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Legislator Calls for Ouster of MTA Head : Transit: Sen. Polanco says agency is a 'laughingstock in the nation.' Defenders attempt to reassure state committee hearing.


Under attack from Sacramento, local transit officials pledged Tuesday that they will no longer allow unlicensed engineers to make key decisions on the battered subway project, but the assurances did little to mollify one influential state legislator who called for the firing of the transit agency's chief executive.

"This agency is a laughingstock in the nation," said state Sen. Richard G. Polanco (D-Los Angeles), who told a crowded hearing room that he had "lost confidence" in Franklin E. White, chief executive of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Polanco's pointed remarks came at a state Assembly committee hearing in Los Angeles on the future of a transit agency that has been beset by financial, political and legal problems in its $5.8-billion subway construction work and other projects.

State legislators are weighing a wide range of proposals to impose reforms on the 3-year-old MTA, including restructuring the way board members are chosen and limiting political contributions and gifts to board members. The state has diverted $150 million in MTA funds to the Los Angeles County bailout, and some state legislators are threatening to restrict the massive Sacramento funding pipeline to the subway project even more severely.

In opening Tuesday's hearing, Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar), who heads the Transportation Committee, said the MTA has suffered problems far more drastic than transit agencies elsewhere, and public credibility is on the wane.

"There has to be a better way--the question is, how do you get there?" Katz asked.

The answer, Polanco said, should start with the MTA removing White from his $175,000-a-year position as head of the agency. The author of one proposal to restructure the MTA, Polanco has been a frequent critic of the agency but had never before publicly sought White's ouster.

Efforts by Mayor Richard Riordan and other critics of White to reassess the chief executive's position have been largely dormant since early this year, but Polanco's new voice on the issue appears likely to reopen the debate, observers said.

Riordan's office declined to comment on Polanco's remarks.

White said he was unconcerned. "Do I look worried?" he asked a reporter after the hearing at City Hall.

MTA Board Chairman Larry Zarian, the only board member to attend the hearing, voiced his support for White in an interview afterward. "[Polanco] has a right to his opinion, but I think Frank White is doing an excellent job. We're caught in a web of our own personal mistakes, and it can't all be blamed on him."

Polanco and Katz said they were particularly upset over the disclosure in a Times story last week that an engineer who played a key part in the ill-fated decisions last year that led to the June sinkhole on Hollywood Boulevard was not licensed to practice in the state.

Engineer Timothy J. Smirnoff--also responsible for design approvals blamed in last year's ground sinkage on another part of Hollywood Boulevard--has been removed from the project. Smirnoff was chief tunnel engineer for Engineering Management Consultants, whose exclusive contract on the project is being reconsidered in the wake of recent design problems.

In a letter to Zarian this week, Polanco said it was "illegal and outrageous" for the MTA to continue to allow unlicensed engineers to work on the project after the problem was exposed last October, and he and Katz pressed the issue at length at the hearing.

MTA officials first asserted last fall after the Hollywood Boulevard ground sinkage that the licensing problem "would never happen again," Polanco said, but "lo and behold, as recently as several days ago, it is announced that this is not the case."

Zarian, the board chairman, was contrite. "I'm not here to defend our actions, Sen. Polanco," he said. "I'm here to say that these are the types of practices that will not be accepted and will not be tolerated in the future."

Zarian also highlighted what he called "dramatic changes" aimed at improving management at the agency, including scaling back unrealistic long-range construction plans, avoiding "micromanagement" by the board, and studying ways to ease crowding on buses.

But legislators made clear they were unconvinced.

Instead of acknowledging its mistakes, said Assemblyman Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles), the MTA has engaged in a pattern of "denial" that has badly hurt its image.

Katz said: "If they don't make changes, Sacramento will--and they won't like them."

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