Shakeup at Metrolink Board: Najarian Out. Ridley-Thomas In?

Antonovich, Palmdale's Mayor, Metro CEO Art Leahy and Najarian pose with a check. Photo: The Source

One of the powers of the Chair of the Metro Board of Directors, is the right to appoint three members to the Board of the Southern California Regional Rail Authority, commonly known as Metrolink.  Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who took over as Metro Board Chair on July 1, wasted no time in exercising that power, replacing Glendale City Councilman Ara Najarian with Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.

The move has surprised and baffled local rail watchers, not the least of which is Najarian.  The Glendale City Councilman responded to the switch with shock, pleading with the Supervisor to change his mind through a formal letter and later criticizing the decision at a meeting of the Glendale City Council.

“If you’re wondering how many miles of Metrolink rail is in Supervisor Ridley-Thomas’ district, that number is zero,” Najarian testified.

Najarian served on the Metrolink Board for six years and was one of two practicing lawyers on the Board during a time of legal crisis.  He was appointed by the following Metro Board Chairs: Supervisor Gloria Molina, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Santa Monica Mayor Pam O’Connor, Villaraigosa (again), Supervisor Knabe and Villaraigosa (a third time.)  He also served as Metro Board Chair in the 2009-2010 fiscal year, where he automatically sat on the Metrolink Board.

Staff for both Antonovich and Ridley-Thomas defended the decision.

A spokesman for the Metro Board Chair told Streetsblog that Antonovich was most interested in filling his appointments to the Metrolink Board with people who share his vision for regional rail.  The spokesman outlined a vision where one could take rail to every major airport in the area and where a regional rail network didn’t just connect the major population centers in and near the City of Los Angeles, but the entire county.  According to the spokesman, Antonovich was simply more comfortable with Ridley-Thomas than with Najarian.

Supervisor Ridley-Thomas’ office also expressed enthusiasm for the appointment.  Transportation deputy Dan Rosenfeld writes, “The Supervisor views our expanding public transportation network as the single greatest engine for economic development and environmental enhancement in the County. He is interested in learning details of each element in our regional transportation mix, including Metrolink, as the system can only achieve its potential if all modes integrate successfully.”

Supporters of Najarian list several political and personal reasons that the Supervisor would want to remove Najarian from a position of power.  The Councilman and Supervisor have an ongoing battle over the 710 “Gap Closure” project, with Antonovich leading the charge to dig a tunnel connecting the I-710 and I-210 and Najarian opposed.  Indeed, when Streetsblog sponsored a “let’s rename the I-710 Gap Project” contest it was Ara Najarian who suggested the eventual winning name, the 710 Big Dig.

Another possible reason listed by Najarian supporters is the Councilman’s vote in favor of allowing an extension of the Measure R sales tax to go to this fall’s ballot.  Despite his personal mis-givings, the Councilman decided to let the voters decide whether or not extending the tax is a good idea.  Antonovich, Ridley-Thomas and fellow Supervisor Don Knabe all voted against placing the extension on the ballot.  Knabe already served, and continues to serve, as a Metrolink director.

The truth is probably simpler.  In his comments made at the Glendale City Council meeting this week, Najarian informed the Council that Antonovich originally planned to appoint Palmdale Council Member Tom Lackey, however he was constrained by Metrolink’s rules.  The Metro Board Chair can only appoint a member of the Metro Board of Directors to the Board, but can appoint anyone as the alternate.  By appointing Ridley-Thomas to the Board and Lackey as his alternate, it could be a de-facto appointment of Lackey to the Board through the back door.  This is pure speculation at this point, the proof will be in whether or not Ridley-Thomas makes regular appearances at the Metrolink meetings.

As Streetsblog has discussed in previous articles, Supervisor Antonovich does have a vision for an improved rail network in his district, a vision that involved Palmdale as a major transit hub.  The Palmdale Station already has a Metrolink station with local and Amtrak bus service.  The station could add Amtrak, California High Speed Rail and Desert XPress High Speed Rail services in the coming decades.  For that vision to occur, Metrolink would have to “play ball” with both rail authorities.  For Antonovich, it makes sense for a representative for Palmdale to be a major player on the Metrolink Board.

Which is not to say that politics or personal feelings were not involved in the Supervisor’s decision, only Mike Antonovich knows for sure why Mike Antonovich does certain things.  Some of the facts of the case point away from the two theories posited by Najarian supporters above.  For example, Richard Katz, a mayoral appointee to the Metro Board of Directors and Chair of the Metrolink Board of Directors, remains on Metrolink’s Board as an appointee of Antonovich.  If the Supervisor was looking to settle a personal score, he certainly has many conflicts with Katz over Measure R and projects such as the Subway to the Sea.

Ara Najarian was elected to the  Metro Board of Directors by the Los Angeles County City Selection Committee.

Thanks for the catches, Calwatch.