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Lawndale: Take a Number to Fight City Hall

Times Staff Writer

When the Lawndale City Council met last week it was business as usual:

-- A city recreation commissioner, Nancy Marthens, called for a grand jury investigation of the city because of recent municipal scandals, including the city’s loss of $1.68 million in a speculative securities investment.

-- City Manager Daniel P. Joseph, saying that alleged embezzlement by two city maintenance workers could have been avoided if the city had provided supervision, won council approval for a major reorganization of Lawndale’s municipal services.

-- Belatedly realizing that an amnesty plan adopted by the council in July was overly broad, the council decided to give final approvals only to residential projects where the city Planning Department improperly issued building permits. An attorney representing the owner of a commercial project excluded from amnesty Thursday indicated that he plans to sue the city for selective enforcement.

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‘Inflammatory Statements’

-- Councilwoman Carol Norman accused Councilman Larry Rudolph and Planning Commission Chairman Gary McDonald of “breaking and entering on private property,” of leaking confidential information to the press and “making inflammatory statements to the press in opposition to council action.”

Rudolph and McDonald, both irate, said they inspected a private construction site with the owner’s permission; they cited First Amendment privileges in giving information to the press. Rudolph replied to Norman: “Either press charges against me or shut up.”

-- In his usual high-decibel manner, resident Steve Mino claimed that the city acted illegally in ignoring an initiative enacted by Lawndale voters in the 1960s requiring voter approval for changes in the General Plan. Shouting at the council, he said the city acted improperly in following a state attorney general’s opinion declaring the wording of the initiative unconstitutional.

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Threat to Remove Speaker

-- Mayor Sarann Kruse threatened to have removed from the council chambers developer/attorney Jonathan Stein, who gave contributions to help reelect her rivals on the council in April. She declared him out of order when he persisted in giving unrelated testimony during a public hearing on a new building-height ordinance. Stein accused the mayor of attempting to stifle public opinion.

While this series of skirmishes might be enough to keep another city busy for months, it all occurred during one 6 1/2-hour marathon meeting Thursday night. Rather than an anomaly, the meeting was typical of what they have become in Lawndale--contests in which issues sometimes get lost in personality conflicts.

“It’s all ego and personalities,” said one source who did not want to be quoted by name.

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“I think that on the council there’s a tendency to put the substance of issues aside because of the animosities that exist between members of the council,” said City Manager Joseph, who took the helm at City Hall in June. The city has become polarized, he said. “Unfortunately, there is very little cohesiveness and people are working against each other. There is no team here.”

In protracted twice-monthly sessions that often extend past midnight, City Council members wrangle among themselves and their appointed commissioners, “airing their dirty laundry in public,” as one disgusted resident put it in an interview Friday. She no longer attends the meetings because they are so distressing, she said.

Frequent 3-2 vote splits demonstrate power struggles in which Councilmen Harold E. Hofmann, Dan McKenzie and Rudolph often prevail over Mayor Kruse and Councilwoman Norman.

A political cartoon in the Daily Breeze recently depicted Hofmann, Rudolph and McKenzie as the blind leading the blind. Hofmann, Rudolph and McKenzie were shown tapping their way in dark glasses and canes, with a figure representing Lawndale City Hall trailing behind. “It is a power struggle where the people are secondary and the power is primary,” said former Mayor Jim Ramsey, who served on the Planning Commission from 1967 to 1974 and on the council from 1974 to 1986.

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“The only difference between now and then is that Sarann is on the short end of the stick, being on the end with two votes instead of the end with three,” he said.

In past years, Kruse could usually count on support from McKenzie and Hofmann to win approval for favored projects, Ramsey said. Now, he said, alliances have shifted and McKenzie and Hofmann often side with Rudolph against Kruse.

Ramsey said Lawndale’s climate of animosity derives from the electorate’s decision in 1982 to create an elected mayor, even though the job carries no extra power other than running the meetings. Before that, council members rotated the mayoral title each year.

“That way, there was a balance of power,” with every council member knowing he or she would get a chance at wielding the gavel, Ramsey said.

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Kruse, who has served on the council since 1976 and was the city’s first (and so far only) elected mayor, denied that the elected-mayor issue triggered today’s divisiveness.

“In the mid-1970s things were more tranquil,” she said. “There were some personality conflicts--between myself and Jim Ramsey, for example--but we didn’t get into shouting matches and degrade each other publicly. We were not tearing the city apart as is happening right now.”

With the emergence of a triumvirate on the council that has allied itself with maverick Planning Commissioner Gary McDonald, she said, “It’s almost like having a kangaroo court in Lawndale.”

Gave Press Names

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Kruse and Norman have publicly criticized as unfair a recent instance in which McDonald gave reporters the names of city employees suspected of embezzling by charging private building materials to the city. Revelations before city and law enforcement officials could investigate might jeopardize the city’s case and subject the city to litigation, they said. Norman called the disclosure vigilantism.

McDonald angrily defended his investigations and public disclosures at Thursday’s meeting. And in the case of the suspected embezzlement, the city attorney found enough evidence of wrongdoing that the district attorney agreed to investigate.

McDonald was not available for comment on Friday.

In an interview Friday, Rudolph defended McDonald’s zealous, if unorthodox, investigations and said he would make no apologies for his and McDonald’s efforts to ferret out problems at City Hall.

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Kruse said that in addition to conflict within the council, the city is besieged by criticism from residents, which she said is “making a laughingstock out of this city.”

“The activities of some citizens in council meetings and the comments made at our meetings are totally unbelievable,” she said. “Thank God they’re in the minority and don’t represent the rest of the public.”

Nancy Marthens, who attends practically every council meeting and usually presents a laundry list of allegations against the city each time, said she views the adversarial climate in Lawndale as a reflection of the council. Kruse and Norman are frustrated, Marthens said, because they so often are thwarted by the council majority.

“A shift of power occurred sometime before the last election,” she said. “It went from the mayor having the three votes necessary (to prevail) to the other three being in the majority.”

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Rudolph said that there is some support on the council for calling a grand jury investigation to clear the air. But council members are worried about the impact of such an investigation on the city’s lawsuit seeking to recover the $1.68 million from brokerage houses that handled the disastrous 1987 investment, he said.

Rudolph said he, for one, would welcome a grand jury inquiry. “It would be one more black eye at first, but then everything would be out in the open and could be cleaned up,” he said.


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