Lancaster's planning director has taken a job as a vice president of a development company whose controversial 2,400-home development proposal in semi-rural western Lancaster was approved by the city last month.
Community Development Director Steve Harding said Friday he will leave his $72,500 post May 7 for a substantially better-paid post as vice president and project manager with The Larwin Co. of Encino, developer of the 885-acre Del Sur Ranch project that received final council approval March 5.
The switch, which comes 14 months after Harding took the city job, drew criticism from a leading slow-growth activist who noted that this is the third city official in two years to go to work for a prominent local developer or real estate firm.
Harding said the change has nothing to do with the Del Sur project and that his discussions with Larwin began only after the development was approved. As chief city planner, he said, he negotiated numerous changes in the Larwin development beneficial to the community, including the addition of two school sites and street improvements.
"People are going to construe what they are going to construe," he said. "It's something I've wanted to do, work on the private side of the fence. Obviously it was not a reward." He said his new job will not involve any developments in the Antelope Valley.
Michael Singer, a slow-growth activist who made a strong showing as a write-in council candidate, said he respects Harding's professional abilities. But Singer, who argued along with other residents that the Del Sur project will hurt water supply, streets, schools and other infrastructure, said the job switch looks unethical and improper.
Harding's move gives the appearance that Harding has been rewarded for city approval of the project, Singer said, adding that city officials have repeatedly sided with developers over residents' objections.
"If you look at the staff recommendations and general plan amendments, the city staff has consistently come out and approved developer projects," Singer said.
As Singer pointed out, Harding's predecessor as planning director, Kyle Kollar, now works as a lobbyist for one of the area's major developers, Kaufman and Broad. And former City Manager James Gilley left the city in July, 1988, to work for Mid-Valley Real Estate, a prominent Lancaster real estate company.
Singer said the city should create an ethics codes prohibiting employees from moving directly into private-sector jobs with firms doing business with the city.
"Personally, I think it's immoral, but it's a free country and that's capitalism," he said.
Councilman Arnie Rodio called the criticism of Harding "a bunch of baloney. He is a professional and very, very capable. He has the right to elevate himself."
Newly elected Councilman George Root said Thursday that he does not believe anything dishonest is involved in Harding's decision to go to work for Larwin. But he said: "It is a perplexing question why he would leave to go to a company that just had a controversial development go through. It is a question we have to look at."
City Manager Steve West supported Harding's contention that the city negotiated a series of important concessions from Larwin on the development. He said he does not feel there is anything improper about the job change because Harding will not work on Lancaster projects.
And although West said there are policies in other cities requiring that employees wait a year before taking a job for a firm involved in city business, he said imposing such a requirement could infringe on the rights of Lancaster employees to work where they want.