By Gary Walker
The topic of potential conflicts of interest was the most attention-grabbing event on an agenda that was light on substantive matters at the Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa’s July 9 meeting.
Playa del Rey environmentalist Marcia Hanscom accused two members of the board of having ethical conflicts because they work for entities connected with projects that could eventually be brought before the council.
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 council.
The nonprofit organization hopes to build a 46,000-square foot, $50 million nature center in a location known as Area C of the Ballona Wetlands near Culver Boulevard. The interpretive center 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.
Hanscom said she decided to address the matter of possible conflicts of interest when she learned that Flintoft was representing Annenberg and after being told that she could not make a presentation on the state’s restoration plans for Ballona Wetlands before the Westchester-Playa body.
“This is not a personal issue,” she said. “It’s not about whether I like them or not; it’s about undue influence.”
In a letter to new Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer obtained by The Argonaut, Hanscom requested a probe into whether Flintoft’s and Maleman’s employment with various clients constitutes a conflict of interest and to alter the membership rules for neighborhood councils.
“We are writing to ask that you investigate the conflicts of interest that appear to be obvious on at least the Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa and possibly on other neighborhood councils. We also are requesting a change in the requirements for membership on neighborhood councils so that conflicts of interest like we see on the neighborhood council will not continue in the future,” wrote Hanscom, executive director for the Ballona Institute, who lives in Playa del Rey.
“While most of the neighborhood council representatives we have met truly have the interests of the residents of the city of Los Angeles first and foremost in their thinking while serving on these important bodies that assist communities in feeling more connected to the decisions made on our behalf in the city, we now understand that there are some who are serving on these councils who have serious conflicts of interest that we believe should disqualify them from service.”
Flintoft could not be reached for comment on the charges.
“The city attorney’s office can not provide ‘third party advice’ on conflict of interest matters,” wrote Rob Wilcox, a Feuer spokesman, in an email response.
Hanscom and other environmental organizations have voiced their opposition to the Annenberg project and have taken issue that some members of the Westchester-Playa board have been invited to speak about the planned center at community forums where she and opponents of the center have not had the same access.
On April 11, the Del Rey Neighborhood Council rejected a motion from Hanscom and her allies to oppose building the center in the wetlands, saying it was premature as the board had not heard a presentation from Annenberg.
Westchester-Playa board member Booker Pearson said he has heard similar allegations for years about some members of the council’s professional interests colliding with council business.
“It seems to me that we’re on thin ice with some of these relationships,” said Pearson. “I think that we should get it out in the open and talk about it.”
Flintoft is also employed as a lobbyist by the Legado Co., which is seeking to build mixed- use developments in Playa del Rey.
The developer plans to construct a 72-apartment mixed-use project with 16,000 square feet of retail space at 138 Culver Blvd. and a 63-apartment mixed-use project with 11,000 square feet of retail at 230 Culver Blvd. in downtown Playa del Rey, known to locals as “lower Playa.”
Several residents of lower Playa have expressed discomfort with Legado’s plan to consider the developments as separate transactions and are also waiting to see if the company seeks to develop a parcel near Toes Beach in Playa del Rey as well.
At a July 16 meeting, Legado representatives denied that they have plans to develop Toes Beach and 138 Culver Blvd.
In the past, both Maleman and Flintoft have represented clients that later approached the Westchester-Playa neighborhood council for approval – Flintoft with developer Decron Properties and Maleman with Playa Vista.
“While these individuals have every right to engage in employment in the fields in which they have chosen, it is when they become engaged with clients who have business before the neighborhood council when a conflict of interest arises that goes beyond merely recusal from a vote,” Hanscom claimed.
The Westchester-Playa council is configured in a fashion unlike its counterparts on the Westside and throughout most of the neighborhood council system.
They have one of the largest boards of all the 95 councils at 35 members and have three board positions for business directors and one each for a community organization, religion, income property, Loyola Marymount University and Los Angeles International Airport.
These special interest seats, as some on the council refer to them, are now under consideration by one of the council’s executive officers for a reconfiguration that he thinks will assuage the concerns that some in Playa del Rey and parts of Westchester hold about the council as a board that caters to business interests and developers.
Mark Redick, vice president of the Westchester-Playa council, has expressed an interest in reducing the number of board seats as well as eliminating the special interest seats. He did not address Hanscom’s accusations at the meeting, but afterward he talked about the importance for local councils to be above reproach.
“If you have the appearance of a conflict of interest, you lose the trust of those who you represent,” Redick asserted. “Trust is something that takes a long time to develop and a short time to lose.
“That’s why perception is so important.”
Mar Vista Community Council First Vice President Bill Koontz mentioned an incident on his council that he thinks underscores how seriously they take conflicts of interest.
“At a recent board meeting a board member recused herself from a vote because she happened to sit on the board of the non-profit that brought a motion before us. This board member will never see a penny from this 501c3 and has no financial interest in it whatsoever, but the rules are clear and she had to step outside,” Koontz recalled.
“During another motion, a stakeholder brought a motion to ask the Department of Transportation to add a new stop sign in two intersections on her street to help mitigate cut-through traffic,” he continued. “One of the board members realized from the pictures and address that he owned a rental property on the other side of the street and thought to recuse himself.
“This type of transparency and self regulation should be what the entire political process should strive for.”
Westchester-Playa Planning and Land Use Chair Patricia Lyon said that she did not expect the Annenberg project to come before the council. But it could vote on the Playa del Rey developments later this year.
Probe of possible conflicts of interest on Westchester-Playa council requested
By Gary Walker