Wreckage Continues to Pile Up at the MTA

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

On the eve of one of the most critical meetings in the MTA's short history, the county transit agency finds itself unable to satisfy federal demands to establish stronger leadership by attracting even an interim chief executive.

The second top candidate in a week has dropped out of consideration the day before the agency's board was prepared to hire him, declaring that he did not want to leave retirement to work 15-hour days. According to agency sources, former county public works Director Tom Tidemanson also met resistance to his salary demand of $20,000 a month.

The MTA's attempt to show the Clinton administration by Jan. 15 that it has its act together seemed to further unravel Thursday when a Los Angeles Superior Court judge temporarily blocked the agency from awarding a contract to manage subway tunneling on the Eastside. The judge said the agency must hold a hearing to consider whether it had been fair to one of the bidders.

Adding to the apparent sense of crisis at the troubled agency, board members in interviews expressed no consensus on critical management, ethics and financial issues on which they must vote today to prove that they have sufficient resolve to continue receiving federal funding:

* No candidate has emerged to replace Joseph E. Drew as MTA chief executive when he leaves at the end of the month; he has held the post for less than a year.

* A proposed code of conduct developed at a frantic pace by agency staff over the last three weeks was blasted as "unacceptable" by one board member, who said he believed it unfairly targeted one of his staff people.

* A proposal to transfer $300 million in carpool-lane money to rail construction also lacked the support of all board members, with County Supervisor Mike Antonovich calling it "a waste."

* A last-minute pitch by the MTA staff to break the deadlock over choosing a business team to supervise Eastside subway tunneling by splitting the controversial contract into equal parts for three bidders was received coolly by board members.

* Agency officials have learned that the California Transportation Commission has declared that it is intent on "not releasing any further funds" to the MTA unless state officials are included in discussions with the federal government about the future of the agency's rail program.

As for the agency's leadership, MTA board Chairman Larry Zarian said he had no new names to propose to fellow board members today as interim CEO.

Prominent New York transit consultant Alan F. Kiepper withdrew from consideration for Drew's job a week before Tidemanson, citing a county attorney's letter that declared that conflicts of interest would prevent him from making key decisions.

Expressing frustration at the loss of both candidates, Zarian said he believed that some board members might propose promoting a current MTA executive to the top spot, and federal officials have recommended that he contact a transit executive in Pennsylvania.

A swift and easy agreement by the board on a code of conduct, requested by U.S. Transportation Secretary Federico Pena in Washington last month, also appeared in doubt. Several board members reported that they had not even seen the 16-page ethics proposal.

The reaction among those who have read it was mixed. While Gardena Councilman Jim Cragin and county Supervisor Gloria Molina proposed adopting it immediately, Duarte Councilman John Fasana said he disagreed with provisions that would limit the role of those who advise the board.

"I don't think it has much to do with ethics--it is just targeted at certain people," he said, adding: "If everyone wants to get on an ethics kick, there's a lot more that could be done."

Like Antonovich, Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan has expressed strong reluctance to transfer $300 million from freeways to rail. On Thursday, however, the mayor said he would support the shift on the condition that the MTA staff can prove that the transfer would not jeopardize plans to expand bus service.

Antonovich also condemned Pena's demand that the board reaffirm its commitment to the subway as its highest priority, calling the request "a direct threat to force taxpayers to subsidize the unholy union between the subway special interests and transportation bureaucrats."

The messiest and most confusing development Thursday, however, came when Judge Robert O'Brien granted a request by construction management consortium Metro East Consultants to temporarily bar the MTA from voting on a $65-million contract to supervise tunneling on the Eastside.

A panel of experts hired for $375,000 to choose an Eastside management team last summer ranked Metro East third among three bidders. In October, Drew recommended the team for the job anyway, then reversed himself in November after the agency's top auditor determined that false statements in its bid documents made its offer "nonresponsive."

Metro East attorney Neil Papiano said he considered the auditor's finding "illegal and preposterous," and convinced the judge that his client should have an MTA hearing at which they could present evidence and question the auditor.

The MTA then offered to grant Metro East a hearing at 11 a.m. today before it takes up the award at its special board meeting. In an interview, Papiano called the short notice "ludicrous," and said his clients probably would not be able to appear. It was unclear whether the hearing would go on as scheduled.

Board members Zev Yaroslavsky and Yvonne Brathwaite Burke said the proposal by the MTA's construction staff to split the Eastside contract into thirds was unworkable and would not be seriously considered.

In the state Capitol, transportation officials expressed concern about their exclusion from a meeting held last month in Washington between federal and MTA officials to discuss the future of Los Angeles County rail projects.

"The federal government should not unilaterally be imposing upon Los Angeles County its sense of the relative priority for all investments within the county, including those with and without federal funding--and certainly not without the full participation of the state of California," Commission Chairman Edward G. Jordan said in a letter to federal transportation officials.

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