Legislation to Ease Conflict Rules in Signal Hill Gains

Times Staff Writer

A bill prompted by a dispute in the small city of Signal Hill cleared its first legislative hurdle Tuesday despite complaints from critics that it would undermine state conflict-of-interest regulations for public officials.

Under state Fair Political Practices Commission regulations, local officials automatically must disqualify themselves from voting on any development within 300 feet of real estate they own, including their homes, because of the potential for a conflict of interest.

The legislation, sought by Signal Hill, would exempt a public official's principal residence from conflict-of-interest requirements.

The Senate Governmental Organization Committee approved the measure Tuesday on an 8-0 vote and sent it to the Appropriations Committee.

May Not Have the Time

Officials of the FPPC opposed the legislation as too broadly drawn and said it could lead to other changes in the conflict-of-interest statutes. Lilly Spitz, a commission lawyer, described the potential impact of the bill as "like setting a toe into some quicksand."

Sen. Robert G. Beverly (R-Manhattan Beach) introduced the bill on Monday. With only four weeks remaining in the 1989 legislative session, it is unclear whether Beverly will have the time to maneuver the measure through the legislative process. Because the bill would amend the state Political Reform Act and Beverly wants it to take effect immediately, all action will require a two-thirds majority.

Beverly, whose district covers Signal Hill, said he is pushing the proposal partly to spur the commission to reach a compromise with Signal Hill.

Beverly said that three of Signal Hill's five City Council members and two of its Planning Commission members live near two proposed developments, which would add 1,300 residential units to the city.

Prohibited From Voting

These officials are prohibited from voting on any item affecting these developments because of regulations issued last year by the political watchdog agency, Beverly said. "Merely by virtue of your residence . . . you should not be guilty of a conflict of interest," Beverly told the committee.

Because the 2-square-mile hillside city lies in the middle of an oil field, much of its land is undeveloped. The housing developments would take up the bulk of remaining vacant land in the city of 8,400.

FPPC Chairman John Larson told the committee that the commission has spelled out procedures for cities to handle such extreme cases.

He said the Signal Hill City Council may conduct a random drawing among the trio of council members who were disqualified. Along with the remaining two members, the person whose name is drawn would make up a quorum of the council to review the development projects, according to an analysis by the committee.

According to the committee analysis of the bill, Signal Hill officials say that other communities are also penalized by the regulations "because it is difficult for a locally elected official to avoid conflicts no matter where he resides in the city."

Beverly said he believes the city of Avalon on Santa Catalina Island has faced a similar problem. Also, the FPPC last year determined that three planning commissioners and two council members in Monterey Park had to disqualify themselves from major zoning changes because their homes fell within areas under review or in close proximity.

Larson said he was in sympathy with Signal Hill's dilemma, but he maintained that the dispute could be resolved through changes in his commission's regulations or through a narrowly tailored bill to lift conflict-of-interest restrictions for officials in small cities like Signal Hill.

"The smaller cities do pose a problem," he acknowledged, noting that the Signal Hill situation was unique because a majority of the council faces a potential conflict.

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