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Los Angeles Times

Newton: An MTA power play

The transportation future of this region rests, in no small measure, with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. And that body's board is about to change.

In part, that is because Los Angeles will be getting a new mayor. That mayor will sit on the MTA board and appoint three other members, giving him or her a sizable voice in directing money and identifying projects, from subways to freeways. Indeed, outgoing Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa may be best remembered for his contributions to the area's transportation network and innovative attempts to pay for it.

But even as the mayor's race plays out in full public view, a behind-the-scenes political fight is being waged that could bring further change to the MTA board. Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, joined by representatives of a few local officials in the San Gabriel Valley and elsewhere, are attempting to oust Glendale City Councilman Ara Najarian from his MTA seat — which some see as punishment and others as a power grab.

JIM NEWTON: The L.A. mayor’s race

"My future career in transportation, my future in local politics, really, could come down to this," Najarian told me last week. Najarian believes Antonovich is angry over Najarian's support for a half-cent sales tax for transportation; the supervisor already removed Najarian from the Metrolink board.

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, a Najarian ally, sees even deeper motives at work. "This," he said, "is an effort to knock off one of the consensus-builders of the board and take control."

To understand the controversy, it's important first to understand how the MTA is governed. In addition to the mayor's four seats, each of the county's five supervisors has a seat on the board. The four remaining spots are allocated by region, with local officials in the region selecting a nominee, who is then confirmed by the countywide League of Cities, which includes elected leaders from each of the county's 87 cities (other than Los Angeles). Najarian has the so-called North seat, which represents the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys.

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Najarian was unanimously nominated last year by his region to continue representing the area. He arrived at a December meeting of the full league confident that the ratification would be, as it had always been, a pro-forma vote.

That's not the way it played out. Duarte Councilman John Fasana, who also sits on the MTA board, rose to oppose Najarian's continued service, arguing that Najarian's opposition to the extension of the 710 Freeway rendered him unfit to continue. He and others urged the full committee to oppose Najarian's reappointment.

"He was in opposition to a project that's very important to San Gabriel Valley cities," Fasana told me last week. Fasana acknowledged that the parliamentary move was unusual — never before in the history of the MTA board has the full league failed to confirm a regional nominee. But Fasana argued that board members have a "dual responsibility" to represent their region while also looking out for the larger interests of the county. Najarian, he said, had failed that test.

Fasana and his allies were successful enough at that meeting to deny Najarian the majority he needed to win reappointment, but because there was no other candidate to consider, the matter was shelved until March 7. Najarian is trying to line up votes for that crucial meeting; if he wins, he then needs to get over one more hurdle: his reelection to his council seat in April.

So where does Antonovich come in? Although he doesn't vote in the League of Cities confirmation process, he has been working behind the scenes to engineer Najarian's ouster. Through an aide, Antonovich denied that he was punishing the Glendale councilman for his position on the 710 Freeway or the sales tax but said he regards Najarian as divisive and unwilling to resist the influence of the city of Los Angeles. Asked whether Antonovich was encouraging elected officials to vote against Najarian, his aide responded in an email, saying the supervisor "has been forthright with everyone interested" about the need for a strong board member who would look out for the North County cities. In other words: Yes.

Najarian sees Antonovich's hand at work in the campaign against him too. "It's his backyard," the councilman said. "He's the supervisor. Nobody wants to run afoul of him."

That's hardball, and there's a lot at stake. The MTA is closely divided, so one vote often matters. More important, Yaroslavsky notes that Najarian helped secure passage of the MTA's long-term plan, which tries to divvy up scarce resources by spreading them across the region. Bouncing him out, Yaroslavsky says, would signal a move away from that plan and back to a continuing battle over money.

"If the region doesn't have a collaborative approach … it's going to be civil war," he said. "The real question is: Who controls the MTA board?"

Two upcoming elections — Najarian's and that of Los Angeles mayor — will supply the answer.

Jim Newton’s column appears Mondays. His latest book is "Eisenhower: The White House Years." Reach him at jim.newton@latimes.com or follow him on Twitter: @newton_jim.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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