Back in the Room

The November 7 ruling by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Dzintra Janavs compelling the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board to open its doors to four members it had locked out of deliberations did not by itself end the monthlong mechanics strike that has stranded 400,000 students and working people across the county. But it was a start.

“There is no longer any reason for this strike to continue one day longer,” Los Angeles City Councilman Martin Ludlow told reporters after the ruling. Now that he was back at the table in the MTA boardroom, he reasoned, along with Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, Mayor James Hahn and Supervisor Gloria Molina, the hard line against arbitration set a week earlier by board Chairman Zev Yaroslavsky would have to bend.

Earlier this month, Janavs rejected a request by Ludlow and Villaraigosa for an emergency order to get them back in the room. But last week she said there was no good reason to believe a law passed by the Legislature in 1997 to curb influence peddling by Red Line consulting contractors covered board members who accepted political donations from the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents the mechanics.

At issue was the interpretation of a section of the Public Utilities Code by the board’s general counsel, Steve Carnevale, who examined the statute, drafted by then–state Senator Tom Hayden, and noted that several sections expressly stated that they applied to construction companies, engineering firms, consultants, law firms or any companies, vendors or business entities seeking an MTA contract. No mention of labor unions or labor contracts. So far, so good.

But then came Sec. 130051.20(a)(4), which requires board members to absent themselves from contract discussions if they got more than $10 from anyone participating in the contract. This section did not include the magic words about construction companies, consultants and all the rest. So, were those words left out of this section because they were obviously implied, given the context of the rest of the statute? Or were they deliberately left out because labor unions and virtually everyone else in the world was meant to be covered?

Lawyers get paid mighty big bucks to spend their time on these questions. Carnevale is one such lawyer — and he chose the second interpretation. The board took his advice, and excluded from union contract talks Villaraigosa, Ludlow, Hahn and Molina — who just happen to be the most labor-friendly members of the 13-person board, and also happen to have the largest number of MTA bus riders in their collective districts.

Talks proceeded without them, but as it became clear that the board and the union were stalemated, Ludlow and Villaraigosa cried foul. Villaraigosa — who began his political career as Molina’s alternate on the MTA board, served in the Assembly when the Hayden bill passed and chairs the city’s transportation committee — knew unions were never meant to be included. How could Carnevale make such a decision? How did he get to be the MTA’s general counsel, anyway?

The MTA actually does not have staff attorneys. It contracts with Los Angeles County for deputies in the County Counsel’s Office, which is headed by Lloyd “Bill” Pellman. Pellman is hired by, and can be fired by, the Board of Supervisors. The same board that, with five members, is the largest single faction on the MTA board.

Under normal circumstances, the county supervisors would be nearly matched on the board by the city of Los Angeles,
which is represented by the mayor and
three of his appointees (the other five MTA board members represent smaller cities served by the bus and rail system). But with Hahn, Villaraigosa and Ludlow out, the county supervisors run the board, even without Molina.

So when Carnevale offers advice, he knows that he is reporting to a client that can fire him if it doesn’t like what it hears. This is quite different from the city of Los Angeles, where an independently elected city attorney answers to no one but the voters.

A corrupt system? Hardly. Most cities and counties appoint their lawyers rather than elect them, and it is an occupational hazard of government law to balance the wishes of your client against your best professional judgment. But Carnevale’s advice in this matter irked some backers of the union, and Ludlow and Villaraigosa went to court armed with legislative-hearing transcripts making clear that unions were not to be covered by the Hayden bill.

Their attorney, D. William Heine of Schwartz, Steinsapir, Dohrmann & Sommers, said Carnevale’s interpretation was out of the ordinary in considering the individual section about recusal from voting separately from the rest of the statute’s recitation of the types of companies, consultants and law firms that are to be covered.

“I think the argument is frivolous,” Heine said, “in the sense that it goes against the grain of how courts construe statutes.”

Carnevale pointed out that the board asked him to write an opinion on the meaning of the statute a year ago, before Ludlow and Villaraigosa were on the City Council, let alone the MTA board. And Hahn, he said, voluntarily excused himself from discussions with another union that was negotiating with MTA since he took contributions that union’s contributions — when he was running for mayor against Villaraigosa.

“At the time I wrote the opinion, it had no application to anybody,” Carnevale said.


At the news conference, Villaraigosa chided reporters for depicting the nine other members of the MTA board as being unanimous in their opposition to arbitration as a way out of the logjam. The implication was that he and the other three previously locked-out members could form a new majority to counter the hardliners.

He mentioned no names, but blasted both sides for “vitriol,” “finger-pointing” and “chest-pounding.”

Ludlow noted that “to get an agreement, everybody’s got to hurt a little bit.” So far, though, the only hurt has been felt by the nearly half-million bus riders who have spent a month hitching, carpooling, walking or skipping work altogether.

Meanwhile, there was some hope, however slim, of a breakthrough in the grocery strike as representatives of the three major chains sat down with union leaders for the first time in weeks. But that strike is no longer a regional phenomenon. Grocery pickets have sprung up across the country as members of the United Food and Commercial Workers attempt to block their employers’ attempts to get them to share a chunk of rising health insurance premiums. The hope on both sides was to get a settlement by Thanksgiving — to get customers into the stores to buy and cart home turkeys, and to get paychecks to striking families so they can bring home turkeys and fixings of their own. If the strike is still on, both sides say it may well go on into next year.

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