Ron Kaye: Fighting against a rigged game

If the government’s up to something strange in your neighborhood and you think you have a case, who you gonna call?

You’re gonna call Silverstein, of course.

That’s what George Brokate, a 73-year-old former Marine captain and Vietnam veteran, did when he was faced with plans by the city of Monrovia and the Gold Line Construction Authority to seize his property under eminent domain for the maintenance yard for the light-rail extension to Azusa.

Pasadena attorney Robert Silverstein, one of the few public interest lawyers in the Los Angeles region, took up the challenge as he has dozens of times over the last 15 years to apply his expertise on environmental law, property rights, public records disclosure, open meetings and other areas to challenge government agencies on behalf of neighborhood, community, historical preservation groups and property owners like Brokate.

What followed in the last two years in Brokate’s case was a flurry of lawsuits that tore into the $750-million project and the process behind it, threatening to delay the Gold Line extension indefinitely.

“I really feel fortunate I get to represent the little guy, the little guy who’s being ground down by the system,” Silverstein said. “Every case is a David vs. Goliath fight and I get to make real differences in people’s lives. I am a firm believer in eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. You have to fight the government when it’s wrong and violates its own laws.”

Back in October, Silverstein and co-counsel Christopher Sutton, another highly successful public interest lawyer from Pasadena, filed lawsuits over the role of the Monrovia Community Redevelopment Agency in the process, since it faced dissolution under state law, and over how the design-build contract was awarded — actions that did not sit well with then-Monrovia-City-Manager Scott Ochoa, who took over from Jim Starbird as Glendale city manager last week.

In an interview with Monrovia Patch, Ochoa dismissed the allegations then as “specious at best,” and an “obstructionist” tactic to shake down Gold Line officials for more money.

“It's basically his effort to try and slow down and stymie anything the city does until such time he, or his client, gets what he wants,” Ochoa told Patch. “This has nothing to do with the city. This has to do with his negotiations with the [Gold Line Construction Authority] for the property, for which he wants four times the appraised value.”

There may be some truth in that, since one of the key issues raised by Silverstein is the mystery over why the Gold Line agreed to pay Monrovia $57 million for its 14-acre parcel — including $16 million for city infrastructure improvements, $11.5 million for lost tax revenue and $2.1 million in other costs, records show. In contrast, Brokate was offered $5.8 million for his 4.7 acres, which has four businesses on it, working out to about a quarter of the price per acre negotiated with the city.

“They want to make this out to be about we’re just trying to wrangle more money out of them,” Silverstein said. “Mr. Brokate is a man of principle and a fighter who knows this whole deal is financially, legally and ethically wrong. We’re going to expose this waste of public funds, this fraud upon the public, known as the Gold Line.”

Last month, a judge tentatively ruled in favor of Brokate on violations of the state contracting law requiring competitive bidding for the construction, and on the environmental law issue, because the alternative maintenance site in Irwindale that was studied was not a reasonable alternative.

“The real story is they never, ever, should have picked this Monrovia site in the first place,” Silverstein said. “There were other environmentally and economically superior sites along the route that wouldn’t have required displacing of anyone.

And he asked, “Who’s going to be held accountable? Who’s watching what they are doing?”

Community activists are watching their government actions closely, but rarely have either the legal knowledge to see how the laws are being skirted or the means to hire lawyers who can vigorously challenge what is going on.

Silverstein counts among his many victories exposing the Los Angeles City Council’s practice of having the clerk falsify records of its special meetings, and concealing its environmental actions; beating the city’s redevelopment agency in open records and eminent domain cases; forcing the L.A. Unified School District to comply with environmental laws; and scoring victories in lawsuits against Glendora, Santa Ana, Beverly Hills and Culver City.

He describes himself as a “ferocious fighter against the incredible arrogance of power and the abuse of power” that has left ordinary citizens virtually powerless without the ability to fight back.

“It’s a rigged game,” he said.

“Ours is a government of the people, by the people, for the people — I can’t tell you how many times it elicits snickers from government officials when I say that. It’s so pathetic. They don’t believe that, they don’t believe in the foundations of our democracy. They forget we are the government.

“What I do comes from my heart, my righteous indignation. You keep doing it because you believe in it, believe you’re doing something good and ethical, that you are doing the right thing. I love it.”
RON KAYE can be reached at Share your thoughts and stories with him.

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