A hobbled and bickering Landmarks Preservation Commission was unable to take action on the controversial Beth El project Monday night as a result of an ongoing dispute over allegations of conflict of interest against four commissioners.
In what’s becoming a familiar scene at LPC meetings, Chair Burton Edwards refused to recognize four commissioners regarding certain applications on the commission’s agenda. Edwards was following directives from City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque who has ruled that the four are precluded from participating because of a conflict of interest arising from their positions as members of the board of directors or as staff of the nonprofit Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association.
This was the second meeting in which the chair would not recognize the four commissioners. A third meeting on Nov. 6 came to an abrupt end when the commissioners refused to step down from their seats and then quickly voted to adjourn.
According to Albuquerque’s Sept. 30, opinion, the commissioners are ineligible to take any action on applications before the LPC on properties on which BAHA has already taken an official opinion. By Albuquerque’s standards, the LPC had two such applications on Monday night’s agenda: 2526 Dwight Way and 1301 Oxford St.
The four commissioners, Becky O’Malley, Lesley Emmington-Jones, Carrie Olson and Doug Morse deny any conflict of interest and their attorney, Antonio Rossman, has threatened to take the case to court. Albuquerque’s opinion, however, was recently supported by an independent attorney who specializes in municipal law.
The pared down commission was able to approve an alteration permit for the Dwight Way project on Monday, but did not have five votes to close the public hearing on the Oxford Street application. The motion failed 4-1 with Commissioner Jill Korte voting in opposition.
Beth El is seeking an alteration permit – altering a historic landmark – to build a 35,000-square-foot synagogue and school. The permit is required because the two-acre site is an official city landmark despite the destruction of the Byrne House, an 1868 Italianate villa, in a 1985 fire.
Before the commission opened the public hearing on the 2526 Dwight Way project, an obviously uncomfortable Edwards asked the four commissioners to leave the dais. Commissioner O’Malley asked Vivian Khan, the interim deputy director of the Planning and Development Department, what would happen if they refused to leave.
Kahn was explaining that they had never been faced with that situation when O’Malley said “Well you’re faced with it now.”
The four remained at the dais and Burton proceeded with the meeting while the disqualified commissioners sat back with their arms folded.
O’Malley continued to interrupt the hearing during discussions of protocol. A frustrated Burton twice threatened to adjourn the meeting. “You’re out of order,” Burton said repeatedly. “This is exactly why you were asked to step down from the dais.”
O’Malley responded that the whole meeting was “null and void anyway so we might as well go home and get some sleep.”
Commissioner Richard Dishnica said O’Malley comments were inappropriate. “I find it disrespectful not only to us but to the members of the public.” he said. “Especially the constant and belligerent attitude towards the chairman.”
The Oxford Street alteration permit will be considered again by the LPC at its Jan. 22. meeting. If the LPC is ultimately unable to make a decision by March 14, the application will be approved by operation of law according to the California Permit Streamlining Act of 1978.