Outside counsel, inside cable occupy council agenda

In a move that surprised many, City Attorney Christi Hogin told the Malibu City Council she was withdrawing her request to hire an attorney to investigate alleged violations of the city’s election code.

Last month, Hogin asked the council to approve an agreement with Roger Brown, a lawyer with extensive experience in local government and politics. Staff supported his hiring, but council members Carolyn Van Horn and Walt Keller asked Hogin to answer certain questions. When the matter came up again Monday, Hogin said she was no longer asking to hire Brown. She told the council she had reconsidered whether he was the best person for the task. She also stated the Road Worriers, the Political Action Committee named in the allegations, had filed an amended report that may clear up some of the allegations.

When she made her announcement, people in the audience asked why. Even though no action would be taken, the council decided to hear testimony from the 18 citizens who had filled out cards to speak on the issue. Many were affiliated with the Road Worriers.

“This City Council should not go along with this kind of political hatchet job,” said attorney Frank Angel, who called the investigation a “sinister crusade.”

“Give these people a public apology,” said Gene Wood. “This is a community that doesn’t need this kind of ugly discussion.”

Instead of unity, “I’m hearing more divisiveness,” said Marissa Coughlan, who spoke in defense of the investigation. Coughlan also said she heard a threat against the city attorney.

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Some residents said they felt the city should not be involved with the allegations at all; rather, they should be handled by the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission. “We regulate campaign contributions,” said Hogin. “That is simply not done by the state.” Hogin said it was possible to violate the city ordinance without violating state law.

Hogin said she would utilize other sources, possibly the Sheriff’s Department, in her investigation. She said the city did not have a contract with the District Attorney’s office to prosecute city code violations.

In other business, the council approved a Rate Order for Falcon Cablevision. Consultants provided analysis of accounting records supplied by Falcon and told council members the study found Falcon was overcharging by $2.14 on its basic service and by $1.12 on its wire maintenance. The consultants recommended the council move forward with an adjustment of the cable provider’s rates, stating if the council took no action, the city could lose any potential refunds.

During public comment, residents voiced their concerns and complaints about Falcon. “Please take action tonight,” said Marilynn Santman. “I think it’s imperative.” Santman told the council that residents of Thousand Oaks pay $40 a month and have more than 200 channels from which to choose.

Efrom Fader said his rates went up 18 percent in 1996 when the industry average rose only 9 percent.

Nidia Birenbaum, a local producer and actress who uses the community access channel, told the council she is frequently asked if she works for the cable company. “What I hear is how high the rates are and how lousy the service is,” Birenbaum said.

Her husband, attorney Sam Birenbaum, told the council Malibu and Stanford, Conn., pay the highest rate for cable in the nation. As an example, he said Malibu residents were charged $10 more than the rest of the nation for the most recent Mike Tyson fight.

Susan Booker, regional manager for Falcon Cable, confirmed that the company received the Rate Order today (Thursday). “We haven’t had a chance to review it,” she said. “If we do appeal it, it will be up to the FCC to decide.” She indicated Falcon Cable will respond to the order within seven days.

Councilman Tom Hasse asked if anyone representing Falcon was in the audience. No one responded. “I think that actually speaks volumes about the services provided,” he said.

The Rate Order proposal passed with a vote of 5-0. Falcon will have seven days from that action in which to submit its own calculations. “We’re going to go into their books,” said Councilman Harry Barovsky. “We will have the meetings. We will hear what you have to say. This is just the first step in a series of steps.”

Also at the meeting, the council drafted an official definition for the word “deck”: “An open porch or platform projecting from a structure or freestanding of which the surface area is used to move or stand on.”

In March, the council denied a variance request by a Malibu Road resident who had plans to construct a platform that would extend 3-1/2 feet beyond the stringline. The matter went to court, which ruled a definition of deck must be established and applied to the case.

Planning staff had recommended the following definition: “Deck – A platform with a minimum depth of 5 (five) feet, used for outdoor activities such as sitting, barbecuing, parties, etc. A deck may be attached to a structure or free-standing. Where a platform does not exceed a depth of five (5) feet, the deck shall be the deepest portion of the platform.”

In his staff report, Planning Director Craig Ewing stated that, under the current rules, the platform proposed for the Malibu Road location is considered a deck. Under the proposed definition, the platform would be excluded and a more projecting corner would be used for the stringline.

Barovsky said a platform of less that four feet does not constitute a deck at the beach.

Mayor Joan House suggested going beyond the staff’s minimum depth recommendation and setting it at 6-1/2 feet. “People always say ‘Come over and sit on my deck.’ They don’t say ‘Come over and stand on my deck,'” House said.

“I have a problem with defining the size, picking out a number,” said Van Horn. “I think that’s arbitrary and I think it’s going to lead to further extension of the stringline.” Keller also said he would not support it.

Hasse offered an amendment to the proposal that eliminated staff’s definition and included his, without a depth requirement.

Keller, Van Horn and Hasse voted in favor of the amended resolution, House and Barovsky opposed it. The definition will be sent to the court this week for review.

The council also voted to table a proposed ordinance that would amend the city’s motorized water craft regulations to prohibit launching of small motorized vessels from the private beaches near Surfrider Beach. The proposed ordinance was introduced because of safety concerns and slated to be adopted on its second reading Monday night. Instead, it was tabled when the new lifeguard said he did not support it. The matter will not be put on another agenda unless requested by a council member.

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