Single 'No' Vote Can Scuttle Some Alhambra Redevelopment Projects

Times Staff Writer

After a developer recently presented a plan to build a shopping center on Main Street, a lone voice was heard.

"I have a problem," began Barbara Messina, a member of the city's redevelopment agency board. Moments later, at her suggestion, a proposed 43,000-square-foot supermarket in the shopping center was expanded to 48,000 square feet.

Next on the agenda was the redevelopment of a Main Street lot near 5th Street. One developer proposed a seven-story hotel and another wanted to build a restaurant and retail complex. Two board members had given their blessings to the hotel when Messina again spoke up.

"I have a problem," she began. Minutes later, the board voted 2 to 1 to approve the hotel, but the project was rejected because Messina dissented.

Those decisions by the redevelopment agency highlight an unusual situation in which often only three of the five board members can vote on projects because of potential conflicts of interests by the other two members.

In Alhambra, the five City Council members also serve as the city's redevelopment board. Two City Council members--Talmage Burke and Mary Louise Bunker--often must abstain because of their real estate holdings in the city.

3 Votes Needed

And because the board's rules require three affirmative votes on most redevelopment issues, any one of the three still able to vote in essence has veto power.

"It's a shame that city government gets down to veto power," said Dick Nichols, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce.

Messina has exercised that veto power the most often on major projects, such as the Main Street shopping center that city officials say they hope will be the key to revitalizing downtown.

On a 2-1 vote, whoever votes no "is the bad guy," Nichols said. "That's a shame."

'Unfortunate or Fortunate'

Messina conceded: "Lately, I've been the die-hard 'no' vote. It's unfortunate, or fortunate, however you want to look at it, that these decisions need a unanimous vote."

Even when she goes along with the majority, Messina has been able to parlay the potential veto into a powerful tool. On the shopping center project, for example, Messina agreed to select a developer favored by two colleagues only after they agreed, in writing, to a list of conditions that she wanted.

The conditions specified the type of upscale shopping center that she envisioned and required the agency to reimburse Watkins-Garrison, a developer she had favored, for the time and money it spent working on a proposal that did not work out.

"I don't think we've ever done that with any other developer," agency member Michael Blanco said.

A single no vote not only can kill a development proposal, it can lead to delays as the board members search for alternative projects.

"The problem with delays (is) the cost of things generally go up, so everything we do ends up costing more money," Blanco said.

The process is expensive for developers, who spend thousands of dollars on architectural drawings, site plans and environmental reports, said James Holmes, a senior vice president of Far East National Bank.

The threat of a rejection makes it riskier for developers and business owners to attempt projects in the city, Holmes said.

"We have had developers who are now looking elsewhere," he said.

Tempted to Move

Janet Cheng, president of De Beau Investment and Development Inc., wants to stay in Alhambra but said it is getting so difficult getting projects approved that she is tempted to move.

Cheng and her husband, Michael, own the old Woolworth building and had wanted to open an upscale department store there before deciding on a restaurant and sporting goods store instead. She said they gave up the department store idea because the agency took too long to approve the project.

Parker Williams, a former agency and council member who is an investor in the hotel proposal rejected by the board, said the solution to the three-vote requirement is simple.

"In a case where everyone has to agree, they have to come up with a way to agree," Williams said. He said the voting members first have to decide what type of projects they would all like to see developed.

Board Has Final Say

But agency member Boyd Condie said it is not prudent for the board to tell developers exactly what it wants built.

"There are a lot of elements that have to be taken into consideration," he said. Although the board has the final say, it is up to the developer to propose what is economically feasible, he said.

Burke, one of the members who most often must abstain on redevelopment votes, owns two major parcels near redevelopment areas. His home, where four generations of Burkes have lived, is on one parcel. His law office, where he has worked for 40 years, is on the second.

"What am I to do?" asked Burke, who represents the 4th District. "Move to another part of the district?"

Bunker, who owns two apartment buildings three blocks from Main Street, said the state conflict-of-interest guidelines are strictly enforced by City Atty. Leland Dolley.

Conservative Attorney

"We have a very conservative city attorney" who does not want agency members to be accused of making decisions that benefit them financially, she said.

Getting a quorum is even more difficult when more than two of the members own property in the area.

In the case of the shopping center project, for example, Dolley determined that four of five council members had potential conflicts of interests. In Blanco's case, it was his law office on Main Street, and for Messina, it was a condominium she and her husband own on North Chapel.

Burke, Bunker, Blanco and Messina drew straws, as permitted by state law, to determine who could cast the second and third votes. Blanco and Messina were selected to vote, giving Messina a major voice in choosing the developer.

Disqualifications of three or more council members may occur even more frequently now that Messina and her husband own a restaurant on East Main Street, a few blocks from the shopping center project. If a conflict should arise, Messina said she will disqualify herself, forcing the board members to draw straws.

Potential Conflicts

Councilman Condie, who owns a home in the city but in his five months on the board has not had to abstain from redevelopment votes, said he believes that residents should not discourage candidates owning significant property from running for office.

"I think while they have potential conflicts, they have tremendous interest in the city," he said of council members Burke and Bunker. "I see both of them as wanting to do things for the city."

Although critics say the three-vote requirement has slowed progress and made it difficult to develop property in the city, Messina said she believes that residents' interests are being protected.

"I'm not anti-development," Messina said. "You can't be anti-development if you're going to be a thriving city. I've been for quality development, sensible development." Messina said that what she wants are well-constructed buildings, with good landscaping, that blend in with surrounding neighborhoods.

At the same time, Messina said she believes that state conflict-of-interest laws are more restrictive than necessary. The voting abstentions are mandated by the state Fair Political Practices Act for agency members and other public officials.

Minimize the Harm

Messina said that under the law, her husband, Michael, who owns Messina Development Co., is not allowed to be involved in Alhambra projects. The company handles mainly out-of-state projects and has no development in Alhambra, Michael Messina said.

A spokeswoman for the Fair Political Practices Commission said the 15-year-old political reform law serves an essential role.

"The purpose is to minimize the harms resulting when you have a conflict of interest, but the idea is not to paralyze government either," said Sandra Michioku, a spokeswoman for the commission.

Michioku said that although the commission sets guidelines on the required quorum, it is up to local agencies to decide the number of affirmative votes needed for approval. She said the agencies have the power to change their own rules.

When Williams was on the agency board, that was what he tried to do. In May, 1988, he proposed that the agency change its bylaws so that a 2-1 vote would be sufficient to approve projects.

Changing the Rules

However, changing the agency's voting rules would have little effect because most redevelopment projects also need three votes by the City Council. Four council votes are needed if the city is to acquire property through condemnation.

"As a practical matter it wouldn't work," said Mike Martin, director of the redevelopment agency. It is possible to change council rules, but that involves amending the City Charter, which must be approved by the voters, he said.

Martin said that although the three-vote requirement has made it more difficult to get projects approved, it has not halted development.

Referring to the Main Street shopping center and other projects that are under way in the city, Martin said: "Obviously we've been doing it, so it's not that tough."

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