LAFCO Head to Step Down After 21 Years

Jonathan Gaw is a Times staff writer. Douglas Alger is a correspondent

For 21 years she toiled at the County Administration Building, virtually unknown to the general public. But Los Angeles County might not have turned out the same without her.

As head of the agency governing incorporations, Ruth Benell has acted as midwife to the birth of a dozen cities, including Agoura Hills, Lancaster, Santa Clarita and Calabasas. Critics say she was a reluctant midwife, one who tried to stifle home-rule efforts.

Her admirers say she deftly balanced the interests of a pro-development Board of Supervisors against residents trying to gain control over land-use in their communities. By any measure, she was a lightning rod for the disgruntled on all sides.

And now, Benell, the executive officer of the Local Agency Formation Commission, is leaving.

"It's just time," said the 70-year-old Benell from her Rowland Heights home. Benell had been one of the original commissioners of LAFCO in 1963, when she sat on the Pico Rivera City Council, and joined the agency's staff in 1969 before taking its helm in 1972.

Benell plans to retire at the end of the year, and LAFCO's seven-member board--made up of elected local officials as well as citizens at-large--this month chose Orange County LAFCO Executive Officer James Colangelo to take her place.

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Some attribute her longevity to an ability to stamp out potential political brush fires by effectively communicating with all sides--even if her message was not always welcomed.

When asked to assess her LAFCO tenure, Benell acknowledges taking the most pride in just "being able to stay" at the agency, which has come under fire from developers and homeowners alike.

"She had an excellent political acumen in anticipating problems and sitting down with people and saying, 'This is going to work and this is not going to work,' " said Jim Van Horn, a LAFCO commissioner and Artesia city councilman.

LAFCO approves or amends the incorporations of cities, with the commissioners basing their decisions largely upon Benell's recommendations on the fiscal health and appropriate size for each municipality.

The Los Angeles LAFCO is a state agency that receives legal advice from county counsel and is based in the County Administration Building. Two of the county's seven commissioners, who approve or reject annexations and incorporations and at whose pleasure the executive officer serves, are county supervisors.

Among Benell's duties was estimating whether a new city would collect enough taxes to provide basic services. She also helped draw boundary lines, sometimes shrinking the territory of proposed cities.

Santa Clarita's size was slashed from a requested 90 square miles to about 40 when it incorporated in 1987, and two efforts to secure a valleywide sphere of influence four times larger have failed. A sphere encompasses territory expected to be annexed to a city and, arguably, allows a city with stricter development standards to inhibit extensive development in that area.

Through the years, Benell justified her conservative estimates of a potential city's revenue-generating capacity, saying new cities don't always take advantage of opportunities that older, more experienced cities do.

The lengthy and tiring incorporation experiences of Calabasas and Santa Clarita led former state Sen. Ed Davis (R-Santa Clarita) to write legislation to reform incorporation procedures through the Los Angeles LAFCO.

"Ruth Benell is the executive officer who is there to carry out the county's policies," Davis said. "And the policy has been to screw anyone that wants to incorporate."

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Davis cites Malibu residents' attempt to incorporate, which succeeded in 1991, but only after Davis carried a bill through the state Legislature with the specific intent of making the area a city. Residents, with the desire to control land-use and the development of a controversial sewer system, had voted overwhelmingly to incorporate, but cityhood was held up by county supervisors.

"One after another of the cities that I served got the shaft from LAFCO," Davis said. "Ruth Benell is just the servant of some pretty nasty masters."

Supervisor Mike Antonovich, however, defended what he said was Benell's adherence to the law.

"The law specifically provides rights to property owners and the community," Antonovich said. "If they don't like the law, it's not Ruth Benell's fault.

"New cities have to be based upon economic vitality and the desires and wishes of the people who live in the area," said Antonovich, a LAFCO member in the early 1980s. "LAFCO protects majority and minority rights."

Many who have sparred with Benell praise her skill in walking the tightrope between the interests of the county and those of the communities that wanted to incorporate.

"She always strove to do what is right, and that is very difficult to do sometimes," said Gary Werner, a city councilman in Diamond Bar. "You're working for the county, but trying to be independent. I think Ruth Benell was as fair as any individual could have been. You would have a real chore on your hands to coerce Ruth to do something improper."

Benell staunchly defended her recommendations--which she said the LAFCO board generally adopted--saying that her office was free of influence from the county.

"I don't think I was overly protective of the county, and I think if you talk to county people they will certainly agree that I was not influenced by the county," Benell said. "I was employed by LAFCO and not the Board of Supervisors."

One of her more recent incorporation battles involved Calabasas.

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Incorporation efforts floundered for years after Benell concluded it was economically unfeasible because Calabasas could never afford to pay fees for wild-land fire protection. It turned out the city never had to pay the fees, said Dennis Washburn, who drew the city's originally proposed boundaries as vice president of the Calabasas cityhood committee.

First conceived in 1978 as the 44-square-mile Rancho Las Virgenes to protect the mountain environment, it took 11 years and three cityhood efforts before LAFCO approved the existing 10-square-mile Calabasas.

While incorporation supporters initially blasted Benell, Washburn said they learned to work cooperatively instead, with much better results. The city even invited her as a guest speaker to celebrate its incorporation.

For Marina del Rey, the ending wasn't as happy.

In the mid-1980s, the 804-acre island of unincorporated territory--flanked on three sides by the city of Los Angeles and on the fourth by the ocean--made an unsuccessful bid to break from the county in order to re-enact expired rent control ordinances.

But Benell estimated the city would lose nearly $2 million in its first year of operation and that the incorporation drive was based too much on the rent-control issue.

Incorporation activists in Marina del Rey contended that Benell had overestimated the costs of the new city, such as policing the harbor, and underestimated the amount of taxes the city would take in, excluding money they hoped to receive in revenue from the marina.

Before coming to California in 1947, Benell taught both high school and elementary school in Colorado. She eventually was elected to the Pico Rivera City Council, where she served 11 years. Those who dealt with her, however, said she never really stopped being a teacher.

"She was like a schoolteacher, exactly," said Larry Wan, former mayor of Malibu. "She took pride in bringing new cities into being and did it with tender loving care."

While Wan said Benell took a very active role in the hearings over Malibu's incorporation, others said she usually let others do the talking for her.

"I guess we've always complemented one another," said Michi Takahashi, who has been LAFCO's executive assistant for the past 25 years and herself is retiring at the end of March. "I'm the bitch of the office and she's the lady."

Most agreed Benell did her job very professionally, seemingly without emotion and that she and Takahashi made a good team.

"Michi was the pick-and-shovel type and put everything together after Ruth had blessed it," LAFCO Commissioner Van Horn said. "Ruth was very soft-spoken. I saw her grit her teeth sometimes, but she never raised her voice. She was very quiet and unassuming."

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LAFCO executives in other counties hold Benell in high esteem, admiring her longevity in a county riddled with political pitfalls.

"There seems to be greater strife over incorporation there," said Bob Braitman, who had been the executive of the Ventura County LAFCO for 18 years. "It's a very large, complex county, and it's a job that requires both strength and finesse."

The job, however, will soon lose much of its impact.

Laws that go into effect next year require incorporations to be revenue-neutral, meaning that when a community incorporates, the tax revenues that would be taken from the county must equal the cost of services that the county provides the area.

Benell said the new constraints on incorporations played a small role in her decision to leave, but added that "it was time to leave."

"I've been there quite some time," said Benell, who plans to travel and do more volunteer work. "When you do something for that long, it kind of loses its luster, and it's time that I do something different."

Tale of a Dozen Cities Ruth Benell was a sometimes controversial figure as head of the county agency that oversees incorporations. Here are the cities created while she served at the Local Agency Formation Commission:

Carson Feb. 20, 1968

Rancho Palos Verdes Sept. 7, 1973

La Canada-Flintridge Dec. 8, 1976

Lancaster Nov. 22, 1977

La Habra Heights Dec. 4, 1978

Westlake Village Dec. 11, 1981

Agoura Hills Dec. 8, 1982

West Hollywood Nov. 29, 1984

Santa Clarita Dec. 15, 1987

Diamond Bar April 18, 1989

Malibu March 28, 1991

Calabasas April 5, 1991

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