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Bus bench battle gets messy

Conflict-of-interest and other concerns roil a plan to replace maintenance firm.

August 19, 2011|Kate Linthicum

What could have been a straightforward competition for a new city contract to maintain more than 5,000 Los Angeles bus benches has instead unraveled into a messy fight involving lawyers, lobbyists and allegations of conflict of interest.

Outside City Hall, where such disputes are a part of daily life, thousands of bus riders could be left standing, depending on how lawmakers and the companies involved proceed.

The City Council is scheduled to vote Friday on whether to give Martin Outdoor Media exclusive rights to maintain bus benches in the city. The company would replace Norman Bench Advertising, which since 2000 has maintained its own benches in exchange for revenue from the advertising that appears on them.

People who oppose giving the contract to Martin, including a City Council member who has received campaign contributions from Norman, say the proposal is problematic on several fronts.

For one, they have raised concerns that attorney Chris Westhoff, who was hired by Martin as a consultant, has a conflict of interest. Westhoff is a former assistant city attorney, who until February 2010 was general counsel for the Board of Public Works -- the department that oversees bus benches.

Westhoff said there is no conflict because he did not help write the city's request for proposals for a new bench contractor.

Councilman Mitchell Englander said potential conflict-of-interest and other concerns should be enough to stop the council from approving Martin's contract. He said the city should issue a new request for proposals and in the meantime retain Norman on a temporary basis.

Englander said he is "not carrying water" for Norman's owner, William Giamela, even though in October Englander received a total of $5,000 in campaign contributions from Giamela's family and people affiliated with his son's business.

Englander said he simply doesn't want to see elderly and disabled bus riders without a place to sit. He had a sister who was disabled, and he said he remembered how difficult it was for her to get around the city by bus.

The councilman's uncle, lobbyist Harvey Englander, directed $3,000 to his nephew, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and three other council members on behalf of Insite Media Communications, a company whose president, Glenn Flutie, is also president of Martin Outdoor Media.

Martin, Norman and a Canadian firm replied to the Department of Public Works' call for bids in June 2010.

Andrea Alarcon, president of the Board of Public Works, said the city did not renew the contract with Norman in part because the company has been "a difficult partner." Norman has failed to disclose how many benches it maintains, she said, and has not reported how much money it reaps from the ads on them. Officials say the city has an option to share those revenues.

Ben Reznik, an attorney for Norman, said the company has never paid the city a percentage of its ad revenue because the city has never asked for it.

Alarcon said that in January 2010 she sent a letter demanding that the company produce its financial records so the city could determine its rightful share of revenues.

Last week, city officials said Norman had begun removing benches from bus stops in at least three City Council districts. Reznik acknowledged removals but said they involved only benches that had been damaged.

He said that Norman asked the city if it wanted replacements but that the city declined.

Moreover, he said, Norman has every right to remove the benches because its contract with the city expired in January 2010.

Legally, Reznik said, "Norman could start removing benches at will."

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kate.linthicum@latimes.com

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