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It’s the City That’s the Public Nuisance : So-called community policing combined with indiscriminate, rubber-stamp misapplication of the law has become a nightmare for small businesses.

<i> Harriet K. Bilford is an attorney in Reseda. She represented the Contadors before the city zoning administrator and now represents property owner Shun Hing Li</i>

On May 2, a hearing took place to determine whether a Mom-and-Pop doughnut shop in Van Nuys would be declared a public nuisance. A Neighborhood Watch group and a police captain, claiming that the shop contributed to crime, urged that it be ordered to hire security guards and comply with other conditions that have been imposed on small businesses throughout Los Angeles.

Well, the great controversy appears to have come to an end for Ulysses and Zuita Contador, the owners of Orville’s Original Donuts. Two months after the hearing, on July 6, a zoning official finally ruled that the doughnut shop is not the source of the crime problem.

What is the source? Amazingly, the zoning administrator found it is the shopping center parking lot.

Yes, the owner of the parking lot and doughnut shop building, Shun Hing Li, was ordered to take 11 steps to keep criminals away from her property. She must hire a security guard and put gates around the lot. She must pay the city $4,052, an amount regularly collected from businesses in these proceedings even though it is not authorized by zoning law and the amount seems to have been set arbitrarily. It happens to be the cost of a liquor license. She must do this in spite of a finding that she is “in compliance with most, if not all, provisions of the Municipal Code.”

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What will the city do if the landlord fails to comply--shut down the parking lot? The written decision says, “The failure to comply will put the motel at risk of revocation.” Motel? This case involves no motel, though five motels had been declared nuisances in similar proceedings. It appears that the city bureaucracy neglected to change the names when producing its boilerplate decision, which is typical of the city’s precision and care when steamrollering small businesses.

I have been a customer of Orville’s Original Donuts since it opened seven years ago. I became involved in the case when Mrs. Contador handed me a notice of hearing and asked me what it meant. I read it and thought, “Public nuisance? No way. They just made a silly mistake.” I figured I would help the kind folks who could not afford an attorney with their simple case and all would be well.

Wrong, wrong, wrong!

What I found in hundreds of hours of work was abuses tied to politics and L.A.'s much-praised system of “community-based policing.”

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Community policing involves neighborhood residents working closely with police officers to attack crime. It sounds wonderful. But it is becoming a nightmare for Mom-and-Pop businesses in high-crime neighborhoods.

The Contadors’ problems began with letters to the city from the area’s police captain and Neighborhood Watch leader accusing their shop of being responsible for misbehavior that included drinking, drug taking and prostitution.

I was warned by everyone, including land-use attorneys, a prominent law professor, my husband and law partner and even police officers that I was wasting my time by fighting. The decisions in these cases are all rubber-stamped, I was assured, and neither facts nor evidence nor the law make a difference. Since the zoning administration is the “applicant” and its employee, the zoning administrator, is the judge and jury, it is predisposed to rule for itself and against the business owners--especially when important people such as a city councilman or a police captain initiate the complaint.

Well, after an enormous length of time, the expense of a court reporter and an investigator and many hours dealing with the city attorney, the city Ethics Commission, the police chief, the Police Commission, Councilman Marvin Braude and the mayor, we beat the odds and “won” the case. Associate Zoning Administrator Daniel Green concluded that the Contadors were complying with the law and their shop was not a nuisance.

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The Contadors’ victory came at the cost of thousands of dollars in revenue and goodwill as a result of being repeatedly and wrongfully accused of being a magnet for crime.

Their shop is just one of many small businesses that have been made targets of these misdirected efforts. In this case, the decision simply shifted the burden of undeserved, unfair and, in my professional opinion, illegal punishment from one innocent party to another.


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