Unprecedented Move : Hollywood Renewal Panel Hires Law Firm
In an unprecedented act of defiance, the citizens advisory committee on Hollywood redevelopment has hired a law firm to serve as its general counsel, giving the controversial committee an independent legal voice for the first time in its dealings with the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency.
The action by the Hollywood Project Area Committee could set off a legal tug of war with the Los Angeles City Council, which some committee members say is obligated by state law to pay for the attorney.
CRA officials have opposed providing independent counsel and Hollywood-area Councilman Michael Woo said in an interview Tuesday, “My inclination is to think that it is not justified.”
Law Firm May Sue City
Before approving its contract with the Santa Monica firm of Wallin, Kress, Reisman, Price & Dilkes, the Project Area Committee was advised Monday night that the firm may have to sue the city to collect its fees, which will range from $120 to $150 an hour. Orry P. Korb, an associate with the firm, said the committee, which has no money of its own, will not have to pay its bills until the city makes the money available.
“We are confident that the PAC is entitled to funding,” Korb said later in an interview. “I am fully confident the City Council will do the right thing.”
Last fall, the committee sent a letter to the City Council requesting funding to hire its own staff, including an attorney. Committee Secretary Scott Halper said the group has never received a reply.
By hiring its own attorney, the Project Area Committee has done more than symbolically distance itself from the redevelopment agency. The attorney is expected to help meetings run more smoothly by giving legal advice, acting much as a city attorney does during City Council sessions. More important, the committee gains new leverage in its dealings with the CRA on two crucial elements of the redevelopment effort still being formulated: an urban design plan for Hollywood Boulevard and a transportation plan for the entire 1.7-square-mile redevelopment area.
In the past, some redevelopment critics have complained that the committee had little influence in shaping the Hollywood Redevelopment Plan adopted by the City Council in 1986 because it did not have its own attorneys to question and challenge the CRA’s crafting of the document. Although the committee now functions in a purely advisory role, many members believe their recommendations on the design and transportation plans will carry more weight with city planning officials and the City Council if they are couched in legal terms.
“It was a big day for me to finally get an attorney,” said committee member Doreet Rotman Hakman, a Hollywood businesswoman who pushed unsuccessfully for an attorney shortly after the committee was established in late 1983.
The Hollywood group is the first project area committee to hire its own attorney since the city got into the redevelopment business 30 years ago, CRA officials said. Traditionally, the CRA has made its lawyers available to the committees, although similar groups in other cities have hired their own attorneys.
“There are times when PACs don’t always agree with us, but we address it very openly and publicly,” said Donald A. Pelegrino, the CRA’s special assistant for community affairs. “We have never needed an attorney to mediate this. . . . This PAC seems to have its own agenda, and I am not sure what it is.”
Critics of Hollywood redevelopment, who gained control of the 25-member committee in elections in December, have long complained that agency attorneys cannot be trusted to represent both the CRA and the committee. Newly elected Committee Chairman Elaine Koenig said it creates a classic case of conflict of interest.
“If you’re getting a divorce, you don’t hire the same attorney your spouse has,” Koenig said. “It just doesn’t make sense.”
But committee members who support the redevelopment effort said they fear the committee now may be tempted to “promiscuously file lawsuits,” in the words of member Bill Welsh of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. Welsh said a litigious PAC would likely be sued itself, leaving individual members financially vulnerable.
“I am very concerned that as one of the members of the PAC who has assets, my assets would be in jeopardy,” Welsh said.
Member Michael Dubin, a developer and former PAC chairman, said he would consider resigning if the committee instructs the attorney to get involved in legal actions.
“I would have to question my own personal liability and the potential liability of my firm,” Dubin said.
The committee’s contract with the law firm specifically states that it represents the committee as a whole, not individual members, but Councilman Woo said he fears the attorney could become controlled by members affiliated with Save Hollywood Our Town, a residents group that sued to block the redevelopment project. Last week, a Superior Court judge ruled in favor of the redevelopment agency in the case.
“If SHOT decides to appeal the lawsuit, would the PAC be able to vote to enter the lawsuit as an entity unto itself represented by this attorney?” Woo asked. “This is one of the concerns I would have.”
Wallin, Kress, Reisman, Price & Dilkes has a long history of involvement in land-use and redevelopment issues. Korb said two of the firm’s partners were involved in drafting revisions to state redevelopment laws in the 1970s, and he said the firm has advised both redevelopment agencies and project area committees in other cities. The firm now represents the redevelopment agencies of Maywood and Bell Gardens, he said.
In what could be the opening salvo in the firm’s dealings with the city of Los Angeles, Korb disputed CRA assertions that the Hollywood committee expires in May unless the City Council chooses to extend its life. Although state redevelopment law states that the committee expires three years after the adoption of the redevelopment plan, Korb said in an interview that the plan itself “contemplates the continued existence of the PAC” beyond the three years.
“The redevelopment plan contains language that seems to fairly clearly allow for the perpetual life of the PAC, so long as the redevelopment plan continues in force,” Korb said.
But Kathryn Reimann, an attorney for the CRA, reads the plan differently. Reimann said the plan does not “say anything about it one way or the other,” which means the committee will expire in May under state law “unless the City Council takes an affirmative action to extend its life.”
Woo, who has said he may recommend against extending the committee’s life if its “very rowdy” members are not subdued, said Korb’s interpretation “is different than the legal advice we have been given . . . . I have been operating under the assumption that the PAC expires.”