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Dirty Politics

 

If you’re a registered voter living in the Silver Lake-Echo Park area you probably got one in your mail box: a full-color political mailer that purports to unmask the true villain of the Belmont Learning Complex scandal … Jackie Goldberg.

Jackie Goldberg? The City Council representative for Hollywood and Echo Park? The person who left the school board for the City Council eight years ago?

Yep. That’s the one, and, according to the mailer, she is the real evil belle of Belmont. This bulletin – and other Goldberg hit pieces – comes courtesy of Cesar Portillo, Goldberg’s opponent for the 45th District state Assembly seat. Portillo faces an uphill battle against Goldberg in this week’s election.

But how much credence should voters put in Portillo’s claims? Or in Goldberg’s outright dismissal of them?

The truth, as it often does, lies somewhere in the middle. Portillo’s flier is reasonably accurate on some details. Indeed, Goldberg wore no halo when it comes to the $200 million Belmont Learning Complex, a half-finished high school project that became mired in environmental issues, political intrigue and excessive costs. In January the board voted to cancel the project. Early on, Goldberg cast votes that set the stage for the debacle to come, but she wasn’t even on the school board for nearly all of the pivotal decisions. And after she left the school board, there were countless opportunities to halt the runaway Belmont train before it left the station. On the whole, Portillo’s inferences both magnify and distort Goldberg’s role for the worse.

The key junctures on Belmont transpired well after Goldberg left the school board on June 30, 1991. Escrow closed on the key land parcel in 1994. Board members voted to enter exclusive negotiations with a Belmont project developer in late 1995. The final development agreement itself was not approved until April 1997. Nor, for that matter, was Goldberg involved in this year’s decision, by a new school board, to scrap the project over safety and cost concerns after having committed to spend some $170 million.

But Goldberg was a player in nascent stages, when the proposition at Belmont was very different. During Goldberg’s last term, the Belmont project was envisioned as a middle school located on 11 acres of what is now the 35-acre learning complex site. This predecessor project is what Goldberg voted for. So Goldberg is right when she says she never approved the ill-conceived Belmont Learning Complex, which attempted to incorporate a shopping center and low-income housing into the state’s largest and most expensive high school. She’s also correct in noting that her vote was not controversial at the time. But she’s simply mistaken – or less than candid – in stating that she had no notice of environmental concerns at the 11-acre site.

Portillo’s flier clumsily but accurately quotes a letter, provided to the school board and discussed in closed session, that characterized the site as "the most troublesome and problematic oil field in the entire county" and "not fit for any construction." The flier says, "They" could not "imagine a worse site for a school" and that the "likelihood of serious contamination is high."

The implied "they" is the state’s Division of Oil and Gas. In fact, this letter was penned in May 1990 by David W. Cartwright, a real estate attorney with O’Melveny & Myers who was representing the school district. Cartwright was reporting his analysis of the site based on a meeting with officials from the Division of Oil and Gas. After hearing about the site’s oil field, Cartwright had concluded that the 11-acre site was too troublesome; he preferred a larger, adjacent 24-acre site.

But Goldberg and her colleagues were reluctant to give up on the 11-acre site; taking the land next door could have triggered a time-consuming eminent domain battle with powerful downtown business interests, which envisioned a massive commercial complex on the site.

The school board, concerned about Cartwright’s report, requested further clarification from the oil and gas division, which responded in a letter dated June 29, 1990. At this point, division officials apparently wanted to steer clear of any appearance of advocacy. Rather than giving a thumbs-up or thumbs-down recommendation, district deputy R. K. Baker merely restated what measures the division would recommend to make the proposed middle school as safe as possible, such as "making every effort to avoid constructing any buildings over [oil] wells."

The school board took this muted response as a virtual go-ahead, and also agreed to follow the cautionary recommendations as much as practicable. Later, after the real estate crash of the early 90s, the 24 acres next door also became available, and the school district ultimately packaged most of the parcels into the learning complex – but this was after Goldberg left the board. It was left to board members Victoria Castro and Jeff Horton, Goldberg’s successor, to lead the charge for what became Belmont Learning Complex.

Ironically, the middle school for which Goldberg voted would have been placed on the most contaminated, challenging portion of the site. On the other hand, the plans for this middle school included methane barriers that were left out of the learning complex design.

Of course, neither Goldberg nor Portillo are running for the school board, but both have confronted the question of what to do with Belmont now. Should the half-finished school be completed, despite the cost and uncertainty of a necessary environmental fix? At Belmont the risk comes from the shallow oil field directly beneath the school. Natural oil fields hazards include methane, which is explosive, and hydrogen sulfide, which is toxic. A barrier and venting system – reasonably straightforward technology – could eliminate nearly all of the risk, but no mitigation system of this scale has ever been attempted at a school.

In interviews with the L.A. Weekly, both Portillo and Goldberg said the school should be completed if it can be made safe at reasonable additional cost. This view is at odds with that of the current school board majority, which voted on January 25 to kill the project immediately, without further safety review.

In his anti-Goldberg flier, Portillo focuses on his opposition to the original project rather than his willingness to complete the school. For her part, Goldberg, has recently criticized the revamped and magnified Belmont project that emerged after she left the school board.

Goldberg also told the Weekly that, if elected to the Assembly, she would try to obtain state money to finish the safety review of Belmont – to take this political hot potato out of the school board’s hands. Behind the scenes, she has recently joined county Supervisor Gloria Molina, City Councilman Mike Hernandez and lobbyists for O’Melveny & Myers – which is being sued over its handling of Belmont – to build political support for pressuring the school board to reconsider Belmont. All told, the fate of the Belmont Learning Complex remains up in the air – as does the fate of any politician whose name can be associated with its scandalous legacy .


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