SAN GABRIEL VALLEY / COVER STORY : Diamond Bar’s Loss of Luster : The 5-Year-Old City Is Beset by Lawsuits, Recall Attempts and Other Squabbling
Now that Diamond Bar is 5 years old, the man who helped found the city and the man who fought it still disagree on the issue.
Diamond Bar was better off when the county ran it, environmental activist Max Maxwell says.
Incorporating was the best thing the people of Diamond Bar ever did, counters Mayor Gary Werner.
No surprises here. Just about the only thing that isn’t new in Diamond Bar is the history of squabbles. San Gabriel Valley’s youngest city might be school-age, but some observers wonder whether it ever grew out of the Terrible 2’s.
“You come out to Diamond Bar and drive around and say, ‘Hey, this is a neat little bedroom community,’ ” said City Clerk Lynda Burgess, who moved to Diamond Bar from Long Beach after she accepted the job when the city was born. “Then you go to the City Council meeting and the politics are just vicious.”
The city is in the midst of two separate recall efforts involving four of its five council members. Diamond Bar still lacks a General Plan; the two plans it has come up with were scrapped after heated opposition resulted in a pair of drives to put the matter to a referendum. Slow-growth forces are threatening the third effort.
Lawsuits abound in the city. One councilman sued residents who campaigned against him. The suit was dropped and the residents filed a countersuit against him for slander. A developer sued two council members, saying they pressured the developer to donate campaign money and hold a campaign benefit. One of the recall drives filed suit as well.
And city politics show no signs of simmering down.
Maxwell, 58, opposed incorporation in 1989 and led the two successful referendum drives to scrap the city’s General Plan. He’s threatening a third ballot measure if, in his view, the city’s development blueprint fails to protect scenic hillsides and canyons.
“The real issue is that after five years as a city, (the council) doesn’t recognize the citizens. We run the city. They don’t recognize what we want,” he said.
“Growing pains” is how Mayor Werner describes some of the turmoil that has come to characterize his city of 55,000 residents. But Werner has no regrets. A municipal planning consultant who moved to Diamond Bar from Pasadena 13 years ago, Werner, 43, chaired an eight-member incorporation committee six years ago and won a seat on the first City Council.
Most of the city’s spats since then have centered on growth.
Much of Diamond Bar was developed by the time it became a city in 1989, said Jim DeStefano, director of community development. The more recent projects, though, have been among the most controversial because they center on the city’s steepest, most picturesque hillsides and on the few remaining undeveloped canyons, the kinds of rustic spots with old oaks and other native wildlife that first drew people to the area.
“These are pieces of property that people live next to and may have thought would be vacant forever,” DeStefano said.
For years, Werner often cast the lone dissenting vote on construction projects approved by the previously pro-growth councils.
But last fall, Diamond Bar Residents to Protect Country Living, a preservationist political action group, successfully backed two managed-growth candidates who unseated two of the incumbents. Council newcomers Eileen Ansari and Clair Harmony gave Werner his first council majority. At the same time, the Country Living group launched a recall drive against council members Phyllis Papen and Gary Miller, the remaining pro-development council members.
Even Burgess, the city clerk, has been involved in the fights. In August, 1993, she ruled that petitions to force a referendum on the second General Plan were invalid because each petition should have been attached to a copy of the General Plan, a voluminous document. There were 400 petitions. The Citizens to Protect Country Living sued and won; the judge ruled that Burgess’ decision was “tantamount to depriving (the citizens’ group) of their opportunity to participate” in the referendum process. The council scrapped the General Plan.
In June, Burgess also invalidated the recall petition against Miller and Papen, saying it lacked the required number of valid signatures. The Citizens to Protect Country Living sued again; that suit is pending.
Meanwhile, as soon as the new slow-growth majority took control of the city, they abruptly fired the city attorney and temporarily replaced him with the attorney who represented Diamond Bar Residents to Protect Country Living in lawsuits against the city.
Evening things up a bit, another group of residents served Harmony and Ansari with recall papers this past June, although they have not yet filed their papers with the city. The residents were frustrated because the council’s stalling on approving a canyon development was also holding up plans for school construction.
Meanwhile, Harmony is putting out a newsletter accusing the city of wrongdoing.
“The City of Diamond Bar has misspent hundreds of thousands of dollars and has a serious problem with its accounting procedures,” Harmony wrote in his July 10 edition of City Hall News.
The strife is obvious at council meetings, as a recent session showed.
The council had just finished approving an $8.2-million general fund budget for the upcoming fiscal year and opened the floor to public comments.
Mike Lowe, a close friend of Papen, approached the podium to speak. This was likely to mean some harsh words; Lowe regularly addresses the council and refers to Werner, Harmony and Ansari as “The Gang of Three.”
Sure enough, Lowe launched a verbal attack on Harmony, who several times has had yelling matches with Papen.
“There has been repeated verbal abuse of female employees by Councilman Harmony,” he charged, demanding that Harmony be formally censured, that a letter of apology be placed in the unnamed employee’s personnel file and that a policy of sexual harassment be drafted.
(Harmony later defended himself, saying he was assertive, not abusive, when he was questioning city employees about the Finance Department’s bookkeeping procedures.)
But as Lowe spoke, the dozen or so council meeting regulars and developers sitting in the back of the council chambers smiled and shook their heads. Harmony and the other council members said nothing and looked straight ahead. Werner took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes.
“This is nothing. We’ve had meetings where people have been thrown out by the sheriff. This is better than watching a baseball game,” said 10-year resident George Barrett, a regular attendee of the council’s bimonthly sessions.
Bill Gross, founder and former member of Diamond Bar Citizens to Protect Country Living, doesn’t attend council meetings any more. Last September, a week before he personally served pro-growth Councilman Miller with recall papers, Gross and fellow preservationist Maxwell were themselves slapped with a libel suit filed by Miller involving a developer’s lawsuit against him.
The developer, Diamond Bar Associates, had alleged in a lawsuit last year that Miller and fellow pro-growth councilwoman Papen opposed its proposed subdivision after company officials refused Papen’s request for a $10,000 campaign donation and Miller’s request that the company hold a fund-raiser for Papen. Both council members have denied the allegations.
Gross and Maxwell outlined the developer’s allegations in the recall campaign against Miller, who sued them and the Citizens to Protect County Living. A judge dismissed the suit last September, but not, Gross says, before damage was done to his mortgage investment business. The experience soured him on activism and he left the preservationist group.
Yet, like most politicians and activists, Gross believes incorporation was a good thing for Diamond Bar, in spite of his gripes against certain council members.
“The positive thing is that five years later, (cityhood) has shown citizens can manage themselves,” said Gross, who moved to Diamond Bar eight years ago from La Habra. “The problem is a few individuals have taken advantage of their political office for their own personal gain.”
With its wide-open cow pastures and pristine hillsides a stone’s throw from the city line, Diamond Bar has become an attractive and accessible draw for small businesses and middle- and upper-middle-class families looking to buy their own tract home or condominium. Home prices range from $200,000 to $750,000.
The city’s proximity to Orange County to the south and Riverside County to the east has also made Diamond Bar a prime springboard for ambitious candidates with eyes on higher state office.
In 1992, then-Councilman Jay Kim parlayed his public position into a seat in the House of Representatives, where he is the only Korean American in Congress. Also that year, Papen ran unsuccessfully against former Councilman Paul Horcher for the state Assembly. Horcher was first elected to the Assembly in 1990, just one year after being elected to the council. Miller also got in on the act, first running for the state Senate in 1990. Miller is running again this November for the seat recently given up by convicted state Sen. Frank Hill (R-Whittier).
Miller denies widespread rumors that he will resign from the council to avoid a recall election if a Superior Court judge rules against City Clerk Burgess’ decision to invalidate the recall petition drive.
“The fact is that everything they have tried to accuse me of is false,” Miller said of recall organizers. And, he said, “I don’t like giving in to people who are wrong.”
As far as Miller is concerned, Diamond Bar is a better place to live in now than it was 22 years ago when he and his family moved from Rowland Heights. “We’ve been slipping a little bit (in image), but we’re getting over it,” Miller said.
Lee Schad took over as chairwoman of Diamond Bar Citizens to Protect Country Living when Gross stepped down last year. The group has compiled a complex dossier on the allegations outlined in the Diamond Bar Associates’ lawsuit that Miller and Papen tried unsuccessfully to extract campaign contributions, then voted against the developer’s project.
The document was turned over last year to the district attorney’s office, but spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons said she could neither confirm nor deny that an investigation by that office is under way.
Schad and her husband, city Planning Commissioner Don Schad, would like to see Papen and Miller off the council. The living room of the couple’s home is littered with boxes full of election documents and voter registration rolls associated with the recall. The Schads said they were for cityhood five years ago. It’s Miller and Papen they have trouble accepting, for their stances in favor of canyon developments.
“I can’t imagine how these people can be allowed to get away with murder because that’s what it is,” Lee Schad said.
Don Schad, 71, said he voted for cityhood in 1989. But today, he said, “Diamond Bar has not improved, as far as I’m concerned. Traffic has tripled. Crime has gone up. It just seems whatever could be built has been built. We’ve done enough building.”
Papen said the council just hasn’t been given a chance.
“The problem is the people who were against incorporation never allowed for a honeymoon period,” she said. “There have been a lot of challenges to the council’s auth o rity. . . . I’m asked all the time why I put up with it.”
Diamond Bar at a Glance
Date of incorporation: April 18, 1989
Square miles: 14.78
Number of housing units: 17,800
Median household income: $63,546
Median house price, 1993: $225,000
Ethnic makeup: White 53%, African American 5.5%, Latino 17%, Asian and Pacific Islander 24%, Native American 2.6%*
*Numbers add up to more than 100% because of overlap.
Source: City of Diamond Bar, 1990 Census, Thomas Bros. Guide, Dataquick Information Systems
The Players and the Pols
A look at some of the people involved in Diamond Bar’s political infighting.
Eileen Ansari: Elected to City Council last fall. Part of managed-growth majority. Targeted for recall by group of residents upset with delays in construction of a school.
Lynda Burgess: City clerk. Has been sued twice by Diamond Bar Citizens to Protect Country Living concerning petitions the group filed.
Bill Gross: Founder and former member of Citizens to Protect Country Living. Helped lead recall campaign against Councilman Gary Miller. Was sued for libel by Miller; suit was dismissed. Says suit damaged his mortgage investment business. Has left the preservationist group and no longer attends council meetings.
Clair Harmony: Elected to City Council last fall. Part of managed-growth majority. In July, put out a newsletter accusing city of misspending hundreds of thousands of dollars. Accused, by a friend of Councilwoman Phyllis Papen, of verbally abusing female city employees, a charge he denies. Targeted for recall by group of residents upset with delays in construction of a school.
Mike Lowe: Friend of Papen. Regularly addresses the council and refers to Werner, Harmony and Ansari as “The Gang of Three.” Accused Harmony of verbally abusing employees.
Max Maxwell: Environmental activist. Opposed incorporation in 1989. Led two successful referendum drives to scrap the city’s General Plan and is threatening a third. Was sued for libel (along with Gross) by Miller; suit was dismissed.
Gary Miller: Council member. Part of pro-development faction. Targeted for recall by Citizens to Protect Country Living. Sued Gross, Maxwell and Citizens for Country Living for libel; suit was dismissed. Was alleged by a developer to have opposed a subdivision because firm refused his request to hold a fund-raiser for Papen, an allegation he denies. Ran unsuccessfully for state Senate in 1990; running again this November.
Phyllis Papen: Council member. Part of pro-development faction. Targeted for recall by Citizens to Protect Country Living. Was alleged by a developer to have opposed a subdivision because firm refused her request for a $10,000 campaign donation, an allegation she denies. Ran unsuccessfully for state Assembly in 1992.
Don Schad: City planning commissioner and husband of Lee Schad. Supported cityhood but says there has been too much development.
Lee Schad: Chairwoman of Citizens to Protect Country Living. Wants Papen and Miller ousted from council.
Gary Werner: Mayor. Supported incorporation and won a seat on the first City Council. Often cast the lone vote against development projects when the council had a pro-growth majority. Now is part of a managed-growth majority.