This thing was clearly an illegal Las Vegas travel gift to the council members and their families from the Mall’s developer, simply because the Mall was already being built. They no longer needed to sell or “study” anything.
Burbank Officials Criticized Over Developer-Funded Trip to Las Vegas
September 21, 1992|JIM HERRON ZAMORA | TIMES STAFF WRITER
A flap over a developer-funded visit to a Las Vegas conference on shopping malls two years ago by 11 Burbank officials and several of their spouses has transformed the normally sedate atmosphere at City Hall to one reminiscent of Watergate-era Washington.
At the center of it all is a murky $500,000 paid into a city-run account by the developer of the Media City Center mall to help the city study and promote the project at the 1990 International Council of Shopping Centers conference at the Flamingo Hilton.
Eleven Burbank officials–five council members and six planners–and several spouses spent about $12,000 from the account on the conference.
Critics say the city used the money to party with developers in Las Vegas and later tried to hide it from columnist Will Rogers of the Burbank Leader newspaper, who sought expense records from the trip.
“In my opinion this is a slush fund,” said Ted McConkey, president of the Burbank Rancho Homeowners association. McConkey maintains that the fund and the trip qualify as gifts and would violate state laws limiting gifts to elected officials.
City officials deny wrongdoing and maintain that the trip was not a gift but a fee paid by the developer, the Alexander Haagen Co., as part of the contract to build the mall. They said that because the city was competing with malls in other cities, officials had to go to the conference to help recruit big chain retailers.
“This mall did not appear out of thin air,” Councilman Thomas Flavin said. “Retailers don’t just line up and move in. You have to sell the city of Burbank.”
Wasn’t this Haagen’s job at that point? And we thought Burbank sold itself. That’s what this same crowd has always told us.
Surrounding the controversy is a series of bizarre events over the past three months, including:
* One councilman demanding that a colleague “step outside” and settle their differences after he was accused of leaking information about the controversy to the press during a council meeting.
* The mayor calling for an investigation of leaks to the press, especially of city strategy in Rogers’ pending lawsuit over access to city records, and asking the city to review the security of council offices after a reporter was seen leaving one councilman’s office with “a large Manila envelope.”
* The council voting to give the mayor sole authority to decide legal strategy in the litigation with the columnist because council members could not trust one another.
* Citizen gadflies bringing up the trip at every council meeting. One recently stood in front of City Hall holding a hand-lettered sign demanding the jailing of the “Las Vegas Four”–those councilmen still in office who made the trip.
The hilarity continues.
Against this background, the city hired a retired Burbank police chief in July to perform an independent investigation into charges that the city concealed expenditure records of the 1990 trip from Rogers. The report by Glenn Bell exonerated the city.
In order to restore public confidence, the city also hired the accounting firm of Peat Marwick to audit the $500,000 fund created in 1989 when the city picked Haagen to develop the Media City Center shopping mall. The audit summary showed that the vast majority of the money has been used to defray city costs in analyzing Haagen’s mall proposal.
At the council’s request, City Manager Robert Ovrom, who made the trip, also wrote a report on the controversy. Although he conceded that the city’s bookkeeping of the money was “sloppy” and “embarrassing” because much of the information had been misplaced or discarded, he maintains that nothing improper occurred.
These measures have done little to discourage critics who claim that both Bell and Ovrom are biased.
“This stinks so bad you can smell it across the city,” McConkey said.
McConkey has lodged complaints with the state Fair Political Practices Commission and the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office. Both agencies are reviewing McConkey’s complaints but neither has decided whether to initiate a formal investigation into the case.
All the fuss is over a convention trip that several participants agree “wasn’t very much fun” to begin with.
Most of the conference was spent standing beside a giant architectural model of the shopping center at Haagen’s booth.
“You sit there, shake hands and smile a lot,” Ovrom said. “Some conferences are a lot of fun, but this isn’t one of them.”
“It was a working trip,” said Councilman Michael Hastings, who spent $320 from the fund to pay his baby-sitter. “There was no golf for Michael Hastings. No swimming for Michael Hastings. No fun for Michael Hastings. I spent eight hours on the floor.”
“Vegas is not the kind of place where we would go for a vacation,” Councilman Tim Murphy said.
“Las Vegas is one of my least-favorite spots,” Flavin agreed.
Maybe staid Judge Murphy wouldn’t. But millions do.
Those three, along with Councilman Robert Bowne, who is now mayor, and Councilwoman Mary Lou Howard, who lost a reelection bid last year, were the elected officials attending. Ovrom also headed a contingent of six city planners.
The annual conference is a chance to show off and make deals. Mall developers try to lure tenants. Architects and builders try to win contracts. Retail chains look for lucrative new locations.
The Burbank officials were there to support the $200-million Media City Center project, which was still under construction at the time. Several participants said Haagen asked them to bring their spouses because most executives would bring theirs.
Rogers said he began investigating the case in October because sources told him the city was trying to hide the costs of the 1990 trip. At first he was told that some records did not exist. Later city officials admitted that some records were destroyed after his initial request. Still others were discovered the same day he filed suit in July.
“It’s a lousy way to run things, but there’s no evidence that there was any conscious effort to withhold information,” said Bell, Burbank police chief from 1982 to 1990.
“The only conspiracy is in Will Rogers’ head,” Bell said. “That cover-up theory will be out there as long as Will Rogers is saying it. . . . It’s just like Oliver Stone and his Kennedy assassination theory.”
It was hardly a conspiracy. No, it was a very much out in the open — business as usual for the way Burbank was operating at the time. And probably will be again.
Rogers denounced Bell’s investigation, calling him a “City Hall insider” whom no whistle-blower would trust. He accused Bell of conducting a biased investigation and badgering the columnist about his writings. “It was like being interviewed by Rush Limbaugh,” Rogers said. “He spent most of the time criticizing the media instead of listening to what I had to say.”
The intrigue over leaks and cover-ups has polarized the council and distracted its members from other issues.
Several days after a reporter was seen leaving Councilman Murphy’s office with a large Manila envelope, Hastings publicly asked Murphy during a council meeting to tell his colleagues what was inside.
Murphy accused the others of engaging in a witch hunt against him and refused to discuss the alleged leaks in public.
“This is just as chicken as anything I’ve ever seen come out of this council,” Murphy said during the meeting. “You have all seen me two or three times since this happened and none of you were man enough to say anything about it till now.”
That led to an angry exchange in which Murphy asked Hastings to “name the time and place” and Hastings accused Murphy of using “intimidating tactics” in demanding that the other councilmen take their disputes with him “out in the parking lot.”
Murphy denied that he wanted to fight. He later said he just wanted to air their differences privately as “gentlemen.”
But Flavin has a different view.
“I was invited down to the parking lot a couple of times,” Flavin said. “I didn’t interpret this as an invitation to coolly discuss the matter.”
The propriety of the trip may be decided in court, if the district attorney decides to file charges. And when Burbank voters go to the polls next spring, it probably will be an election issue.
Several experts on governmental policy agree that there appears to have been no wrongdoing, but added that Burbank citizens may have reason to question the close ties between developers and City Council members.
‘It sounds to me like a tempest in a teapot. It doesn’t sound illegal, though it may be bad judgment,” said John Landis, a professor in UC Berkeley’s city and regional planning department.
“Anything can look imprudent to the voter when it’s extracted from the bigger picture,” said Mary Corley, research associate at the Center for Real Estate and Urban Economics at UC Berkeley.
“They’re looking at $12,000 for some people to go to a conference. Two years ago, that might have seemed to be the logical thing to do,” Corley said. “But should all five council members have gone when sending a couple of staff members would have been fine? That’s really a question for Burbank voters.”
To one voter, Carolyn Berlin, a founder of the Verdugo/Magnolia Park Homeowners Assn., “it’s a serious issue.”
“I don’t doubt that we should have sent someone” to the conference, Berlin said. “But we didn’t need to send all those people. I think this shows some arrogance in the way the council is doing business.”
This sleazy Vegas trip with the disappearing city records was one of the main motivators behind the landmark Rogers v Superior Court case. Rogers tried to get a hold of various personal and (supposedly) confidential records that were clearly associated with the trip — such as the names and phone numbers of council contacts — but both the city and a pack of right-wing judicial appointees fought him back. He and the Times eventually lost the case, which created a precedent that helped to establish a private communications/confidentiality right to city operations.
Every single judge ruling against Rogers in the appellate court action was a recent Pete Wilson or George Deukmejian appointee. The Republicans back then were absolutely packing the courts with exceedingly pro-business, pro-establishment judges.
The loss was no surprise– that’s why they were there. One of the judge’s names btw was “Jack” Armstrong.