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THE SPIN / BILL BOYARSKY

City Hall Holds On to Arena Secrets

July 14, 1997|BILL BOYARSKY

Talk about arrogance.

City Hall didn't even bother to explain why it won't let me look at documents containing the most important part of the downtown Los Angeles arena deal.

"The city does not have the contracts you requested in your June 30, 1997 letter," wrote City Clerk J. Michael Carey in response to my request under the California Public Records Act. "The documents you are requesting are not in the possession of the City of Los Angeles," said Senior Assistant City Atty. Patricia V. Tubert.

I already knew that. The secret agreement was resting in the offices of Latham & Watkins, lawyers for the arena company. This is a gambit to keep the contracts secret. If we don't have them, city officials reasoned, how can we give them to you?

It was part of a scheme to impose secrecy on a key part of the deal. This is the supposed guarantee that the Lakers basketball team and the hockey Kings will play in the facility for 25 years.

Without such a guarantee, the Kings and Lakers would be free to leave Los Angeles--and leave us taxpayers holding the bag for the $70 million we are contributing to the arena's construction.

My purpose in pursuing this issue was to find out why the arena developers and the city were going to such extraordinary lengths to maintain secrecy of a guarantee that should be public information.

*

Frustrated in those efforts, I went back to the documents that have already been made public.

A lengthy memorandum of understanding between the city and the Los Angeles Arena Co., the arena developer, shed some light.

On the 111th page, there was a reference to "the payment of option payments" by the arena company to the Forum, present home of the Lakers and Kings, and to an unnamed team. Details of these payments are buried, however, in the confidential contracts.

Although the team wasn't named, I know it has to be the Lakers, the stars of the deal, the big draw. The Kings have had their moments, but year in and year out, it's the Lakers and the NBA that sell the most seats.

I called Edward P. Roski Jr., co-owner of the Kings and the arena company, and asked him about the latest secret I've encountered in this murky deal--the option payments.

He said the arena was paying the Lakers as part of the deal to move from the Forum in Inglewood to the new downtown Los Angeles arena. "They have asked that the document not be public," Roski said. The Lakers, he said, don't want their NBA competitors to know the details of their deal with the arena. In other words, I figure they don't want their rivals to know they've got a new potful of cash to lure hot rookies and free agents.

I asked Roski how much the arena company is paying the Lakers to move. He replied the amount was confidential, as is everything else about the lease.

But on my original question, Roski also assured me the leases contain ironclad guarantees that both the Lakers and Kings will stay for 25 years.

"There is no way the teams can't play here," he said. "They have to play in the building 25 years. They can't move. They can't do anything. They will play 25 years in the building."

*

Roski sounded sincere, but I'm still troubled by all the secrecy.

I'm not the only one who doesn't like it.

Another--and far better qualified--critic is attorney William T. Bagley, a former state assemblyman and, as co-author of the Bagley-Keene open meeting law, a respected authority on open government legislation.

I called Bagley at his office in the San Francisco law firm of Nossaman, Guthner, Knox & Elliott and told him about the arena situation. He studied the matter and wrote me:

"I've dealt with evasions of the law, but this is absurd--a seeming perversion of the process. . . . Regardless of the repository, documents relating to city business are still 'used, owned and prepared' by city staff. Used or prepared by agents of the city are in fact used or prepared by the city."

I don't see how the City Council can vote on the deal unless it sees the contracts. Neither does Councilman Joel Wachs. Tuesday, he will introduce a resolution demanding that the contracts be made public before the council casts a final vote.

But don't expect the pro-arena council majority to support him. As I have found from banging my head against the stone wall protecting the arena leases, this deal is wired.

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