Inglewood meeting to approve Clippers deal violated state law, D.A. says
The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office found that the Inglewood City Council violated state law in connection with a special meeting in June 2017 to approve an agreement with a Clippers-controlled company to explore building an arena in the city, but the D.A. declined to take any action.
In a two-page letter sent to council members earlier this month and obtained by the Los Angeles Times, Deputy Dist. Atty. Bjorn Dodd wrote that the meeting agenda violated the Brown Act, the state’s open meetings law, by not providing a sufficient description of the matter to be discussed.
“Violations relating to the agenda description of an item of business could render the action by the city council null and void,” the letter said. “However, because the complaint was received after the time limits to remedy the violation, no action will be taken at this time.”
The City Council approved the agreement with Murphy’s Bowl LLC a second time in July 2017 after complaints about the notice given for the first meeting. The agreement was approved a third time in August 2017 to narrow the possible area for the project and make clear eminent domain wouldn’t be used on an “occupied residence or church.”
The lone agenda item for the first special meeting was vague, mentioning only a vote on an exclusive negotiating agreement between Inglewood, two city-run agencies and Murphy’s Bowl LLC. The company is controlled by Clippers owner Steve Ballmer.
“Notably omitted from the agenda description was any information of the location and scope of the contemplated development project,” the letter said.
It added: “The public does not bear the burden to inspect related documents to glean the essential nature of what the city council will consider.”
Documents attached to the agenda item on Inglewood’s website didn’t mention the Clippers but detailed the plan to build a privately financed arena along West Century Boulevard on 22 acres of empty, city-owned land and some parcels controlled by private parties.
The special meeting — with public notice time reduced from the customary 72 hours to 24 hours — resulted in a unanimous vote approving the three-year agreement.
“It should be noted that the deficiency of the agenda description appears to have been part of concerted efforts between representatives of the city and the Murphy’s Bowl LLC to limit the notice given to the public,” the letter said. “Furthermore, the generic name of Murphy’s Bowl LLC was used intentionally to obfuscate the identity of the proposed project and those associated with it. Although these tactics were not violations per se of the Brown Act, they indicated concerted efforts to act contrary to the spirit of the Brown Act. Although the evidence is not sufficient to prove that any member of the city council participated in these efforts to obfuscate, the city council bears the ultimate responsibility to comply with the Brown Act.”
Chris Meany, the arena project manager, said in a statement, “This is the first we learned of the district attorney’s interest in what is a two-year-old and thoroughly disproved allegation. Had the DA contacted us, we would have pointed out that what amounted to a procedural error was corrected at the time, as allowed by the Brown Act.”
Inglewood Mayor James T. Butts Jr. and other Inglewood City Council members didn’t immediately return requests for comment.
Royce Jones, an attorney representing Inglewood, said in a statement that the district attorney’s letter “recycles a tired accusation that has been rendered irrelevant” and “there was no attempt by the city to circumvent the Brown Act or keep the public from providing its valuable input on the [exclusive negotiating agreement] with Murphy’s Bowl.”
The complaint that sparked the letter was filed with the district attorney’s public integrity unit in March 2018 by attorney Douglas Carstens on behalf of Inglewood Residents Against Takings and Evictions. The group uses the acronym IRATE.
Attorneys for the Madison Square Garden Co., which owns the Forum near the site of the proposed arena, acknowledged in a court filing last month that the company was paying IRATE’s legal fees in the group’s lawsuit opposing the arena.
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Mitchell L. Beckloff ruled in December that the three-year agreement between Inglewood and Murphy’s Bowl LLC didn’t violate the state’s Environmental Quality Act, a significant setback to IRATE’s case.
MSG has waged an aggressive campaign against the arena, concerned it will compete with the Forum and cut into the $100 million the company invested to renovate the iconic building in 2013.
“The District Attorney confirms what Inglewood residents have known for years: that the City and the Clippers worked behind closed doors to reach their deal on a new arena,” MSG said in a statement. “These ‘concerted efforts; to deceive the public fly in the face of transparency and the principles of good government, and will be fully exposed in the trial of our lawsuit.”
The planned arena for the Clippers — which would include a practice facility, team offices, sports medicine clinic and parking — is currently under environmental review.
The Clippers have a lease to play at Staples Center through the 2023-24 season.
Times staff writer Benjamin Oreskes contributed to this report.
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