L.A. Coliseum panel votes to pursue new lease with USC

USC's Trojan marching band enter the Coliseum from the players tunnel.
(Kirk McCoy / Los Angeles Times)

The governing body of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum voted Wednesday to pursue a new lease with USC that could give the school greater control over the stadium, the home field for Trojans football.

As the Coliseum’s main tenant, USC has long sought a master lease in exchange for funding improvements to the aging stadium but has encountered opposition because the landmark venue is publicly owned. Some Coliseum Commission members have expressed fears that a master lease would enable USC, a private institution, to keep other events out of the stadium, including soccer matches, Fourth of July celebrations and a third Olympic games.

Wednesday’s 8-0 vote, taken in a closed session, calls for an agreement that could grant USC the lead role in running the Coliseum, but there is no guarantee that the school would win exclusive use of it, said Los Angeles Councilman Bernard C. Parks. He sits on the panel and has been one of the harshest critics of a master lease.

“There was broad enough language that it does not corner the commission in,” said Parks, whose council district includes the Coliseum. “Nothing has been offered, nothing has been agreed to. This starts a dialogue.”

Commission President David Israel said the panel envisions a “modified lease,” but he would not go into specifics.

In an email, a USC administrator said the school was pleased with the vote.

“We hope that through these negotiations the parties can agree upon a long-term lease that allows the Coliseum to be restored to its former glory and ensures its viability for many generations to come,” said Thomas Sayles, senior vice president for university relations. “Our goal is to make the Coliseum a proud landmark and gathering place for all Angelenos.”

Commissioners have conceded that the panel lacks the money to pay for Coliseum improvements that USC was promised in its current lease.

It is too soon to know whether the vote would help the commission persuade a prospective NFL team to play at the Coliseum for several seasons as a proposed football stadium would be built downtown. According to Parks, USC threatened last month to block any efforts to woo an NFL team to the Coliseum unless the school received a master lease.

Under its existing lease, USC has veto power over whether a professional football team plays at the Coliseum. The company that wants to build the downtown stadium, Anschutz Entertainment Group, has said it would deal only with USC in arranging for upgrades that would make the Coliseum a suitable temporary home for an NFL team.

Commissioner Rick Caruso said he was forced to recuse himself from Wednesday’s USC session because he sits on the school’s board of trustees, which Parks viewed as a potential conflict of interest.

Caruso said afterward that there was no conflict because the commission’s agreement with the school gives a USC representative a seat on the Coliseum body. He said Parks sought his recusal “because he’s trying to make sure there’s not enough votes for a master lease.”

The commission did not take any public action Wednesday on Parks’ demand that the panel fire the Coliseum’s top two executives and two other staffers because of a widening scandal involving questionable spending and the private business dealings of stadium managers.

Parks called for the dismissals after a report in Saturday’s Times that, citing records and interviews, said the Coliseum’s technology manager directed stadium business to a firm he founded. After discussing the matter behind closed doors Wednesday, Parks and other commissioners declined to comment.

When asked if the commission had decided to fire any of the employees, Israel said, “The authorization has been made to do things that haven’t been done yet.”