Downey Vote Leaves Councilman on Panel

Times Staff Writer

The City Council rejected a proposal Tuesday that would have called on Councilman James S. Santangelo to resign from the Downey Redevelopment Commission because he has a potential conflict of interest as a real estate businessman.

About 150 supporters and opponents of the embattled councilman packed the council chambers and yelled angrily when the council voted 3 to 1 to table the resignation proposal by Councilman Randall R. Barb. Barb voted no and Santangelo abstained. A call for Santangelo's resignation would have been only symbolic because the council has no power to force his ouster.

The council also tabled Barb's request that the city withdraw its legal support of Santangelo, who faces trial next Tuesday on a misdemeanor conflict-of-interest charge in connection with his 1984 vote to expand the city's redevelopment district. The city has spent more than $20,000 on his defense, an official said.

Santangelo chastised his council colleagues for not allowing him to speak before the request was tabled. In a speech after the council meeting, Santangelo called Barb's attack a "cheap shot."

Barb also said he was disappointed the council did not consider calling for Santangelo's resignation from the commission.

Barb requested Santangelo's ouster last month, the day after a state appellate court found Santangelo had a conflict of interest when he voted to expand the redevelopment district. Santangelo owned property in the expansion area at the time of the vote. He has since sold the property, but still owns other parcels in the city's original 125-acre redevelopment district along Firestone Boulevard.

The Dec. 7 ruling by the 2nd District Court of Appeal upheld a lower court decision that invalidated the expansion.

Barb argued that Santangelo would not be able to vote on future redevelopment issues, eliminating a fifth, or tie-breaking, vote. He also said taxpayers should not bear the expense of criminal defense.

Councilman Robert G. Cormack moved to table the items, and Mayor Diane P. Boggs seconded the motion and immediately adjourned the meeting.

"With the trial just being at its beginning stage, anything that we do is going to make it awkward for due process to occur," Cormack said in an interview. "I didn't think it was right to even discuss it (Santangelo's resignation), whether it was right or wrong."

Said Boggs: "I have said all along that it's the city's responsibility to defend Mr. Santangelo."

After the meeting, Santangelo addressed the crowd and several supporters followed with speeches declaring their allegiance.

"Mr. Barb has already tried, judged me, found me guilty and sentenced me," Santangelo said. "How dare you, Mr. Barb." Santangelo said the city has an obligation to defend officials who incur legal problems from their official duties.

Santangelo also said his potential conflict of interest would not hinder the city because few issues result in a tie vote. City Atty. Peter M. Thorson said the city would seek advice from the state Fair Political Practices Commission on when Santangelo would be required to abstain from deciding redevelopment issues. Santangelo owns a Downey real estate business, which the appellate court indicated could present further conflict-of-interest problems.

Santangelo, whose term expires in June, said he would seek reelection.

About two-thirds of the crowd clapped loudly and gave Santangelo a standing ovation when he finished and left the council chambers.

Several Santangelo supporters told the crowd the councilman had a record of being fair. In addition, they said few citizens would be willing to run for City Council if they knew the city would not provide legal defense.

Barb said the meeting should not have been adjourned without council debate.

"I had two very simple issues," he said. "I'd like to deal with them."

In the weeks leading up to Tuesday's meeting, Barb apparently lost enthusiasm for his attack on Santangelo.

On Dec. 8, Barb called for his colleagues to request Santangelo's resignation from the City Council because the city had spent a "tremendous" amount of money defending Santangelo as well as the ill-fated redevelopment plan.

Downey has spent more than $267,183 on its own legal expenses, and by court order has paid $218,221 in attorneys fees to Downey CARES, the group of property owners who sued to stop the redevelopment expansion.

In addition, city officials estimate Downey has lost $4.6 million in property tax revenue it would have received over the next 26 years if the expansion had not been invalidated.

By the time the item was up for consideration Tuesday, Barb was asking only that the council request that Santangelo resign from the Redevelopment Commission. Council members sit on the commission to decide redevelopment issues. But the council must also approve discounted land sales--an incentive cities use to attract developers--and the establishment of new redevelopment areas.

After Tuesday's meeting, Barb denied that he had softened his position despite official transcripts of the Dec. 8 meeting, which confirm that he called for Santangelo's resignation from the council.

Barb declined to say if he would now vote for Santangelo's resignation from either the council or the Redevelopment Commission.

Barb also appeared to tone down his request that the council stop paying Santangelo's legal bills.

"Criminal fees should not be borne by the taxpayers in any criminal proceeding," Barb said. But Barb added that the city should pay the councilman's legal expenses if he is found innocent.

Meanwhile, Santangelo accused Barb of a conflict of interest because he voted to approve a city budget that includes spending for the Police Department and voted to appoint Police Chief Pete Stone last year. Barb's wife, Jodelle, is a Downey police officer.

Barb said he abstained from deciding whether to approve raises for police personnel, but he acknowledged he did vote to appoint Stone, who could promote his wife.

"Our city attorney in the past has stated that's not a conflict," Barb said.

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