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Music Center Chairman to Give Up Post

March 25, 1993|DIANE HAITHMAN and TRACY WOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Developer and civic activist James A. Thomas, who led the prestigious Los Angeles County Music Center through the most tumultuous year in its three decades, said Wednesday that he will not seek a traditional second term as chairman of the center's Board of Governors.

During his tenure, Thomas helped clean up a series of embarrassing incidents that began with a fund-raising controversy two years ago and led to the resignation of center President Esther Wachtell.

Thomas, 56, told the Board of Governors at the Westside's private Regency Club that he did not have time to chair the Music Center's fund-raising arm for a second year. His term expires June 30.

"I'm overcommitted," Thomas said in an interview.

Thomas is managing partner of the commercial development firm of Maguire Thomas Partners. He also is the managing owner of the Sacramento Kings basketball team and chairman of the 2000 Partnership, an organization of Los Angeles business leaders.

Robert B. Egelston, 62, of Pasadena, former chairman of the Capital Group--the largest private money management firm in Southern California--is expected to succeed Thomas as board chairman, officials said. If a successor to Wachtell is not in place when she leaves July 15, Egelston also will temporarily serve as president of the center.

The Music Center is the fund-raising arm of the performing arts complex on county-owned land in downtown Los Angeles. Donations to the nonprofit center help support opera, symphony, theater and choral performances. The center is governed by an 80-member board that includes many socially prominent and wealthy Southern Californians.

Thomas, a major financial supporter of the Music Center, was serving as chairman of the board's finance committee in 1991 when other officials erroneously announced that they had reached their $17-million fund-raising goal. They later disclosed that the center, in fact, had fallen $1.3 million short of the goal, prompting an internal audit, staff changes and accounting reforms.

In July, 1992, Thomas became chairman of the Board of Governors. Within four months, the center was buffeted by another disclosure. Former Vice President James B. Black said he was paid $150,000 in salary and benefits after he alleged that he was made a scapegoat for the center's financial problems.

Black also alleged that Wachtell had ordered him to change the center's accounting system to make it appear as though they had met the 1990-91 fund-raising goal--an accusation Wachtell denied.

Thomas presided over the negotiations that led to Wachtell's resignation announcement in December and launched a nationwide search for her successor. The agreement, signed about a week ago, calls for Wachtell, 58, to serve through July 15. Thomas refused to discuss the financial details, but other sources said she will receive $200,000, the equivalent of a year's salary, in severance pay and consulting fees. Officials said Wachtell will hold a seat on the Board of Governors through 1996.

The controversy, coupled with the recession, has forced the center to reduce its fund-raising goals for the last two years.

Asked whether the Music Center's recent troubles influenced his decision to step down, Thomas said with a wry smile, "It's been challenging and exciting."

A fellow board member said the problems that Thomas faced at the center had taken the joy out of a prestigious social position. "It probably stopped being a lot of fun," said the board member, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "This is a very unhappy time for anyone except someone who likes to be in the middle of a street fight. Maybe there are people who enjoy conflict, but (Thomas is) not one of them."

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