South Gate : Redevelopment Nixed in Semi-Secret Vote

After more than 10 months of review, a community panel has recommended that the city reject a redevelopment plan that would overhaul 765 acres of mostly commercial, industrial and public land.

But the way the panel voted on the Commercial Corridors Redevelopment Project last week was nearly as controversial as the plan itself.

Discussions of the plan have become highly emotional largely because home and business owners in the project area fear the city would seize their property through eminent domain. Some redevelopment opponents also contend that the city needs voter approval for the plan, because the city redevelopment agency would incur a $162-million debt.

The 14-member Project Area Committee, which comprises business and residential property owners, tenants and other community members, was formed in January to review the plan and reflect community opinion when it made a recommendation to the City Council. But fearing reprisal by angry audience members Nov. 21, the group first voted 11 to 3 to keep their ballots temporarily anonymous.

City Atty. Arnold M. Alvarez-Glasman advised committee members that voting by completely secret ballot would violate the spirit of state open-meeting laws. However, if members signed their ballots and the group made the tally immediately public but kept individual ballots secret until after the meeting, the group would be within the law, he said.

"Certainly this process is a bit unorthodox," Glasman said, but he noted that the sensitivity of the vote and safety concerns of some members warranted an unusual approach. "I've had many members approach me and tell me they've had verbal threats against themselves and their business."

"There's been a lot of hostile rhetoric and verbal abuse going back and forth," said Manny Padilla, a committee member and owner of City Auto Sales. "Somebody could go vandalize 100 cars I have parked on the street right now after the vote."

Glasman also said that the unusual voting method could subject the committee's decision to judicial scrutiny and a possible legal challenge, a warning that disturbed committee member Jean Heinl.

"If there's a potential for a lawsuit or something like that, isn't there a better way to (vote)?" she asked.

The city's redevelopment agency is expected to consider the committee's recommendation at its Dec. 14 meeting, said City Manager Todd W. Argow.

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