Three commissioners from the Landmarks Preservation Commission filed a lawsuit Monday against the city in response to an opinion by the city attorney saying they have a conflict of interest.
At a Civic Center press conference late Monday afternoon, the commissioners, Becky O’Malley, Lesley Emmington-Jones and Carrie Olson and their attorney Antonio Rossmann, announced they had filed the suit with the state Court of Appeal in San Francisco. The suit names the city and LPC Chair Burton Edwards as respondents.
The lawsuit is the latest development resulting from a series of opinions from City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque that describe seven commissioners on three commissions as having a conflict of interest in carrying out the duties of commissioner. Five of the commissioners were named by Albuquerque because of their affiliation with nonprofit organizations.
O’Malley, Emmington-Jones and Olson were considered by Albuquerque to have a conflict of interest because of their affiliation with the nonprofit Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association. As a result of the Oct. 30 opinion, LPC Chair Edwards would not allow the three commissioners to discuss or vote on any issues related to a proposal by the Beth El Congregation to build a synagogue and school at 1301 Oxford St.
Albuquerque’s opinions resulted in disrupting the work of two commissions. The LPC and the Community Environmental Advisory Commission abruptly ended three meetings because of internal arguments and confusion over the opinions.
“I’m not sure why the city attorney has issued these opinions but this is not the first time she has found phantom conflict of interest issues and tried to eliminate people who are heavily involved with civic politics,” Rossmann said. “The city needs to end this practice of ‘guilt by affiliation.’”
Rossmann said the suit seeks a ruling by the Court of Appeal stipulating that his clients should be returned to fully functioning members of the commission and ordering the city not to disqualify other commissioners solely on the basis of their affiliation with a nonprofit.
“A conflict of interest should be related to a financial issue, which is not the case here,” Rossmann said.
The press conference was held at 5 p.m., too late for the Daily Planet to get a response from the city attorney’s office.
A fourth LPC commissioner, Doug Morse, was included in Albuquerque’s opinion but has chosen not to be involved with the suit.
According to O’Malley, Morse attempted to resolve his alleged conflict by resigning from BAHA but was told by someone in the City Attorney’s Office that he is still ineligible to serve on the LPC.
Rossmann said he is unaware of any similar cases ever being filed in California. “This is a novel theory,” he said. “The case cited in the city attorney’s opinion is a 30-year-old case out of The District of Columbia regarding the National Organization of Women so these cases aren’t heard very often.”
Olson said in a press release, she believes her constitutional rights to freedom of association have been violated. “I think this is an amazing turn of events, especially given that we are in the cradle of the Free Speech Movement.”