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In La Habra Heights, llama poop leads to civic enragement

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The problems in La Habra Heights started with llama poop.

Phil and Aida Lough were so convinced their eco-friendly fertilizer — Llama Brew — was their ticket to success that they tried to entice investors on ABC's reality show, "The Shark Tank."

The investors weren't impressed and neither were La Habra Heights city officials, who sued the Loughs, saying that their animals and huge, open drums of animal waste at their home were a stinky, unsanitary mess. A Los Angeles Superior Court judge agreed and ordered the Loughs to stop producing Llama Brew.


FOR THE RECORD:
La Habra Heights: An article in the Feb. 2 California section about ongoing disputes between residents and the city of La Habra Heights said that George Edwards has gotten into physical fights with residents at council meetings. Altercations involving Edwards have occurred at a public vote-counting at City Hall and at a meeting of the La Habra Heights Improvement Assn. —


The case set off years of controversy that officials say has nearly paralyzed the small town's government.

The Loughs and a handful of local gadflies with their own agendas have filed thousands of public records requests, so many that the city had to hire additional staff to fulfill them.

City Hall limited its public hours in January because the nine full-time employees were overwhelmed by daily visits from the group. The city's finance manager quit, saying she couldn't take the stress. The city attorney announced her resignation in December.

City Council meetings devolve into yelling matches and sometimes drag on for hours.

"Everybody take a deep breath in, a deep breath out," Mayor Roy Francis said as he called a recent meeting to order. "I'm asking the people that speak today to keep it civil, to keep the names out of it."

During another recent meeting, one man looked at another man and grinned.

"What brings you down?" he asked. "Bad government?"

"No. There's nothing good on TV."

::

All the hubbub is a huge departure for a town known for its quiet locale and sprawling lots.

With a population of about 5,300, the wealthy hillside community on the Los Angeles County and Orange County border prides itself on its avocados and rural nature. Its winding roads have few streetlights and no sidewalks, and its only businesses are a private golf course and a small real estate office. One resident in its only park called it "just a bunch of mansions on a hill."

Angry about the city's meddling in his home and business, Lough unsuccessfully ran for City Council in 2011, saying he was fighting to uphold La Habra Heights' motto of "Rural Living." A self-described watchdog, he has accused the city of threatening residents, awarding contracts to friends and stifling public comment.

In November, the council limited public speaking time at meetings because the Loughs and two friends, George Edwards and Stephen Blagden — authors of local opinion blogs — spoke so often that annoyed members of the public stopped attending meetings, council members claim. The group responded by coming to a meeting dressed in black to protest the "death of free speech."

City officials, Lough said in an email, blame him and his wife "for every ill in this city, and also the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, too."

The Loughs' latest allegation is that La Habra Heights failed to provide details for hundreds of checks and did not account for at least $500,000. At one meeting, Aida Lough said the money is being funneled into a "secret bank account."

"This is government gone wild," said Phil Lough, a former high school economics teacher.

No checks or money were missing, City Manager Shauna Clark said. But an accounting technician — who was later fired — failed to list unused or voided checks in monthly warrant registers, according to city officials and documents.

The city also has created a section on its website called "The FACTS" to publicly dispute claims by the Loughs and a few other residents.

The Loughs, Edwards and Blagden have filed numerous complaints about the city with the district attorney's office.

The D.A.'s office did recently chastise La Habra Heights' Planning Commission and City Council for violating the state's open meeting laws. The council "unlawfully engaged in serial communications" away from public meetings to approve security cameras outside City Hall and the creation of the FACTS site, according to letters from prosecutors.

But the D.A. has taken no action against the city over the missing checks, city officials said. Head Deputy Dist. Atty. Anne Ingalls — deviating from a general policy of keeping complaints and their statuses confidential —said in a letter to city officials that it found no proof of missing checks or a secret bank account.

Aida Lough said in an email that the investigation "was a sham" and that they will take their complaints to state officials.

All the accusations have La Habra Heights' tiny city staff feeling under siege, Clark said.

The small group of gadflies visits City Hall nearly every day. They bring cameras, snapping pictures and posting them online. Clark said she and other officials can't even go to the restroom during public meetings without being followed.

And it seems as if the accusations never stop, Clark said. She's been accused of putting a rat in the Loughs' mailbox and abusing their children.

Edwards has gotten into physical fights with residents at council meetings and sued the city over its renovation of City Hall. Blagden regularly reports the city to the district attorney.

Then there are the public records requests. From January 2011 through Nov. 30, the city received 2,110 requests. More than half have come from the Loughs, Clark said. The city has spent more than $468,000 in staff time and expenses pulling 26,000 pages of documents, Clark said.

The city's finance manager, Rochelle Clayton, was one of the handful of employees who spent hours a day retrieving documents from a small metal storage shed behind City Hall. Each request could require a search of hundreds of documents.

Clayton said she worked weekends to try to catch up — but never could. Finally, in October, Clayton said she couldn't take it anymore. She resigned, claiming "out-and-out harassment" from citizens bent on stopping the city government.

"In my 20 years in government finance and accounting ... I've never experienced the level of bashing that I've received in this city," she said. "We can't do our jobs."

In an effort at transparency, the council voted in 2012 to put city records online and hired a deputy clerk to index and upload documents — but she hasn't done so yet because 90% of her time is spent filling records requests, officials said.

City Councilman Kyle Miller, a 15-year resident, said that when he was elected last year, he thought he could help end the polarization. Instead, he is accused at nearly every meeting of criminal behavior and backroom deals.

"When you have efforts like this where they're initiating investigations based on unsubstantiated claims and you pair that with voluminous public records requests ... that leads to massive distraction and the inability to function day to day as a city," he said.

Now, city officials fear the controversy — and the very public bashing — is starting to hamstring their ability to recruit a replacement for Clayton.

The city has spent more than $1,400 to advertise the finance manager position, but numerous applicants have been dissuaded, Clark said, after seeing online comments from city detractors and watching meetings. Because of this, the council in November approved $25,000 to hire a recruiting firm for the position.

The city is even subjected to mocking from a llama.

The Loughs' Llama Brew business mascot, Eden the Llama, frequently takes to Twitter to show her disdain for La Habra Heights.

"My cat friend is apply'g 4 the Fin. Mgr. job. He can do a great job," the llama tweeted.

hailey.branson@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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