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Couple, Cited by Fabric Care Board, Join Cry for End to Agency

Times Staff Writer

The incident, at the time, seemed innocuous enough. Beryl Eiseman said he had simply forgotten to obtain a state license to legally handle the $10 worth of dry cleaning he was taking in a day at his recently opened laundry business.

Eiseman, owner of Pride Cleaners at 916 N. Coast Highway in Laguna Beach, said he was more concerned with trying to get his finances back in order after losing $600,000 in two years on other dry cleaning establishments. He was simply trying to generate a little business, he said, and didn’t think to obtain the proper license from the state Board of Fabric Care, the agency that regulates the dry cleaning industry.

“I’m not stupid; I’m just forgetful,” Eiseman said last week as he and his wife, Florence, 55, talked about the “nightmarish” ordeal they said they have endured the past seven months because of the citation he received last Sept. 1 for operating without a license.

“We were just taking in about $10 worth of dry cleaning a day . . . if that much,” Florence Eiseman said. “This was just a dirty, crummy little place when we bought it” in July.

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The Eisemans, who entered the dry cleaning business in Orange County in 1974 after moving from Northern California, said they were not trying to pull a fast one on anyone, least of all the Board of Fabric Care.

“One day this guy (a state agent) comes in out of the blue, identifies himself and tells me I’m operating without a license,” Eiseman said. “I say, ‘By golly, I am. I hadn’t even thought about it.’ ”

Eiseman, 64, was cited for operating without a valid dry cleaning license, and after months of haggling with a judge and the district attorney’s office, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge, paid a $300 fine and an additional $220 in court costs. He also was placed on two years’ probation, which, he said, was especially difficult for him to accept because, up until that point, he had had no criminal record.

Eiseman still cannot legally take in dry cleaning at his Laguna Beach laundry operation, and, he said, he has lost at least $7,000 in business the past seven months because the Board of Fabric Care says it can’t issue him or his wife a dry cleaning license.

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Suffice it to say that the Eisemans are fighting mad. They have joined the effort to have the board abolished and are vocal supporters of a bill pending in the Assembly to dissolve the $900,000-a-year agency. They have passed out handbills, called other dry cleaners in the area and spoken at meetings about their situation.

The bill by Assemblyman Ross Johnson (R-La Habra) to abolish the Board of Fabric Care passed the Assembly’s Consumer Protection Committee last week and must clear one more hurdle before the entire Assembly votes on the measure.

Predictions are that the bill probably will pass in the Assembly but may die in the Senate. The upper body is already considering two bills by Sen. Herschel Rosenthal (D-Los Angeles) that are at odds with Johnson’s bill. One of Rosenthal’s bills, which have already received committee approval, would expand the board’s authority and the other would change its name to the Board of Dry Cleaning and Fabric Care.

Johnson’s bill marks the sixth legislative attempt to abolish the board since its creation in 1945.

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Constituent Complained

Johnson drafted the bill in response to a complaint lodged by a constituent, Joe Kaska, 76, who has operated Ritz Cleaners in Anaheim for 40 years. Kaska was jailed last year for violating the board’s bonding requirement.

Kaska had allowed his bonding to lapse in 1983 when the City of Anaheim informed him it was tearing down his building at 307 E. Old Lincoln Ave. to build a housing project for the elderly. The state board later told him he was not in compliance with the law, but Kaska claimed the board never helped him get new bonding, as he had asked.

Kaska later obtained the bonding on his own, but he was told he still needed retroactive bonding for the five months he was not in compliance. The issue went unresolved for a year until agents paid a surprise call on him last May 4 and arrested him. Kaska spent six hours in the Orange County Jail, but the case was eventually dropped when he refused to plead guilty to the misdemeanor charge.

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Michael J. Siegel, the board’s executive director, later admitted that Kaska’s case could have been handled more diplomatically and that jailing him had been unnecessary.

Still, Johnson went ahead with his measure to dissolve the state board. Since Kaska’s jailing came to light, the assemblyman has engaged in a running battle with the board, calling it a “useless piece of bureaucracy.”

Board, Critics Disagree

The board, under Siegel’s direction, last year began to enforce state regulations more stringently than in the past, even revoking a license for the first time in 10 years. But critics maintain the board’s new get-tough demeanor is based solely on its interest in staying alive.

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But Siegel said that is not the case, adding that Eiseman is only suffering the consequences of breaking the law. Siegel also said that Eiseman has a “history of bad record” with the board and that it is up to the attorney general’s office to determine whether Eiseman is eligible for another license.

“The fact that he pleaded guilty is further evidence against him,” Siegel said in an interview from Sacramento.

Siegel said that Eiseman, who owns another dry cleaning business in Dana Point, was in violation for “three or four years” for failing to renew expired licenses at four other locations he owned until last July. Siegel said board action could not be taken against Eiseman for those violations because he sold those businesses before Department of Consumer Affairs’ agents could cite him.

But Eiseman says the board has failed to recognize the difficulties he was having just trying to stay afloat financially last year and maintains that those difficulties are the only reason he lost sight of when to renew the state licenses for the money-losing businesses.

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‘I Lost $600,000'

“I couldn’t keep track of all the damn places,” he said. “I lost $600,000 in two years’ time. I was in a hell of a mess. Isn’t that enough reason for them? I told them all that in a letter, but they don’t read letters. Reasons don’t mean anything to those people.”

Robert Stansberry, executive director of the Sacramento Valley Dry Cleaning Assn., is a former Board of Fabric Care supporter who also thinks the state agency should be abolished. He has championed the Eisemans’ cause, even venturing to Southern California to help them organize support to defeat the board.

He said “it doesn’t make sense” for the board to subject the Eisemans to so much scrutiny before determining whether to extend them a new license, especially since Eiseman has paid for his mistake.

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“This is an example of another crazy thing being done by the board, just like the Joe Kaska case,” Stansberry said in an interview. “What is the big mystery of dry cleaning that requires so much regulation? Supply and demand is the proper way to police the industry.”

Stansberry, a former director of the California Fabricare Institute, the industry’s trade association, also criticized Siegel and the board for being overzealous in their enforcement of possible violations. He said the board is trying to make up for past ineffectiveness.

“I think they’ve gone from sound reasoning to trying to create statistics,” he said. “It’s a self-serving interest . . . life-line grabbing, nothing else.”

Money Mailed, Deposited

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Meanwhile, Eiseman says he can see no good reason why the board will not issue him a license for the Laguna Beach establishment.

His attorney, Michael Goode of Laguna Niguel, said that all he has been able to determine is that the board has referred Eiseman’s case to the state attorney general’s office. Goode said he cannot find out from the attorney general’s regional office in San Diego what the status of the case is or when it might be resolved.

“They (the board members) are horsing around with him (Eiseman) because he is fighting to get the board abolished,” Goode said.

Immediately after he was cited last Sept. 1, Eiseman mailed a $60 check to the board for a new license. He said he never received a response of any kind from Sacramento.

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After he pleaded guilty last Jan. 27, he decided to have his wife apply for the license on her own. She mailed a money order with the application. The board turned her down, advising that a license for her could not be approved while her husband’s case was still being reviewed by the attorney general’s office.

“They accepted all our money, but they haven’t sent us our license. They’re keeping us from making a living,” Eiseman said.

Application for Other Address

Siegel, however, said that the board, by law, had to process Eiseman’s check and the money order accompanying Florence Eiseman’s license application and deposit them in a state Treasury account.

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“We can’t hold onto money,” he said, “but we can’t issue a license to anyone for the same location while a case is still pending.”

Although Eiseman admitted he decided to have his wife try to obtain a license “when I saw I wasn’t getting anywhere,” he said her application actually is for the part of their establishment at 914 N. Coast Highway where they would handle dry cleaning. He was cited for operating without a license at 916 N. Coast Highway, technically another address. They now handle only laundry at the 916 address.

Florence Eiseman was cited on March 4 for the same violation her husband was charged with. She refused to sign the citation and probably will be summoned to court later, just as her husband was months after he was cited.

“That’s not right,” Eiseman said. “She shouldn’t be punished because of me. That’s an entirely different matter.”

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Anger at Board Expressed

Florence Eiseman is even more adamant in her anger at the board.

“What happened to Florence Eiseman’s license, that’s what I ask,” she said. “They have no right to do this to me. If I get my license (eventually), I’ll spit in their faces and open my business.”

Despite her wrath, Florence Eiseman said the board has done some good. “Their health and safety regulations are wonderful. I just don’t like the heavy-handedness of their agents,” she said.

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Florence Eiseman says the couple’s problems over the past seven months have affected her health, making her nervous and giving her insomnia.

“We’ve been through a lot of anguish the past seven months, a lot of sleepless nights over this,” Eiseman said. “Florence has especially been affected by it.”

But he vowed to continue to work to persuade other dry cleaning owners to rally in support of Johnson’s bill.

“I’m going to continue to fight this. I’m not going to let this sleeping dog lie,” Eiseman said.

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