Ron Kaye: Democracy wins a round

The setting was beautiful: a hill high above the intersection of the Santa Monica (10) and Long Beach (710) freeways, with panoramic views of downtown L.A. and much of the San Gabriel Valley, even on this dark and misty Thursday night.

But the scene inside the banquet room at Luminarias, the landmark restaurant in Monterey Park, was ugly — dozens of conspirators were set to finish the job they had started back in December when they launched a sneak attack on the reappointment of Glendale Councilman Ara Najarian to the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority board.

The Cities Selection Committee, the governmental body that represents the 87 cities in the county that are not Los Angeles, had never before denied approval of any nominee from its four sectors to any agency — an action that left the nomination in limbo.

This is how I started my report on what led up to that dramatic moment:

“Things have come to a pretty pass when we would rather cannibalize each other than respect each other, would rather vilify our opponents than work out some kind of deal that balances our competing interests and values.”

Now the cannibals were ready to devour their prey.

The moment the Najarian appointment came up, an official from Palmdale in the back of the room shouted: “Chair, with all due respect on behalf of Mayor Jim Ledford … I would like to offer a substitute motion and refer this item back to the North County sector for further discussion.”

So began 40 minutes of cheers and jeers, anger and intrigue, parliamentary games and procedural flip-flops.

Here was a roomful of public officials representing 5 million people acting at times like democracy was an alien idea.

When the chair considered taking up the delay motion, Glendale Mayor Frank Quintero got sustained applause when he asked, “Don't we have bylaws?”

When he won his point, the delegate from Rosemead appealed the chair's reversal and Lancaster City Manager Mark Bozigian demanded to know, “What's wrong with sending it back to us so we can take another look at it?”

That set off a minute of boos and hoots and a shouts that he “should sit down,” since he is not an official delegate.

“I'll stand up as long as it takes,” he responded.

Pasadena attorney Chris Sutton — who had a videographer taping the meeting — warned that “it violates California law to consider items not on the agenda,” specifically the appeal and the motion to send the nomination back.

“Make no mistake that this whole disagreement is about Ara Najarian's opposition to the 710 tunnel,” said Mayor Pro Tem Laura Olhasso of La Cañada Flintridge.

“He made the mistake of asking hard questions like, ‘Is this the highest and best use for our tax dollars? Are there other alternatives to a tunnel that we can spend our constituent dollars to a better use?'” she said. “Because he has asked those questions strongly and vocally, he has been vilified by members of this group. This is not democracy.”

That's what this was all about — the “710 gap project,” the multi-billion-dollar tunnel extension to Pasadena that has been stymied for decades by opposition from communities all along the Arroyo Seco, where it is seen as a total waste of money, a threat to the quality of their lives, and a boondoggle that doesn't improve the transportation system.

To the lead conspirators — longtime Duarte councilman and MTA board member John Fasana and Alhambra Mayor Barbara Messina — the freeway extension is a boon to their communities, not a boondoggle.

But instead of delivering the death blow when he took the podium, Fasana — who had been quietly chatting with Najarian on and off — offered an alternative, an opportunity “to look for the common ground.”

They had agreed to let the 710 environmental study go forward so the decision can be made on the basis of costs, environmental impacts and transportation impacts, and to move forward on an ongoing dialogue among the four sectors on how they can work together for mutual benefit instead of endlessly being divided and conquered by Los Angeles, which gets the lion's share of the funds.

“In my view, for the last five years there is not majority support on the [MTA] board for the subway being the primary project in Los Angeles County. The only way to see that resources are diverted or allocated fairly … [is] if our cities can find a way to take the issues of the sub-regions and work together,” Fasana said. “We can be successful.... We can walk out of here with some unanimity, but also really strengthen the position of the 87 cities.”

To laughter, cheers and applause, Najarian began by acknowledged he was “at the center of this storm.”

“John's idea is a great one so that we four sector reps get together on a regular basis so that we become the big boys on the MTA, not the mayor of L.A.,” he said. “We're going to have that group of four and we'll know exactly what the South Bay needs, what San Gabriel needs, what Glendale, Burbank and even my good friends in Lancaster, Palmdale and Santa Clarita, need.

“Then, we can all pull for each other and we can all get the funding we need. That's the only way we going to succeed. If we stand divided as we are in this room … we're only playing into hands of whoever the new mayor of L.A. is.”

Messina, who has worked for the freeway extension for 28 years, echoed their sentiments, saying, “I want to see this region move forward and I am willing to compromise. I asked [Najarian] if he was a man of his word and he said, ‘Yes.' I'm going to trust him.”

Soon after, the chair decided the only vote that would be taken was on the nomination itself — not the substitute motion or the appeal.

Only Lancaster and Palmdale voted against Najarian, who got 316 votes — 62 more than needed — when the tedious process of population-weighted voting and tallying was complete.

I guess that's why the cliché about democracy and sausage-making still applies — when it works. And why there is chaos when it doesn't, as we have come to see all too often these days.


RON KAYE can be reached at Share your thoughts and stories with him.

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