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Private Metrolink discussion on rail car safety may have violated transparency law

Private Metrolink discussion on rail car safety may have violated transparency law
Metrolink officials are under fire for a private teleconference, in which they discussed the design safety of their passenger cars, that may have violated the state's open meetings law. (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)

A private conference call that the leaders of Metrolink used to discuss safety concerns surrounding dozens of new passenger cars is drawing criticism from Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich and the president of a state rail association.

A lawyer for the Los Angeles Times also has written officials of the public commuter rail line, contending that the session violated California's open meetings law.

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Among the concerns is whether Metrolink directors violated the Ralph M. Brown Act by participating in an "emergency teleconference board meeting" to address the crash-worthiness of their Hyundai Rotem cab cars, reputedly among the safest rail cars available.

"The safety of the Metrolink system is the highest priority for our board," said Antonovich, who serves on the agency's 14-member panel and took part in the call. "If issues of faulty equipment arise, we need transparency and open discussion before the public."

The teleconference began about 5 p.m. on Sept. 2 and included 11 voting board members. Afterward, Art Leahy, the railroad's chief executive, announced plans to temporarily replace the railroad's 57 Hyundai Rotem cab cars with locomotives leased from the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co.

Cab cars, which are passenger coaches with an engineer's station, are placed at the front of trains that are pushed from behind by locomotives. The practice is commonly used by commuter railroads when trains reverse direction at the end of a line.

Hyundai Rotem cab cars are supposed to be safer because they are equipped with crash energy management systems to absorb some of the impact of a collision.

After a Feb. 24 crash between a Metrolink train and a heavy-duty pickup truck and trailer in Oxnard, however, investigators began to suspect that a plow-like deflector or cow-catcher at the front of that train's Hyundai Rotem car may have failed, allowing wreckage to get under its wheels and triggering a derailment.

Photos of the damaged cab car show that the plow is either missing or bent so far back it is no longer visible.

The train's engineer was fatally injured in the collision and 27 other people were taken to hospitals with minor to critical injuries.

"RailPac is concerned that this issue was discussed in closed session," said Paul Dyson, president of the Passenger Rail Assn. of California and a Burbank transportation commissioner. "There seems to be no compelling reason why this was not a public meeting."

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash but has yet to determine the cause or factors that may have contributed to its severity.

Metrolink officials contend that an exemption in the Brown Act allowed the board to discuss the cab cars in closed session.

They cited a provision stating that government bodies can hold private discussions with law enforcement, security consultants, agency attorneys and safety officials on matters posing a threat to the security of public buildings and essential public services such as drinking water, wastewater treatment, electric service and the public's right of access to public services and facilities.

According to the Metrolink board's latest agenda, officials plan to use the same exemption to discuss an item in another closed session on Friday. Rail officials declined to say what the topic will be, though some board sources suspect the cab cars will be addressed again.

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Jeff Glasser, a Los Angeles Times attorney, contends that nothing in the statute or the legislative history of the law permits a public agency such as Metrolink to extend the exemption to discussions about the safety of railroad cars or their design shortcomings.

Glasser asserts that the law is intended to cover discussions about external security threats to public buildings and services such as imminent threats of terrorism, civil unrest or criminal acts.

The Times sent a letter to Metrolink's attorney, chief executive officer and board members demanding that they correct the Brown Act violation. To clear such violations, government bodies can revisit the matter in question at a public meeting or face a possible lawsuit.

Scott Johnson, a Metrolink spokesman, said railroad officials have received The Times' letter and the agency's legal staff is preparing a response. "General counsel is confident the authority is acting in accordance with the Brown Act," he said.

Attorney Terry Francke, general counsel for Californians Aware and an expert in the state's open meetings law, contended that the railroad's closed session is an example of overreach and "a complete miss" in the application of the Brown Act exemption.

Francke said that that section of the law should not be applied to safety concerns raised by the design of rail cars because it does not involve a law enforcement issue or an external threat to public facilities.

dan.weikel@latimes.com

Follow on Twitter @LADeadline16 for transportation and aviation news.

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