October 6, 2008

Mall Foes Raise Profile

By Alfred Lee

ARCADIA - Bernetta Reade knows her organization isn't loved by everyone in town.

"There were people that would come up to me and point their finger at my face and call me all kinds of names," she said. "It got personal. Some people took disagreeing with the project very personally."

Reade is the executive director of Arcadia First!, an organization that has long worked to stop the upscale mall proposed by developer Rick Caruso at the Santa Anita Park racetrack parking lot.

It is made up mostly of Arcadia residents and business owners. But it is bankrolled by Westfield Corp. - which manages the Westfield Arcadia shopping mall next to the Caruso project, and has sued to stop it.

Reade herself is a paid consultant who lives in Reseda. That fact, along with the group's association with Westfield, has led to its dismissal by some as an "AstroTurf" campaign.

"Fake grass-roots," Mayor Robert Harbicht said. "There are a lot of people who have legitimate concerns. It's just that Arcadia First! is essentially a front organization."

Last week, a judge sided with Arcadia First! and Westfield in its joint litigation battle against the city and Caruso Affiliated, ruling that the environmental impact report city officials relied upon in approving the mall was faulty in 11 areas and would have to be revised before the project can move forward.

Members of the organization respond, however, that decisions are not made for them by Westfield, but by a nine-member executive committee of Arcadia residents, of which Westfield has only one vote.

"They do not control what the organization does," Reade said. She also emphasized Arcadia First! has been up front about Westfield's role since its beginning.

Despite its high visibility, little is known about the group, which claims about 5,000 supporters. It will not disclose exactly how much money is given by Westfield, nor make public the names of all the members of its decision-making executive committee.

"I've left it to them how public and how private their role is," Reade said.

Tax returns filed by the group for the two-year period from October 2005 to September 2007 indicate the organization received $1.38 million in direct public support during that time - most of it, officials said, coming from Westfield, in addition to hundreds of other donors.

The group declared it spent about $425,000 on consulting fees; $372,000 on legal fees; $174,000 on printing and publications; $131,315 on postage and shipping; $39,330 on conferences, conventions and meetings; and $37,704 on advertising.

In addition to those revenues and expenditures, the organization declared it received in 2007 $1.2 million worth of donated "postage and printed material in support of community events and public hearings." That was paid for directly by Westfield, Reade said, including the costs of citywide mailings of three different DVDs.

The returns also list Paul Paquette, Sonia Williams and Jerry & Ann Durgerian as the organization's president, secretary and treasurers, respectively.

"We have all the decision-making power and authority for any efforts that are going to go forward under the name Arcadia First!" said Paquette, a 13-year resident of Arcadia.

"The organization is legitimate because it's comprised of members of the community who either live there or work there or both, who devote their time and their efforts without compensation in order to defeat this project which we think is a horrible idea for our community."

Paquette said the rest of the executive committee has few disagreements with Westfield. He took over the title of president from fellow resident Sung Tse, as the position rotates among committee members.

Aside from its lobbying efforts on the Caruso project, the organization also continues to take an interest in general issues affecting growth. It has recently held forums and brought in speakers regarding the issues of traffic and education in the region.

The group's secretary, Sonia Williams, is also a member of the city's General Plan Advisory Committee, which will help shape the city's future land-use policies.

As for Reade - who says she was once a two-term county supervisor of Waukesha County in Wisconsin - she said her stake in the matter is a commitment to the public good instilled in her by her father.

"His goal was to make all of us not just citizens of the community we lived in, not just of Minnesota where we grew up, but of the country and the world," she said. "Environmental documents can be very difficult to digest. I've considered my greatest responsibility to honestly and accurately communicate what was in those documents and where they were insufficient or deficient in terms of analysis of the issues."

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