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An Interview With Assembly Member Hector de la Torre

Eva Spiegel is communications director for the League and can be reached at espiegel@cacities.org.

 

Proposition 90, the eminent domain reform initiative on the November 2006 ballot, was a Trojan horse measure that included provisions unrelated to eminent domain. Prop. 90 would have cost California taxpayers billions of dollars annually and would have eroded basic laws protecting the state’s economy, environment and communities. The measure would have also undermined cities’ land use authority and local control. It was part of an effort to capitalize on public outrage over the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Kelov. City of New London, which affirmed its previous ruling that government can use eminent domain to acquire private property for economic development purposes.

 


 

The League and a large, bipartisan coalition that included homeowners, businesses, farmers, environmentalists, taxpayer watchdog groups, public safety officials, organized labor and others, fought and defeated Prop. 90. During the campaign, the League took a position in favor of responsible eminent domain reform. After defeating Prop. 90, the League worked for several months with its coalition partners and other stakeholders to develop language for two bills, ACA 8 and AB 887, that would reform eminent domain and protect homeowners and small businesses.

When it was time to find an author for the bills, Assembly Member Hector De La Torre (D-50, South Gate) rose to the challenge and carried the banner for responsible eminent domain reform in the Legislature. Ultimately, ACA 8 did not receive the two-thirds vote needed for placement on the ballot, and the fight has moved to the ballot initiative arena for June 2008. The League is sponsoring the Homeowners Protection Act, and opposing another deceptive initiative that contains numerous hidden agendas to undermine major water supply projects and restrict the land use planning authority of local governments. In this interview, Assembly Member De La Torre reflects on the experiences that fueled his passion for eminent domain reform and the work yet to be done.

Before you came to the Legislature, you were a mayor. Were you ever involved in using eminent domain to acquire property?

No. I was on the city council for almost eight years. We never had to use it. But I did see it used by our school district to build a number of schools in the City of South Gate during my time in office.

I learned that eminent domain can be done in a responsible way. I also learned that the needs of the affected parties can be met while making improvements to the community; in that case, new schools that were urgently needed to ease over crowding. In the case of one school, there were 10 homes and a number of businesses. All of the homes and businesses came to an agreement with the district without having to go to court. This was five or six years ago.

How did your experience as mayor shape your concept of how government should treat people when their property is being acquired?

I think there is a public good that is necessary in these situations. Whether it’s for economic development or roads or schools, there is definitely a public benefit. That has to be balanced with the property rights and constitutional rights people have. It is very clear in the Constitution that property can be taken as long as there is fair compensation given for it.

As mayor, I witnessed how the homeowners were affected. I met with all of them because we were concerned that they be treated fairly in the process.

It’s an emotional issue, obviously, when you’re talking about not just the buildings but homes, the places where families grow up. These people had put many years of care into their homes. That all comes into play. This isn’t just an economic transition. We were supportive of the families and advocated for them with the school district so they were treated fairly.

I know they were treated fairly because the City of South Gate offered to help all of those homeowners with an additional incentive package for their new purchase. We made an offer of a silent second on their new purchase. It was a no-interest loan that had to be paid off upon sale of the home. The fact that none of them took us up on it was an indication that they were treated fairly.

Why did you take on the challenge of being the author for ACA 8 and its companion, AB 887?

I took it on because there is a right way to do this, one that is respectful of people’s concerns about eminent domain. From a government perspective, there is a need to make improvements in many communities like South Gate. Otherwise, you have absentee landlords driving the appearance and performance of your community. You have people who are making money from renting out their property and they may not be maintaining it, whereas an owner occupying a home would make every effort to maintain it.

Blight is a fact of life in urban California, but we need to make sure our communi ties are as clean and economically viable as they can be. We have to make sure the community’s needs are met -- whether that is a school or a road or commercial and industrial opportunities -- to ensure that the economy is as strong as it can be. Those are all valid policy goals, and eminent domain is a tool to achieve those goals. Otherwise you get into a situation of constant decay, which doesn’t do us any good in terms of public policy or public safety. When a city is faced with blight, it needs to have tools available, including eminent domain, to make improvements.

Once eminent domain is under way, it’s important to treat people fairly. That is our role as elected officials -- to protect their rights through legislation or constitutional measures.

I was impressed with the broad coalition that came together to support the measures. That indicates to me that it is not a self-serving, one-sided measure by an interest group. It indicated that there is consensus and, to the extent that we could bring that consensus into the Legislature, it was the right way to do things.

What is it about eminent domain that needs to be changed?

There is concern on the part of home-owners and business owners that their property could be taken away. There are horror stories and there are positive stories on how it has been done. With the Kelo decision, the U.S. Supreme Court laid out very clearly that eminent domain, even in the case of economic development, is an inherent right of government. That unnerved some people. The anxiety of losing your home drove what happened after Kelo.

This measure was an attempt to address those legitimate concerns. [But] ACA 8 was not a wish list where special interest groups tack on issues that they have problems with under the guise of eminent domain reform. Legitimate concerns were addressed in ACA 8, and it became a better measure because of the legislative input. However, at the end of the day, the opponents raised so many red herrings that it was impossible to get the supermajority needed to put the measure on the ballot.

The fundamental issue is protecting homeowners in owner-occupied homes. Kelo was about a middle-class woman who lost her house to redevelopment that yielded an office park. That’s what the outrage was about. It was based on government and big business combining to negatively impact a middle-class home-owner. That is the core of what needs to be fixed in California. Anything beyond that is not related to the Kelo decision.

Why do you feel so strongly about this issue?

First, it’s important to put some parameters on how eminent domain can be used. Second, once the decision has been made to initiate eminent domain, the process must be fair to the affected parties. This is why we had the two measures, ACA 8 and AB 887.

What makes you think there is still work to be done?

It wasn’t resolved. There was no legislative agreement because the opponents raised so many issues unrelated to the Kelo decision that a supermajority could not be reached. There was no change or reform, although there was a solution at hand.