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Homeowners Group Meeting Ends in Tussle

Times Staff Writer

The annual meeting of the Westwood Homeowners Assn. was a sedate and civilized affair -- until two men began wrestling over the microphone and one ended up with the cord stretched across his throat.

The tussle quickly ended, and no one was injured. But the exchange showed the emotional stakes surrounding a controversial settlement between the nonprofit organization and a developer.

Residents eager for information about the $550,000-plus deal expressed anger that association President Richard Agay reserved discussion of the pact until the end of the two-hour meeting Monday night, and then adjourned without addressing the issue.

By the time the to-do over the microphone was over, Agay had raced from the hall, with frustrated residents in pursuit. On his way out, he spilled a stack of pink slips containing written questions from residents.

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Among them were several queries about the agreement, the subject of a story in Monday’s Times. Residents buttonholed him on the darkened front steps of St. Paul the Apostle Church, where he spent the next hour in the chill air explaining how the pact came to be and what his role in it was.

As part of the agreement, Agay and the homeowners’ group dropped a lawsuit against a 290-foot-tall condo project on Wilshire Boulevard. Agay, an attorney, signed the deal on his own behalf and on behalf of the association.

Primarily at issue, some association board members and residents say, is the creation of a $275,000 legal fund that condo builder Richard Weintraub agreed to set up. That money now sits in Agay’s attorney trust account -- an account attorneys use to hold money for clients -- and he and two other current board members will have veto power over how the funds are spent.

Agay, who has declined to show the written terms of the deal to several board members and residents despite their repeated requests, has said he intends to use the fund to hire lawyers to challenge future developments in Westwood that he deems to be illegal.

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Weintraub also agreed to cover $275,000 in costs over the next five years for hiring security patrols for the area. And he paid Agay $10,000 for his legal work on the deal.

Among those criticizing the deal are Councilman Jack Weiss and even Weintraub himself. Both say the establishment of a legal fund to challenge future Westwood developments sets a dangerous precedent.

Weiss plans to introduce a City Council motion to establish a Westwood Community Benefit Trust Fund, to serve as a depository for funds from Weintraub intended to benefit the community.

Residents who attended Monday’s meeting also weighed in on the deal.

“I would never support that named individuals would have a constant veto power, whether it’s one year from now or 30,” said Richard Motzkin, a lawyer who is running for the association’s board. “That’s not a position anyone should put himself in.”

Motzkin said Agay had done “a tremendous job” for the association over his five years as president. But, he said, “at some level he is being closed-minded about the intelligence and common sense of the other homeowners in terms of how these funds would be spent.”

Rather than allow discussion on the agreement, Agay kept to his original agenda at Monday’s meeting. For more than 90 minutes, the 200 or so residents in attendance listened with growing impatience to reports from a police officer, an FBI representative and a community relations official from UCLA, among others. Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky spoke about budget issues and other matters.

Then it came time for Councilman Weiss, who for months has engaged in a harsh mail exchange with Agay over the terms of the Weintraub settlement.

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Agay introduced Weiss with a not-so-subtle dig, saying that Weiss had the distinction of being the “prettiest” council member. Weiss looked quizzically at Agay and told the audience that it was the strangest introduction he had ever received.

After Weiss spoke, he took written questions from the audience, read by Agay. By that time, resident George Merkert -- whose wife, Lila Rioth, is Agay’s leading opponent on the board -- had worked his way to the front of the hall, where he shouted a question to Weiss about the Weintraub project.

Merkert reached for the microphone, but Agay held it away from him. After Weiss had spent several minutes responding to Merkert’s question, Agay retorted that the City Council had approved the project even though it violated land-use codes.

Agay then looked at his watch and said, “We have to be out of here by 9:30,” and adjourned the meeting, leaving Weiss practically in mid-sentence.

Merkert grabbed the microphone and started to read residents’ questions. Bill Wagner, a former board vice president, unplugged the microphone. When Merkert reached down to plug it back in, Wagner grabbed Merkert from behind, and the cord stretched across Merkert’s throat.

Merkert said he decided the situation was not worth a physical confrontation, and the two men backed off.

On Tuesday, residents and politicians were buzzing about how to get the influential organization’s board members to rise above their current sniping.

“There’s no question that last night demonstrated that the current governance of the organization is dysfunctional,” Weiss said.

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Agay acknowledged that he did not handle the meeting well.

“I plead guilty to not knowing how to control a crowd like that,” he said. He also said he intends to arrange a meeting at which the sole subject would be the agreement and at which copies would be available.

“Last night wasn’t one of Richard’s great rhetorical nights,” Yaroslavsky said. “The best thing he can do is back off and invite the community back in, both supporters and critics.”


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