City Council Rivalry Flares Over Regulating Property Transactions : Thousand Oaks: Fiore gets riled during debate on Zukowski's proposal for a new appraisal system in municipal real estate deals.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A running fight between Thousand Oaks Mayor Alex Fiore and two council colleagues has flared again--this time over whether taxpayers get ripped off when the city sells its surplus real estate.

Defending the city real estate transactions as both profitable and honorable, Fiore lashed out at Councilwomen Jaime Zukowski and Elois Zeanah during a debate Tuesday evening.

"I do not understand why we continue to try to fix something that's not broke," he said.

Fiore's angry remarks sounded a familiar theme. For the past year, he has accused Zeanah and Zukowski of trying to undermine city government by hinting that the political Establishment has engaged in shady dealings.

The two councilwomen say they are only trying to open up an insular political system and insist they are not accusing anyone of wrongdoing. By proposing reforms, they say, they hope to renew public trust in government.

"We want not to even give the appearance of impropriety," Zukowski said during the heated debate.

But such explanations rile Fiore. And his anger crested Tuesday, when he blasted Zukowski's proposal to shake up the way the city buys, sells and evaluates land.

"There are insinuations week after week, month after month, that someone is doing something untoward in this city and we better double- and triple-check our policies," Fiore said.

"If someone could point to an example, and could say, 'You blew $15 million on this,' or 'You stole that,' or 'You gave a sweetheart deal here,' that would be one thing," Fiore added. "But this is nothing but innuendo."

Zukowski had argued that the city should seek at least two appraisals--at a cost of $5,000 to $25,000 apiece--before buying or selling any major parcel. And she called again Tuesday for a citizens panel to select a group of qualified appraisers who would take turns calculating land values for the city.

The council majority shot down Zukowski's proposal. Instead, Councilwoman Judy Lazar suggested putting the city's current, informal procedures in writing. That compromise won unanimous support.

The city owns 550 pieces of land, but most are just slivers acquired to widen streets or build sidewalks. Major land holdings include the former city hall at 401 W. Hillcrest Drive, which is up for sale; the 11-acre parcel next to the Civic Arts Plaza, which has been set aside for private development; and the old Goebel Center on Conejo School Road, which temporarily houses Alliance for the Arts fund-raisers.

In calling for changes to the city's land-sale procedures, Zeanah and Zukowski focused on the controversial appraisal of the old city hall on Hillcrest.

City officials are counting on selling that building for at least $13 million to pay construction bills at the Civic Arts Plaza. The appraiser who valued the parcel that high assumed that the land would be rezoned to allow moderate commercial or residential development.

Both Zeanah and Zukowski criticized that appraisal as misleading, because it relies on hypothetical zoning not yet approved by the council.

But Fiore countered that no one would buy the parcel with its present zoning as public land--a designation reserved for city-owned facilities. So the appraiser was right to estimate its value as a commercial or residential site, he said.

"What you think about property values doesn't make a hill of beans," he told Zeanah, "because you're not in real estate."

Zukowski's proposed reform earned support from two local real estate brokers, including council candidate Chuck Morsa. Candidate Ekbal Quidwai also voiced enthusiasm.

But City Atty. Mark Sellers warned that some of Zukowski's suggestions--such as publicizing every appraisal the city conducts--could end up costing taxpayers.

"If you create a lot of fanfare about wanting to acquire a property, another buyer can come in . . . and run up the price," Sellers said. "That's certainly a risk of so much openness."

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