By Ken Stone
At a recent Saturday luncheon, 120 graying track and field stars and veteran coaches gathered at Mt. San Antonio College. They ate up a presentation on the U.S. Olympic team trials slated there in 2020.
Mt. SAC Assistant Athletic Director Marc Ruh described preparations for “our sport’s shining opportunity” and how a rebuilt Hilmer Lodge Stadium would deliver on a promise — “a package of quality, a package of commitment.”
Ron Kamaka, the Walnut college’s head track coach, spoke of innovations possible for an event to pick “the world’s greatest track team,” including sensors under the Beynon track to get lap splits on runners.Heritage Hall — a museum and meeting place to be built next to the potential 23,000-seat stadium — was promoted. One guest made a $5,000 donation.
Best of all, Kamaka declared that all litigation over the project was done, saying: “Nothing that we know of is in court.” The stadium was “on pace” for completion to host the June 2020 meet, he told a guest.
But on Feb. 21, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John Torribio issued a tentative ruling aimed at halting grading on the stadium project. And at a mid-April hearing, the same judge could agree in another case that Mt. SAC is illegally spending bond money on the $88 million stadium project.
Two lawsuits. Two chances to derail Mt. SAC’s first Olympic Trials.
“We think our case is pretty darn strong,” said Craig Sherman, a San Diego-based attorney for United Walnut Taxpayers, which is challenging the stadium renovation. He says the project was not specified in the voter-approved 2008 Measure RR bond, and “whether they get shut down or not, I’m going to take that up on appeal immediately.”
Layla Abou-Taleb, president of UWT, said Thursday that her group would prevail on grounds similar to an earlier court victory that blocked a five-story Mt. SAC parking garage. (Mt. SAC says its Board of Trustees voted to remove the parking structure from the list of Measure RR projects.)
- City of Walnut stop-work order to Mt. SAC on stadium grading
- March 2017 ruling in previous cases against Mt. SAC
- Engineer Dennis Majors’ declaration on behalf of United Walnut Taxpayers
- City of Walnut press release declaring victory in suit against Mt. SAC solar project
- Craig Sherman “cease and desist” letter to Mt. SAC Board of Trustees
“We would love to see the 2020 (meet),” said Abou-Taleb, a retired civil servant now on the Walnut Valley school board. “We’re not against the stadium per se.”
But while Mt. SAC told the taxpayers group that the bond would provide some bleacher renovation, she said,* Measure RR language says nothing about the 1945-built stadium that hosts the famed Mt. SAC Relays. It’s now been demolished for rebuilding from scratch.
Hence UWT says another source of funds is required.
Lawyers for the city and UWT are calling Mt. SAC “bullheaded,” “scofflaws” and “recalcitrant” as college officials ignore a fifth city order to halt grading — even with about 80 percent of it done.
In fact, says Walnut assistant city attorney John McClendon, when the city recently attached 2-by-3-foot “stop-work” signs to the construction site, Mt. SAC tore them down. (Photos were taken of the signs’ removal, he says, and he plans to note that in a brief due Tuesday in Torribio’s Norwalk court.)
“We shut them down on all the other (projects),” McClendon said Friday. “So they’re going forward, all risks known, and they don’t care.”
Mt. SAC spokeswoman Jill Dolan said the stadium project remains on track.
She said the judge in the UWT case issued an order Jan. 12 finding the taxpayer group “has not persuaded this court that there is a reasonable probability that the plaintiff will prevail on the merits at trial.”
“We believe efforts to stop the Trials are misguided and legally without merit,” Dolan said via email. “The City of Walnut’s current efforts to stop the stadium project grading and truck hauling operations have been unsuccessful, and the project is proceeding on schedule.”
How would the stadium be built if bond money is barred?
“Mt. SAC, as an entity of state government, has other financing sources available to fund the stadium project, including issuing certificates of participation and lease revenue bonds,” she said.
Dolan also said legal appeals “will not affect the timeline as appeals do not stop Mt. SAC from proceeding with the stadium project.”
Is USA Track & Field — whose board last June awarded the meet to Mt. SAC over Eugene, Oregon, and Sacramento in a 11-2 vote — worried?
Jill Geer, chief USATF spokeswoman, told MyNewsLA.com: “We have had ongoing, substantial discussions with Mt. SAC for several months about any and all legal matters or concerns pertaining to the 2020 Olympic Trials. The [local organizing committee] at Mt. SAC has assured us that there is no litigation that will affect their ability to move forward and hold a successful 2020 Olympic Trials.”
McClendon, the lead litigator for Walnut, just laughs.
He likens Mt. SAC to the Black Knight in the Monty Python movie whose four limbs are hacked off while saying: “It’s just a flesh wound!“
“This is like watching somebody [caught] red-handed and flagrantly break the law,” McClendon said in a phone interview from his home office in the Fallbrook area of north San Diego County.
“It’s a real simple, crystal-clear issue. There’s a state law there that says college districts have to comply with city grading ordinances, and Mt. SAC is refusing to do that.”On Friday, McClendon described the Feb. 21 hearing — and how Judge Torribio almost halted grading then and there.
“The judge was ready to issue a preliminary injunction to stop them from continuing their grading,” said the veteran city attorney. “Mt. SAC’s attorney and I argued for over an hour in front of the judge, and at the very tail end of it, he pleaded with the judge and said: ‘The city has an alternative remedy. The city doesn’t need an injunction of the court. The city can just completely go issue a stop-work order, and order my client to stop work.'”
Based on the assurance of an alternate remedy, Torribio said: “I want a supplemental brief on this. I’m going to go back and review all this.”
McClendon, to no avail, argued that Walnut had issued a stop-work order three or four times before. The judge insisted on another one, doing it “right.”
But signs wired to the fence were torn down, he said.
McClendon said his clients have reached out to Mt. SAC in hopes of working out a “global settlement,” including the taxpayers group suit.
On Friday, spokeswoman Dolan said Mt. SAC’s attorney “never said we would follow a stop-work order, which has no legal basis.”She said Mt. SAC and the City of Walnut have worked for several months to reach a deal that both sides felt comfortable accepting.
“Unfortunately, we have not reached a mutually beneficial settlement the Mt. SAC Board of Trustees will approve,” she said. “Ongoing litigation does not prevent Mt. SAC from moving forward with construction. In fact, we will be pouring the foundations for one of the stadium’s buildings in just a few weeks.”
McClendon said the judge told him last week: “Well, if they do it wrong, you can just order them to tear it all down and start again.”
The city of 30,000 and the taxpayers group don’t want that, he said, “but Mt. SAC has gotten itself in a pickle …. I suspect that they made assurances to the Olympic Committee that as night follows day, there are zero impediments.”
McClendon speculates that Mt. SAC ignored city and CEQA laws because it wouldn’t have won the meet had it been honest about the hurdles involved. And taxpayers attorney Sherman said: “I have a strong hunch Mt. SAC withheld the information” from USATF.
McClendon is hoping Mt. SAC will reciprocate on settlement gestures “and that they will meet sooner rather than later and try to resolve this.”
“If we could just settle with Mt. SAC, and [get] Mt. SAC to stop the scofflaw behavior and to start complying with the city’s laws,” he said, “then we’re looking to a great 2020 on hosting these things.”
*Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated what the bond language said.
Updated at 11:20 a.m. March 14, 2018
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