High-Speed Rail Authority Opposes Its Own Undoing

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The California High-Speed Rail board Thursday voted to oppose one bill pending in the state Legislature that would replace the current board and another measure that would abolish the high-speed rail project altogether.

Board members generally didn’t discuss the part of a bill by Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) that would cost them their jobs. Instead, they said they opposed his bill because it would put the California High-Speed Rail Authority under the supervision of the state’s Business, Transportation and Housing Department.

Board member Lynn Schenk, who was state Business, Transportation and Housing director the first time Jerry Brown was governor, said she knew from experience that the busy cabinet department wouldn’t be able to give rail the attention she said it needs. To put it under that department now, she said, “would lower the focus (on high-speed rail) rather than heighten it.”

She said she didn’t oppose the other provisions of the bill.

The vote was five-to-two to oppose the bill with two members absent. Board members Tom Umberg and Quentin Kopp had urged their colleagues to monitor, rather than oppose Lowenthal’s bill, even though, as Umberg said, “as the bill is written, it has some odious provisions.”

The discussion highlighted a growing schism between the board and its critics, including Lowenthal, who support the rail project but have raised questions about the board’s management and accountability.

Chairman Curt Pringle, a former Assembly speaker, said he opposed one section of the bill that gives the state Senate the authority to confirm the five board members appointed by the governor. He said the bill gives too much power to the state Senate.

He added, “I think it really is strange” that Lowenthal, despite his support for high-speed rail, proposed changing the board’s make-up now.

Lowenthal’s bill would require the governing board to include: a financial expert; an environmental specialist; an attorney familiar with construction law; an engineer with expertise with mega projects; a businessperson and representatives from local government and labor.

“If that’s really smart, to throw everything out (now) and start all over again, I guess that’s your point of view,” Pringle said.

The board also voted to oppose a bill by Assemblywoman Diane Harkey (R-Dana Point) that would abolish the high-speed rail project completely and another bill that would authorize the Legislature to re-examine the way the authority uses $9.5 billion in state bond funds.

The board voted to support a measure by Sen. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana) that requires all board members to file state conflict of interest disclosure forms and excuse themselves from discussions when items that could be a conflict are discussed.

Pringle and others on the board said they agreed with proposals that require them to disclose potential conflicts. As if to emphasize that support, even though he didn’t have to, Pringle left the room twice during Thursday’s board meeting because of possible conflicts of interest involving clients of his public relations and lobbying firm.

One conflict, he announced, involved property that a client owned in the vicinity of part of the proposed Los Angeles-to-Palmdale route and the second concerned the City of Industry, which could have been affected by a proposed but not adopted route proposal.

Pringle, a former mayor of Anaheim, was required to file conflict of interest statements when he held elective office, but board appointees who aren’t office holders in other jurisdictions don’t have to disclose potential conflicts. Pringle’s term as Anaheim mayor ended in December.

Pringle’s firm’s clients have included those with interests in the high-speed rail project.

In addition, the state Attorney General declared Pringle and former board member Richard Katz had a conflict between their board duties and local positions they held.

But in another case, the state Fair Political Practices Commission cleared board members of conflicts of interest involving travel to Europe.



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