Park swap proposal still on despite legal threats

In apparent defensive maneuvering ahead of a future lawsuit, the Malibu City Council voted unanimously Monday to rescind its Jan. 14 vote to explore a controversial parkland swap with the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (SMMC), then voted to authorize City Attorney Christi Hogin to restart negotiations.

Hogin maintained the rescind and revote could serve as a legal defense should civic group the Malibu Township Council (MTC) file a lawsuit against the city.

“I’m not trying to play games, I’m just trying to offer you the opportunity to create another defense to a threatened lawsuit, that’s my job,” Hogin told the council.

But legal representatives for MTC said the vote was an empty measure. The group has accused the city of violating open meetings laws relating to the swap and threatened a lawsuit demanding a stop to all negotiations.

“The [vote] does nothing to let the sun shine on the City Council’s challenged actions,” said Jessica Cheng, an attorney working with MTC attorney Frank Angel. “If even the city attorney admits that her proposal has no real impact beyond … appeasing MTC, how could such a proposal actually cure the complained-of actions? The proposed solution is the equivalent of curing cancer with a sugar pill: It is no cure.”

At issue is a proposal to swap 532 acres of city-owned Charmlee Wilderness Park in western Malibu in exchange for 83 acres of Malibu Bluffs Park controlled by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (SMMC). MTC alleges that a majority of the council—Mayor Lou La Monte, Mayor Pro Tem Joan House and Councilman John Sibert—were illegally aware of a potential swap before it was discussed in public on Jan. 14, in violation of the state’s Ralph M. Brown Act, an open meetings law.

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MTC, through Angel, delivered a letter in March demanding the city rescind its vote, cease all negotiations and agree not to place an item related to the swap back on an agenda until all swap-related documents and records from city officials had been made available to the public.

The threat led the council, in what Hogin previously described as a “courtesy” to MTC, to vote 5-0 Monday to rescind its Jan. 14 decision to enter swap talks with the SMMC. But in a related vote minutes later, the council again directed Hogin to negotiate swap talks and city staff to continue its fact-finding.

After the vote, Angel said he would recommend MTC press forward with a lawsuit.

After submitting a California Public Records Act request along with the MTC’s demands letter to the city March 8, Angel confirmed he had received copies of all swap-related correspondence and records last week from City Manager Jim Thorsen, Sibert, La Monte and Hogin, but none from House, one of the swap proponents. House said she had no written records to hand over.

Several council members called the allegations a distraction and a fruitless maneuver that would only prolong staff ’s research process on whether more ball fields can be built at Bluffs Park and whether fire safety concerns can be addressed by the county at Charmlee.

“The MTC supporters want things to slow down because they don’t like even the possibility of this swap,” Rosenthal said.

The city is far from making a decision on the swap, La Monte said, despite arguments from opponents it was essentially a “done deal” when La Monte and House first approached the SMMC in December.

“I know more about this issue probably than any of you out there and I don’t have enough information to make a decision,” La Monte said Monday.

The proposal has drawn the ire of many residents who fear an increased wildfire risk if SMMC installs campsites at Charmlee, while others argue the park is a prized asset the city should retain. Proponents of the swap, including youth sports coaches, maintain that city jurisdiction over Bluffs Park would allow for the construction of several sports and recreational facilities, which they believe the city lacks.

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The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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