City Ruling to Bar Panel Vote Ignites Dispute Over Bias

Times Staff Writer

In what is shaping up as a debate over the rights of would-be city commissioners to speak out on local issues, Los Angeles City Atty. James K. Hahn has disqualified the Planning Commission from acting on two cases because a newly appointed member wrote letters opposing the projects when he was head of a Westside homeowners coalition.

Deputy Mayor Mike Gage denounced Hahn’s rulings as an assault on the role of citizen commissions in helping to run the city. Scores of Los Angeles residents, appointed to commissions by Mayor Tom Bradley and confirmed by the City Council, help set policy and make decisions for most city departments.

The five-member Planning Commission advises the planning director and helps determine the fate of hundreds of proposed developments in the city each year.

Gage charged that the disqualifications could “have a chilling effect on one’s freedom of speech” by discouraging activists who want to be on commissions from voicing their opinions on neighborhood issues.


“People who ask for better police protection could find themselves in the same position,” Gage said. “It would suggest that all of a sudden anybody in the public, any taxpaying voter who ever speaks on anything, may never be able to serve in a government position.”

Hahn defended the two rulings, saying they conform with a longstanding policy to “avoid the appearance of partiality” by disqualifying commissioners with “perceived divided loyalties.” Under the City Charter, a commission is barred from voting on issues involving a member and the matters are automatically sent to the Board of Referred Powers, an ad-hoc agency made up of five City Council members.

Need for Open Minds

“The idea is to have people who haven’t made up their minds already on a project to come in and vote on it,” Hahn said. “It is the same as trying to select a fair and impartial jury.”


Hahn said the rulings are based on a Charter provision that allows the city attorney to disqualify commissioners when “it is not in the public interest” for them to act. While the Charter does not define “public interest,” Hahn said the city attorney’s office has relied on a 1967 interpretation by then City Atty. Roger Arnebergh, which he said has been used to disqualify other commissioners in the past.

Arnebergh concluded that commissioners should be disqualified “where the facts are such that the public might well reach the conclusion that the commissioner could not act objectively.”

Gage said the standard--as applied by Hahn--undermines a policy by the mayor to encourage citizen participation. He said the mayor’s office will have “in-depth discussions” with the city attorney’s office this week in an effort to persuade Hahn to back down. If unsuccessful, he said the mayor is considering challenging Hahn’s interpretation in court.

No Conflict Seen

“I don’t think anybody in the public feels that having a position on a particular issue that you don’t have a financial, professional or vocational interest in creates a conflict of interest,” Gage said. “People who are involved as citizens trying to negotiate a better project may frequently be in this position.”

The commissioner, William Christopher, wrote two letters cited by Hahn on behalf of the Westside Civic Federation, a coalition of 13 homeowner groups that he led for three years. Christopher, who resigned from the federation before beginning his term on the commission last month, also has asked the city attorney’s office to reconsider.

“All commissioners have personal biases which they bring to their decisions, some stated and some unstated,” Christopher wrote in a protest letter.

The disqualifications involve a proposed condominium project near the Hillcrest Country Club and the proposed expansion of the controversial Westside Pavilion shopping mall. In both cases, Christopher opposed zone changes needed for the projects. Christopher said he wrote more than 100 letters to city agencies in his three years as head of the Westside Civic Federation and has served on many other civic organizations.


Several homeowner leaders, who had praised Bradley for appointing one of their own to the influential commission, said Hahn’s rulings drastically alter the dynamics of Christopher’s appointment.

Instead of gaining a new voice on land-use issues, homeowners could find themselves increasingly appearing before the Board of Referred Powers, an agency they see as more concerned about politics than good planning.