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Forum accuses Inglewood and Clippers of 'backroom dealing' in agreement to explore building new arena

Minutes after Inglewood’s City Council unanimously approved an exclusive negotiating agreement with a Clippers-controlled company on Thursday to explore building an arena, a statement issued on behalf of the Forum assailed the deal as the product of “backroom dealing.”

The terse two paragraphs raised the first complication for a proposed project that is far from a sure thing.

“Many consider our work to revitalize the Forum to be the catalyst for Inglewood’s recent business success,” the statement said. “Now, it appears the city of Inglewood has been doing a lot of backroom dealing. There may be a path forward, but not without a real public process that is done in the full light of day with the participation of Inglewood’s residents and many other stakeholders.”

Inglewood Mayor James T. Butts Jr. said he hadn’t seen the statement, but is “100% comfortable” with the way the city handled the arena agreement.

But before the brief special meeting of the City Council on Thursday morning to vote on the deal, an attorney representing the Forum emailed a strongly worded letter to Butts and the four city councilmen.

The statement and letter suggest that the arena, which billionaire Clippers owner Steve Ballmer plans to privately finance, could face serious opposition before the first rendering is released or any environmental studies are completed.

The complex, including team offices, parking and a practice facility, would occupy land across the street from Rams owner Stan Kroenke's 298-acre sports and entertainment district that’s under construction. A $2.6-billion stadium that will house the Rams and Chargers and is the project’s centerpiece is scheduled to open in 2020.

Representatives of the Clippers previously approached the Forum about building an arena in the venue’s parking lot, but the discussions never advanced.

The two-page letter from Latham & Watkins attorney George Mihlsten accused Inglewood of not giving proper notice for the City Council meeting — as required by the Brown Act — and violating “numerous agreements and requirements of law.”

“Further, approval of the Exclusive Negotiating Agreement would be a violation of the California Environmental Quality Act as it precommits the city without conducting any environmental review,” the letter said.

“Given the limited amount of time and lack of notice, the Forum reserves all rights to object to the proposed Exclusive Negotiating Agreement and arena project.”

Mihlsten, one of California’s leading land-use attorneys, previously worked on matters related to the construction of Staples Center and represented the Chargers in their quest for a new stadium.

His letter urged the City Council not to vote on the agreement Thursday, advice that went unheeded.

The deal between Inglewood and the Clippers-controlled company, Murphy’s Bowl LLC, runs for 36 months plus a possible six-month extension. It includes the team’s paying the city a nonrefundable deposit of $1.5 million to cover costs associated with the effort.

The potential arena land, currently home to a variety of businesses that include a motel and an auto detailing shop south of Century Boulevard, is owned by the city, Inglewood's Successor Agency and third parties. The agreement mentions the possibility of Inglewood’s using eminent domain to acquire private property for the project.

Mihlsten’s letter said the agreement “fails to comply with requirements of law” in regard to using eminent domain and could open “the City and other public agencies up to financial exposure.”

Forum representatives declined to elaborate on the statement and letter, while the Clippers deferred comment to Inglewood.

Though the Clippers' lease at Staples Center runs through June 2024, Ballmer has long expressed a desire for an arena of his own.

The Clippers and Anschutz Entertainment Group, which owns Staples Center, remain in discussions about renegotiating the lease for the Clippers to play there.

In a letter from Ballmer to Clippers supporters after the vote, the owner committed to playing out the remainder of the team’s lease at Staples Center while exploring the potential arena in Inglewood.

“I have said from day one that we need to plan for the future. This agreement helps us do that by expanding our options,” Ballmer’s letter said. “The prospect of a new state-of-the-art NBA arena would allow us greater latitude to influence our game schedule. … We also want to offer our fans premium experiences in terms of technology, club spaces and other amenities; that’s easier to realize in a new arena.”

Times staff writer Broderick Turner contributed to this report.

nathan.fenno@latimes.com

Twitter: @nathanfenno


UPDATES:

12:45 p.m.: This article was updated with a comment from Inglewood Mayor James T. Butts Jr. and background information.

11:50 a.m.: This article was updated with new information, including a statement by the Forum and a letter sent to Inglewood by the Forum’s attorneys.

The article was originally published at 11:05 a.m.

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