting for the other shoe to drop. You know it’s going to happen, but you don’t know quite when, and when it finally does happen, it always catches you by surprise.

    It started quietly enough at the opening of Monday’s City Council meeting. Malibu City Attorney Christi Hogin announced in a most ordinary voice that she was resigning her post after nine years of service, that she was sadly taking leave of Malibu and that this Friday, June 18, would be her last day. Then, Walt Keller, Carolyn Van Horn and Tom Hasse dutifully thanked her for her years of dedicated service and wished her good luck in her future endeavors.

    It wasn’t until it got to Joan House and Harry Barovsky to make a comment that evidence of the tremendous battle that had been waged for months by Keller, Van Horn and Hasse to get rid of Hogin spilled out into the open.

    When House said, if this is a “resignation,” it gives a new definition to the word, the council audience perked up. It was clear something was up, and this choice by Christi Hogin may have been more like a push than a voluntary jump.

    But it was Barovsky who insisted they announce that this departure was costing the city a $227,000 package and that it was anything but unanimous, because both he and House had voted against it.

    At that point, Keller began to get agitated, Van Horn patted him on the arm and he stopped, and the three just stared blankly off into space as if this was all new news to them.

    It was actually very old news. I first heard rumors about this move to remove Christi Hogin before the last council election, in April 1998. The Kellers, for reasons known only to the Kellers, wanted Hogin gone and the sooner the better. But they didn’t have the votes, and to get the votes, talk was, they cut a deal. Supposedly, first Keller and Van Horn agreed to support Hasse, and Hasse only, in his bid for the council, which is what Hasse wanted. He, in turn, supposedly went along with the deal for their sole support. Van Horn also had something she wanted desperately and that was to run for council next time as the sitting mayor. I was told she was absolutely obsessed with the idea, and the only way that would happen is if they shortened everyone’s mayoralty term to eight months, which they ultimately did, and she was in. They had the three votes to oust Hogin.

    But then something happened. The campaign investigations began. Perhaps the three were fearful of inquiry, so they temporarily backed off firing her but kept the pressure on. The intention was, I suspect, to make life unbearable in hopes that ultimately she would quit. But Christi Hogin was made of sterner stuff. Despite an orchestrated campaign, continuous round of assaults at the council meetings, hostile letters to the editors, continuous adversarial personnel evaluations meetings, moves to require her do things like keep time records and trying to block her vacation, she didn’t break.

    Somewhere along the way, the word “harassment” began to appear, and the Keller-Van Horn-Hasse axis began to realize that it might be vulnerable, so it brought in help. The three hired an attorney, Nancy McClelland, from the firm of Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher, to give them help, initially without consulting either House or Barovsky. McClelland is by profession an employment lawyer but by inclination a firewoman, and apparently quite a good one, because her job was to come in and put out the fire before it turned into a conflagration. That meant she had to negotiate a deal with Christi Hogin before this turned into very nasty and expensive litigation. That’s what she did. The price was $227,000, which is the price the people of Malibu are paying to give Walt Keller, Carolyn Van Horn and Tom Hasse a city attorney they get to hand pick.

    The urgency wasn’t just that they didn’t like Hogin. I’m guessing it was tightly tied into these campaign investigations and the prosecution by the city of Malibu of Remy O’Neill and the Road Worriers. Keller, Van Horn and Hasse want this city prosecution ended. Look for them to pick a new city attorney whom they know and trust to do just what they want done. The case against Gil Segel and the Malibu Citizens for Less Traffic on PCH is something else altogether because it’s being run by the California Fair Political Practices Commission, and their reach may not extend that far.

    I think there was also a fear that they’d better make the deal now, hunker down and take the flack, and it will be ancient history by the next election. The fear was, if it continued on, it might spill over into the next council election in April 2000, when Keller, Van Horn, and Jo Ruggles are rumored to be running, along with House.

    This battle is far from over. You can see lawsuits in the future and other governmental agencies sniffing around.

    Stay tuned for the next installment, which, I’m guessing, will happen sooner rather than later.