Beverly Hills residents who accuse city officials of a cover-up in approving the conversion of a Wilshire Boulevard office tower into an apartment building have filed a lawsuit to block the project.
At the same time, foes of the conversion plan contend that city leaders censored their objections by editing them out of a videotape made at a public meeting and later broadcast over a city television channel.
"Censorship is alive and well in Beverly Hills," said lawyer Robert P. Silverstein, who filed the Superior Court lawsuit last week naming members of the Beverly Hills City Council.
Beverly Hills City Atty. Larry Wiener said Monday the city believes it acted properly in approving the apartments and that the lawsuit has no merit. Other officials, meanwhile, denied that critics of the apartment project had been censored on the videotape.
The council voted unanimously in January to turn an 11-story office building at Wilshire and Stanley Drive into 37 rental units. Officials contend the project would help relieve a shortage of apartments in the wealthy community. The lawsuit, filed by Silverstein on behalf of homeowners, alleges that the City Council "embarked on a deliberate campaign to deceive the public about the city's violations of the California Environmental Quality Act." It also asserts that the city has lied about its intention to rezone a large chunk of Wilshire Boulevard office space for residential use.
Opponents allege that a secret city memo pointing out legal problems with the conversion plan was replaced with a "sanitized" public memo that downplayed the issue.
Silverstein said the alleged tampering with the videotape came after a Jan. 29 City Council candidates forum and town hall meeting held at the Beverly Hills Public Library.
The videotape aired Feb. 11 on the city's local government cable channel.
According to Silverstein, the version of the tape shown to the public omitted an exchange he had with Mayor MeraLee Goldman over the conversion project and the alleged "secret memo."
He said he was shown "getting out of my seat to speak and then sitting back down. The intervening 5 or 10 minutes where the dialogue occurred is missing, a la the Watergate tapes."
Goldman could not be reached for comment. But a city official in charge of the videotaping denied that the incident is reminiscent of the historic 18 missing minutes of President Nixon's White House tape recordings.
Maria Rychlicki, community relations director for Beverly Hills who oversaw the Jan. 29 taping, said the plan was to televise the candidates' debate, not the town hall portion of the homeowners session. Silverstein's comments were not shown because they were deemed not part of the debate.
"On my honor, there's no gap in the tape," she said.