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Rebelling Now a Senior Activity at Leisure World

Times Staff Writer

Smiling senior citizens grace the sales brochures for Leisure World in Seal Beach. They’re bicycling, painting, relaxing in the 9,000-resident retirement community described as “the best world of all!” -- a veritable paradise for seniors.

But inside this gated neighborhood, some residents are waging a battle against what they call an authoritarian leadership that has turned Leisure World into a banana republic.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. July 8, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday July 08, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 58 words Type of Material: Correction
Leisure World -- An article in Sunday’s California section on Leisure World in Seal Beach incorrectly described how representatives are chosen for the Golden Rain Foundation Board, which oversees 16 nonprofit “mutual corporations” that run the community. Any resident could run for election to the Golden Rain board, not just members of boards that govern each mutual corporation.

Critics say the community’s elected leaders won’t let residents see financial records, detail how their monthly fees are spent or reveal how much hired administrators are paid. Those who ask unwanted questions are labeled “dissidents” whose views are effectively banned from the Leisure World-owned newspaper, they say.

Most residents focus on their own affairs and ignore the controversies. Some, frustrated, have given up and moved.

But others, a group of rebels about 150-strong, are fighting back. And though they have yet to win access to the financial information about Leisure World, they have begun to make headway in the courts.

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“We love the neighborhood, the grounds, the atmosphere. The problem is, the longer you’re here, the more you realize that’s on the surface,” said resident David Lyon. “It’s one deception after another. You never know what they’re going to pull on you next.”

For months, Leisure World officials have refused to respond to repeated requests for interviews.

Officials with the advocacy group Congress of California Seniors said they often hear complaints about retirement community homeowners associations. But “this one stands out as very unique because of the dissension,” said chief of staff Gary Passmore. “It sounds like [there is] a great deal of management disregard for ... member interests.”

Opened in 1962, Leisure World was the brainchild of developer Ross W. Cortese, who later opened similar projects in Walnut Creek, what is now Laguna Woods, and Florida and Arizona.

The community’s 9,000 residents average 77 years of age. Standard one- and two-bedroom units range in price from about $83,500 to $150,000; expanded and corner units are more. Residents also pay monthly fees averaging $300 to cover management, recreation, maintenance, landscaping and security costs.

Leisure World is divided into 16 geographical areas run by nonprofit “mutual corporations,” each headed by elected residents. Representatives from each mutual board are elected in turn to sit on the Golden Rain Foundation Board, an umbrella group that governs the entire community.

Leisure World has churches of almost every denomination, a nine-hole golf course, a library and a full-service post office. And there are dozens of clubs.

A rare instance of public dissension occurred in 2002 when administrators banned dog walking, going so far as to cite offenders and force residents to carry their dogs from their homes to their cars and drive their pets outside Leisure World’s boundaries for exercise. Chief administrator Harbir “Bill” Narang said the dogs were noisy and put residents at risk of being knocked down or bitten.

Today, the list of complaints has grown to include more serious charges. Questions about management and Golden Rain’s finances have gone unanswered, critics say. In particular, they say Leisure World won’t give information to which they are entitled under state law:

* Why monthly fees increased $30 this year and why the fees still cover a mortgage they say has been paid.

* How much Leisure World pays contractors to landscape most of the 533-acre property, including the golf course.

* How much Narang and other top officials are paid.

Ed Loritz, a former Golden Rain Foundation board member who now is a critic of administration, said Narang was paid $160,000 in 1998, and has received -- along with other Leisure World employees -- at least five pay increases since.

Narang, who has run Leisure World for about 20 years, is the focus of other questions that state law does not require be answered. For example, critics say he has declined to address concerns about a potential conflict of interest. Public records show that Narang owns property jointly with Richard Domasin, owner of Associated Landscape Maintenance Inc. of Glendale, which has the contract to landscape most of Leisure World.

Other times, management simply treats residents callously, critics say. They point to the cases of Hildegard Zeller and Erika Furlong-Swenson.

The two women were moved out of their homes in January 2003 after being told that a fire in an adjacent unit caused theirs to be contaminated with asbestos. Each woman was billed thousands of dollars for the work, and many of their belongings were thrown away.

Later, they learned that the asbestos test results were negative, but neither has received an explanation or a reimbursement.

Zeller wrote a letter to her mutual board. It was returned unopened. Residents lobbied on their behalf, also requesting answers. Instead of answering, board members wrote columns in the Golden Rain News saying that residents are responsible for homeowners insurance to cover personal property.

Kornelia Brewer contemplated selling her house. But instead of moving, Brewer is fighting back. The retired nurse is a member of the rabble-rousing Concerned Shareholders of Leisure World, whose 150 members Golden Rain officials have repeatedly called “dissidents,” both in writing and at meetings.

Recently, the rebels have turned to the courts for help. Furlong-Swenson sued Golden Rain last month, alleging fraud and seeking $200,000 in damages. “I’m tired of being treated this way,” she said. “Everybody ignored me.”

Other residents are following the same tack. Last month, seven took the Golden Rain Foundation to small-claims court for refusing to provide access to its financial records.

Armed with copies of the California Civil Code, the California Corporations Code and Leisure World’s bylaws, the band of residents sought financial penalties from Golden Rain Foundation for each violation.

But even in court -- and after repeated inquiries from Judge Kirk H. Nakamura -- Golden Rain Board President Shirley Burns refused to explain why the board would not comply with legal requirements to provide the information. She first said an attorney did not believe the board was obliged to comply. Later, she suggested that revealing salary information would violate employee privacy.

Speaking from the bench, Nakamura sided with the plaintiffs and described Leisure World’s response as a “kiss-off letter.”

He said Golden Rain was stonewalling, called it an “unreasonable position” and fined the board $1,400 -- $200 for each plaintiff. Then he told residents: Keep requesting the information. If they don’t get it, he’d see them back in court.

“I don’t think a month is going to go by when we don’t sue them,” said Loritz, a critic and one of the plaintiffs.

“We are going to hold the board accountable to the law. That’s all we’re asking. If they do [follow the law], there will be peace and harmony in this community.”


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