Los Angeles County supervisors cleared the way Tuesday for Malibu to become a city March 28, ending an eight-month delay during which they tried in vain to start work on a sewer system in the seaside community.
The Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the last piece of legislative paperwork needed for Malibu to become the county's 87th city and officially loosened its grip on plans to build the controversial $43-million sewer project.
"I would say it's finally time to break out the champagne," said Mike Caggiano, a member of Malibu's unofficial City Council. About 50 cityhood backers cheered as the vote was announced.
Malibu voters overwhelmingly approved cityhood last June and chose a City Council, but the supervisors--with only Supervisor Ed Edelman dissenting--have used an assortment of legal tactics to delay incorporation while attempting to start construction of the sewer system.
Until recently, the officials had been hinting that they might try to delay cityhood even further, perhaps until 1992, if their efforts to build the sewer were thwarted.
But the California Coastal Commission has withheld its approval of the sewer plan and expressed impatience in recent months with the county's tactics. After Malibu leaders signaled a new willingness to study the sewer issue, the supervisors decided to end the delay.
"In regard to holding up cityhood, we have exhausted our options," said Supervisor Deane Dana, who along with Edelman, introduced Tuesday's motion.
Supervisor Pete Schabarum, meanwhile, expressed the hope that the county would continue to push for construction of the sewer. And, in what may have been a final verbal jab at Malibu's leaders, Schabarum, who will retire from the board soon, called it "extraordinarily wishful thinking" to expect "the Malibu City Council to come up with (an adequate sewer plan) of its own."
Malibu's leaders indicated that they will ask the Coastal Commission to postpone action on the sewer matter until they can devise their own plans. The commission is scheduled to consider the matter in April.
The county's sewer plan is regarded by most Malibu residents and officials as far larger than necessary and as a prelude to widespread development. Opposition to the county's plans fueled the cityhood campaign last year in which 84% of Malibu voters supported incorporation.
The supervisors pushed for the sewer project because they feared use of septic systems might cause ocean pollution and landsides, but cityhood supporters believed that the board was revealing a pro-development stance.
"I'm sure the county will try to continue to push its sewer system, but, as a city, we are clearly going to be in the driver's seat as to what kind of system we need and what kind of system will eventually go in," Caggiano said.
Although Dana said the Malibu leaders' commitment to study the sewer question had helped persuade him that cityhood should go forward, the apparent change of heart by county officials may also be based on practical considerations.
Some observers have suggested that by approving the cityhood motion, the supervisors may be trying to discourage Malibu's push in the Legislature to gain cityhood.
A measure by Sen. Ed Davis (R-Santa Clarita) would make it illegal for Los Angeles County--or any other county--to stall the incorporation of a community where voters have approved cityhood.
The measure also includes a provision that would enable Malibu, once it becomes a city, to collect $1.25 million in property taxes for the fiscal year that begins in July, which it would otherwise lose because the county failed to file certain documents with the state by last Dec. 31. As matters stand, the county would be able to keep the money.
Despite Tuesday's vote, Mayor-Elect Walt Keller said Malibu's leaders will not let up on the legislative front. "We need that tax money and for the sake of precedent we don't want the kind of abuse the county has visited upon us to befall another community in the future," Keller said.
Malibu officials said that even if the measure should become law in the next few weeks, they probably would not push to speed incorporation before March 28.
"There's simply too much to do between now and then as it is," Councilwoman-elect Missy Zeitsoff said.
Other than a city attorney and interim city manager, Malibu's fledgling government has no staff. Volunteers answer the phones at City Hall. As a result of the cityhood standoff, there have been no negotiations with the Sheriff's Department or any other county agency about providing services to the new city.
"It's going to be what I'd call serious, double-time speed-up around here until March 28," Zeitsoff said.