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
The stage was set for this denouement with the arrival of two consultants: Angelo Bellomo, a former state toxics official, and Barry Groveman, an outside environmental attorney periodically employed by L.A. Unified. Groveman and Bellomo were brought together, late in 1998, to perform damage control at a new school site where the soil was undeniably toxic: Jefferson Middle School.
Bellomo and Groveman soon became the heart of the district’s Safety Team, a sort of commando unit that took on environmental hot spots. It wasn’t long before then-Superintendent Ruben Zacarias sicced the Safety Team on Belmont. Zacarias also agreed, at the urging of the Safety Team and Senator Hayden, to put Belmont and all other prospective school sites under the purview of the state Department of Toxic Substances Control.
Then, in September 1999, district inspector general Don Mullinax issued a scathing report on Belmont, alleging that district staff and consultants had violated an assortment of environmental laws. Mullinax also recommended that L.A. Unified file a malpractice suit against O’Melveny & Myers, the firm of Belmont consulting attorney David Cartwright. A trial is probably a year away. More recently, Mullinax has assisted a district attorney’s task force investigating Belmont for criminal wrongdoing.
But Mullinax has never advocated abandoning the project on safety grounds. He has been silent on that issue.
The O’Melveny lawsuit has added a potentially pernicious dynamic to the school board’s ongoing Belmont deliberations. The school district is represented by contingency-fee attorneys who stand to make considerably less money if the damages to the school district are substantially reduced, i.e., if Belmont is completed. (These attorneys include the firm Girardi & Keese, which was part of the team that assisted the real-life Erin Brockovich in her suit against Pacific Gas & Electric.) It is in the lawyers’ financial self-interest to tell board members that the malpractice case is strong, that Belmont is just as bad as advertised, and that the school district will make out big by standing firm and resisting pro-Belmont lobbying efforts — all in the name of looking out for the taxpayer, of course.
“If we build Belmont, the suit is over with,” said one board member, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We have a very good chance of winning this suit if Belmont is not built.”
By October 1999, board members of the new “Riordan majority” used Safety Team findings as evidence that Superintendent Ruben Zacarias was not up to the job. Zacarias was replaced by interim Superintendent Ramon Cortines and Chief Operating Officer Howard Miller. Miller quickly became a resolute foe of Belmont, largely on environmental grounds, and his view was enormously influential with the school board. At Miller’s urging, the board voted to cancel the project in January 2000, on the premise that better, faster, cheaper, safer alternative school sites could be found.
During this period, board members relied increasingly on Safety Team member Barry Groveman, who was in the midst of an unsuccessful but opinion-shaping campaign for district attorney that cast him as the white knight of Belmont. His ballot designation was the made-up title of “chief investigative attorney,” and his commercials portrayed Belmont as an environmental scandal of monumental proportions.
Of course, canceling the project didn’t make it suddenly vanish. Schools Superintendent Romer leaves no doubt where he stands.
“I walked on that place within a week of being here, and I said, ‘Wait a minute. This can be solved,’” said Romer, who became superintendent nearly a year ago. “We already have $150 million invested in this project. But it’s not just economic. It’s almost a moral question. We are 220,000 seats short, and that’s a tremendous limitation on student learning. This school would provide 4,000 to 5,000 seats.”
Romer was unable to get the school board to vote for completing an environmental analysis. But he did get majority support for requesting a range of solutions from the private sector, including the option of selling the site. “If we do finish the school,” said Romer, “it’s going to be done to strict state standards. But about everybody says it can be done safely. The issue is what is the cost, and how can we insure this so there is no liability?”
Romer is far from alone in favoring Belmont’s completion — especially now that a “build Belmont” position no longer equals political suicide. In the city’s 13th City Council District, Scott Wildman, the unbending Belmont foe, finished in the middle of the pack last month during the city elections. Eric Garcetti and Mike Woo made the runoff, and they favor opening the school. “I’m in support of finishing Belmont,” said Garcetti. “The lesson has been learned.” Mayoral candidate Villaraigosa, who once helped fund Wildman’s investigation, now supports finishing environmental work at the site.
But don’t expect board members Valerie Fields and Julie Korenstein to change their minds. Said Fields, “I rarely, rarely feel that my feet are in cement on any issue. I’m at least up to the hips in cement on this one. I just don’t feel it’s safe. I don’t think that morally I could vote ever to open up that school and take the risk that children or the staff will be harmed in any way.”