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Second lawsuit arises over plans for Pomona College Museum of Art

A local resident has filed a complaint against the city and Pomona College, alleging bias, lack of adherence to environmental documents and a conversation alleging Councilmember Sam Pedroza claimed the college threatened to sue the city.

Martin McLeod, who represents a group calling itself “Claremonters for Honest Governance,” filed a writ of mandate May 15 calling for a halt to the museum amid inquiries of how mitigation measures are followed and apparent collusion between the city and Pomona College. The city and the city council are named as defendants, while the college is named as a real party of interest.

“The Claremont City Council’s approval of the PCMA designs is invalid because the city failed to provide a fair and unbiased hearing to project appellants, free from perceived and actual conflicts and bias, and prejudicially abused its discretion by failing to proceed in the manner required by law,” the complaint states.

This is the second legal document filed against the city with respect to the museum in the past year. A prior lawsuit challenging the environmental impact report, Citizens to Save College Avenue v. City of Claremont, was filed in June 2016. A judge dismissed that suit in February 2017.

This new 102-page document alleges that city staff, the city attorney, Pomona College and Pomona College’s legal counsel all collaborated in drafting responses to six appeals regarding the architectural commission’s approval of the museum’s site plans.

“Between January 10, 2017 and February 9, 2017, various edits to the draft city responses were made among a group consisting of city staff, the CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) consultants, the city attorney and Pomona College’s attorneys at Loeb and Loeb LLP, including notes indicating that city staff solicited contributions from Brian Faber, Pomona College’s project manager overseeing the PCMA and relocation of Renwick House,” the complaint alleges.

The complaint alleges that the city staff report never indicated the responses were circulated between the city and college staff but were instead presented solely as “the city’s official analysis.”

In a February 14 meeting, the city council narrowly upheld the architectural commission’s recommendations and denied the appeals, 3-2. The plaintiffs specifically want a review of that meeting.

The complaint claims resident Jacob Patterson, who like Mr. McLeod has been fighting various parts of the museum plans throughout the vetting process, filed public records act requests for communications between city staff and Pomona College about the museum design review. The city eventually returned Mr. Patterson’s request on March 23, with certain documents withheld due to “attorney-work product privilege.”

The complaint also alleges that Councilmember and then-Mayor Sam Pedroza called David Shearer, the executive director of Claremont Heritage, and claimed the city would face legal challenges if the appeals were denied.

On the day of the February 14 meeting, Mr. Pedroza reportedly disclosed to Mr. Shearer that “Pomona College had threatened to sue the city if the appeals were not denied and to find out what the appellants would need to drop the appeals,” the complaint says.

When reached by phone this week, Mr. Pedroza said he had no recollection of a conversation of that nature with Mr. Shearer, but did say he had previously talked to Mr. Shearer about coming together on the plans.

“Who would I be saying that on behalf of? It doesn’t make sense to me,” he said. He also said this was the first time he had heard that his name was mentioned in the complaint.

Mr. Shearer, also reached by phone Wednesday evening, confirmed the conversation happened.

“I don’t know if he said exactly if [Pomona College] were threatening to sue, if they could sue or might sue, but there was a possibility that they might,” Mr. Shearer said.

During that conversation, Mr. Shearer said, he recommended the site plan approvals be brought back to the architectural commission for further discussion.

The complaint claims that Mr. Pedroza’s reported contact with Mr. Shearer, and his alleged non-disclosure of the conversation to the city council, tainted the council’s decision to uphold the architectural commission’s positive recommendation on the museum plans.

The complaint also charges purported violations of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), claiming the city and the college violated mitigation measures through lack of oversight.

Mr. McLeod and Claremonters for Honest Governance contend that temporary construction fencing surrounding both Renwick and its future location were constructed with uncapped, hollow metal fence posts that could “entrap or endanger special-status wildlife, including birds, bats and reptiles.”

They also allege that Pomona College is excavating and parking heavy equipment in designated tree-protection zones, and the grading plans submitted by the college did not contain tree-protection measures.

The project, according to the lawsuit, falls short of three of the 12 architectural review categories outlined in the municipal code—conformity with development standards, general plan consistency and compatibility of form with the surrounding development.

It specifically zeroes in on curb cuts, accusing the city and Pomona College of not using the statewide definition of curb cuts. They also take issue with setbacks—the Claremont Municipal Code outlines a 40-foot setback minimum from the curb, but the complaint contends the museum has only a 38.5 foot setback.

The city council went into a closed-session meeting Tuesday afternoon in part to discuss the petition. During public comment, Mr. McLeod outlined his reasoning for drafting the complaint—conformity and adherence to governing documents, such as the General Plan and the Village Design Plan.

“As long as I have the faculties to perceive, understand and articulate, I will continue to defend the defining and controlling documents that represent our democracy,” he said. “Our controlling documents have been set aside and need defending. As a citizen of a democracy, it is my duty to defend our controlling documents.”

Mr. Patterson argues that the purported bias between the city and Pomona College represents “practically a conspiracy or collusion against citizens and residents in this town.”

When reached for a response to the complaint after Tuesday night’s city council meeting, City Manager Tony Ramos declined to comment.

Pomona College News Director Mark Kendall refuted Mr. McLeod’s claims in a statement issued to the COURIER Thursday morning.

“Pomona College strongly disagrees with the allegations in Mr. McLeod’s petition,” the statement read. “They are simply inaccurate, and do not fairly reflect the years of meaningful discussion and dialogue between the college and the wider community over plans for the new Pomona College Museum of Art.”

The college says it has worked with the community and the city since 2013, holding several forums and making public presentations to community groups on issues such as height, setbacks and historical preservation of Renwick.

“We are excited that this important academic facility is moving forward in a location that bridges the college and the Village,” the statement concluded. “We believe it will be beneficial to the entire Claremont community.”

—Matthew Bramlett

news@claremont-courier.com

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