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Prop. A as Exorcist for MTA’s Evil Ways

With Halloween now behind us, and Election Day looming, please join me for a tale from the crypt of Los Angeles politics. It is a ghost story of sorts, set in the opulent headquarters of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the underworld of the $300-million-a-mile Metro Rail subway system.

The tale concerns a politician we may someday address as Mayor Zev, and a ballot measure, Proposition A. Just vote yes, he suggests, and Prop. A will be a stake through this money-sucker’s heart.

That may be how our story ends. It begins with a political execution.

Dec. 20, 1995. Franklin E. White, a respected transit executive recruited from New York only 2 1/2 years earlier to serve as MTA chief executive officer, knew his fate was sealed. He knew that, in a matter of minutes, an MTA board majority led by Mayor Richard Riordan and Councilman Richard Alatorre would go into closed session and vote for White’s dismissal, complete with golden parachute.

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Given a chance to speak, White, who had been dutifully laboring to improve the MTA’s horrible image, stunned the audience with an extemporaneous critique that depicted the MTA as an agency ruled by politicians who encouraged a climate of corruption--election-year boondoggles, contract “fixes” and “inbred” special interests.

“From the moment I arrived,” White said, “I think one of the persistent rumors that I received was ‘Things aren’t straight over at the MTA.’ . . . People did not, and many do not believe, that the way we make decisions is fair. They believe insiders have a track. They believe this is a money train, and to a large degree it is. It is a money train.

“And they believe that favored friends have ways of climbing aboard that money train, and that’s true . . .”

The vote to oust White was 9 to 4. Critics were quick to dismiss White’s comments as the revenge of a bitter man. Since then, White’s words have come back to haunt the agency, because he has been proved right. White’s successor, Joseph Drew, resigned after controversy erupted over his decision to reverse an analysis of competing bids and award the Eastside rail contract to a construction team allied with Alatorre. (Not that there is money to fund it.)

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Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky likes to point out that he was one of the four board members who voted against White’s dismissal.

It might have been different, Yaroslavsky says now, if only Riordan and Alatorre and the rest hadn’t made White a fall guy. Maybe if White hadn’t suffered whiplash trying to deal with a hard-to-please 13-member board, maybe if the directors had heeded White’s warnings about fiscal insanity, Yaroslavsky says, mass transit in Greater Los Angeles wouldn’t be quite the mess it is.

But the money train just kept rolling along. And that is why Yaroslavsky, once an ardent subway supporter, says he launched Proposition A, a measure that would forbid the MTA to spend any more of its 1-penny sales tax revenue toward subway construction once the Metro Rail Red Line to North Hollywood is completed.

After that, no more $300-million-a-mile subways. Because the MTA has proved it can’t be trusted, Yaroslavsky says, this will guarantee that the money will be spent more prudently on improved bus service, the creation of dedicated bus transit ways and the expansion of the light-rail system. This is the best way, Yaroslavsky argues, to assure the public gets its money’s worth.

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Proposition A has attracted both broad support and broad opposition. From one side of the spectrum, the Bus Riders Union and state Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Los Angeles) have endorsed the measure. From the other side, there is the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers’ Assn. and Supervisor Mike Antonovich, stalwart Republican.

“Never say never,” argues the opposition, whose ranks include Supervisor Gloria Molina and Eastside activists. Hundreds demonstrated against Yaroslavsky’s measure on Thursday. Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke has said an outright prohibition on the subway is pure folly; and Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, who wonders if subways will be needed to bring rail to Los Angeles International Airport, is also opposed.

But Yaroslavsky contends that politicians, protesters, endorsements, editorials and columns like this one won’t have much influence on Proposition A. He suggests that most voters in this sprawling county of some 10 million souls are fed up with the mismanagement of the MTA and long ago made up their minds what they thought about the subway.

Many people, including many urban planners, considered subway construction a folly from the start, a pipe dream that would waste billions--and has. And so people are right to wonder: What if we put billions into expanding the light rail system?

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What if we improve L.A.'s deplorable bus service? By now we might have that “gold standard” of bus service that the MTA’s current CEO, Julian Burke, on Thursday declared should be the agency’s top priority.

And what if we build special bus transit ways? For the cost of a single mile of subway, Yaroslavsky says, the San Fernando Valley could have a system stretching from the NoHo Station to Warner Center.

Yaroslavsky argues that “people who depend on public transit"--in other words, the poor--have suffered the most because of subway fixation.

That’s one reason Yaroslavsky predicts that even voters in Molina’s district will ignore her and the protest marchers and support Proposition A instead.

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Alatorre, who was instrumental in sinking White, is now reeling from allegations of corruption and an admitted cocaine problem. These troubles have helped Molina eclipse her Eastside rival, and in taking up the fight against Proposition A, she has accused Yaroslavsky of using the measure to build a base of support for an anticipated run for mayor.

Yaroslavsky, who has put $300,000 of his campaign treasury into Proposition A, is accustomed to being accused of ulterior motives--of doing everything to advance his own career.

Never say never, Yaroslavsky more or less says whenever he hears the familiar question about his mayoral ambitions. Already he is regarded as the man to beat . . . assuming he runs.

There are good reasons for this. For 23 years now Yaroslavsky has been a force in L.A. politics, not just an incumbent. When I covered the City Council in the late 1980s, it was easy to understand why City Hall insiders regarded Yaroslavsky more seriously than other council members. He took the lead on several initiatives, he talked in sound bites, he seldom if ever made a fool of himself.

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Proposition A is the fourth ballot measure Yaroslavsky has sponsored. As a young councilman in 1978, he launched Proposition M to change school board elections from at-large to by-district. It won. In 1986, he teamed with Councilman Marvin Braude for Proposition U, a measure to control growth. It won. In 1988, he and Braude sponsored Proposition O to prevent Occidental Petroleum from drilling beneath the Pacific Palisades. It won.

The voters will now decide on Proposition A. And Yaroslavsky will, in due time, decide whether to forgo the comforts of incumbency on the Board of Supervisors to run for mayor. The guess here is that he will.

That is why I called Yaroslavsky’s office the other day--to write about the man who might be mayor. Politics is fun, policy boring. But then a Yaroslavsky aide reminded me of Franklin White’s remarkable farewell address.

With some guilt I remembered that, this being racially charged L.A., many people saw race at work in that drama. Even benign interpretations had to note that White was African American, and so too was his most ardent defender, Burke.

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How to explain Yaroslavsky? Easy for us cynics: You know Zev, working the angles, currying favor with the black community. Probably just running for mayor.

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Scott Harris’ column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Readers may write to him at The Times’ Valley Edition, 20000 Prairie St., Chatsworth, CA 91311, or via e-mail at scott.harris@latimes.com. Please include a phone number.


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