Lancaster City Council members, criticized for secretive real estate dealings, have publicly approved their first two property purchases under a new city disclosure policy, but at the same time refused to require appraisals for future transactions.
The council, sitting as the city's Redevelopment Agency, broke with its tradition Monday night by both voting in public and disclosing the prices of the two purchases. In the past, such votes had been held in closed session and prices not always promptly been revealed.
The council's position on appraisals, however, remains unchanged.
Councilman George Theophanis, who proposed requiring such reviews to ensure that the city is not overpaying, was unable to attract support from the other four council members.
City Manager Jim Gilley, who defended Lancaster's past practices as legal, said the move toward public votes on property purchases comes in response to complaints from residents. But on appraisals, Gilley argued that they sometimes have forced the city to pay more than it otherwise might for land.
At issue are twin and still-unresolved legal disputes.
Most government attorneys surveyed by The Times believe that public agencies are legally required to obtain appraisals and hold public votes to ratify purchases. But Lancaster officials insist that neither is legally required in all cases.
Lancaster's property acquisition practices became an issue earlier this year after the city's $1.1-million purchase of a 22.5-acre park site. The council never publicly voted on the purchase, did not conduct an appraisal and paid the seller 45% more than he had paid three years earlier.
The issue surfaced again last month when the council, meeting in closed session, decided to purchase or negotiate to purchase 12 parcels. The city had conducted appraisals on only two of the 12 and again refused to disclose the prices.
But after residents criticized the practice, city officials announced this month that future council votes to acquire property would be held in public, noticed on the council's agenda and include disclosure of the purchase prices. But they did not change the city's practice of sometimes avoiding appraisals.
In one case Monday night, the council agreed to buy an undeveloped 3.4-acre site at 15th Street West south of Avenue J-8 for $250,000. The original seller was Calmark Development Corp. of Los Angeles, but became Bank Leumi Le-Israel after the bank acquired the site through foreclosure.
That site was not one of the 12 parcels at issue in February. However, city officials said they did obtain an appraisal that supports the purchase price. The city has targeted the site for senior citizens apartments and a day-care center, Gilley said.
The other purchase Monday involved the city agreeing to pay $95,000 for a small, one-story office building at 44919 N. Cedar Ave. The sellers were Richard and Barbara Dornberger, and the site was one of the two from February that had an appraisal. It also is slated for future senior citizens housing.