Dissenting Planners Lose in Struggles With City Councils : Outspoken Commissioner Ousted, Panel’s Numbers Cut in Arcadia
As city officials put the final touches on an ambitious plan to alter the commercial and retail face of east Arcadia, some residents fear that the City Council is attempting to muzzle independent voices in the lively debate over development in the conservative bedroom community.
The concern has been registered in sometimes angry letters from residents to the local newspaper after the council refused last month to reappoint an outspoken member of the Planning Commission and, soon after, cut the advisory body from seven to five members.
Many residents protested the two acts as a thinly veiled ploy to control the commission and reduce it to a rubber stamp. In fact, so many letters were written that Arcadia Tribune Editor Dick Singer was forced to cancel his weekly column, “City Lites,” so he could publish them all. Singer called it the “hottest issue” to hit town in years.
It all began in May when the council approved a small retail development at the southeast corner of Santa Anita Avenue and Huntington Drive. Because the project satisfied code requirements within a redevelopment zone, only the council had a say in the matter.
But commission members, concerned over the possible proliferation of similar so-called “mini-malls,” suggested that the city adopt a multilevel review process including the commission and, in the interim, consider a moratorium on such development.
When Councilman Roger Chandler picked up his Sunday newspaper May 17, he was outraged that the commission had even broached the subject of a moratorium. Chandler is part of a new council majority in favor of more retail and commercial development in a town whose slogan has long been a “community of homes.”
This new sentiment is reflected in two redevelopment projects in east Arcadia that will be completed sometime in 1988 and bring two major hotels, including a Marriott Residence Inn, and several restaurants and office buildings to the area.
“When the word ‘moratorium’ appears on the front page, I take that very seriously,” said Chandler, a 20-year resident of Arcadia and a lieutenant with the Sheriff’s Department. “I thought it was an irresponsible act.”
Chandler focused his ire on Gary Kovacic, a Los Angeles land use attorney and an outspoken member of the commission, who had requested city staff to study the wisdom of adopting a moratorium. At a May 19 council meeting, Chandler read a prepared statement that called Kovacic a “grandstander who burdens the Planning Commission with his self-indulgence.” He vowed to vote against Kovacic when his four-year commission term expired in June.
In back-to-back meetings last month, the council rejected a motion to reappoint Kovacic while voting to restructure the commission from seven to five members. Two members had resigned, one because he had served the maximum two consecutive terms and the other because he moved. Councilman Dennis Lojeski dissented in both votes.
Touched a Nerve
The actions touched a nerve rarely seen in normally staid Arcadia.
In one of a dozen lengthy letters of protest written to the Tribune, Edward Butterworth, a former councilman and school board member, reminded elected officials that the appointment of “thinking” men and women to boards and commissions formed the underpinnings of model local government.
“The kind of people that citizens of Arcadia want on their boards and commissions are intelligent, independent-minded men and women with the courage of their convictions,” Butterworth wrote. “Such people will not want to serve on a board or commission if they must first toady up to the whims and caprices of the City Council.”
Kovacic, who served one term, said two issues were underscored by the council’s failure to reappoint him. He said his visibility on the commission and frequent quotes in the newspaper frightened some council members who incorrectly perceived him as a political threat. More important, he said, the ensuing debate pointed to the need for a second level of government to review commercial and retail development in town.
“A lot of cities require mini-malls to go through a conditional use permit process,” he said. “We don’t have that kind of process right now. Projects can escape review by the Planning Commission and receive only cursory design review by the City Council.”
Political Motive Denied
But Councilman Robert Harbicht said neither politics nor a basic difference over future development played a role in the council’s actions.
“I’m a conservative. I believe in simplicity in government,” Harbicht said. “That’s why I voted to reduce the commission from seven to five members. There was no good reason to have seven. Most other cities have five.
“As for Kovacic, I wasn’t voting against him so much as I was voting for someone else. I thought Tom Clark was the better man.”
Two weeks ago, Clark, who served on the Planning Commission in the 1970s, was appointed to the fifth post.
But Councilman Lojeski said Kovacic was an exemplary commissioner who had a perfect attendance record and gave the commission a different perspective as a land use and condemnation attorney. Lojeski said the failure to reappoint Kovacic and the restructuring of the commission were attempts by the council to reassert control over the commission.
“I think the issue here is freedom of expression and the role and independence of the commission,” Lojeski said. “Yes, the commission serves at the whim and will of the council. But does that mean that it should be a rubber stamp?”
Dave Szany, a local architect who serves as commission chairman, said the board’s action has already had a chilling effect on the body. “Everyone keeps their opinions to themselves at the last few meetings,” he said.
But Szany said council members were only reacting out of a strong belief that the city needed to remain committed to slow but steady and responsible development.
“This City Council ran on a platform of redevelopment and more construction and better growth,” he said. “They felt the word ‘moratorium’ would handicap the city and send a wrong message to developers and builders. I think the council just panicked a little bit when the word popped up.”