Palisades News Requests City Emails Re: Design Review Board

On July 15, through the California Public Records Act, the News requested e-mails/communications from Councilman Mike Bonin’s office regarding the Pacific Palisades Design Review Board and the City Planning office.

We’re still waiting.

When four members (Barbara Kohn, Kelly Comras, Stuart Muller and Donna Vaccarino) of the seven-member Palisades DRB were dismissed on Feb. 29—two days before the board was scheduled to meet to render its judgement on Caruso Affiliated’s final architectural and landscaping plans—the DRB was left without a quorum.

Typically, design plans for commercial buildings in Pacific Palisades must first go before the DRB (consisting of residents appointed by the District 11 Councilman), and then to City Planning. Because the DRB meeting had to be cancelled, Caruso’s Palisades Village plans went directly to the city, without final local review.

Kohn, Comras and Muller, who also held seats on the Pacific Palisades Community Council, had attended the February 25 PPCC meeting when a vote was scheduled regarding various issues in Caruso’s development plans. The three DRB members later said they had recused themselves from voting, but Council President Chris Spitz countered that they had failed to do so.

The matter seemed moot when, before Caruso discussions even started, Historical Society representative Dick Wulliger asked for a postponement of any vote.

Yet four days later, Kohn, Comras and Muller were declared ineligible for the DRB/Caruso meeting by L.A. Deputy City Attorney Renee Stadel, who said they broke the Brown Act by their actions at the Community Council meeting.

A fourth DRB member, Donna Vaccarino, was also dismissed on Feb. 29 because of a brief January conversation with Councilman Bonin at the farmers market on Swarthmore.

When the News queried Bonin’s office about the DRB removals, he replied in a March 7 email:

“There is a fundamentally incorrect assumption underlying the questions you are asking and the rumors [from others] you have been passing on [to me]. Both rely on the premise that I made or prompted the determination that members of the Design Review Board needed to recuse themselves, or on the assumption that I directed or caused the cancellation of the DRB meeting. On the contrary, the Office of the City Attorney advised on the need for recusals, and advised the Department of City Planning of the need to cancel the DRB meeting.”

Why would the City Attorney disqualify DRB members because they attended a public meeting? It seemed as if there might be more to the story, so we asked to see the e-mails.

Beatrice Pacheco, the Custodian of Public Records for the City of L.A., responded in an Aug. 2 letter to News attorney Frank Angel: “Please be advised that the Department of City Planning has determined it has one email [with several threads] that may be responsive to your request.”

On Feb. 29, City Planner Michelle Levy emailed Tricia Keane [Director of Land Use and Planning for District 11]: “Tricia, I just received this email from Lisa [Lisa Webber, Deputy Director of Planning]. Can we talk tomorrow morning? Please let me know your earliest availability.”

Keane replied the same day: “Also don’t send out any notices about the meeting until we all talk so that we are all on the same page before we start communicating publicly.”

Then the response, titled “Pacific Palisades DRB- URGENT!” from Webber to Debbie Lawrence, Michelle Levy, Faisal Roble, Tricia Keane and Lakisha Hull:

“Again . . . for the planning staff . . . don’t do a thing until we received specific instructions from the council office . . . conversations are still underway. Just hold tight for now.”

Angel received a July 26 letter from Council District 11 Chief of Staff Chad Molnar, who wrote: “Please be advised that this office is gathering the relevant documents and the total number of pages is yet to be determined.”

On Aug. 8, Angel wrote to Keane: “Given the unexplained delay we experience in receiving the requested public records, we are increasingly concerned about the risk of spoliation of public records that fall within the scope of our requests.

“Thus, please advise what procedures are in place in Councilmember Bonin’s office, and what procedures were actually employed to preserve the requested electronic public records (e.g., to ensure that responsive electronically stored information on devices that continue to be used is captured and stored as required by law), and when the legally required preservation measures were undertaken.”

Keane responded by e-mail the same day. “We have gathered hundreds of pages that need to be reviewed for privilege. To keep you updated, we are estimating that we will be able to make the non-exempt records available for inspection and/or copying by Sept. 2, 2016.” As of press time for this issue, nothing further has been received by Angel or the News.

This is not the first time Bonin’s office has had to produce emails. In April, Superior Court Judge Robert H. O’Brien required disclosure of 146 emails written by or to city officials, including Bonin, about the Archer School expansion plans in Brentwood.

“The City and Archer wrongly withheld these emails in violation of the law,” said Brentwood resident Zofia Wright, who, with her husband, David, is a leader of the Sunset Coalition. In a May 4 Viewpoint in the News, Wright wrote: “This is a major victory for transparency and good government. Now the public will be able to see what the City and Archer were trying to hide about their internal deliberations concerning the school’s expansion project.”

In a CityWatch LA story in April, John Schwada quoted Coalition attorney Doug Carstens, a partner in the law firm of Chatten-Brown & Carstens: “This ruling could have a major impact on the way the city does business in the future. Public employees, including elected officials, must realize that their emails can be open to the public. After all, these officials work for the public, not the other way around.”

Proposition 59, passed by voters in 2004, amended the state Constitution to provide: “The people have the right of access to information concerning the conduct of the people’s business, and therefore, the meetings of public bodies and the writings of public officials and agencies shall be open to public scrutiny.”

In the spirit of public transparency, it’s time for Councilman Bonin’s office to release the DRB-related emails.

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