Legal threat adds to Windermere saga

For Dr. Philip Merritt and a number of city officials, home — at least the one Merritt hopes to build — is where the headaches have been.

More than four years after Merritt first submitted plans to construct a large two-story house on a vacant lot between Hampstead Road and Inverness Drive, a process that included Merritt suing for the right to build and use an undeveloped public street called Windermere Place, City Council members have finally given the green light to start work.

But while Monday's final signoff on development terms was smooth sailing compared to a contentious public hearing two weeks ago, the drama isn't necessarily over yet.

In addition to the possibility that neighbors opposed to the project will now seek an injunction in L.A. Superior Court, Merritt and attorney Arnold Graham are still weighing whether to file a lawsuit of their own against a City Council member whose unexpected absence at a meeting earlier this month delayed a hearing on the project.

An Oct. 4 City Council hearing on the Windermere project was postponed for lack of a quorum after Councilman Gregory Brown called in sick for the meeting.

Councilwoman Laura Olhasso was traveling and Councilman Steven Del Guercio had recused himself from proceedings due to his law firm's affiliation with a resident appealing the development, leaving only two council members to reach a three-vote consensus.

Graham and Merritt, who had arranged a costly flight so Merritt's architect could attend that meeting, suspected Brown of playing hooky.

"Not only was [Brown] at work the day of the hearing, he was also at work on the next day and flew to Texas the afternoon of the next day. So how seriously ill was he so he couldn't attend the meeting? I don't believe it," Graham said.

At the Oct. 18 City Council meeting, Brown discussed receiving a letter from Graham demanding preservation of evidence — namely correspondence and travel receipts — in case Merritt decides to take the issue of his absence to court.

Brown derided the letter as "an implied threat" before his final vote, which was to approve the project.

"I was, in fact, sick. I did have to fly to Texas the next day, and that's part of the reason I was not going to be able to be late through a council meeting. So I went home and went to bed," Brown told the Valley Sun. "If he wants to sue me for being sick, I guess that's his right. But I'm not quite sure what the claim would be."

Also at the Oct. 18 meeting, Brown called into question an e-mail that Merritt sent to Mayor Donald Voss and Councilman David Spence, who had been present for the meeting and supported aspects of the project in a previous vote.

The Valley Sun obtained a copy of that e-mail to Voss and Spence, which in part reads: "From voting to allow me to use Windermere [Place] in 2008 to the present, the two of you have conducted yourselves professionally. Unfortunately, the city and overall City Council have not. I am attaching my presentation that was to be made to you Monday, Oct. 4. … If either of you need anything medically or otherwise that I can help you with, please don't hesitate to ask. See you around La Cañada."

Voss had already submitted copies of the letter to city staff.

He and Spence said they hadn't seen the letter as an attempt to influence or reward city decision-making.

"I don't interpret that as anything other than 'Have a nice day. See you tomorrow,'" Voss said.

Graham said the letter's mention of medical services refers to nothing more than Merritt's habit of giving free friendly advice about navigating the health-care system.

On the other hand, "I found it disturbing and wanted it on the record so that in the future anyone going through it would not think there was anything going on behind the scenes that was influencing us," Brown said.

Graham recently told the paper that Merritt would likely rather focus on moving forward with his project than spending time in court.

However, "Council member Brown irritated me. I thought he was disingenuous, and I thought he was insulting to my client," said Graham.

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