FACT PANEL TRIES TO END BUS STRIKE.
MTA and union leaders suspended negotiations in a week-old transit strike early Friday evening and left it to a state lawmaker's panel to figure out what the two sides want.
Meanwhile, public outrage over the lengthening strike grew louder Friday, with calls from across the city to resolve the dispute.
J. Richard Leyner, president of the Chamber of Commerce of the Greater San Fernando Valley, said his organization represents 8,000 businesses with 350,000 employees ``and at this point, they are all having difficulty getting back and forth to work.''
Leyner and other business and civic leaders on Friday urged the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the transit drivers' union to resolve the strike while preserving the possibility of creating a San Fernando Valley transportation zone, a key issue affecting the talks.
But James Williams, head of the United Transportation Union representing 4,300 drivers, and Miguel Contreras, executive director of the county Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, said Friday evening that the strike could be over in 24 hours if Gov. Gray Davis signs legislation effectively killing a Valley zone.
Valley leaders called on Davis to veto the bill and the MTA to stand up to the union's demands.
``We need our own transit zone,'' Leyner said at a news conference held by the Valley Industry and Commerce Association. ``We should have our own transit zone.''
``They must allow transit zones so we can provide common-sense local solutions to our transportation needs,'' said Patricia Lizaola, administrator of the Downtown Association of the city of San Fernando.
Meanwhile, Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, dispatched Assemblyman Herb Wesson, D-Los Angeles, to the negotiating table on a ``fact-finding mission,'' officials announced.
``When it comes down to the face-to-face negotiations, we simply came to a place that we didn't know where to go next,'' said Julian Burke, chief executive officer of the MTA. ``They needed some outside help.''
Burke said he, Contreras, Hertzberg, Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, and MTA board Chairwoman Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke agreed during an emergency five-way telephone conference Friday to assemble a ``fact-finding panel.''
The panel, Julian Burke said, will include Wesson, who arrived late Friday, and retired state Supreme Court Justice Edward A. Panelli.
``I'm on a fact-finding mission to see if there's a role for the state in this process,`` Wesson said. He was to make his first report to Hertzberg on Friday night and continue monitoring the talks when they resume at 10 a.m. today.
Wesson's arrival came after an edgy day of negotiations at the Pasadena Hilton Hotel, where MTA negotiators and officials from the bus and rail drivers union met together for roughly one hour.
The rest of the day - which was the second official day of negotiations since the strike began last week - was spent caucusing and waiting for word about the fact-finding panel.
The UTU went on strike at 12:01 a.m. Sept. 16 after a breakdown in negotiations over a new contract. Unions representing mechanics and maintenance and clerical workers are honoring the drivers' picket lines.
The union ordered the walkout after rejecting the MTA's proposals for controlling costs, particularly overtime. The transit agency says it faces a $438 million operating deficit over the next 10 years unless it cuts costs or raises fares.
Meanwhile, business leaders Friday implored transit officials and unions to settle contract talks, saying the strike could cripple the city if it stretches into a second week.
``We cannot afford to have buses sitting idle,'' said Ezunial Burts, president of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce. ``This is the kind of thing that will cripple a strong economy.''
Burts suggested that the bus drivers' union start bus service again while negotiations are completed.
``We're here to say enough is enough, we have to get these buses rolling again,'' Burts said. ``Business owners fully understand the union's arguments, but they have to think about those who are dependent on their services.''
Valley business representatives urged an end to the walkout, which they say has dampened sales while forcing some transit-dependent employees to miss work.
``I don't think this strike can go on much longer without having a significant impact on the San Fernando Valley,'' said Richard Katz, co- chairman of VICA's ground transportation committee.
In a related development Friday, Los Angeles City Councilman Nate Holden introduced a motion urging the governor to sign Senate Bill 1101 which, according to proponents of a Valley transportation zone, would effectively kill it before it even takes off.
The zone, involving a nine-city region, is proposed to take over operation of dozens of MTA bus lines.
The governor has until Sept. 30 to veto SB 110, sign it into law or allow it to become law without his signature. The bill requires a Valley zone to adopt MTA collective bargaining agreements for MTA drivers, mechanics and other employees who transfer to the zone.
Holden introduced the motion as an urgency measure, but the council put off consideration of it until Tuesday at the urging of Councilman Joel Wachs.
MTA Chief Julian Burke said the Legislature and the governor could play key roles in the talks.
``The state is a key funder for the MTA,`` Burke said. ``Let's hope they're able to bring us some financial and legislative options''
Staff Writer Rick Orlov contributed to this report.