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New Councilmembers Support Legal Fees for Attorneys Who Sued the City
 

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By Jorge Casuso

May 4, 2021 -- In what is likely an unprecedented move, three City Councilmembers on Monday filed declarations in Superior Court on behalf of plaintiffs seeking attorneys fees in a lawsuit against the City.

The declarations were made by Councilmembers Phil Brock, Oscar de la Torre and Christine Parra, whose campaigns supported the lawsuit filed by slow-growth activists to halt the 357,000-square-foot Plaza project on City owned land Downtown.

One week after being sworn in, the three Councilmembers joined in a 4 to 3 vote to reverse a decision by the previous Council to proceed with negotiations with the developer, Clarett West.

"I am a member of the Santa Monica City Council," wrote Brock and Parra. "I make this declaration in support of the accompanying Motion for Attorneys’ Fees."

De la Torre made the same declaration, adding that he supported the attorneys’ fees sought by Strumwasser & Woocher LLP "for legal work that protects the public interest."

The lawsuit filed in September by the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC) charged that the City failed to abide by the State's Surplus Land Act ("Slow-Growth Group Sues City to Halt Plaza Negotiations," September 25, 2020).

The Act requires that the land be offered for affordable housing or use as open space before negotiating with a private developer.

To obtain attorneys fees, the Coalition's attorney must show that the lawsuit was a driver in the Council's decision to drop the suit.

In their declarations, all three council members conclude with the following statement:

"One of the key reasons I voted to terminate negotiations was to bring the City into compliance with the Surplus Land Act."

Robert Myers, who served as City attorney from 1981 to 1992, said it was "unusual" for Councilmembers to side with attorneys suing their own City.

"I don't recall it happening in my 11 years as City Attorney," Myers said. "When you become an elected officer to an entity, you should be loyal to that entity."

Concilmember Brock said the Coalition asked the three Councilmembers to weigh in because the City Attorney was not acting to finalize the case after negotiations with the Plaza developer had ended.

"We were asked to do this because the City Attorney had not set this for settlement, and the City Council had resolved the issue," Brock said. "In effect this was a public interest lawsuit."

Brock said he believes the attorneys fees "are very small."

The Coalition did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The only time in recent Sata Monica history that Council members waged a legal battle against the City was in 2005.

That's when Bob Holbrook and Herb Katz sued their Council colleagues for holding lengthy meetings they argued violated the Brown Act.

Their efforts to enjoin the Council from meeting past 11 p.m. were rejected in a November 2006 decision by a District Court of Appeal, which allowed the City to recover any costs it may have incurred.

The City declined to pursue attorneys fees.

In his declaration, De la Torre pointed to a press release he issued on October 12 ("Council Challenger Wins Coalition Endorsement After Denouncing Plaza Project," October 14, 2020).

"I stand wholly and unequivocally in support of the Surplus Land Act suit being brought by [SMCLC] and for the principle that public land should remain public, be under public control, and be used for public purposes,” de la Torre wrote.

The Coalition had withheld its endorsement of de la Torre until he publicly stated his opposition to the project.

Brock pointed to a column he wrote for a local paper objecting to the Council's 6 to 1 vote on July 28 to resume exclusive negotiations with Clarett.

“This building will be entangled in litigation for years as the developer evaded the State Surplus Land Act with the presumed cooperation of Santa Monica’s economic development and planning departments,” he wrote.

In a December 21 article in the Santa Monica Observer, Brock said the lawsuit was not the main reason for his vote in December to end negotiations.

"A byproduct was to end the lawsuit with SMCLC but that was not the main focus," Brock told the Observer. "It was not felt that we needed 200 more market rate apartments downtown."

Brock led a slate of challengers swept into office in a historic upset November 3 that ousted three incumbents, as many as had been defeated in the previous 24 years.

In their first meeting on December 15, they joined Mayor Sue Himmelrich in the 4 to 3 vote to end negotiations with Clarett ("New Council Kills Plaza Project," December 15, 2020).


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