Residents who oppose the City Council’s proposed swap of Charmlee Wilderness Park for Malibu Bluffs Park this week questioned whether city officials acted improperly in negotiating the outlines of an agreement before publicly discussing the swap at a council meeting Jan. 14. One city official branded the accusations as nothing more than sour grapes from residents who want only to submarine the deal.
At a town hall gathering held by activist group Preserve Malibu Sunday at the Point Dume Club to discuss the swap, multiple speakers alluded to two meetings that took place before the idea of a swap was discussed at a council meeting Jan. 14. The speakers alleged that the meetings may have been a violation of the Ralph M. Brown Act.
“Who authorized all these meetings before it was even brought before the public?” Diana Mullen said.
The first meeting happened in early December when Mayor Lou La Monte and Mayor Pro Tem Joan House first asked Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy head Joe Edmiston to lunch in early December after House came up with the idea to swap Charmlee for Bluffs as a possible way of obtaining more land for athletic fields.
The Brown Act is what is known as a “Sunshine” law, which guarantees the public’s access to government meetings and prohibits secret meetings of government bodies.
Jonathan Kotler, an expert on the Brown Act who teaches at the University of Southern California, said hypothetically if House and La Monte had been acting on behalf of the city, they would have been in violation.
House said the lunch was planned as a way to float an idea out to Edmiston.
“It was just an idea,” she said. “That’s all we had, is a concept.”
An email written by Edmiston on Dec. 21 to the SMMC’s board of directors said that he came away from the lunch with “the framework for a comprehensive solution to many of the issues between Malibu and the SMMC.” Some contend the email implied that House and La Monte set up a deal with Edmiston before discussing the trade in public at Jan. 14’s council meeting, a claim which, if true, Kotler said would have violated the Brown Act.
“That’s a heck of a lunch,” former Malibu Mayor Walt Keller said at Monday’s council meeting.
A second meeting was set up between City Attorney Christi Hogin, City Manager Jim Thorsen and the SMMC’s legal team on Dec. 20 after Edmiston told House and La Monte he was open to the possible deal.
City Attorney Christi Hogin maintained that the council members did everything by the book. Many of the opponents to the swap are serial critics of the council on a wide range of issues, and Hogin argued that they were only trying to muster up reasons to prevent the deal from being considered at all.
“This is just snipers who are coming in not because they think it’s done wrong but because they don’t want it to happen,” Hogin said. “To try and cast aspersions on how the idea was presented seems to be unnecessary.”
But Keller, a docent at Charmlee who vehemently opposes the deal, said the issue was the council members not letting the public in on it.
“It’s not a matter of us making a fuss about it, it’s how the council is going about it,” he said. “They went about it without knowing the facts themselves, about how much usable land they would have at Bluffs, the chance of camp sites at Charmlee. They hadn’t really looked into any of that before they approached Joe Edmiston.”
From a technical standpoint, Malibu City Council policy number 8, adopted in 1997, says that a majority of the City Council would have needed to direct Thorsen and Hogin to be at that second meeting.
“The City Council shall assign staff work through the office of the City Manager or the City Attorney as the case may be. All work assigned shall be determined by a majority of the City Council at a meeting of the City Council,” the policy states.
“How were the city manager and city attorney authorized to have this meeting when the other three council members had no knowledge of the swap?” Keller said.
“No one needed to direct us,” City Manager Jim Thorsen told The Malibu Times. “If there’s a request from the meeting and we’re interested, we’re going to meet. It was just a mutual request to work out some of the potential details.”
House, who sat on the council that adopted that policy, said the intent of that policy was to prevent frivolous use of staff time and save the city money, and was not relevant to this situation.
“That policy came about years ago when council members would make direct requests to city staff and end up taking up hours of staff ’s time,” House said. “Now, these types of things have to be run by the city manager and not staff.”
Hogin also served as city attorney when the policy was adopted.
“Some of those policies were written based on specific experiences,” she said. “Do you really think that the City Council directs every moment of their manager’s time?”
Planning Commission chair John Mazza, who opposes the swap, said regardless of intent, the rule should be followed.
“Council passes policies, they should follow them,” Mazza said. “If they don’t want to follow it, they can change the policy.”