Claremont Insider: The Gift That Keeps On Giving

Saturday, July 14, 2007

The Gift That Keeps On Giving

We missed another eminent domain story yesterday, but thanks to a regular reader who passed it on to us.


Former City Manager Glenn Southard, as we've written in the past, is indeed an ongoing gift. You almost have to wonder if Southard took some sort of perverse pleasure in leaving behind landmines to explode years later.

There was the $17.5 million settlement for the October, 2003, fire that destroyed homes in Palmer Canyon, Padua Hills, and Claraboya. The fire burned through the City of Claremont's Wilderness Park, which homeowners claimed had not been properly cleared of brush. The city had a Vegetation Management Plan for the park to address the areas bordering homes, but failed to implement the plan fully, according to the plaintiffs in the suit.

Then, there was the $675,000 paid out this year to the developer of the Village West expansion project, The Tolkin Group, because Southard and his staff had put the utility connections in place long before anyone decided on the actual details and locations of the buildings going in. So the developer had to pay to have the hookups moved around.

And let's not forget that instant $10 million pension deficit Southard created by pushing a city employee pension upgrade in the year before he left. (The pension increase, based on years of service, was retroactive back to each employee's date of hire.)

There are other problems that have come up since Southard left. Just yesterday Will Bigham had an article about Harry Wu, the developer of the DoubleTree Hotel and the Old Schoolhouse project on Foothill Blvd.

According to the Bigham article, Wu is unhappy because he would rather own the DoubleTree property than lease it. He has not been able to negotiate a purchase, and in the article yesterday he complained that in early 2005, before leaving Claremont for Indio, Southard had given Wu private assurances that the city would use eminent domain if needed to help Wu obtain the property.

Wu told Bigham that he would not have sunk $10 million into the DoubleTree without Southard's assurances.

Sound familiar? At the same time Wu says Southard was promising the use of eminent domain, Southard's staff also worked with Roger Hogan, the owner of Claremont Toyota, to assist Hogan in obtaining the old Chili's site in South Claremont. The threat of eminent domain against the property owner was raised during those negotiations because of the tax advantages to the seller if eminent domain was threatened. Southard left, and the eminent domain talk died down.

And last year the Johnson's Pasture owners complained that they, too, had been promised a threat of eminent domain by the city during early 2005 to give them a tax advantage.

Southard, naturally, denied making any eminent domain promises to Harry Wu. Bigham quoted Southard's response:

"I couldn't do that as city manager anyway," said Southard, who is now the city manager of Indio. "The only people who can issue a notice of condemnation are the City Council at a public meeting and with public notice."
Notice Southard didn't said, "I didn't do that." There is no flat denial. He only says, "I couldn't do that...." Yet, there does seem to be a pattern of eminent domain talk floating around in early 2005 as Southard was exiting Claremont.

Back in March this year, we received an email from Mike Vasilove, one of the Johnson's Pasture owners. Vasilove said in his note:

We have in our possession, a letter from the City signed by the City Manager dated April, 2005 telling the owners of JP the City is interested in purchasing the Pasture and will recommend to the City Council the
use of eminent domain against us if we don't agree to sell the Pasture under the price and terms set forth by the first appraisal and agreement. We agreed to sell under those terms and price. The City backed out of the contract due to the adjustment made by the State regarding the appraisal.
We asked Vasilove for a copy of that note, but he never provided it to us. However, it seems odd that both Wu and Vasilove would complain of the same promises from Southard in different transactions.

Bigham also interviewed former city employee Scott Miller for yesterday's piece. Miller, unlike Southard, did acknowledge the fact that eminent domain had come up during the discussions with Wu in 2005, but Miller claimed that though the subject did get mentioned, it was not promised. Miller was the city's assistant executive director (to Southard) of the Claremont Redevelopment Agency.

In the Bigham article, the city acknowledged having sent a letter to the owners of the DoubleTree property saying that Wu had promised to pay the costs of any eminent domain proceeding--so it had indeed come up, and in the form of a letter, just as the Johnson's Pasture owner had claimed.

Of course, the city, and Southard and Miller, would argue that a mention is not a promise.