Homeowner Groups Critical : Development Is Issue in Finn's Election Bid

Times Staff Writer

Howard Finn is the man lobbyists for developers want to see first at City Hall.

The gray-goateed, 67-year-old former builder is only a freshman Los Angeles city councilman, but as chairman of the council's powerful Planning and Environment Committee, Finn is the person the full council looks to before deciding what kind of development will be permitted in the city.

Finn says he often meets privately with lobbyists--such meetings are legal--to try to bring about compromises that would allow their clients to build while protecting the environment.

Some environmentalists and homeowner groups, however, contend Finn is doing the bidding of developers, many of whom have contributed money to his political campaigns.

That accusation has emerged as the major issue in Finn's campaign to win reelection April 9 in the northeast San Fernando Valley's first councilmanic district, which has the most undeveloped land in the city.

'Infuriated Us'

"He has infuriated us by his support of developers," said Dorothy Green, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the League of Conservation Voters, which endorsed Finn's 1981 campaign but this year is backing one of his three opponents, Noel Horwin.

Finn, nonetheless, is favored to win reelection.

His three challengers are Louis Cichelli, a Sunland painter; Elton (Skip) Michael, a Sunland police officer; and Horwin, a Shadow Hills public relations man. None of the three has raised enough money to send a campaign mailer to the district's 196,386 residents, a strategy that is considered a necessity for winning election in the sprawling, 66-square-mile district, the city's largest geographically.

Finn contends the criticism of him comes mainly from a small group of Westside "elitists" who, he says, are upset over his vote for Occidental Petroleum's plan to drill for oil in Pacific Palisades.

His support of the drilling project, one of the main reasons cited by conservation voters for withdrawing their endorsement, doesn't appear to have caused him much political trouble. At half a dozen candidates' forums, he has yet to be asked about the project, which is miles away from his district.

3 Hostile Crowds

But Finn has run into hostile crowds at three candidates' forums. Residents have accused him of promoting excessive development.

Finn contends the forums are "setups," stacked by supporters of his opponents to make him look bad. He has gone to the forums against the advice of several of his colleagues, who say he should not give his opponents an opportunity to attack him. "It goes with the job," he said.

The forums are made up of homeowners upset with Finn's decisions on a few issues that affect only their small section of the district. In appearances before other groups, Finn has been received cordially.

"I've made about 5,000 zoning decisions," Finn said. "Out of 5,000, there aren't more than half a dozen that have created a dispute. I think that's a pretty good record."

A former Democrat turned Republican turned registered independent, Finn is a mild-mannered man who prefers to talk about mundane matters like garbage and sewage rather than politics. He is, nonetheless, not a political novice, winning his prized committee post in return for his vote that helped elect Pat Russell as council president. The council president makes the committee assignments.

Well-Liked on Council

Well-liked by his colleagues, Finn rarely engages in the vicious personal attacks that sometimes characterize council debates. He has kissed Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores on the cheek at every council meeting since the two were elected in 1981. They developed the kinship, said Finn, because they started out at the same time and pretty much agree philosophically.

Finn's colleagues also like him because he appears to have no political ambitions that conflict with their own.

"He's comfortable being a councilman," said Councilman Art Snyder. "He's not thinking about when he's going to be mayor, city attorney, state senator. . . . "

"What's delightful about Howard is that here's a guy who has wanted this job for a long time," said former Councilman Bob Ronka, whom Finn succeeded in office. "He doesn't want anything else. He's just happy being a councilman."

On the other hand, some of Finn's proposals are considered "odd, to say the least," according to one member of Finn's staff who asked not to be named.

Safety Seat Proposal

Finn proposed, for example, that police be required to carry children's safety seats in their patrol cars for sale to drivers that they stop for not having the required child-passenger restraints. He also proposed that the police be required to hand out "complaint forms" to arrested suspects to comment on their treatment by officers. Both proposals were rejected by the council as impractical.

He raises legitimate issues, the anonymous staffer said. But his proposed solutions "come out of left field."

Finn is especially close to his wife, Anne. During 44 years of marriage, the couple have spent only a few nights apart. That was when she was in the hospital giving birth to their three daughters, who are now adults. When he recently checked into the hospital for minor surgery, she spent the night with him.

Anne Finn accompanies her husband to every political function. Unlike the councilman, she is outgoing. During a recent candidates' forum, she blurted, "Baloney," when one of her husband's opponents suggested that Finn had proposed placing a toxic-waste disposal facility in the district. Finn remained silent, politely waiting his turn to speak.

Finn's greatest impact at City Hall has come as chairman of the three-member Planning and Environment Committee.

Finn and fellow committee members Robert Farrell and John Ferraro sit through hours of public testimony on development issues, then make recommendations to the full council.

Issues that come before the committee might involve a single project, such as whether to allow a liquor store in a residential neighborhood. Or they can have citywide impact, such as a proposed law to prohibit existing adult businesses within 500 feet of churches, schools and homes.

The chairman is considered powerful because he decides when an issue comes to the council. Councilman Marvin Braude recalls that, a few years ago, he proposed a moratorium on high-rise development on Ventura Boulevard. Braude said then-committee Chairman Art Snyder "kept the file (containing the proposed moratorium) in his desk" long enough to allow a number of high-rise developments to move forward before the council could approve the moratorium.

The chairman also can influence council decisions through his presentation of the merits of a case to the council.

Courted by Lobbyists

That's why Finn is courted by developers and their lobbyists.

Some of his colleagues contend Finn has become a tool of the special interests.

"I think Howard is too close to Latham and Watkins for his own good," said a fellow council member who spoke on the condition that his name not be used. Latham and Watkins is a downtown law firm whose members include a number of City Hall lobbyists.

Finn recently presented a proposal to the council designed to bring the city's zoning into compliance with community land-use plans, which require substantial reductions in the size of proposed buildings all around town.

His proposal would have provided for a number of exemptions, which prompted Councilman Marvin Braude to remark, "That sounds like Randy Stoke's language." Stoke is a member of Latham and Watkins.

Lobbyist's Help

Much of the criticism stems from one highly publicized incident last year in which Finn introduced legislation written with the help of a lobbyist.

The measure removed the threat of a building moratorium for Westwood favored by homeowners. It required developers to pay into a fund used to widen the streets, theoretically easing the traffic congestion caused by the new buildings.

Homeowners complained that the legislation was prepared without their knowledge and they were not given an opportunity to counter it.

Finn said in a recent interview that the legislation was his idea. He acknowledged meeting privately with the lobbyist to see if he would accept the legislation as a compromise. But, Finn added, he holds similar meetings "all the time" with environmentalists and homeowner groups.

Took Much 'Heat'

Westwood's councilman, Zev Yaroslavsky, who opposed the legislation, said Finn "took much more heat on that than he should have."

Although he is still angry with Finn for breaking the council's custom of deferring to his wishes as the councilman for Westwood, Yaroslavsky said the chairman has "done a good job on balance."

"Ty Cobb only batted .400, and he's in the Hall of Fame," Yaroslavsky said, noting that he and Finn have disagreed on only a few issues.

Finn receives mixed reviews from leaders of homeowner associations who appear before his committee.

"He's definitely pro-development," said a homeowners' activist who asked not to be named.

'Instrumental' in Compromises

However, Richard Close, president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Assn., called Finn "instrumental in bringing homeowners and developers together to make compromises on proposed projects."

"He's chummy with me, and I'm not a developer," said Close.

"I don't think you could characterize him as pro-development or pro-environment," he added. "He's pragmatic."

In his district, Finn has been sharply criticized by his opponents for failing to take a position on development along the banks of the Tujunga Wash, a natural channel that winds through much of the district.

Many environmentalists and homeowners oppose any development along the wash, contending it would destroy the scenic, rural character of the area.

No Plan Filed Yet

Finn has said that no application for development has been filed with the city, and, "until I know what there is, I can't make a judgment." He said he is pledged to protect the flood plain part of the wash, and has asked county flood-control officials to determine just how large that area is.

But Finn also has pointed out that the banks of the wash are owned by individuals who have a legal right to develop them.

Finn was born on Sept. 20, 1917, in Holyoke, Mass. When he was 14, his family, which had operated a grocery store, came to California in search of new opportunities.

Finn received a bachelor's degree in chemistry from UC Berkeley, but got his first job as a statistician, studying human migration into California for a federal agency.

Worked in Military Intelligence

When World War II broke out, Finn worked in Britain as a civilian in military intelligence. He was involved in economic warfare, buying supplies the enemy needed.

After the war, Finn returned to California and started building homes.

In 1977, he was appointed by Mayor Tom Bradley to the city's Board of Zoning Appeals.

After unsuccessful campaigns for the City Council in 1973 and 1977, he upset a veteran politician, former Assemblyman Jim Keysor, to win the council seat vacated by Ronka.

He considers among his top accomplishments his efforts leading to establishment of a one-stop building permit processing center that he contends will reduce housing costs.

Finn's Opponents

Noel S. Horwin, 45, is past president of the Shadow Hills Property Owners Assn. and a public relations man. He is the son of former Beverly Hills Mayor Leonard Horwin and ran unsuccessfully in 1976 for the Democratic nomination for the congressional seat won by Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson (D-Tarzana). He has raised about $6,000 and has been endorsed by the Los Angeles chapter of the League of Conservation Voters. In campaign appearances, he has repeatedly attacked Finn for seeking to place a toxic-waste transfer station, where hazardous materials would be gathered for transport to a permanent disposal site, in the district. Finn has denied making such a proposal. Horwin also pledges to vote against any development along the Tujunga Wash and opposes the proposed property-tax increase to pay for additional police. He favors rent control and opposes Metro Rail. He holds a bachelor's degree in humanities from Claremont Men's College and is married.

Elton (Skip) Michael, 46, of Sunland is a 23-year member of the Los Angeles Police Department now assigned to the West Los Angeles burglary detail. He finished fourth in a field of nine candidates in the 1981 council race won by Finn. He also was the losing Republican opponent to state Sen. Alan Robbins (D-Van Nuys) in 1982. Michael, who has raised $2,000 for his campaign, has accused Finn of favoring developers and other special interests who have contributed to his campaigns. Michael opposes a proposed property-tax increase to pay for more police. He opposes rent control and Metro Rail. He holds a master's degree in public administration from USC. He and his wife have four children, ages 16 to 22.

Louis Cichelli, 65, of Sunland is a painter making his first run for public office. Of his campaign, he said, "I have spent a total of $300 of my own money, and that's all I expect to spend." A registered Democrat, he said he decided to run because city painters earn twice as much as he does for doing the same work. If elected, he said, he would cut salaries for city workers. He opposes the proposed police tax. Instead he favors a tax on new development to pay for more police. He supports rent control but has no position on Metro Rail. He finished high school but did not attend college. He is married with four children, ages 14 to 32.

Finn's Record

Citywide Issues

Police Tax--Declines to take a stand on the June ballot measure that would raise property taxes to pay for additional police until he sees a study on where the officers will be deployed.

Rent Control--Opposes rent control.

Metro Rail--Supports the proposed downtown-to-Valley subway.

Smoking--Voted for a measure restricting smoking in the workplace.

Fraud Hot Line--Sponsored legislation establishing a hot line for taxpayers to use in reporting waste of city funds.

Drunk Drivers--Won council support for resolution calling on the state Legislature to require restaurants to place warnings on menus showing the number of drinks it takes to get the average person legally drunk.

District Issues

Liquor--Sponsored legislation making it tougher to open new liquor stores. The measure was in response to heavy concentration of liquor stores in Pacoima.

Burbank Airport--Broke ranks with his Valley colleagues by supporting an agreement under which the airport authority would try to reroute flights away from Los Angeles city neighborhoods and fly over Burbank and Glendale instead. In return, the city agreed to drop a lawsuit seeking to block construction of a new airport terminal. Other Valley council members contended the agreement accomplished nothing because the Federal Aviation Administration, which has the final word, rejected previous requests to reroute flights. An aide to Finn contended that the city, which had lost its court case and was deciding whether to appeal, could accomplish more by working with the airport authority.

Horse Keeping--Sponsored legislation that protected horse owners from encroachment of new housing. Because of a law that prohibited corrals within at least 75 feet of homes, many equestrians had to give up their horses when new homes were built nearby. Finn's legislation empowered a city zoning administrator to grant exemptions to the law.

Battering Ram--Called on the Police Department to establish guidelines for use of its battering ram used to break down suspected "rock houses" where cocaine is sold in rock form. The weapon touched off controversy when it was used for the first time in February to break into a house in Pacoima.

"Finn Car"--Used funds from his office budget to provide temporarily for one additional police car in Sunland-Tujunga.

Foothill Transit--Obtained funding for a dial-a-ride van serving the area along Foothill Boulevard.

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