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Palisades DRB Taken off Caruso Project, Bonin Has NOT Replaced Them: WHY?

NEIGHBORHOOD POLITICS--The Pacific Palisades Design Review Board (DRB) has lost members due to term limits. For many months, the DRB has asked Councilman Mike Bonin for replacements, but he has not responded. 

Pacific Palisades Community Council President George Wolfberg sent Bonin’s office a joint letter with the Brentwood Community Council in March, asking the Councilman: “Please let us know at your earliest convenience how you will proceed to fill the DRB vacancies.” 

What does the Design Review Board do? When the Palisades Starbucks (corner of Sunset and Swarthmore) decided it wanted to sell beer/wine, it went before the Community Council seeking support in obtaining that license. It also went before the DRB for advice on the color of the awnings, the proposed lawn furniture and landscaping. 

The Palisades DRB came under fire during the Caruso project and was unable to review the plans and issue its recommendations (pro and con) to City Planning. But, after examining more than 500 emails from three different sources concerning the DRB in 2015-16, Circling the News thinks we should re-examine whether the sidelining of four members was fair. 

THE BACKGROUND: 

DRB Works to Understand Guidelines 

(The following emails and story explain the steps that the DRB took to follow the Brown Act. Why was DRB member Stuart Muller not dismissed in November 2015 for attending a Community Council meeting? Why was DRB member Donna Vaccarino not recused in January 2016?) 

October 3, 2015, DRB Chair Barbara Kohn sent a second email to City officials, including Bonin’s Director of Land Use and Planning Tricia Keane, asking for a written ruling from the City Conflict of Interest Attorney Renee Stadel about the DRB and the Brown Act. 

October 10 DRB minutes state: “Tricia Keane from CD 11 spoke with the conflict of interest attorney in the City Attorney’s office who ventured a verbal opinion which was verbally relayed to Barbara. Differing verbal opinions have been expressed but no written or definitive opinions have been issued.

David Hibbert states that he is familiar with a similar situation with the Santa Monica Design Review Board and that, since the DRB Board is authorized to review proposed projects for Specific Plan conformance, there does not appear to be a conflict. PPCC is a Community Council, and unlike certified Neighborhood Councils, is independent from the city of Los Angeles and has no review authority. . . .It was further agreed that the DRB members who also serve as PPCC members will continue with their regular and usual duties unless and until the City notifies them otherwise.” 

On October 27, 2015, 11:03 a.m., Keane responded to a note sent from Chris Spitz’s iPad. (Spitz was chair of the PPCC). 

“Regarding the DRB/PPCC issue, yes, the City Atty has reached out to the DRB and provided guidance consistent with the info that they’ve provided me.”  Spitz responded “Thx” and then followed up with two emails. “Tricia, please clarify: 1) whether the 4 Dual members (DRB and PPCC) should not attend our upcoming PPCC meetings re the Caruso project (consistent with the C.A. Advice): and 2)  . . . [was blank]. 

Keane’s response was not in the emails that were included under the Public Records request concerning the DRB dismissal, but Spitz responded “Understood. But again, this intersects with PPCC operations and these are matters of legitimate community concern (particularly if there is any chance that the DRB process has already been or may be further compromised).” 

Some of the DRB board members received an October 28 letter from City Attorney Stadel, who warns them they should be fair—because if not, the decision could be litigated. 

“If you have previously attended a community meeting at which the matter that you will be considering at the Design Review Board is discussed and will not be recusing yourself, then at a minimum, any ex parte contacts including attending at the particular community meetings must be made public at the Design Review Board and the substance of those communications/meetings must be disclosed to the applicant, so the applicant has the opportunity to address those issues. If you are a member of the Pacific Palisades Community Council board, we suggest that you do not participate as a member of the board when the item that will be considered by the Design Review Board is considered, unless you plan to recuse yourself at the Design Review Board. We recommend that if you are to remain in the room to listen during the public meeting at the PPCC though you have recused yourself there, that you do so with the audience.” 

November 9, Kohn wrote to Bonin, Keane, Levy and Hull. “At the last meeting, the DRB members requested documents pertaining to the project, including traffic studies, environmental studies and other reports submitted by the applicant. The only available information is through the applicant’s website and other PR releases, which are not sufficient.” 

On November 15, a PPCC meeting was held and DRB member Stuart Muller (who was also Area 6 Representative) was in attendance. A November 19 email from Keane to Mike Bonin stated, “I will be contacting the City Atty to make sure we all understand what Stuart’s presence at the meeting last night means for his participation on the DRB when the Caruso project comes before them in December.” 

If Mueller’s attendance was considered ex-parte, why did the City Attorney not remove him from the Design Review Board then? 

Mueller spoke to Stadel, who wrote to him in a December 8 email: “Thank you for contacting me. Based on our phone conversation, my understanding is that you stated while you attended a meeting of the Pacific Palisades Community Council (PPCC) at which the Caruso Village project was discussed with Mr. Caruso present, you did not have a discussion about the merits about the project with anyone. If that’s is an accurate description, then as we stated in October, while we recommend against attending community meetings including PPCC meetings at which matters that will come before the Design Review Board will be discussed and we recommend recusing yourself at the Design Review Board after attending such a meeting, if you nonetheless choose not to recuse yourself at the Design Review Board, then you must put on the record at the Design Review Board that you have attended the particular PPCC meeting at which the project was presented with Mr. Caruso present.” 

In a November 25 email, Kohn asked Keane why the DRB Board had not had an opportunity to meet with City planners about the Caruso project—“I was told months ago that the department was trying to arrange such a meeting but there were complications due to the Brown Act. . .The board is fully informed about the Brown Act since I became involved on the DRB and continue to remind them of the requirements.” 

Kohn concluded: “We were asked by CD 11 to do a job but many on the board feel we have been left out of discussions.” 

Donna Vaccarino’s Dismissal from DRB 

In January 2016, DRB member Donna Vaccarino stood in a line to speak with Councilman Mike Bonin at the Swarthmore Farmers Market “Chat with Mike.” 

In a March 9, 2016 letter from Vaccarino’s attorneys Reuben Raucher & Blum to City Attorney Stadel, they wrote: “Although the conversation with Councilman Bonin took place on January 10, 2016, the first time Ms. Vaccarino or anyone else on the DRB board heard of any concerns with respect to the conversation was from the Councilman’s office on February 26, 2016, the day after the PPCC meeting.” 

Vaccarino’s dismissal took away a DRB quorum. 

Vaccarino’s lawyer wrote, “The timing thus suggests that the alleged ‘concern’ with respect to Ms. Vaccarino was only manufactured after it was learned that Ms. Kohn, Ms. Comras and Mr. Muller had attended a PPCC meeting. Suddenly, Ms. Vacccarino’s general conversation with the Councilman presented an opportunity to divest the DRB of jurisdiction by depriving it of a quorum.” 

Vaccarino asked Keane to see the complaint against her. Keane replied in a May 11 email: “You asked for a copy of the ‘complaint report’ that was filed against you for ‘the alleged ex-parte conversation with Mike Bonin.’ There wasn’t a formal complaint report and there hasn’t been any kind of extra-judicial process about the conversation. Rather, the conversation was brought to my attention in an email. The majority of the email did not mention you; there was one paragraph regarding the conversation, which I am including for you below: 

“On January 10, at the Palisades Farmers Market and in my presence, Donna Vaccarino openly discussed the Village Project with the Councilmember, telling Mike that he should not support the project and giving him her reasons why it should be supported. In addition, I have reason to believe Ms. Vaccarino has opined about the project in other discussions with community members (outside of DRB meetings).” There was no date given when the email was sent. 

Keane said that she discussed the conversation with Bonin and with the City Attorney, which is how the City Attorney heard about it. 

On March 3, Vaccarino sent a letter to Bonin. “I recall our meeting at the Sunday Farmers Market and have stated my understanding of the discussion in a separate attachment to this letter. Given the presence of only one other individual, Chris Spitz, I can only conclude that she is the source of the allegation. I feel that your and my conversation was appropriate. Had it not been so, I believe that you would have stopped the conversation.” 

Vaccarino said, “I did not discuss the content or merits of the Village Project, as that would have been unknown until the DRB discussion took place on Wednesday.” 

Subsequently she sent emails to Keane and other City officials claiming the email to Keane was untrue and asked for the name of her accuser. 

After repeated emails, finally, on June 3, 2016, Keane sent Vaccarino an email telling her that under Government Code sections 6254(c) and 6255, the email was exempt from release because it protected the Councilmember’s deliberative process, which outweighed public interest. The release would “have a chilling effect on residents’ willingness to bring issues of concern to the attention of their government representatives.” 

Keane also wrote that the Councilman had spoken with City Attorney staff and “concurred with the characterization of the conversation he had with you.” 

February 10 Design Review Board Meeting Cancelled 

Initially the Final Design Review for the Caruso project by the Design Review Board was to be held on February 10. 

The Palisadian-Post ran a breaking news item on February 4 stating that the upcoming DRB meeting was being rescheduled. The paper quoted Rick Caruso: “We learned that Palisades residents did not receive proper notification from the city regarding the upcoming February 10th DRB meeting.” 

The problem? DRB members had not been notified and learned about the cancellation through the paper, rather than from the City. DRB member Kelly Comras sent an email to members of the DRB Board and to City Planners Harden Carter, Lakisha Hull and Michelle Levy that afternoon: 

“Harden, Lakisha, Michelle— 

Is this true? How did the DRB members not get notified of the change?” 

Levy responded in an afternoon email: “At the applicant’s request, we will be cancelling the meeting on February 10. In an email received this morning, Mr. Caruso requested that the item be rescheduled to a future date in late February or early March. We were not expecting to see this press release before we had an opportunity to notify the Board members directly!” 

DRB President Kohn suggested that the meeting go on as a working meeting. Levy sent the request to Caruso’s Michael Gazzano and the project architect Dave Williams. There was no response. 

Were There Design Issues? 

The DRB meeting was rescheduled for March 2. Prior to the February meeting, DRB had asked for time with City planners, but it never happened. 

But, Caruso’s Michael Gazzano, Ben Howell, Sam Garrison and Matt Dzurec scheduled a February 10 meeting with City planners Hull and Levy. 

On February 12, Gazzano wrote Levy and Hull: “I’d like to get a weekly call set up for Tuesday mornings at 11 a.m.” 

Levy said on February 16, “We have division meetings Tuesday mornings. Can we find another time?” 

The next day, Levy wrote to Gazzano that a document sent them “is not entirely accurate since the setbacks will vary along Swarthmore. Having dimensioned architectural plans is standard practice and the level of detail that is needed for our staff report. We are not asking for anything out of the ordinary.” 

Levy told Gazzano that in order to be available for the March 2 DRB meeting, it needs to be completed “no later than 10 a.m. Friday [February 19].” 

The next day, Levy sent a subsequent list of needed details to Gazzano, reminding him “I am re-sending the filing instructions for the DRB which lists all of the requirements. . . .If the DRB does not have enough information to take action on March 2, they can move to continue to March 16, disapprove the project or take no action.” 

She told Gazzano that 1) “fully dimensioned plans, sections and elevations are a requirement; 2)  the landscape plan needs to be updated to show selected plant species, including call outs for new trees (number of trees, size, species, location), groundcover, shrubs and plants, and any hardscape materials. Thumbnail images of the plants should be included in the call outs or on a separate sheet; 3) building materials need to be selected and called out in plans. This includes all façade materials, fabric or metal awnings, stone, paint colors and textures, guardrails and lighting.” 

Former DRB President Rick Mills wrote a February 19 email to Mike Bonin, the DRB Board, the PPCC and Caruso executive Rick Lemmo. 

Mills said the Mitigated Negative Declaration was online. “The MND—over 400 pages—is very thorough. . . .It has multiple required conditions to mitigate assorted impacts. . .note that the MND requires, for example, a sign program and a streetscape plan—I don’t see the DRB mentioned at all as having a role.” 

Mills said he hoped the DRB would add mitigation for valuable public land given to the developer because “The City is vacating to the developer for private use a substantial area of public land including two alley rights-of-way and a lane of Sunset Boulevard . . . to provide off-site benefits.” 

Vaccarino sent an email to Lakisha, and the rest of the DRB Board on February 29 in advance of the scheduled March 2 DRB meeting: 

“Please find the attached partial list of errors and omissions in the Existing Conditions submittal of the Village Project.” The two-page list included14 specific examples, such as page 14, Sunset Blvd: Building setback—Wrong street name, Access point—Wrong street name, “One-Street” Parking—Wrong street name, Street Trees—Wrong Street name, wrong trees id. 

Comras also sent an email, noting that she and other members of the board had found the same omissions and errors and asked, “Will the applicant be required to cure the errors before we make a motion? Or do we make a motion to approve subject to the cure?” 

On March 2, Vaccarino wrote to Bonin, Keene, Kaisha Hull and Michelle Levy: “The project as submitted has grave errors and omissions that will be an embarrassment to the council office if not vetted publicly by the DRB. . . .The Traffic Study is incomplete. The Parking count is in question, there is no accessibility standards presented in the parking plan (NO HC & Van Parking), there is no Trash Management Plan, the Negative Mitigated Declaration is weak, and the total review is riddled with errors.” 

February 25, 2016 Community Council Meeting is pictured above.  (Left to right) Peter Culhane (Highlands Representative), Richard Cohen, Secretary Jennifer Malaret, President Chris Spitz and Maryam Zar were members of the 2016 Pacific Palisades Community Council.          

On February 23, Community Council President Chris Spitz sent an 8:31 a.m. email to Keane, Dyner Harris, Shapiro and Ezra Gale: 

“Following up, as you know there are concerns that DRB members may attend our board meeting this Thursday, despite what we understand is the City Attorney’s advice/directive against their attendance (due to governing conflicts rules). (There is precedent with Stuart improperly attending our Nov. 18 meeting.) Can you please advise what, if any steps have been taken to try and prevent this from happening (and possibly jeopardizing DRB process)?” 

Keane responded 17 minutes later. “Chris, I will give you a call today to discuss.” 

Spitz sent an iPhone message to Shapiro asking her to defer her council report and subsequently told her, “I will reserve a seat for you in the front—could be a huge crowd.”

At the meeting, three members of the DRB sat at the PPCC table: Barbara Kohn (chair emeritus), Kelly Comras (Area 1 Representative) and Stuart Muller (Area 6 Representative). Comras and Kohn said later that before the meeting they told Spitz they were recusing themselves from voting regarding the Caruso project. Both said there were several witnesses. Spitz has disputed that. 

As editor of the Palisades News, I asked Spitz about the witnesses, because according to Stadel, if the DRB members had recused themselves they were following the guidelines. Spitz denied they recused themselves. 

Subsequently Spitz wrote on March 25 to the paper, also cc’ing Bonin, Keane, Shapiro, Dyner-Harris, Stadel and PPCC board members Maryam Zar, Richard Cohen and Jennifer Malaret. “I’ve already stated that these persons did not state to me that they would be recusing themselves, yet you continue to make this false assertion and base your claims on this false premise. You are clearly allowing your personal bias to color your ‘journalistic’ inquiry.’” 

She suggested that the News should research the difference between abstention and recusal. And concluded: “Under these circumstances there is no point in our continuing to communicate on this topic and I will not respond to further inquiries from you on this subject.” 

The PPCC meeting minutes, which can be viewed at pacpalicc.org, noted that there were to be three motions for the Caruso project. If the Council voted in favor, a letter would go in the March 9 Mitigated Negative Declaration folder saying that the Community Council supported the Caruso project. 

Dick Wulliger (Historical Society) invoked Article 10 of the PPCC bylaws to postpone any vote on Motion #1. Spitz exercised her right as Chair to make the board an ad-hoc committee so discussion could proceed. But the same thing happened with the two subsequent motions. NO VOTE was taken that night by the board about approving a letter to the City regarding the Caruso project. 

During the meeting, Caruso’s Senior VP Lemmo (Chamber of Commerce representative) sent and received messages from Shapiro. At 7:33 a.m. Shapiro asked Lemmo, “Do you want to speak outside quickly?” 

At 8:46 p.m. Lemmo sent a message to Shapiro: “Now with four of the DRB folks here, the City Attorney should really invalidate DRB from any further discussions on this project.” 

The Fallout and Dismissal 

After the meeting, Richard Cohen sent a note to Bonin and Keane saying, “At tonight’s PPCC meeting DRB members Barbara Kohn, Stuart Muller, Kelly Comras and Donna Vaccarino attended and stayed through the discussion of the proposed Caruso Village Project. . . .In light of their disregard of these admonitions will the DRB be disqualified from hearing this matter?” 

(The DRB Board, specifically referring to Stuart Muller, had been told by the City Attorney on December 8: “As we stated in October, while we recommend against attending community meetings including PPCC meetings at which matters that will come before the Design Review Board will be discussed and we recommend recusing yourself at the Design Review Board after attending such a meeting, if you nonetheless choose not to recuse yourself at the Design Review Board, then you must put on the record at the Design Review Board that you have attended the particular PPCC meeting at which the project was presented with Mr. Caruso present.”) 

Cohen received a reply from Keane the next morning that had been cc’d to Bonin, Shapiro and Spitz. “I have already contacted the City Attorney this morning who will be evaluating this situation to determine the appropriate course of action to ensure the integrity of the planning process.” 

Spitz wrote a 6:06 a.m. note to Bonin, Keane, Shapiro, Dyner-Harris, Cohen, Zar and Malaret that those members should resign from the PPCC so “that DRB can continue to function.” And added that “Any decision in this regard of course should occur prior to the DRB meeting on March 2.”

Spitz sent a 9:31 a.m. message from her iPad to Keane: “Tricia—are you available to talk this morning. It’s important!” 

On February 29, the PPCC executive committee (Spitz, Cohen, Zar, Malaret, Anderson) sent a letter supporting the Caruso project– even though the full PPCC board had not voted–explaining it had the power to do so since public comment for the MND would expire on 3/09/16 and they wouldn’t meet again until March 10. 

On March 1, at 7:31 p.m., Keane wrote Debbie Dyner-Harris in Bonin’s office: “A cancellation notice should be going out tomorrow morning for the PPDRB meeting tomorrow night. I can fill you in on all the details. But you won’t need to cover the meeting.” 

On March 2, at 8 a.m., a message was sent on a mobile device from Keane to Bonin and Chad Molnar: “Fyi.” But the remainder of the message was not available to view.

Spitz chimed in at 8:01 a.m. to Keane, Bonin, Shapiro and Dyner-Harris and the PPCC executive board. 

“Hi Tricia,

“In an effort to be helpful, I respectfully offer the follow suggested announcement language [regarding the DRB quorum].” Spitz explains that the DRB members violated the Brown Act and the Los Angeles Municipal Code by attending the Community Council meeting. “Four DRB members who are also PPCC members attending the February 25 meeting. . . this action disqualified the Dual Members from considering the project.” 

Also that day, there were three short emails between Keane, Shapiro and Dyner-Harris. “Thanks. I just saw your texts a few minutes ago—don’t know why I didn’t get them earlier since I knew Donna [Vaccarino] was trying to get in touch with our office. I’d like to get on the phone with you and DDH so I can brief you on all of this. ….” 

Shapiro responded at 11:03 a.m. “Debbie I just got off the phone with tk—so I think we’re good on my end. . .I’m sure she will mention to you when you see her at ch.” 

At 2:43 p.m. Bonin sent an email to Keene and his spokesperson David Graham-Caso, “Talk w me in person.” 

Keene responded at 3:40: “Had to go to WLA for the Martin Cadillac hearing. Am available by cell.”

On March 3, Graham-Caso emailed Keane, “When are you available?” 

On March 3, Bonin sent an announcement that four members of the DRB had ex-parte communications regarding the project. 

Bonin concluded, “The DRB will not be able to hear and act on this matter. According to the Municipal Code, when the DRB cannot act, the Director of Planning will make the determination regarding project design.” 

By removing the DRB, all local input regarding building materials, facades, landscaping choices and other esthetic designs were taken from the community and sent to City Planning. 

In an email to the Palisades News from Graham-Caso on March 7, Bonin said he had nothing to do with the DRB being dismissed, but “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.” 

He concluded that “Having been informed of these developments, when constituents asked why the DRB meeting had been cancelled, I shared the reasons why. The assumption that my sharing information indicated that I generated information is incorrect.” 

On March 8, Bonin’s office released the reason that the four members had been disqualified was because of LAMC section 16.50 G : “No design review board member shall discuss with anyone the merits of any matter either pending or likely to be pending before the board other than during a duly called meeting of the board or subcommittee of the board.” 

On March 10, Spitz send an email to Keene and Shapiro. “We just learned from Pascoe (Palisades News editor) that a lawsuit was filed over the DRB matter. She gave no other info. Can you share any info? Who are the parties?” 

That same day, Bonin sent a message from his iPhone to Molnar, Keane, Graham-Caso and Shapiro: “What coverage did the two papers have today? I’m getting a couple of emails that make me worry about it.” 

Twenty minutes later Keene told him: “I got some second-hand information about what is leading to people sending support emails to the City about the DRB. I’m trying to track down whether or not it’s true, so I’ll let you know as soon as I figure it out.” 

Graham-Caso from his iPhone responded: “The messages are obviously originating from the same person/coordinated effort.” 

One resident wrote Bonin on March 10: “It seems some residents are really upset with these seemingly underhanded dismissals or lack of hearings before the meeting that caused half the members to be booted. I hope you will heed at least some of the worries of the community. I’m pro-development, but this stuff doesn’t sit right. Please be fair and do it right. Don’t sell out! Or appear to.”

Councilman Mike Bonin (left) and developer Rick Caruso at the project’s groundbreaking.
Photo: Bart Bartholomew
 

Of the emails to Bonin obtained by Circling the News, 15 residents expressed dismay or concern that the DRB was not going to be allowed to review the Caruso project. There were no emails in favor of allowing City planning to take over the Caruso project. 

Former Beverly Hills City Attorney Jack Allen wrote that “Municipal Code (Section 16.50 c) was not intended to cover public meetings. The provision that prohibited DRB members from discussing with anyone the merits of an application before them was designed to prevent members from discussing such matters in private in secret without public knowledge of what was said. 

“…The actions being proposed by the Community Council were not in the purview of the DRB. The actions of the members could not have been more public and transparent. . .” Allen wrote in a March 7 email to Bonin and cc’d to the News and Palisadian-Post

“Nor was the attendance of the majority of the DRB a violation of the Brown Act, which makes an exception for a majority of the Board to attend an open and publicized meeting organized to address a topic of local community concern by a person or organization.” 

Allen concludes that “Caruso has the option as the applicant to waive the alleged violation and consent to those four members hearing his application.” 

Questions Unanswered: 

Since the PPCC is not a government-approved entity and does not follow the Brown Act, those emails cannot be obtained through the Public Records Act. What might have gone on between PPCC members? When Spitz turned the PPCC into an ad hoc committee, did the same rules apply? 

Bonin’s office supplied some of the emails, but there are gaps still remaining. Bonin’s office never provided proof that they contacted Caruso to let him know his project would now go straight to the City. Or that according to Allen, Caruso could have allowed the DRB to hear the application. 

City Attorney Mike Feuer spoke to the PPCC on June 22, 2017, and was asked “Does the City have to follow the California Public Records Act?” 

“My office provides special advice to everybody in the City family,” Feuer said, and added that although his office provides advice, they can’t direct an office how to respond. But noted,“The City has to comply with the act.” 

“You’re a lawyer for us, too, right?” the News asked Feuer. 

Although Feuer is elected by Los Angeles residents, he pointed out that according to the City Charter he is the lawyer for the City, and Councilman Bonin is his client. 

Finally, why hasn’t Bonin replaced people on the Design Review Board whose terms have expired.

 

(Sue Pascoe blogs about local issues on Circling the News.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.