Lampson Ave. project messages revealed between former Los Al official and the city

No conflict of interest says Los Alamitos city attorney

An architectural rendering of one of the buildings developers recently proposed for a former commercial site that has stirred the ire of nearby residents.

After grilling by a city council member, city attorney Michael Daudt said he sees no conflict of interest in a string of messages between a Los Al former interim city manager and city officials inside the Los Al Planning office regarding a potential project in the city.

The proposed Lampson Project came up again during the Council’s March meeting, as one citizen revealed text and email messages between Les Johnson and Los Al city officials that have raised eyebrows.

Johnson is a former planner and interim city manager at Los Alamitos. He left Los Al to become Community Services Director in Seal Beach. Not long thereafter, he retired and went into the private sector.

Johnson is now director of Planning at T&B Planning, the Irvine planning firm hired by developers to assist in developing the Lampson project.

Although city officials suggest no actual project has been proposed, they conceded that they have been presented with mock-ups and other specifics about a 246-unit housing project that has many area residents concerned.

During oral communications, Helen Knisley revealed 26 pages of text messages between current city officials and former Los Al interim city manager Les Johnson about topics including what is expected to be the Lampson Project.

“I have a list of emails that were sent between Tom Oliver [Los Al planner] and Les Johnson that dated back to 2019,” she told the Council.

The ENE has received a copy of the message exchanges from Los Alamitos to confirm their validity.

Thus, the exchange of emails and text messages has apparently become of interest.

Knisley said the messages show the back-and-forth began in 2019 and has continued.

The correspondence between the city and Johnson “continued for a couple of years before the public was even made aware of the [West Ed] building being sold,” she told the Council.

The federal government sold the commercial building and the 12.4 acres of property associated therewith at auction in 2021, and developers that paid $26.5 million for the property are proposing the Lampson project.

Knisley said she obtained the information through a public information request and city clerk Windy Quintanar confirmed that it took a few months to capture all of the comments requested in the Public Records Act request.

“There’s a lot of hidden information in here that the public was never made aware of. We’d like to be part of it. We need to be part of it,” she said.

In one exchange, she said Oliver asked Johnson if he wanted the city to take down an anti-Lampson project sign that had been erected.

“Would you like us to take it down,” she quoted Oliver asking Brown? “And, of course, Les says yes, for sure, ‘if you could do that, we’d appreciate it.’”

While the messages are revealing, Johnson has not been accused of doing anything improper or having a conflict of interest.

The toughest grilling came from City Council member Emily Hibard, who along with Trisha Murphy grilled city officials.

After learning that this request was made months ago, Murphy wanted to know why she and Hibard were not given a copy of the correspondence.

Quintanar said they would receive a copy after the meeting.

Hibard honed in on Daudt, the city attorney.

“Are you familiar with the content of these text messages and emails?” she asked Daudt.

“Yes, I am,” said Daudt.

“From what you have seen, do you see any conflicts of interest or potential conflicts of interest in what’s in here?” she asked.

“I do not,” he said.

“The only thing I would offer,” said Daudt, “as an additional admonishment on this is that those PRA requests and text messages themselves relate specifically to the Lampson project, which is not an item before the City Council tonight or on the agenda for consideration.”

“So I’m happy to answer brief questions you may have, but I’d hesitate to go into a full-blown discussion of those text messages or their relationship to the Lampson Project and it’s potential entitlements,” the city attorney said.

Going further into it, Daudt suggested, would be problematic “since it hasn’t been agendized as a discussion item tonight.”

Daudt did acknowledge, however, that the messages did have a “tangential relationship” because of the legislative rezoning that was on the agenda.

“Won’t you expand on that tangential relationship for me?” Hibard continued.

“The Lampson project site is included in a host of other properties that are being rezoned in connection with the general plan housing element. But it is not a project or site-specific approval that’s on the agenda this evening.”

“Lampson is involved in the larger rezoning,” he said, “but none of the correspondence is specific to that action in terms of the legislative action that the city took at the last meeting,” Daudt said.

Daudt also said city council members are not generally made aware of the information being sought via public record requests.

He said Johnson is simply a former Community Development Director “who has moved on to a private entity who is processing the Lampson site,” the city attorney said.

“So possibly there is something here,” asked Hibard.

“To the extent that the legislative rezoning applies citywide, and to the extent the [Lampson project site] property is located within the city, it applies,” said Daudt.

“And in your legal perspective, you don’t see any conflicts of interest between the content of this and rezoning?” Hibard asked a final time.

“I do not,” again said Daudt.

Editor’s note: The Sun has submitted a California Public Records request to the Seal Beach web portal seeking Johnson’s messages related to the Lampson project.