Coffeehouse Issue on City’s Burner
Want some drama with that coffee?
A controversy is brewing in Dana Point over whether a councilman leaned on a planning commissioner in an effort to block a well-known coffeehouse chain from setting up shop near his wife’s coffee business.
Diedrich Coffee Inc. plans to open up a drive-through coffeehouse just 300 feet from J.C. Beans Coffee House, a funky java hangout owned by Councilman Russ Chilton’s wife. The business is on the town’s south end.
The Planning Commission ultimately voted in favor of Diedrich but with the stipulation that the chain conduct a traffic study and obtain a conditional-use permit.
Diedrich sued, alleging among other things, that Chilton -- an Orange County sheriff’s deputy -- tried to pressure Planning Commissioner Greg Powers the night before the Nov. 17 vote. Powers, as it turned out, was the only commissioner who favored letting the coffeehouse open without a traffic study or conditional-use permit.
Powers has refused to say what happened, and failed to show up Tuesday after being subpoenaed by the city attorney to give a deposition in the lawsuit.
City Atty. Patrick Munoz said Wednesday that he was prepared to ask a judge to compel Powers to testify about whether Chilton intervened in the coffeehouse matter. Munoz is representing the city and the Planning Commission in the lawsuit.
If the conversation happened, he said, it could violate the state’s Political Reform Act, which forbids public officials to use their positions to influence decisions in which they have a “material financial interest.” If it didn’t happen, city officials want to know how such a claim ended up in the lawsuit.
“It’s a very strange situation because he won’t talk to me,” Munoz said of Powers, who didn’t return a call Wednesday from The Times.
Chilton couldn’t be reached for comment, and a call left at J.C. Beans for his wife, Janice, wasn’t returned.
Diedrich’s lawsuit contends that the city should allow the drive-through without a special permit because previous tenants --Kentucky Fried Chicken and Mega Burger -- operated without one. The suit alleges Chilton influenced other city officials, including City Manager Doug Chotkevys, against the coffeehouse giant because “of the possibility that such use by Diedrich would result in a negative and material financial effect on his wife’s existing” business.
Chotkevys said Wednesday that Chilton never discussed the project with him, other than to acknowledge that he couldn’t be involved because of the proximity of J.C. Beans to Diedrich .
Chotkevys and Munoz said Chilton told them that he never spoke to Powers -- or anyone else in city government -- about the coffeehouse. He left the council chambers in January before his colleagues voted unanimously to uphold the Planning Commission’s decision.
“We’re treating this allegation very seriously, but Mr. Powers has refused to cooperate,” Chotkevys said.
Chilton supporters said the alleged conversation was fabricated to sully his and his wife’s reputations. Some pointed out that Chilton’s former council nemesis, William Ossenmacher, is now a lobbyist for Diedrich.
Ossenmacher and Chilton had clashed over the council’s abrupt termination in January of City Clerk Sharon Street. The new council believed that Street got the job through favoritism because of her past romantic relationship with Ossenmacher.
The former councilman, who couldn’t be reached for comment, appeared before the council in January as a Diedrich representative to defend the company’s proposal.
Whatever happened, Powers has an obligation to tell the truth, said Councilman James V. Lacy, who sent a memo Tuesday to his council colleagues criticizing the planning commissioner’s absence at the deposition.
“Commissioner Powers is in a position to offer testimony that corroborates Diedrich’s claims, or which exonerates an accused but innocent man,” Lacy wrote. “Commissioner Powers has failed to help the city, and our community, to find the truth in this matter.”