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Return to Neverland

When former Colorado Governor Roy Romer took the job of L.A. schools superintendent in July 2000, one issue looked like a no-brainer: It was time, he concluded, to finish the Belmont Learning Complex. After all, the school district needed about 20 new high schools, and nothing was likely to give him one faster and at a lower cost of new dollars than the half-built Belmont complex.

Problem was, no school project nationwide is more notorious, and Romer’s own school board had voted overwhelmingly to abandon the project, citing safety concerns because the school sits on a shallow oil field that contains hazardous gases underground.

With almost foolhardy dispatch, Romer took on Belmont, making it a cause on which he risked his reputation and even his job; a few board members regarded his actions to revive the project as akin to insubordination.

But last week, a panel of experts unanimously reported that the sorely needed campus can be safely completed. The panel also joined Romer and others in asserting that the school should be completed -- even though no one said it would be cheap. Finishing Belmont would cost another $60 million to $80 million, which is only a bargain when compared to the time and expense of starting somewhere else from scratch. The Belmont project already has stretched across a decade.

The sanctioned safety fix is a barrier-and-venting system: A barrier covering the entire site would block gases from rising to the surface, while a venting system would whisk away any gases that accumulated underneath. Gas monitors would check the air quality above and below ground. Such systems are widely used in Southern California, in places where contractors build over wetlands, former farm and dairy land, industrial sites, landfills and oil fields -- all of which can emit explosive or toxic gases.

Next week, the closely divided school board is scheduled to hear Romer‘s recommendation. Romer will urge that finishing Belmont is the right thing to do, practically a moral imperative, and that he’s got the facts and the experts to prove it. Then, on March 12, the board is scheduled to vote up or down on finishing the project. Against the backdrop of Romer‘s unanimous experts, board members who turn him down are likely to appear ignorant, gutless or devious. Romer, in effect, is challenging them either to get serious about finishing this school or to show why they know better than his experts, or why Belmont’s scandalous past is somehow a reason to deny the school to yet another generation of students.

“After the most stressful of times it‘s been very tough to find anyone who will really play a leadership role on Belmont. Romer has been the one doing the heavy lifting,” said county Supervisor Gloria Molina, a Belmont supporter who represents the Belmont neighborhood. “Sometimes he’s more politician than I‘d like to have in a superintendent, but because he is a politician, he knows what he has to do.

”If the school board doesn’t support the building of Belmont,“ she added, ”it‘s a testament to their inability to do anything, because they’ve been told time and time again it can be built safely.“

Molina‘s feelings are typical of the larger community, but not unanimous. An opposing chorus still objects to finishing the school, and its views have held sway thus far with the current school-board majority. To outflank this resistance, Romer has been purposefully sly and indirect with his grand strategy to resuscitate the $200 million project. In some particulars, Romer’s approach has resembled the original, much-criticized scenario for building the school that unraveled in the first place. Yet somehow, Romer is poised next week for his golden chance to get this project over.

The shell of the Belmont Learning Complex lies above the L.A. oil field. The site‘s shallow, underground crude deposits emit spot concentrations of toxic hydrogen sulfide and explosive methane that have the potential to create health hazards at the surface. The school board cited safety and litigation fears when it voted 5-2 in January 2000 to cancel the project, but had not gotten around to demolishing the half-finished hulk or selling the property by the time Romer, the former three-term Colorado governor, took over as schools superintendent. That was a crucial mistake for opponents of the project.

As a newcomer, Romer didn’t see what all the fuss was about. A large swath of L.A., one filled with homes, businesses and even schools, sits over the very same oil field as Belmont. Moreover, state toxics officials, who oversee the safety of school sites, have no fundamental objection to the project. And there is no credible scientific support for the theory, advanced by some critics, that the oil field under Belmont is a unique and uniquely dangerous site in Los Angeles.

 

In a simpler world, one without politics and lawyers, Romer could have dealt with Belmont simply by inviting contractors to submit bids. Even though the district had fired the original developer, something thoroughly salvageable had been left behind; the school district already has detailed architectural plans, for example, not to mention a half-built school. The safety issue too could have been handled in a straightforward manner: Find out what it takes to make a school safe on an oil field, get regulatory agencies to endorse the plan and bid that out as well.

But Romer quickly learned that ordinary logic does not apply to Belmont. He hadn‘t been in L.A. for the years of Belmont in-fighting, politicking, lawsuits and scandals. Nor had he witnessed then-Mayor Richard Riordan using the Belmont complex to tar incumbent school-board members in his campaign to oust those he deemed incompetent. When pressed on the subject, Riordan, who is currently running for governor, never explicitly opposed building the school, and recently he’s supported Romer‘s salvage attempt.

Still, most current school-board members ran against Belmont either to win or to hold on to their seats. And they made their ”final“ decision more than two years ago. It didn’t help Romer that the town‘s media seemed solidly lined up against the project, especially the Daily News in the San Fernando Valley, which still relies on Belmont exposes to argue for breaking up the school district. The Daily News has labeled Romer everything from a hick to a huckster for his role in reviving Belmont.

Romer set in motion his Belmont sleight-of-hand by opening a back door, by using a different style of pitch: He asked the school board to let the private sector present alternatives for the Belmont site. You may not trust the school district, he allowed, but the infallible private sector wouldn’t take on Belmont if the risk were excessive. (Those were the pre-Enron-scandal days.) Romer would invite all ideas and all interested parties, including those who wanted to buy the site outright for something other than a school.

In recent interviews, board members acknowledged that this last condition was crucial for winning board support a year ago; after all, the district had to do something with its white elephant. What was the harm in letting Romer dicker with finishing the school -- as long as the district also went about the serious business of dumping the site for cash? Even the conservative-leaning Daily News had to be nonplused when Romer co-opted its supremacy-of-the-private-sector rhetoric.

Soon after, Romer and his staff reported to the board that trying to sell the site would have to wait. No serious bidder would emerge while a school was still under consideration. Besides, they noted, before the property could go to developers, it first had to be marketed to a laundry list of public agencies, in accordance with state law. And the district couldn‘t enter good-faith negotiations with such agencies until a school was out of the question.

All of which was, at an elemental level, pure malarkey. Romer had, in effect, managed the game for a chance to build Belmont. He had showcased the prospect of selling the land to win board support, then created a process by which the sale option -- for legal reasons --had to be tabled indefinitely.

If board members had not succumbed to Romer’s persuasion, they could have pushed to sell the land ASAP. And there would be takers; the private sector has never been squeamish about building at Belmont. It wasn‘t safety issues but the recession of the early 1990s that allowed L.A. Unified to snap up the land in the first place. Developers interviewed by the Weekly have uniformly, agreed that the site is safe to build on, as long as builders comply with necessary, but not extraordinary, safety measures.

When the sell-Belmont option fell off, at least three of the seven board members, according to sources, fumed over what they viewed as Romer’s artifice, but no one assembled the critical mass of pique necessary to stop him. Nor did they call for the executioner when Romer‘s bidding process extended to 12 months (and counting) rather than the advertised six. It was another crucial failure for project opponents, who once seemed too numerous and too powerful ever to overcome.

A number of Belmont bashers have backed off, including opportunistic critics, such as Riordan. Some die-hard opponents, including state Assemblyman Scott Wildman and state Senator Tom Hayden, no longer hold elective office. The most influential outside critic still standing is David Koff, the indefatigable researcher for Local 11 of the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees Union. Koff originally entered the fray to thwart the Kajima Corporation. A Kajima subsidiary headed Belmont’s original private development team, but more to the point, Kajima held a controlling interest in an anti-union downtown hotel that Local 11 is trying to organize. In the years since, opposing the Belmont complex has, for Koff, evolved into a long-running saga.

 

Koff‘s critics accuse him of being obsessed with beating Belmont, but Koff insists he’s merely doing his job: ”The union never said, ‘Don’t build the school,‘ and we’re not saying that now. We‘re keeping our eye on the process, because children of our members would go there, and because members of our sister unions would teach and work there. It’s no less a union issue than it is a public-health issue.“

It was immediately evident to Koff that the sober neutrality of Romer‘s process masked a bullet train to Belmont. And that Romer was prepared to outmaneuver anything that could derail it.

The district’s specifications, for example, required bidders to obtain 70 years of insurance for Belmont, to cover the ”life“ of the school -- to calm board members who have feared that Belmont would be a magnet for lawsuits. The bidders, however, as well as the district‘s outside insurance analyst, quickly asserted that such policies don’t exist. So the school district apparently ignored the requirement, even though board members had given Romer the go-ahead with the understanding that such insurance would be part of the deal.

A senior district staffer contends that staff knew almost from the beginning that a 70-year policy doesn‘t exist, said Anne Valenzuela-Smith, whose title is executive administrator to the superintendent. To the staff, she said, the phrase about a 70-year policy meant getting a shorter policy, while putting money aside, for example, to purchase later policies.

The explanation does not satisfy Koff. ”If that requirement were changed,“ he said, ”why didn’t Romer or anyone else inform the board that ‘We have a problem, and this is how we are going to deal with this’? They just change the rules as they need to. It seems to me to indicate what we already knew about Romer, that rules are made for other people.“

Nor has Romer wowed school-board member Julie Korenstein. She‘s still visibly haunted by the ghost of Belmont scandals past. Last week she commented that the project should not get shoved through ”because a variety of people and corporations are making huge profits on the deal. No one should profit monetarily on the backs of our children.“

Korenstein was noticeably unmoved when Romer’s experts spoke of a ”guaranteed maximum price“ and ostensibly attractive financing options. ”That was all done in the original proposal of six or seven or eight years ago,“ she commented, an undertone of anger in her voice.

Romer‘s plan does sound some uncomfortable echoes. In 1995, the district also had three teams of finalists bidding for the project. And a review panel, just as now, had the task of comparing proposals that differed significantly from one another. It was not a simple matter of finding the qualified bidder who offered the best price, but an apples-to-oranges exercise that, in 1995, resulted in the favored proposal also being, by far, the most expensive. Back then, staff was left with the challenging task of explaining why costlier was better.

Conflicts of interest permeated the earlier, aborted effort as well, which is why a November article by Daily News reporter Sonia Giordani provided an unwelcome deja vu. Giordani revealed that one of the Belmont bidders, the Eastridge Companies, also was doing $4.3 million of contract work in the district’s real estate division. Eastridge, therefore, might have access to information that would give it an unfair bidding advantage. Romer‘s senior staffers, including Valenzuela-Smith, immediately stepped forward to dismiss the concerns as unfounded. At that point, they didn’t want to lose any team from the small pool of three bidders.a

This month, however, with two solid bids in hand, Romer unilaterally bumped out Eastridge, in the wake of a reviewby Don Mullinax, the school district‘s independent inspector general. Mullinax’s investigators had concluded that there was an appearance of impropriety, because an Eastridge employee might have been taking advantage of his position inside the district hierarchy. The employee and Eastridge have denied doing anything wrong. At this stage, however, a persisting conflict-of-interest allegation could have imperiled the Belmont bidding. The going will be tough enough as it is.

Romer needs four votes on the seven-member school board, and he‘s got two who are likely to vote yes: Jose Huizar, who represents the Belmont neighborhood, and Mike Lansing. Three board members, presumably, could go either way: newcomer Marlene Canter as well as Caprice Young and Genethia Hayes. Young and Hayes voted to abandon Belmont in January 2000, but they also voted to let Romer explore completing the school. Two board members are almost certain to vote no. These two, Julie Korenstein and David Tokofsky, have the longest tenures on the board.

 

When Korenstein looks at Belmont, she sees an ”environmental disaster,“ as she put it last week. She recalls all too well how district staff and consultants of an earlier era dismissed her safety concerns, which were later borne out in the judgment of the state Department of Toxic Substances Control. But the same DTSC also says the school can be operated safely, a conclusion that has not, seemingly, percolated into Korenstein’s reasoning.

For his part, when board member David Tokofsky looks at Belmont he sees unending profiteering, lack of disclosure, incomplete information and conflicts of interest. He‘s especially disturbed to see McLarand, Vasquez & Partners, the original architect, being welcomed back.

Tokofsky remembers clearly how Ernie Vasquez of McLarand was first hired, in 1994, to evaluate bids, but then switched sides to join one of the teams competing to build Belmont. By chance or design, Vasquez had hopped on the winning Kajima team. In the process, he positioned himself for a lucrative payday, but also deprived the district of its own consulting architect to provide oversight. During this same period, Vasquez also was pursuing outside business opportunities with a district consultant, Wayne Wedin, who was supposed to be evaluating him and the other private developers.

If you’re keeping score, Vasquez jumped from the school district‘s side of the negotiating table to the developers’, except for the brief period when he was apparently on both sides at once. And after Vasquez settled in on the developers‘ side, he was working outside deals with Wedin, who was on the district’s side.

Later, a confidential analysis by an internal Belmont oversight committee asserted that Belmont‘s architect fees were ”$1.7 million above the state-allowable amount.“

Ultimately, Mullinax, the inspector general, counseled the school district to sue McLarand, Vasquez & Partners over its performance. Instead, the district went to arbitration over McLarand’s bills. Vasquez and his company denied all wrongdoing, and they prevailed in the arbitration. Romer‘s team has since mended fences with Vasquez to gain unfettered access to the Belmont site drawings. And bringing back Vasquez to the project itself makes sense on efficiency grounds, the argument goes.

”Romer says we have to use him,“ said an irritated Tokofsky. ”I say, ’Where is that written?‘ I hadn’t got that opinion. The last opinion I got was from Mullinax, who said we ought to consider suing him.“

Such realpolitik on the part of Romer runs the risk of turning his haute pursuit into a sausage-making exercise. And that‘s a dangerous place to be when Koff and Tokofsky are poring over the list of ingredients. What they turn up between now and next month’s do-or-die vote could prove at least superficially compelling, and it‘s likely to get full play in the Daily News.

Of course, whatever contributes to make the Belmont project honest and efficient is a public service. That, however, is not necessarily the game afoot. Their critics accuse Koff and Tokofsky of looking for any reason or excuse to scuttle Belmont.

”A case can be made that David Tokofsky and his allies have caused a lot of damage to the school district’s reputation and to its school-construction program by opposing Belmont the way they have,“ said David Abel, a local publisher who served on the independent committee that oversees school-bond spending. ”An indefensible amount of school board and management attention has been dedicated to alleged outrages regarding the site and its environmental condition, and millions of dollars have been expended over more than half a decade to track all their pet concerns about criminal behavior. Frankly, it‘s long past the time for him to cease being the Belmont gadfly on the board. It’s long past the time for him to move on and get some new friends -- perhaps the superintendent.“

Tokofsky said he‘s going to remain a ”watchdog,“ adding, ”I don’t think I‘ve been that much of a zealot to justify my friend David Abel’s disapproval. Some things have improved at the school district. There are more eyes being careful to do things right. But I don‘t see the lessons learned yet.“

If Koff and Tokofsky were fundamentally right about Belmont and Romer were wrong, impeding the project would be entirely justified. But the theory of Belmont as inherently evil depends finally on the belief that the school district itself is irretrievably corrupt or that Belmont is a death trap and a liability magnet. If corruption is the issue, opposing the Belmont complex at this stage is an inefficient, even perverse remedy. As for health risks, the opponents have been unable to produce any credible authority to back their doomsday scenario.

 

Romer could not resist driving home this point himself at the close of last week’s hearing: ”I sat here and thought about all the gases below the surface of L.A. . . . If you‘re concerned about gas coming up from the ground and hurting you, everybody should run and get in the middle of this site, because it will be, to be frank about it, it will be the safest place in Los Angeles. It will be the safest place in Los Angeles to protect yourself from emissions from the ground.“ He added: ”If there is ever a lawsuit on damage to a human being by virtue of gaseous emission -- in this [polluted] atmosphere in L.A., that liability is not going to be on this district.“

In fact, in a candid moment, Thierry Sanglerat, an environmental-science specialist on Romer’s panel, commented that the elaborate and expensive safety precautions now planned by the school district are ”overkill.“ But he endorsed them because of the need for public confidence.

The panel‘s insurance expert, David Dybdahl, said the school district should anticipate ”average commercial property rates“ for insuring the site, meaning that the health risk is not even material in the view of insurers, as long as the project’s design and construction proceed properly.

In a way, Romer has been trying to hoodwink the school board out of its own foolhardiness. While his sermonizing about private-sector prowess was more ridiculous than sublime, it was the school board itself that prodded Romer in this direction. The alternative was for Romer to give in. He could easily have done so, given that the board had ”killed“ Belmont two years ago. But when Romer looked at Belmont, he was unwilling to turn the wrecking ball on a usable school that is badly needed.

”Hail to this chief,“ said David Abel, the former member of the school-bond committee. ”Governor Romer ought to be congratulated by everyone in Los Angeles for the way he‘s finally introduced rationality into the public discussion of the politically besieged Belmont Learning Complex. This is truly laudable public leadership.“

Now the question is whether the school board agrees and whether Romer’s efforts are enough to make the difference.


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