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VALLEY TRANSIT DISTRICT IN PERIL; BILL COULD BE DEADLY BUT BACKERS PRESS ON.

Byline: Terri Hardy Sacramento Bureau

With a showdown looming over control of local bus services, Democratic legislators representing the San Fernando Valley have lined up with organized labor against the community's civic and business leadership.

Capitol insiders said the issue has deteriorated into a bitter fight, and lawmakers are desperate for a compromise to avoid a political time bomb.

So sensitive is the issue that Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, D-Los Angeles, worked behind the scenes to get a one-week delay for the two sides to find a solution. But in two meetings this week they failed to hammer out a compromise - a goal which now seems impossible, some say.

At issue is Senate Bill 1101, a measure which would affect both the ongoing effort to create a San Fernando Valley transit zone to take over Metropolitan Transportation Authority bus lines as well as Foothill Transit Zone's desire to expand in the San Gabriel Valley.

The bill requires that MTA union contracts be maintained under a new zone.

San Fernando Valley leaders say the provision would negate any cost savings, essentially killing the zone plan.

``This bill will separate the legislators whose first concern is the San Fernando Valley versus the lawmakers whose first concern is protecting labor and their own self-interests,'' said Richard Close, president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association, who emphasized that he was not speaking in his capacity as a leader of the movement to study Valley secession.

Close said the first goal of lawmakers must be improving bus service in the Valley and eight neighboring cities for the transit-dependent - mainly students, the elderly and lower-income people.

Labor leaders argue that they must protect workers' pay and benefits, saying the matter is a ``life and death'' union issue.

Four Valley Democrats in the Assembly - Sheila Kuehl, Wally Knox, Tony Cardenas and Scott Wildman - have signed on as co-authors of SB 1101. State Sen. Richard Alarcon voted for it.

``People are concerned that if they don't do what labor wants they won't get endorsed in their tough races next year,'' said former Assemblyman Richard Katz, who served as chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee.

Valley vs. labor

Katz now is co-chairman of the Valley Industry and Commerce Association's transportation committee, which opposes SB 1101.

``It's Valley versus labor, and I think they are hoping that they can duck the issue and no one will care,'' he said. ``But if I were them, I wouldn't want to be the one that ends the possibility of expanding options for bus riders.''

Legislators dismiss allegations that they are acting in their own self-interest, and say SB 1101 is a good bill.

``I believe the services provided by the MTA workers is beyond reproach - no one has a problem with the bus drivers,'' said Assemblyman Scott Wildman, D-Glendale. ``Making the MTA more sensitive to the needs of the Valley is really the best answer.''

Labor leaders said Valley lawmakers support the bill because they ``understand the need to protect workers.''

``We always work hard on our bills, but we're not trying to engender fear,'' said Barry Broad, legislative advocate for the Amalgamated Transit Union. ``It is a life and death issue for us.''

Broad said the bill would not preclude a transit zone for the Valley, but that it would simply mean that cost savings must come from somewhere other than workers' wages - like the MTA's top-heavy administration costs.

Valley civic leaders said that if local lawmakers don't push for a compromise before the Assembly Transportation Committee hearing on Monday, the possibility of a transit zone will die. The measure was approved by the Senate in May.

``There is no chance of compromise. We agreed to disagree,'' said Irwin Rosenberg, a co-chairman of VICA's transportation committee and vice president for the Western Area of Laidlaw Transit Services Inc., who has participated in behind-the-scenes negotiations.

``Now it's up to Valley lawmakers,'' he said. ``Are they going to support bus riders and support local control, or are they going to give the house away to labor and let them decide if outside contracting gets to be done or not?''

Conflict of interest?

Broad charged Rosenberg has a conflict of interest because he is employed by Laidlaw, a company that would vie to provide the Valley with service.

Rosenberg denied he has a conflict, saying he can represent both his company and VICA at the same time.

Assemblyman Tom Torlakson, D-Martinez, chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee, tried to mediate a compromise at the urging of uneasy Valley politicians stuck in a dilemma between the two ``equally passionate'' groups.

``They are a conflicted group,'' said Torlakson. ``They hope the parties work it out so there will not be this conflict.''

On Monday, opponents of SB 1101 proposed that current MTA employees be allowed to transfer to a Valley transit zone and operate under the provisions of their collective bargaining agreement through a ``grandfathering'' agreement. New employees would not operate under such an agreement, opening the way for the new district to contract with private firms for some services.

Representatives returned Wednesday for five more hours of meetings but talks broke down over who should be the employer if bus services are contracted out.

Labor leaders want a local transit zone board to be in charge of collective bargaining while transit officials want contractors to be in charge.

Insiders said the crux of the issue is this: labor would rather deal with a board of local representatives than a transit company.

``It's all about leverage,'' said a source familiar with the issue.

Assemblyman Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, put it another way, saying that having employees working for a board of elected officials ensures accountability.

Hertzberg and Cardenas, D-Panorama City, are seen as keys because they hold key leadership positions.

While Hertzberg supports a transit zone, he has said little publicly, saying he can be more effective behind the scenes. He supports a compromise to allowing outside management with the transit zone being the employer.

Cardenas would not discuss the issue, but he issued a statement, saying: ``I support (the bill) because it will allow the people of the San Fernando Valley to control and operate a transportation zone in order to improve service to people. This bill will also provide job security for the workers and ensure that they and their families do not lose their pensions.''

Kuehl said the Valley should be expected to abide by agreements made with workers under collective bargaining so she opposes the compromise.

``If you're a business and you've entered into a number of contracts and then you sell that business, your successor is bound to those contracts - it should be no different with a Valley transit zone,'' Kuehl said.

Knox said Valley civic leaders have been ``sold a bill of goods . . . a false choice (between) a transit zone or saving workers' pensions and paychecks. The reality is, we can do both.''

For Scott, ``any compromise would have to provide protections'' for MTA employees, said spokesman Paul Donahue.

Assemblyman Tom McClintock, R-Granada Hills, who is vice-chairman of the committee, strongly opposes the measure as do other Republicans.

``The MTA is like a gigantic tick that burrows its way into the body politic and gorges itself on taxpayer money,'' McClintock said. ``This bill would allow all that waste and corruption to clone itself in the San Fernando Valley.''

CREATING A VALLEY TRANSIT ZONE

Nine cities and Los Angeles County want to create a San Fernando Valley transportation zone to take over operation of 27 MTA bus lines and improve bus service.

The nine cities are the Valley portion of Los Angeles and the neighboring cities of Agoura Hills, Burbank, Glendale, Calabasas, Hidden Hills, La Canada Flintridge, San Fernando and Westlake Village.

Leaders of the effort expect such a zone will be able to operate more economically than the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, as well as provide the public with buses that are cleaner, more reliable and run on routes that will better meet public desires.

Under their plan, cost savings would come from contracting with a private firm to provide services, and streamlining and simplifying management. Organizers say the lower costs could possibly translate into lower fares or expanded service.

The Los Angeles Department of Transportation has taken a lead role in the effort to establish the proposed Valley zone.

WHERE OUR LOCALPOLITICIANS STAND

Here are the Valley area's Assembly representatives and their positions on SB 1101 which sets up rules in case the Valley takes over MTA bus lines:

Tony Cardenas, D-Panorama City: co-author

Robert M. Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys: supports compromise

Wally Knox, D-Los Angeles: co-author

Sheila Kuehl, D-Encino: co-author

Tom McClintock, R-Granada Hills: opposes

Jack Scott, D-Pasadena: undecided. supports grandfathering clause

Scott Wildman, D-Glendale: co-author

Here are how Valley-area senators voted on SB 1101 when the Senate approved it by a vote of 22-15 on May 27:

Richard Alarcon, D-Van Nuys: yes

Tom Hayden, D-Los Angeles: not voting

W.J. ``Pete'' Knight, R-Palmdale: no

Adam Schiff, D-Pasadena: no

Cathie Wright, R-Simi Valley: no

CAPTION(S):

2 Boxes

Box: (1) CREATING A VALLEY TRANSIT ZONE (See text)

(2) WHERE OUR LOCAL POLITICIANS STAND (See text)
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 22, 1999
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