A longtime Thousand Oaks council member on Thursday sharply criticized the city's decision to lock itself into an expensive civic center project that could cost the city millions of dollars more than originally anticipated.
"I don't mean to be a pessimist, but the problem is we just don't know how much it is going to cost," said Lawrence E. Horner, the first councilman to openly criticize the Jungleland civic center, planned to be built on Thousand Oaks Boulevard at Conejo School Road.
"At this point, we can't turn back, we've come too far," Horner said. "We have to roll our sleeves and try to make this thing happen. It's a fait accompli."
In April, the city approved a $55.6-million budget for the civic center project, which will include a new government center and a cultural arts center.
But city officials and the owner of the 20-acre Jungleland site are in a legal battle over the price of the land, which could cost the city more than $22 million. The city has already paid the landowner, Asad Moravati, $12 million for the site. Thousand Oaks has also agreed to pay about $7 million for consultants and architects on the project.
Opponents say that in the end, the project could cost the city more than $100 million in land and construction costs. Though Horner voted in favor of the civic center, he says he is becoming more concerned because it could be months before the city knows the exact cost.
Horner said he is worried that Lowe Development Co., a Los Angeles firm, might back out of its tentative commitment to build a hotel and office complex at the Jungleland site. If Lowe cancels the agreement, Horner said, it could place the financial strength of the civic center in jeopardy.
Mayor Alex Fiore called Horner's concerns unfounded. He said the city is close to a final agreement with Lowe Development and will soon make the details public. The mayor said the project will not exceed $100 million, and attorneys for the city expect to wrap up their legal wrangling with the landowner by this fall.
Fiore said he believes that Horner is criticizing the civic center project because he wants to score points with the mayor's critics. Two Thousand Oaks residents announced last week that they want to oust Fiore in the November election because of his support for the Jungleland project.
"He's campaigning early," Fiore said of Horner, who also faces reelection in November.
"He must have talked to some of those obstructionists over the weekend," Fiore said. "I don't know what his problem is, but he's taken a complete about-face."
City officials say they believe that the civic center, which will be paid for with redevelopment bonds and completed in 1993, is worth the investment.
Fiore, Councilman Frank Schillo and City Manager Grant R. Brimhall--the driving forces behind the Jungleland project--all have said the city desperately needs a cultural arts center.
"We have the money to do it and it's a good project," Schillo said. "There's a very basic need for it in our community. It will bring a better quality of life."
Schillo criticized Horner for changing his mind. "I question his decision-making ability," Schillo said. "He made a decision to support this and now he's changed his mind. He has waffled before."
Jungleland supporters say the project will give the city's old-town area a needed face lift.
Nevertheless, Horner said, the decision to move forward on the project should have been made by Thousand Oaks voters. Two years ago, residents presented the council with a petition asking that the matter be placed on the ballot. But the council voted 4 to 1 to reject the request. Horner cast the dissenting vote.
"If they placed it on the ballot, they know the residents would vote it down," Horner said.
Horner said other council members thought that they were better qualified to decide what is best for the area than the city's voters.
In addition to the legal battle with the landowner, the city is involved in two other lawsuits over the Jungleland project. Last month, Heinrich (Corky) Charles, a city resident and former planning commissioner, filed a suit to force the city to disclose its agreement with Lowe Development.
And last week, landowner Myrna Lee Mekelburg filed a suit alleging that the city rejected her proposal to build a motel several blocks away from the Jungleland site so city officials could secure a tentative agreement with Lowe Development to build a hotel at the civic center complex.