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Thursday, May 13, 2021

Budgets grow, tempers shrink as Beverly Hills Metro fight continues

Half a decade and $10 million into a turf war with the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), nerves are beginning to fray in Beverly Hills. 

Outside its borders, the fight has cemented the city’s reputation as a player with too much money to spend on a game of “not-in-my-backyard.” But inside Beverly Hills, the board of education is facing the opposite charge — that the fight against Metro is an expensive folly, draining money that ultimately should go to kids.  

Since 2010, the city’s board of education has spent prodigiously from a construction bond on an array of geologists, consultants and lawyers attempting to block Metro’s Purple Line from tunneling under Beverly Hills High School. 

But the board’s decision to use funds from that bond has become increasingly controversial, as have the suits themselves.

“Fighting Metro is not a construction project, it’s a destruction project,” said Zev Yaroslavsky, a former member of the Metro board of directors who, until recently, served as Beverly Hills’ representative to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

[READ: BEVERLY HILLS VICE MAYOR RESPONDS]

It’s a trope Yaroslavsky has long sounded in his Metro boosterism. But there’s reason to believe Beverly Hills residents are coming around to his point of view.

On Nov. 3, voters overwhelmingly ousted Lewis Hall, an incumbent board member who had made fending off Metro a centerpiece of his re-election campaign. On lawn signs, the words “No Subway under BHHS” appeared above his name.

One of the challengers elected in his stead, businessman Mel Spitz, has lambasted the board for its legal expenses. Money spent fighting Metro, Spitz told the Jewish Journal, “is money down the drain, absolutely wasted.”

Meanwhile, some members of the voter-mandated committee that oversees the $334 million construction bond passed in 2008 are uneasy with the board’s tactic of using those funds for the Metro dispute.

As of October, Beverly Hills Unified School District (BHUSD) has spent $10.3 million of Measure E funds on geotechnical and legal expenses related to the Metro dispute, according to district documents.

During the 2014-2015 school year, the district paid out $1.4 million from Measure E to Murphy & Evertz, its lead counsel in the Metro case, according to a district estimate.

Metro and BHUSD each maintain a different set of geological facts about the earthquake faults at the western edge of Beverly Hills, where the high school sits, and millions of bond dollars have gone toward shoring up the district’s evidence.

Metro claims that the Newport-Inglewood fault may snake under the high school, which, by state law, would make it unfit for students. The district has disputed that fact, pouring money into studies it says prove the site’s safety.

Further, Metro said a fault underneath Santa Monica Boulevard rules out an alternative route that skirts the high school, a fact some school board members dispute.

United States Geological Survey seismologist Lucy Jones, brought in by Metro as part of an independent review of the Purple Line route, said the evidence of a fault under Santa Monica Boulevard was compelling. 

The problem, she said, is that when several faults converge on the same area, as is the case with the high school, the seismic picture becomes somewhat obscured.

BHUSD has spent millions trying to bring that picture into focus during its faceoff with Metro. Now, it seems the district may as well have buried that money in the ground under the high school, where Metro seems likely to dig undeterred.

Late last month, a state appeals court affirmed a judgment against BHUSD, leaving the district’s legal campaign on life support.

The fight is not quite over. Pasadena lawyer Clifton Smith, formerly the publisher of the Beverly Hills Courier, a paper fiercely critical of the subway route, offered to represent the district pro bono in its appeal to the California Supreme Court.

In addition, the district has filed suit in federal court against the Federal Transit Administration, which is pitching in on the Metro extension. It’s unclear if the newly elected board will continue to shell out for that case.

Meeting any potential future legal costs could lead the board into a political minefield.

Beverly Hill resident Mary Weiss said that when she first joined the Citizens Oversight Committee for Measure E, members were content with rubberstamping the district’s use of funds.

From the start, though, she was convinced that spending bond money on any project not listed in the measure was “an illegal expenditure [and] that we should stop doing it.”

“Voters are entitled to know what they’re approving,” she said.

The California constitution requires school bond measures to issue a specific list of projects and prohibits school districts from using those funds for items not listed. Passed before the battle with Metro began, Measure E does not include the dispute as an approved expense.

Weiss is clear that she speaks for herself rather than the entire committee. But the ouster of a prominent Metro opponent in the November election has made her optimistic that the tide is turning in her direction. 

“There seems to be some momentum to take this seriously,” she said. “Before, it was pretty much laughed off.”

The board’s most vociferous remaining anti-subway member, Lisa Korbatov, claims that much of the cost associated with fighting Metro was foisted onto BHUSD when the county agency picked a fight in 2010 by charting the tunnel under the school.

“Metro does not respect this community, nor do they respect our only high school, our community asset,” she said. “They haven’t really dealt in a way that I felt was always the most upright, transparent way.”

One of Korbatov’s prominent allies is Tim Buresh, the district’s interim facilities chief.

Buresh has received nearly $300,000 in Measure E funds since July via his consulting firm, PrimeSource Project Management, compensation for a hefty resume: He worked on Metro’s Red Line and Blue Line and helped build 72 schools for Los Angeles Unified School District. It’s telling of Beverly Hills school politics that an ostensibly neutral district official has become a controversial figure. 

The Beverly Hills Weekly referred to Buresh as Korbatov’s “$17,000/mo lackey” (the Weekly has been repeatedly critical of Korbatov). 

Buresh maintains that when Metro, in 2011, suggested there may be active faults underneath the high school and El Rodeo School, a nearby Beverly Hills K-8, it was an act of “interagency terrorism.” 

“This is a big agency bullying a little agency,” he said.

Nonetheless, the potential threat of the fault necessitated a “very painstaking and very expensive” process that included “literally digging a trench that was 30, almost 40 feet deep, 300 feet long across the heart of the [high school] campus.”

The cost of that dig, aimed at determining the veracity of Metro’s claims, was necessary under state law in order to continue occupying the schools, he said. Along with geological analysis and a similar dig at El Rodeo, that expense has cost a majority of the $10 million in bond funds spent fighting Metro.

As for the results of the tests, according to Buresh: “We could not find the faults, at all. They weren’t there.”

Buresh and Korbatov both believe the suggestion of the faults was just a dirty trick by Metro, one of many — Buresh called the agency’s tactics “rotten.”

“What they tried to do was basically devalue the land out from under us at the high school,” Korbatov said. 

Far from flouting the bond measure, Korbatov believes that fighting Metro is the best way to protect Beverly Hills taxpayers’ investment. Besides compromising the structural integrity of the high school, the subway tunnels would inflate construction costs, she said.

“We cannot fulfill the bond as written, as stated, and as passed by the voters without doing what we can to prevent these shallow tunnels from getting under the high school,” Korbatov said.

Korbatov said the district has obtained multiple legal opinions confirming the propriety of using bond money to fight Metro but said those documents are legally privileged, for board member eyes only — a point of contention with the oversight committee.

And without seeing those opinions, Weiss and her proponents aren’t buying Korbatov’s argument.

“If there are people on the board of education that think that they are smart enough to decide for the rest of voters what the money should be spent on, that it’s tangentially close enough to the construction bond, I don’t think that’s right,” Weiss said.

Weiss worries the board’s liberal interpretation of its bond authorities will prevent voters from approving a bond in the future, which could soon become necessary.

The school district is projected to overspend the $334 million in construction funds by more than $200 million, making it likely that the board will have to ask voters to shell out again.

For the moment, the Westside extension of the Purple Line remains blank on L.A.’s Metro map, and has become the square inch of white space where Metro puts its logo. But soon enough, despite the best efforts of its opponents, the only thing standing between the Purple Line and its eventual terminus could be just a few miles of dirt. 

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