MTA's $1 Billion Development Scheme 

Eleven transit honchos were barred from voting due to money conflicts. So they drew straws.

Wednesday, Oct 10 2007

IT WAS ONE OF THOSE strange, somewhat sleazy situations that seem to plague the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Two weeks ago, 11 of the 13 powerful board members who control the MTA cited personal “conflicts of interest” preventing them from legally voting on an up-to-now obscure, $1 billion, high-rise development project in North Hollywood. Yet a few minutes later, a quorum made up of prominent politicians including Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and County Supervisor Gloria Molina voted anyway.

The public may be virtually unaware of the massive density planned for the 15.6-acre site in the NoHo Arts District, but press reports tout it as the most expensive and biggest mixed-use venture in the history of the MTA. Sprawling across about the same amount of land as the Grove, the NoHo Artwave would be far more dense, including the biggest skyscraper to hit the low-rise San Fernando Valley in decades, with nearly a half-million square feet of space. If the economy doesn’t bottom out, it would make at least a few people much richer.

Beyond the lack of any real debate over the project — a trademark of the current rush to transform many L.A. neighborhoods into high-density corridors whether residents want it or not — is the bizarre way in which powerful MTA board members veered around a state law that prevented their voting on a project by Lowe Enterprises, from whom 11 of the 13 have accepted money.

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To get around state anti-corruption laws, Villaraigosa and the other board members used a so-called “lottery-based vote” — essentially drawing straws to randomly select five conflicted board members to achieve a quorum. Claiming that a special state law written just for the MTA existed for such embarrassing moments, the five conflicted members, including Villaraigosa and Molina, joined the two non-conflicted board members — and voted for Lowe.

After the vote, an MTA spokesman, media reports and some board members claimed that the loophole was written by former state Senator Tom Hayden of Santa Monica. But when contacted by the L.A. Weekly, Hayden was stunned to hear that his name had been invoked as the author of a voting loophole, saying he never pushed through any backdoor mechanism.

“There’s nothing in that law that mentions anything about a lottery-based vote,” insists Hayden. The practice, he said, is “bordering illegal, if not illegal.”

In fact, the Weekly has learned, the MTA has been citing Hayden for more than seven years. Three of the seven prominent leaders who voted for the North Hollywood project, in interviews with the Weekly, gave muddled explanations of the alleged loophole, with two of them pointing to Hayden. An MTA spokesman was surprised to hear of Hayden’s consternation, insisting that Hayden’s law created the MTA loophole.

But that spokesman, after seeking advice from an MTA ethics officer, called the Weekly back twice, abruptly abandoning the MTA’s longtime claim that Hayden had created a loophole for them — and offering confused answers as to why the board thinks it can ignore state anti-corruption law.

THE GYRATIONS at the MTA stem from 1997, when Hayden authored Senate Bill 89 in response to the MTA’s flawed history in constructing the underground Metro system. Workers were injured during unreported construction mishaps, stretches of Hollywood Boulevard sank due to subway tunneling, and accusations flew that contractors improperly gave money to MTA board members.

Hayden came up with a strict law to cap those contributions as well as to force construction firms to report injuries. Under Hayden’s bill, board members could not accept more than $10 from companies seeking a contract from the MTA. The bill came with a tough, four-year ban on participation in any contract decisions by any MTA board members who “knowingly accepted” any gift over $10 from those same contractors.

“I’ve always believed the MTA is a gravy train for contractors,” says Hayden. “The law is meant to attack obvious conflicts of interest.”

Two weeks ago, Hayden’s law collided with 11 board members who took money from Lowe, and whose conflicts of interest prevented them from voting on the “NoHo Art Wave” — the largest development project ever by the MTA. Lowe Enterprises plans 562 apartment units, a skyscraper and two shorter towers, a YMCA (Robert Lowe, the firm’s founder, happens to be chairman of the board of the Los Angeles Metropolitan YMCA), community buildings, and space for 6,200 cars, all to be erected above and around the last stop of the Red Line subway near the Orange Line busway at Lankershim Boulevard.

The vast parking facilities would dwarf the parking lots at infamous car magnets like the Hollywood & Highland Center (3,000-plus spaces), Westside Pavilion (3,350 spaces) and the Grove (3,500 spaces). The 6,200 parking spaces signal to critics that MTA board members, rather than addressing Valley congestion, are in fact creating a new hub for gridlock, mirroring the nightmare at Hollywood & Highland — another “transit-oriented development” with a subway line and ample bus service that has nevertheless jammed up the streets with cars.

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