By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
From that point forward, dinging Belmont became both a cause célèbre and a daily regimen. Opposing Belmont also fit neatly into the paper’s campaign to demonstrate just how corrupt L.A. Unified is — and why the school district and, ultimately, the city of Los Angeles should be broken up, events that would make the Daily Newsthe No. 1 paper in Valley City, or whatever the new metropolis would be called.
For the better part of a year, the Daily Newsdevoted a reporter almost exclusively to plaguing Belmont, and the reporter, Greg Gittrich, was one of the paper’s best. Periodically, Gittrich unearthed evidence that contractors were glossing over environmental concerns. One article suggested that dirty soil had been mixed with clean soil to conceal the extent of oil-residue saturation. With Koff’s help, Gittrich reported in 1999 that the developer failed to conduct adequate tests for methane on a portion of the site that later proved to contain methane. And no safety system had been designed for this part of the site. It looked like a case of cutting corners on safety to save money.
All told, the paper’s coverage was a mixture of solid and less-solid stories, often slanted by anti-Belmont and anti-school-district pontificating. A good recent case in point is a March 2001 front-page story that screamed, “Fire officials ordered seven people from their homes near the Belmont Learning Center on Sunday after dangerous levels of potentially explosive methane gas were detected.” Lower down, the story reiterated that the doomed apartment “is perched on the Los Angeles Oil Field about one-quarter of a mile from the $175 million abandoned high school site.”
Somehow, the paper missed that the tiny multiplex is closer, just one block away, to the existing and operating old Belmont High — which has no methane safety system and six known abandoned oil wells of its own — than it is to the Belmont Learning Complex.
The editors were no more attentive in “Next Door to Belmont,” a later editorial that ran March 6: “Until last week, Mario Flores, his family and three tenants lived in a house on the same contaminated oil field as Belmont.” The editorial thundered on: “It should go without saying that explosive, highly toxic sites don’t make for good campuses. Students and teachers shouldn’t be subject to headaches, the stench of rotten eggs or the chance of occasional explosions.”
The school-board campaign of 1999 stoked such anti-Belmont fervor. All three successful challengers attacked the cost and environmental risk of Belmont to boost campaigns that were heavily financed by Mayor Richard Riordan’s fund-raising. The irony here is that Riordan never has adamantly opposed the project. When I last spoke with him about Belmont in February, he seemed inclined to support the school’s completion. But personal views are one thing and political exigencies another. Riordan was determined to oust board incumbents that he considered ineffective or too closely allied with the teachers union. And an anti-Belmont campaign was the means to that end.
The predictable result was an anti-Belmont school board or, put another way, board members who could easily attribute their political ascent to opposing Belmont — and also infer that their political survival depended on maintaining that position.
The L.A. Timesfinally entered the fray full force in the weeks leading up to the 1999 school-board election. The Times, it should be noted, had already endorsed Mayor Riordan’s “reform” slate. Savvy education-beat reporter Doug Smith was temporarily joined by Ralph Frammolino, a skilled investigator, to go for the jugular. In “The Bolshevik Who Beat Belmont,” Frammolino recounted: “In January 1999, mindful that a school-board election was just four months off, my bosses at the Timespulled me into an office and told me to start digging into the school district. I went back to my desk and called Koff.”
Frammolino quickly put together a damning piece that linked board pro-Belmont incumbent Jeff Horton to a Belmont developer who appeared to be brokering campaign donations for him. There was no companion piece, however, on the many donors to the mayor’s reform slate who had all sorts of business before the city.
The most pivotal story was a joint effort with Smith. Koff handed them what looked like the classic smoking gun: an internal district memo implicitly blasting Belmont project manager Dominic Shambra for allowing an inadequate environmental review of the Belmont site. The story ran on page one and caused a sensation.
The memo itself was overrated. It was, in fact, little more than a midlevel bureaucrat’s tit-for-tat response after Shambra bragged about how much quicker he could get things done.
Still, the story nailed two central themes: namely, that Shambra, for a time, had removed the Belmont project from the purview of the district’s own health and safety administrators, and that the district’s environmental-review process itself was wanting. Valid issues to be sure, but neither made the Belmont site itself a deathtrap.
No matter. Belmont was now a full-blown environmental scandal.
The Last Dominoes
When the Belmont project finally unraveled, the fallout ended the career of one superintendent, led to a bureaucratic shakeup and may even lead to criminal charges.