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L.A. County probes supervisors’ role in land use planning

According to the rules of the job, Bruce McClendon seemed to be succeeding in every way as Los Angeles County’s top land use planner.

After more than a year in the position, he had good marks on his latest performance evaluation. His boss wrote, “Mr. McClendon has become an active and supportive member of the county family, and his efforts and contributions are appreciated.”

Four months later, county supervisors meeting in a closed session voted to fire him. But no one told McClendon.

Instead, he said, for months after the vote last November he was pressured to quit and leave quietly. Ultimately, William T Fujioka, the county’s chief executive, carried out the firing Jan. 16.

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The supervisors have refused to say why they ousted him. McClendon, 62, blames it on what he describes as the unwritten rules governing land use -- one of the most intense, politically fraught areas of county government.

Now, county investigators are trying to determine whether the planning process is so fierce that supervisors -- and their staff -- regularly violate their own rules.

McClendon, a highly respected former president of the American Planning Assn. and the first outsider to lead the department in more than three decades, said he tried -- not always successfully -- to shield his staff from efforts by supervisors’ aides to influence code enforcement, zoning and development decisions that were not supposed to be political.

He has declined to publicly detail his allegations, citing a letter from Fujioka that ordered him not to publicly release documents or information after his firing. Instead, he would only say that the problem was not isolated to a single supervisor’s office and that he believed criminal law might have been violated when supervisors’ aides tried to use back channels to influence hearing officers who were set to hear landowners’ appeals.

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“I’ve been in government for 30 years and I’ve never seen anything like it,” said McClendon, who previously led planning departments in Florida. “They are supposed to establish policy; we are supposed to carry it out in a fair, professional way.”

McClendon’s allegations are under investigation by Auditor-Controller Wendy Watanabe, formally appointed by the supervisors earlier this year. Investigators from her staff recently met with McClendon and received detailed information from him, both sides said. Watanabe plans to release written findings in the coming weeks.

Watanabe acknowledged that investigating her superiors, the county supervisors, is awkward. “This is the first time I can remember a situation like this,” she said.

She strongly asserted, however, that her office would be capable of an independent investigation, saying the supervisors take a “hands-off approach” to her work.

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“My integrity and reputation are at stake,” she said.

Central to Watanabe’s probe is whether the board violated a 3-year-old “non-intrusion” rule approved by supervisors that prohibits elected board members and their staff from giving orders to or instructing “any county officer or employee.”

Supervisors flatly deny any impropriety. They cite another provision in the county governance rules as the basis for communications McClendon has alleged were improper. That provision allows them to “coordinate district specific policy and program initiatives, working directly with an individual department.”

In a region where many people feel choked by growth that lacks the infrastructure to support it, intense skirmishes between builders and residents commonly occur within the county’s more than 2,600 square miles of unincorporated land.

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“All but the smallest projects are the matter of great public debate,” said Allan Kotin, a longtime real estate consultant in the county and an adjunct professor at USC. “Almost every developer hires a lobbyist that has access to one or more supervisors. There is at least temperature-taking before the actual application process even begins.”

In the city of Los Angeles, planning director Gail Goldberg has been outspoken about her belief that elected officials hold more sway over planning decisions in this region than in almost any other area in the country. But Goldberg, who came to Los Angeles from San Diego three years ago, said that during her tenure, elected city officials have used official channels and open meetings to influence decisions.

“When these decisions reach the political arena, it’s fair to say the decisions are not always the best planning decisions, but that’s appropriate because the elected officials have more to consider,” she said. “Giving the elected officials the best planning advice we can give is the best we ask.”

Some who have dealt with the county on planning matters say they feel they have come under political pressure.

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Wayne Fishback, owner of a Chatsworth ranch, said he believes that planning officials ordered code enforcement action against him at the behest of Supervisor Mike Antonovich’s office. Fishback said he has been pressured to sell his land to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy so it can be incorporated into the Michael D. Antonovich Regional Park.

To support his claim, Fishback’s attorney provided e-mail correspondence that Antonovich aides sent to enforcement officers a few days before officers arrived on Fishback’s property and issued a series of violation notices.

Antonovich spokesman Tony Bell said Fishback’s allegations were “absurd and have no basis in fact.” Bell said that constituents had brought concerns about the property to his office and that staffers alerted the planning department.

Malibu landowner Brian Boudreau has brought a civil suit against the county alleging improper meddling by Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky’s office. Boudreau has been trying to clear the way for 80 single-family homes in the Calabasas area and says Yaroslavsky’s office has used “ministerial” processes to block development.

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Boudreau’s attorney, Fred Gaines, provided e-mail correspondence that a Yaroslavsky aide sent to a planning department staffer and county staffer that comments: “Project is getting very political.”

Yaroslavsky said he was “very confident” that the staffer’s e-mail about the political nature of the project was not a reference to any action by his office. He declined to talk further about Boudreau’s case because of the pending lawsuit.

Yaroslavsky, who first won his seat in 1994, said his efforts to prevent further development in the Santa Monica Mountains are about enforcing the rules, not playing politics.

“When I got here,” he said, “the culture in the county, at least my part in the county, at least for two decades, was that people just did not abide by the rules. Since it’s out in the wilderness and no one is paying attention, by the time the county found out about it, there was nothing you can do about it.”

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garrett.therolf@latimes.com


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