The campaign for three seats on the Rancho Palos Verdes City Council has turned into a high-spending free-for-all in which the six candidates have been virtually overshadowed by a dispute between an Orange County builder and an anti-development activist.
It is the outsiders who have been setting the agenda, contributing thousands of campaign dollars, distributing professional mailers and offering advice, according to public records and interviews.
At issue is the future of the Portuguese Bend landslide area, which has been under a building moratorium since the damaging Abalone Cove landslide in 1978. Orange County developer Barry Hon owns 427 acres in the landslide area and wants his land excluded from the moratorium so he can build luxury homes and a golf course there.
Those plans are opposed by Rolling Hills Estates resident Chris Manning, whose neighborhood of multimillion-dollar homes overlooks the two-square-mile landslide zone. Manning opposes any development in the moratorium zone, fearing new landslides that could damage homes in his hilltop neighborhood. He claims Hon is attempting to stack the council with candidates who will approve his development, a charge that Hon denies.
The council is now considering changes in the ordinance that would make it easier for developers to build in the area if they could prove their projects would not trigger landslides.
As for the candidates themselves, none favor building homes in the area, but some are willing to consider a golf course.
Among those willing to listen to the golf course idea are Barbara Dye, a community activist, and businessman Steve Kuykendall. Susan Brooks, a businesswoman and city planning commissioner, says she needs more information before deciding whether to consider the golf course.
Completely opposed to any development are Kay Bara, an environmental activist, incumbent John McTaggart, an aerospace engineer, and registered nurse Dawn Henry.
The debate over the moratorium largely has been waged through professional campaign mailers. A fire-engine red mailer funded by Hon and put out by a group called Alliance for the Truth attacks Manning bluntly, declaring in block type: "Chris Manning has lied to you 10 times." The mailer refers to statements in Manning's mailers attacking Hon.
Broadsides sent out by Manning's Peninsula Preservation organization feature cartoons that depict the developer as "Attila the Hon." The mailers predict Hon will make millions of dollars from a development that is apt to trigger another landslide. Manning contends the city would be liable for any damages caused by such a landslide.
The result of this mailer war has left both voters and candidates bewildered and angry.
"I'm totally disgusted," Brooks said. "Neither side is doing a service for the voters."
The smoke from this political firestorm has all but obscured other critical issues facing the candidates and the city's voters in the final days of the campaign.
Rancho Palos Verdes, an upscale bedroom city of 42,000, faces a decline in city revenues and a $1.2-million budget shortfall. To balance the budget, the new council will have to either cut city services, raise taxes or do both, officials say. All six candidates agree that more budget cutting is needed and that any proposed tax increases should first be approved by the voters.
Another campaign issue centers on the city's equestrian trails. Dye supports a plan requiring developers to include trails in new developments. Brooks says the city doesn't have the money to spend maintaining more trails.
However, these issues have been put on the back burner as the rhetoric has heated up over proposed changes in the moratorium ordinance.
Pro-development forces favor increasing the city's tax base by building golf courses, a resort hotel and luxury homes. Opponents of development say they are fighting to keep the semi-rural ambience of the area.
The arguments aren't new, but the stakes are bigger because the election could result in a significant power shift on the council. Two seats are up for grabs with the retirement of Mayor Douglas M. Hinchliffe and Councilman Melvin W. Hughes, both of whom are considered to be pro-development.
About two weeks ago, anti-development forces alleged that Hon paid the Beverly Hills publisher of the Palos Verdes Peninsula News $75,000 to slant the election news coverage in favor of development.
The charges were denied by Hon representative Lynn Wessell and by Seth Baker, the newspaper's publisher. Baker supports the development, but said his opinions have been confined to the editorial pages and have not entered news columns.
When the Alliance mailers began appearing last week they were signed by three local residents, Roy Fulwider, David Ruth and D. E. Clark. There was no indication that Hon was connected to the mailings.
However, Wessell, a Burbank-based political consultant, acknowledged that he helped write the copy and that Hon funded the mailers. Wessell said he and Hon were just helping the local residents counter the "lies" in Manning's mailers.
The Alliance mailers defend Hon's proposed development in the slide area and attack Manning's contention that the entire area is part of an unstable ancient landslide that is likely to give way again.
"The truth," according to the Hon mailer, is that the city's geologist, Perry Ehlig, has "said many parts of the area in question are stable" and can be safely developed. Ehlig's conclusions are disputed by geologists in Manning's group.
The Alliance reported that Manning had donated $3,000 each to two candidates, Bara and Henry, and is supporting McTaggart in an effort to stack the council to suit his own agenda.
Manning acknowledged this is true, saying he made the contributions to help elect a council that will block any development in the landslide area.
More money is being spent on this council race than any other in the South Bay this fall, with the six candidates having raised more than $67,000. Brooks alone has raised $23,254, and Kuykendall has taken in $17,332. The other four candidates raised less, averaging about $7,500 each.
Candidates for Rancho Palos Verdes City Council
Campaign debate is focusing on the city's 13-year moratorium on new construction in the Portuguese Bend-Abalone Cove landslide area, although there also has been discussion of the city's budget woes and the development of equestrian trails in new subdivisions. Six candidates, including one incumbent, are competing for three seats in Tuesday's election. Kay Bara
"I oppose any suggestion or hint of lifting the moratorium. I want no development there at all, including no golf course. . . . I am opposed to overdevelopment and I am against commercialization of the coast. We must keep our semi-rural environment in this city."
Businesswoman, planning commissioner
"We need to be empathetic and understanding of the people who live in the moratorium area. . . . This isn't a black and white issue. We need to get more input from the community, from (independent) geologists to make better decisions."
"I oppose any kind of residential development in the landslide moratorium area, but I am willing to look at the idea that a golf course might help stabilize the area. . . . I would prefer to see (the land) set aside as (publicly owned) open space."
"What is happening now is that developers go through the back door to get special deals (from the city) instead of going through the front door and following the General Plan. . . . The only way any part of the moratorium can be lifted is to have an independent panel of geologists agree that it is absolutely safe to do so."
"On the budget problems, we must wring out the cost side of system, make sure we eliminate any frills. This includes hiring our own (public works) employees instead of using (private) contractors to do the work. . . . As for the moratorium, I oppose building any houses in the slide area, but I am open to look at the golf course as a possible way to mitigate the slide problem."
John McTaggart (incumbent)
"There is a great deal of concern that we will weaken the moratorium. I don't intend to weaken the moratorium in any way. From a political standpoint and liability standpoint . . . the whole city must be protected from development that might trigger another slide."