Malibu Township Council Lawsuit Drags on as Park Swap Deadline Looms

Charmlee Wilderness Park

On Monday, Malibu City Council could finally decide whether or not to make permanent the so-called park swap—the deal trading the City of Malibu’s Charmlee Wilderness Park with the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (SMMC)’s Malibu Bluffs Park. 

The latter, with its ball fields, playground and rec center, has been host to Malibu camps and sporting events, as well as acres of hiking trails used daily by residents and visitors. Since 2013, it has been leased out to the city, in exchange for the larger, more rugged Charmlee. Charmlee Wilderness Park, located on the far western outskirts of town, has been mostly untouched in that time, used primarily as a spot for blufftop hikes and picnics, under what many residents allege has been the less-than-watchful eye of the SMMC.

The swap, which has been in place on a trial basis for the past five years, could become null if either the city council or SMMC—headed up by Joseph Edmiston—decide to pull the plug. What won’t affect the swap is a lawsuit launched by the local nonprofit Malibu Township Council, represented by Malibu Attorney Frank Angel, in April 2013, which originally set about to prove the City of Malibu made closed-door deals when it came to the swap.

“This has nothing to do with the swap anymore,” City Attorney Christi Hogin said in a phone interview with The Malibu Times on Tuesday, April 2. “That’s the part that’s so hard to understand [about] why Malibu Township Council continues to allow itself to pursue this lawsuit.”

When asked why the MTC would continue to pursue the case, Angel said that, although the swap was no longer on the table, the court battle was still worth fighting to keep the city honest and accountable.

“It’s in line with the purpose of the Brown Act—and what’s the purpose of the Brown Act? Hold local governments accountable for what they’re doing, and especially when they’re operating in secrecy,” Angel said.

Originally, the suit alleged city officials violated the Ralph M. Brown Act by “secretly negotiating” a proposal to swap 532 acres of city-owned Charmlee Wilderness Park in exchange for 83 acres of Malibu Bluffs Park. The Brown Act, an open meetings law that guarantees the public’s access to government meetings and prohibits secret meetings of government bodies, prohibits more than two council members discussing public business outside of an open forum, amid other prohibitions. 

In May 2015, the trial court dismissed the case, stating “there was no … communication that constituted a meeting under the Brown Act and that the city council did not discuss, deliberate or take action on the land swap prior to the [public] meeting.” MTC soon appealed, and in October 2017, Appellate Court upheld a decision against the MTC. At the time, however, the court determined there were three allegations made by the MTC that had not been fully addressed in the decision. Those had to do with a settlement offer from the California Coastal Commission, which was discussed in a closed session hearing in December 2012; namely, Angel and the MTC alleged the settlement offer was not a proper subject of a closed session, the item was not properly added to the agenda and the city did not properly report its actions taken in closed session. 

On March 19, a tentative decision from the trial court ruled in the city’s favor about both the appropriateness of hearing the item in closed session and the reporting of the action from closed session. The third issue—whether the item was properly added to the agenda—will head to trial.

From April 2013 to now, the ongoing legal battle with the MTC has rung up a price tag of “at least a couple hundred thousand dollars” for the city, according to Hogin—an amount both she and Angel said was wasteful. “It’s been the most expensive discovery and litigation that we’ve had,” Hogin said, on behalf of the city.

The city attorney later added that it was perplexing that the MTC would pursue the case during a time when public money was needed for things like fire recovery.

“I can’t even fathom what’s going on, because the Malibu Township Council has been such a productive and important part of the Malibu community forever,” Hogin said. “Now, we’re at a point in the city’s life where we need to come together [after the Woolsey Fire] … people are traumatized.”

Angel said the MTC made what he described as “a very reasonable settlement offer, about a year ago,” but the city refused. “They came up with such a ridiculous counter-offer, but they had the chance and now it’s kind of sad; now the taxpayers have to pay the attorney’s fees of them fighting this for a year, this motion for summary judgement, which was a real waste of time.”

According to Angel, the fight is far from over. First, the MTC plans to file a writ of mandate with the court of appeal to reverse the recent decision regarding whether or not the item should have been discussed in closed session. Then, it will undergo discovery—a period of depositions, interviews and investigation—to prepare to go back to trial on the issue of whether the item was properly added to the agenda.