By Gary Walker
An environmental organization has filed a civil action against the California Department of Fish and Wildlife for what it alleges is the state agency’s failure to provide critical information regarding a controversial Ballona Wetlands project involving the Annenberg Foundation.
“We are a small organization with a small budget, so we really didn’t want to sue,” said Ballona Land Trust President Walter Lamb.
“We gave the department every opportunity to avoid litigation, but they decided that they would rather go to court than help the public get access to these important documents.
“It is a very disappointing decision and they should be required to explain it.”
The Annenberg Foundation provides funding for several nonprofit corporations, particularly for educational television, social justice and animal welfare.
The foundation is proposing to build an interpretive center in what is known as Area C of the Ballona Wetlands that would include an auditorium, classrooms, a public lobby, exhibits on wildlife and domestic animals, facilities for an animal adoption and care program and veterinary facilities for animals.
Lamb’s organization alleges in its 53-page legal action obtained by The Argonaut that Fish and Wildlife has information that the land trust thinks is relevant to Annenberg’s proposed interpretive center but they have been rebuffed in their efforts to obtain said documents.
Fish and Wildlife officials have stated publicly that anything relevant to the interpretive center, which was proposed last year, will be included in the state’s environmental impact report during the restoration of the wetlands. Along with the state Coastal Conservancy, Fish and Wildlife will team with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in restoring the ecological reserve, and per the California Quality Environmental Act, an environmental analysis is required.
“My client has made multiple good faith efforts over the course of many months to secure important documents regarding the proposed development project for Area C of the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has shown a clear and consistent lack of effort or interest in securing copies of these documents for the public’s consideration, or for the department’s own obligation to provide public agency oversight for this substantial and controversial public/private project,” wrote Sabrina Venskus, a former Venice attorney in a July 18 letter to Kevin Takei, an attorney with Fish and Wildlife.
Venskus claims in her letter that Fish and Wildlife has “clearly violated the spirit and the intent of the California Public Records Act.
“My client strongly prefers to obtain copies of these documents without litigation, so as not to waste limited resources of either party,” she said.
Nine days earlier, Takei wrote Lamb, informing him that public presentations that Annenberg had made, as well as other documents, were now in the hands of the foundation. The Fish and Wildlife attorney also reminded Lamb during public hearings for the state restoration of the wetlands that the environmental effects of “a pet adoption center” would be included in the environmental analysis.
“Having seen your various communications to the department, I understand that your primary concern is the environmental well-being of the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve, a concern that the department shares. However, we both recognize that the Ballona Wetlands Land Trust and the department have different perspectives on the most appropriate mechanism for addressing such concerns,” Takei acknowledged.
Lamb points to an email from an employee of Fish and Wildlife, Rick Mayfield, that he believes underscores the state agency’s as well as the foundation’s attempt to hide the fact that their facility will focus more on animals than on wetland history. Referring to an earlier presentation of the project where the animal adoption component was not mentioned, Mayfield wrote, “I’m hearing that there may be some people who think the omission was deliberate. Any actual attempt to be less than upfront about this aspect of the project could be problematic in the long run,” Mayfield warned.
The center has been the topic of a months-long debate between supporters who say the facility will be a welcome addition to the wetlands and opponents, who believe it is a furtive attempt to construct an animal companion facility in the wetlands.
An earlier attempt by Annenberg to build a companion animal center in the South Bay stalled amid a large public outcry and opponents of the proposed Ballona facility accuse the foundation of camouflaging its true intention of having a similar project there by downplaying the veterinary component.
Annenberg made a presentation to the Del Rey Neighborhood Council’s Land Use and Planning Committee in March, which drew an unusually large crowd.
After seeing the presentation, a group of local wetlands organizations dedicated to protecting the ecological reserve subsequently asked the Del Rey Neighborhood Council to vote against the project. The council rejected the request by a 6-3 vote April 11.
In an email thread in March, Annenberg Foundation Executive Director Leonard Aube states the reasons why the foundation chose not to show its presentation after the March 7 meeting.
“Similar to a painter, an author, a sculpture or anyone involved in a creative enterprise, there’s an appropriate time to share the work with a broader audience – our work at Ballona hasn’t reached that threshold,” Aube wrote in response to Lamb’s request to provide his organization with a copy of the presentation. “Therefore, we do not intend to circulate material that constitutes ‘work in progress.’”
Prior to the lawsuit being filed, there have been flare-ups regarding conflicts of interest and which, if any, local boards should take action on the facility.
Playa del Rey environmentalist Marcia Hanscom accused two members of the Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa in July of having ethical conflicts because they are connected with the Annenberg project and could eventually vote on it. Thomas Flintoft, a lobbyist with Kindal Gagen, a Los Angeles public affairs and lobbying firm, and Geoff Maleman, who runs a Westchester public relations firm, have been hired to represent the Annenberg Foundation and are the two members whom Hanscom cited in her remarks to the local council.
“This is not a personal issue,” she said. “It’s not about whether I like them or not; it’s about undue influence.”
Some members of the neighborhood council think their board should not take any action on the project.
“It does not fall within our boundaries as a council,” noted Mark Redick, vice president of the Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa and a founder and former president of the Del Rey board. “That proposed project is within the council boundaries of Del Rey, not ours.”
The council’s land use and planning chair, Patricia Lyon, stated in July that her committee would probably not review the project.
Lamb said he was aware of the difficulty in suing a government agency. “We certainly recognize that we face an uphill battle, but it’s one that we think is winnable and certainly worth fighting,” he said.
Takei could not be reached for comment at Argonaut press time.