City funding for Rambla project delayed

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In other news, city staff will hold a public meeting on issue of public right-of-way, and council debates cost of its PR firm.

By Jonathan Friedman / Special to The Malibu Times

Malibu City Council members at their Monday night meeting offered their sympathies to residents living on and near Rambla Pacifico Road, who have been trying to replace a destroyed portion of the road for nearly 30 years. But the council members were unable to offer any money as the residents had requested due to legal issues.

City Attorney Christi Hogin said she and City Manager Jim Thorsen would continue to speak with the leadership of the Lower Rambla Pacifico Road Homeowners Association to find a solution.

Mayor Jefferson Wagner had placed an item on the agenda to give the homeowners group $200,000 toward its private road project that will cost more than $3 million. This would lower the amount of money homeowners would have to pay per household for the project that will reestablish a link between the northern and southern sections of Rambla Pacifico. The link was destroyed in a 1984 landslide, and has forced drivers to take a long route to get home. But more importantly, it has lengthened the time for emergency vehicles to access the area.

This is a private project because the city cannot build a road over an active landslide. The Planning Commission approved a permit for the gates proposed for the 1,800-foot-long, 20-foot-wide road last month.

A large number of area residents and supporters from other portions of Malibu spoke at the meeting. Several residents said they were struggling to come up with the money for the project, and said anything the city could do to lower the cost would be helpful. The total amount homeowners will need to pay will not be known until it is determined how many will pay into the project.

Hogin said the law is clear: The city cannot put money toward a gated road. She said one idea would be to remove the gates from the project, but that is not possible because they are needed since this is a “substandard road.”

“[The project] seems uncontroversial here in this chambers, but it only takes one plaintiff,” said Hogin about why the city cannot just ignore the law. She noted this road has been the subject of litigation previously, one of the reasons the issue has not been solved for so long. Hogin continued, “Beyond that, we are a land of laws, not of passions only. And so we do have to take that into account. There are ways to cut a path where none have gone before.”

The council members said they would support funding for the project, they just need to figure out a way to legally do so.

“It is a safety issue,” Councilmember Lou La Monte said at the meeting. “It is completely a safety issue. And somehow we have to find a way to help you because you are our neighbors.”

Also at the meeting, the council instructed city staff to hold a public meeting for residents on Busch Drive about the issue of private items extending onto the public right-of-way. According to a city staff report, private items encroach onto the public street “from simple vegetation and tree plantings to installation of structures such as large mail boxes, driveways, retaining walls, irrigation systems, and fences.” In the long term, the city would like to put sidewalks or some sort of path on what many consider to be a dangerous street for pedestrians. The public right-of-way must be cleared to do this.

Mayor Pro Tem John Sibert said the city could begin by forcing homeowners with smaller items to clear them. Hogin said this was not possible because the city could not “pick and choose.” She said it would also encourage people to install major items in the right-of-way.

The council also approved a six-month contract extension for Fiona Hutton & Associates, which has been doing public relations work for the city since last July. The contract is for $8,000 per month with a 30-day termination clause. Public Safety Commissioner Susan Tellem told the council the contract should go out for a competitive bidding process. Tellem, who runs her own public relations firm, said she believes other firms would do the work for much less money. Councilmember Pamela Conley Ulich also said she would like a competitive bidding process, and she questioned the city’s use of a public relations firm.

“It concerns me that we are paying a PR firm $8,000 a month to spin,” she said. “And where I come from, actions speak louder than any words. And I am really pleased how this city has acted … it’s our job to be the communicators, not the PR firm. And I’m concerned that staff is having the PR firm speak, and not the people who were elected.”

Several council members agreed that a competitive process should be done, but this was not the time to do it. The council voted to do one when the next renewal comes up. The ban on septic systems in central Malibu will go before the State Water Resources Board this fall, and Hutton has been working on defending Malibu’s position against the prohibition. Council members said it would be unwise to make a change at this time.

“This is not the right time to change horses on that one,” Sibert said. “We’re dealing with the state water board, regional water board and a number of people in Sacramento. Fiona’s organization has been great at doing that. And that’s an important part of the public relations you don’t see by what’s in newspaper articles.”