Redondo Beach Community Garden the tip of political iceberg
by Rachel Reeves
Brianna Egan, 25, scanned her notes as she prepared for her presentation before the Redondo Beach City Council. She was pitching a community garden on city land, something she had been envisioning since returning home after a year volunteering with AmeriCorps, educating kids in rural towns about nutrition.
Egan, who’s studying toward a master’s in public health and nutrition at Loma Linda University, planned to talk to the council about how she’d partnered with the South Bay Parkland Conservancy (SBPC), a non-profit whose mission is to create and protect green spaces in the South Bay, and how they’d already received $5,000 from Beach Cities Health District for the project. She’d say she was looking for a place to build a fenced-off garden with rentable plots. She’d estimate her startup costs would be in the ballpark of $53,000.
She knew her talking points and her project, inside and out.
What she didn’t know was she was stepping into a hornet’s nest. She didn’t know the garden would stir something in members of the council and community that had been simmering for a long time.
Egan’s presentation was agendized for Mar. 9, a week after a municipal election in which incumbent mayor, Bill Brand, and councilmembers he supported — incumbents Nils Nehrenheim and Todd Loewenstein, as well as challenger Zein Obagi — were elected to lead Redondo Beach. During the campaign, Nehrenheim described the four elected officials as “a team.”
The team represents one side of a longstanding debate over what development in Redondo Beach should look like. Its vision is to “revitalize, not supersize,” to borrow a catchphrase from Rescue Our Waterfront (ROW), the political action committee that supports them. The debate has long stewed, and has, time and again, boiled over into campaigns, lawsuits, verbal assaults, and vengeful posts on social media.
“It’s vile,” Erika Snow Robinson, who ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the city council in the recent election, said during her campaign. “Just filthy. … It’s us versus them politics. I’m so tired of the divisiveness.”
The election, which favored the team, came after a court ruling that also favored the team. In February, an appellate court agreed with non-profit organization Building a Better Redondo that the waterfront redevelopment project, designed by El Segundo developer CenterCal, had obtained a flawed environmental impact report (EIR). SBPC and ROW, whose website invites donations to “defend Redondo Beach residents from unscrupulous developers,” fundraised for the lawsuit in 2016. Brand is a founding member of SBPC. He loaned the organization about $4,000 to cover immediate costs, which was later repaid. His wife is also a member of the board.
Around the time of Egan’s community garden presentation, a second court ruling favoring members of the team was pending. Ten days later, on Mar. 19, another appellate court would side with Brand and Nehrenheim in a lawsuit filed against them in 2017, which alleged they had violated laws regulating political campaigns by controlling ROW. The court would find that the suit had been paid for by the principals of CenterCal, and that Brand and Nehrenheim had not acted illegally. The court also ordered the plaintiffs to pay nearly $900,000 in the defendants’ attorney fees.
These and other lawsuits have deepened a wedge between council members who voted to approve the lease agreement with CenterCal and Mayor Brand and his allies, who opposed it.
Largely unaware of all of this background, Egan sat at her desk in her parents’ house on a Tuesday night and began a virtual presentation to the council about her idea to raise a community garden in the city that raised her.
“As an avid gardener and UC master gardener, I am a strong advocate for better access to healthy food and integrating the connections between learning to grow food and caring for the environment,” she began. “With the COVID-19 pandemic exposing challenges to food security, making clear the importance of community connectedness and the healing power of green spaces, the movement to build a community garden in our community was born.”
About a dozen people phoned in to the council meeting to applaud Egan after she had finished. Mike Garcia explained that there is no cure for COVID-19; even a vaccine is intended only to strengthen the body’s immune system, and healthy foods are the building blocks of that system. Eileen Kallish explained that the garden offers the community an opportunity to socialize in a post-pandemic world. Forty-three people submitted favorable e-comments.
Councilmember Nehrenheim said he was “utterly, totally, and completely impressed and blown away” by the presentation. He described it as “beyond amazing.” Wayne Craig, president of ROW, phoned in to call the presentation “the best I’ve ever seen.”
City Manager Joe Hoefgen asked the council how he and his staff should proceed. He noted that recovering from a pandemic will increase their workload.
“In light of everything else we’re doing, where does this fit in terms of priorities?” he asked.
Brand responded that because the garden has “so much momentum,” staff should begin assessing possible locations. Councilmember Christian Horvath echoed Hoefgen’s questions about the timing of the assessment and the other priorities in the city’s strategic plan.
“I do want to see this move forward or, at least to the mayor’s point, not lose momentum, but I also want to respect the other things we have in the queue,” he said. He then floated the idea of issuing a request for proposals, or of directing city staff to lead the initiative.
“I just really want to make sure we’re crossing our Ts and dotting our Is and not getting into anymore of those ridiculous political conversations,” he said. “That’s all.”
“What ridiculous political conversations are you referring to?” Brand pasked, adding: “I’ll just be specific because I think you’re beating around the bush. I’m talking specifically about SBPC and what a great job they’ve done and what a great partner they’ve been with the city.” Brand then listed, in detail, the organization’s accomplishments.
“I’ll be really specific about standing up for them,” he said.
The last resident to phone in to discuss the garden was Lisa Rodriguez, who was voted Ambassador of the Year by the Redondo Beach Chamber of Commerce in 2016. Rodriguez explained that she is a “huge proponent” of the community garden project, but challenged the motion on the floor that would give SBPC control of the project. She pointed out Brand’s connections to the organization.
“We’re lucky to have [SBPC],” Brand responded to her. “I don’t share your concerns about the South Bay Parkland Conservancy in any way, shape, or form.”
Councilmember Laura Emdee said she would support a motion to advance the community garden project, but would not support SBPC being part of the language of the motion.
A heated discussion followed, involving palpable emotion and exaggerated facial expressions. As Emdee spoke, Brand interrupted her: “This is just a vendetta, folks. The public needs to understand what’s going on.”
“I think we should move forward with the community garden,” Emdee responded. “All I’m asking you to do … is take out [from the motion on the floor] the fact that you’re already tying it to SBPC.” She proposed a substitute motion to this effect.
Councilmember Loewenstein responded that SBPC is not a political action committee but a volunteer-run organization.
“This has become crazy,” he said. “Who is coming up with this kind of stuff?”
Emdee repeated that she simply didn’t think it was right for the motion to assume a project would be carried out by a specific organization.
“Because you think it’s political,” Loewenstein said.
“Yeah,” she said.
Brand chimed in: “Oh, planting plants is political.”
Nehrenheim said SBPC had helped to fund an environmental impact report showing DDT in the sand at Seaside Lagoon. “Thank God we have groups like the SBPC,” he said, adding he planned to serve Emdee with a cease and desist letter for defamatory actions.
SBPC President Jacob Varvarigas phoned into the meeting to say that SBPC is not a political organization.
“I would ask the city council to lay aside their differences and see this as an opportunity to collaborate, to move forward, to actually involve a non-profit that’s here for the long term,” he said.
Later, Brand addressed the SBPC, repeating three times that other council members “shall pass” and “you’ll be here much longer.”
“By the way, I haven’t seen John Gran or Christian Horvath or Laura Emdee helping SBPC or planting any plants,” the mayor said, adding that those three council members are “just getting in the way” and that he has been “doing this for 20 years.”
Emdee’s substitute motion, which instructed city staff to assess locations for a garden but did not name SBPC as the project lead, passed 3-2.
“I could veto this, folks,” Brand said. “But I’m not a divider.”
He said later the motion would likely be reversed in due course, given the bent of the newly elected council.
SBPC, for its part, remains committed to its work, which has included planting 1,900 native plants in the city, spending 500 hours on rewilding Wilderness Park, and providing technical input into some of the city’s grant applications.
“The garden is not a tool for political manipulation,” said Mara Lang, the organization’s vice president, “and it will not serve as such.”
Egan remains committed to her vision.
“Phew,” she said. “I did not think we would get entwined into city politics like this.” ER