Environmentalists raised angry questions this week about whether lobbyists and PR people for the Annenberg Foundation should be sitting on Westchester/Playa Neighborhood Council -- a new twist in a war over whether heiress Wallis Annenberg should get to build a big visitor center and pet-adoption facility on public land at the Ballona Wetlands.
David W. Kay, a manager at SoCal Edison and president of Friends of Ballona Wetlands, drew first blood in an email to L.A. Weekly, which slammed as "eco-jihadists" respected USC professor Travis Longcore and longtime environmentalist Marcia Hanscom of Ballona Institute. Hanscom played a role in the hard-fought battle to save hundreds of acres of Ballona's wetlands and uplands from developers. Longcore, in the Weekly story linked above, criticized Annenberg's plan to bulldoze and build a center at the wetlands. Kay also bizarrely attacked Hanscom as "the Michele Bachmann of Westside pseudo-environmentalism."
Then at a Tuesday night meeting of the Westchester/Playa Neighborhood Council, Hanscom questioned the "conflict of interest" on the council, where two board members -- who are supposed to represent the larger community -- in fact work for the Annenberg Foundation.
"This is not a personal issue," Hanscom said. "This council has a problem, a structural problem."
Geoff Maleman, recording secretary of the Westchester/Playa Neighborhood Council, is a spokesman for the Annenberg Foundation -- who publicly touts the visitor center project for Annenberg.
Tom Flintoft, also a member of the neighborhood council, is a wealthy lobbyist whose firm, Kindel Gagan, currently touts the fact on its website that it represents the "Annenberg Interpretive, Education and Ecology Center" at Ballona Wetlands -- the controversial visitor center.
Flintoft and Maleman clearly have "a cozy relationship" with the private, $1.6 billion foundation, Hanscom said. She argues that Maleman and Flintoft should not serve on the neighborhood council while representing the foundation as Annenberg pushes its disputed plan and seeks neighborhood backing.
"Annenberg is smart to hire these guys," Hanscom told the council.
Maleman, at the council meeting Tuesday, was highly defensive and refused to respond to Hanscom's comments.
Hanscom and other longtime environmentalists more than a decade ago created Citizens United to Save All of Ballona. That coalition of 100 groups fought the so-called Friends of Ballona Wetlands and the wealthy developer of Playa Vista, both of whom had agreed to protect far less acreage than ultimately was saved by the coalition.
Several environmentalists who fought Friends of Ballona Wetlands now are adamantly against Annenberg Foundation's long-secret plan to construct a 46,000-square-foot "interpretive" center, which will bring bulldozers and far more people to the fragile Ballona habitat.
Annenberg's plan was under wraps until January, when the existence was revealed of a memorandum of understanding between Annenberg, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and two other agencies. It's now going through an environmental assessment.
Edison's Kay says the degraded uplands known as Area C -- a crucial barrier between man and the wetlands, bordered by Lincoln Boulevard, the 90 Freeway and Ballona Creek -- is "ideal" for a large visitor center, "whether Annenberg or some other sugar daddy chips in."
In fact, all 1,000-plus acres of the original Ballona Wetlands were degraded by man, and only part was saved. Many environmental groups say past degradation of public, open space calls for ecosystem restoration -- not development.
The visitor center plan -- Wallis Annenberg's longtime dream, which she also proposed for public lands in Rancho Palos Verdes but withdrew under intense public criticism -- was not a secret to everyone.
Select members of the Westchester/Playa Neighborhood Council were among those invited to a private meeting with the Annenberg Foundation in December.
Denny Schneider, a member of the council who attended Annenberg's private meeting, said, "What they presented to us made some sense, to help provide some information to the public."
What Annenberg told us was, if it became a very controversial project, they would walk away from it," Schneider told the Weekly.
That is indeed what appears to be unfolding -- it's gotten very controversial.
Pat Lyon, chairwoman of the neighborhood council's planning and land-use committee, told Hanscom after Tuesday's meeting that the December meeting between neighborhood council members and the powerful Annenberg group was "not illegal. That's not unethical."
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Lyon then suggested to Hanscom that environmentalists who oppose the Annenberg development are free to invite members of the neighborhood council to meet with them just as Annenberg Foundation did.
The big difference there, however, would be that Annenberg operated for more than a year in secret, calling private meetings with select locals on the Westside -- to bring them aboard.
By contrast, Hanscom and other opponents of Wallis Annenberg's plan want the debate over the fate of L.A.'s rare tidal wetlands -- protected public land -- to be conducted in public.