Claiming that an “underlying political agenda” propelled recent appointments to the city’s Design Review Board, a public-policy expert this week filed a formal complaint demanding nullification.
UC Irvine economics professor Peter Navarro, married to long-time DRB member Leslie LeBon who was ousted as a result of the decision, said voting for new members to the DRB at the Oct. 19 City Council meeting should be invalidated because of inconsistency in balloting by council members.
In a letter to City Attorney Phil Kohn asking for a recall, Navarro said the problem stems from Councilmember Verna Rollinger’s decision to cast only two votes to fill three appointments on the DRB, which reviews residential and commercial building designs for consistency with city guidelines.
“What Verna Rollinger did was strategically game the system,” Navarro claimed. “Rather than having free and fair elections to appoint people to the DRB and having an independent DRB, there seems to be some undercurrent of strategic gaming policies going on.”
Kohn rejected Navarro’s request to nullify the vote, saying “there are no specific procedures established by the municipal code or city resolutions for such matters….As a consequence, there was no prejudice in the scenario you describe.”
Retired realtor Ilse Lenschow and former Newport Beach city attorney Robin Zur Schmiede were reinstated as was residential design engineer Ken Sadler, an alternate member who also served as chairman. Architect LeBon was the only current member who did not receive reappointment. In a separate vote, the council also eliminated the alternate’s position on the board due to a slowdown in development. The new terms take effect Feb. 2.
Navarro also challenges the council’s decision to eliminate the alternate, adding that the failure of the outcome of the votes to favor his wife is not his driving force. “I did this without either her knowledge or consent. It’s a much bigger issue than that,” he said.
“I basically am involved in the public policy process, whether it’s local politics or whether it’s at the federal level, policy is my area of expertise. Policy here in the city of Laguna Beach is now in jeopardy because of the politicization of the DRB process.”
Rollinger deflected Navarro’s accusation of gaming. “I don’t see how there could be,” she said. “None of us knows how the other is voting so you do what you think is the right thing to do.”
Any council member is free to vote for as many applicants as they choose, Rollinger maintained. “You don’t have to vote for three,” she said, comparing it to any election with multiple positions and candidates. By only voting for two, Rollinger said, she “didn’t have a say-so on who the third person was but that was the choice that I made.”
Mayor Elizabeth Pearson had directed the council to vote for three of the six applicants, who presented their qualifications to the council. Each of the other four council members voted for three applicants for two-year positions on the five-member board.
“I think it’s our obligation to vote for three if we think there’s three qualified people,” councilman Kelly Boyd said. “Did I know she [Rollinger] was going to vote for two? No. I would like to see it re-voted on but the city attorney says she can legally do that.”
Declining to comment further on the topic, City Manager Ken Frank concurred that Rollinger’s vote was her prerogative.
If any of the other council members had chosen to vote for fewer applicants, contends Navarro, the board appointments would have lined up differently. “There may have been several council members who believe they had to vote for three members who wanted to vote for less than three, but believed they could not,” he said. “If they had been able to, that would have resulted in a different outcome.”
Navarro said he would like to avert a lawsuit and is working with an attorney to respond to Kohn’s letter. “The city attorney can dance on a pin all he wants, but at the end of the day Laguna Beach was left with a corrupt process that needs to be clarified,” said Navarro, who hopes his appeal gets the town’s attention. “This is fairly significant to the political fabric of this city but it will go unnoticed unless challenged.”
The DRB requested that the council eliminate the alternate’s position because the lighter schedule of meetings every other week puts less demand on attendance than the previous once-a-week meetings. Navarro asked that the city council rescind the resolution that would eliminate the alternate’s position.