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Thursday, May 26, 2011

Rec and Parks Commission quietly votes for Autry Expansion

Last Friday the Recreation and Parks Commission, headed by Latham & Watkins alum Barry Sanders, voted to allow the Autry Museum to expand on the current Griffith Park site.

The Autry received a $6.6 million grant from State Prop 84 parks funds for part of the expansion project, titled Facilities for Native American Stewardship.  So not only is the Autry getting priceless public land in Griffith Park for just $1 per year and the entire Southwest Museum (collection and facilities), but their expansion is being funded by your tax dollars.

The Recreation and Parks' Commission Board report for this project, including maps, is here.

There are more than just a couple of little problems with the Commission's stealth action. First, most people who were on the City's automated distribution list for this "special" Rec and Parks Commission meeting somehow didn't receive the meeting notice and agenda. Wonder how that happened?

Second, the only thing standing between the Autry's original agreement to maintain the Southwest Museum as a viable museum was the leverage the potential approval of this expansion wielded.

Without a strong community response, that leverage, courtesy Sanders et al,  is now gone.

Sanders, who has been removed from the decision-making on this issue in the past due to his links to Latham & Watkins (the Autry's legal representation), presided over the Commission vote this time. Yet Mr. Sanders' conflict of interest seems to be stronger than ever, given his recent push with Latham's backing for commercial signage all over City parks, including Griffith.

The Friends of the Southwest Museum's response to this stealth vote of questionable legality by the Recreation and Parks Commission follows. It's lengthy, but includes a detailed history of the situation and how you can take action.


As you know, from 2005 to 2009 the Autry Museum attempted to process an environmental impact report and applications with the City of Los Angeles to dramatically expand its Griffith Park building. When Autry announced its ambitions for expansion in 2005, the response of the Coalition and its member organizations was to adopt a resolution demanding that as a condition of expanding exhibition space in Griffith Park, the City require the Autry to continue to operate exhibitions of the Southwest Museum at the historic site. All of Autry’s political lobbying and fundraising was directed toward getting the City permits to expand the Griffith Park building free and clear of any continuing obligation as to the historic site.

The Autry’s expansion plan and grandiose fundraising campaign was largely a failure. When the Board of Referred Powers (a committee of City Council members) granted the request of Councilmember Jose Huizar to delay Autry approvals while he sought to negotiate a legally binding commitment of Autry to continue to operate the historic site, Autry angrily dropped the expansion project and tried to “blame” Mr. Huizar and the Coalition. The reality, of course, was that Autry’s management failed to raise enough money to construct the massive expansion and it did not want to be held accountable for its merger fiduciary duties.

In 2005 the Autry was called upon by the Coalition to abandon any plan to replace the Southwest Museum’s exhibition space and its management and Board proceeded anyway in the face of massive community opposition. When that opposition was rallied in summer of 2009 to hold Autry accountable to its merger agreement promises, the Autry publicly embarrassed itself by withdrawing the project. According to Autry’s financial statements, over $6 million was wasted (written off the books) on the effort to avoid its merger promises to restore the Southwest Museum. That would have gone a long way to restore the historic building, but Autry’s Board wasted the money on its effort to rip the Southwest Museum from its historic context.

About one year after withdrawal of the expansion project, the Autry announced it had purchased a warehouse outside the jurisdiction (and land use control) of the City of Los Angeles – in nearby Burbank on Victory Boulevard. The Autry expressed its intent to move the Southwest’s and the Autry’s collection storage into this single building and make it a research center. This was Autry’s first step in further breaching its fiduciary duties owed to the Southwest Museum institution and assets.

Councilmember Jose Huizar continued to meet with Autry officials. The Councilmember offered a stunning package of financial assistance to the Autry to rehabilitate the Southwest Museum and restore it to public service. The City offered the Autry up to $25 million of low interest loans available through the Federal Economic Stimulus and City support of an Autry application to the State of California Prop 84 competitive grant program for a Southwest Museum rehabilitation project. Autry CEO John Gray told Mr. Huizar that Autry was “not interested” in pursuing those opportunities. As soon as Autry withdrew is expansion in 2009, the Autry returned to the State a $167,000 grant to waterproof the Southwest Museum’s entrance tunnel – admitting that it had actually done nothing on completing the work. Most recently, Autry has been trying to offer the Southwest Museum building to anyone who wants it after Autry is through using it as a warehouse for the Southwest’s collections.

It turns out that while Autry was not interested in pursuing a state grant for the historic Southwest, it prepared an application to the State Department of Recreation and Parks Prop 84 program for $6.1 million to use our taxpayer dollars to remodel its basement to become the new Southwest Museum galleries. In other words, when all the bells and whistles are removed from the original expansion plan, the ONE THING the Autry really wants is still to duplicate the Southwest’s exhibition spaces in Griffith Park so as to render the historic building unneeded. This is an offensive and now clear breach of the Autry Board’s fiduciary duties owed to the Southwest Museum institution to maintain it as a separately named and marketed institution under the Autry National Center “umbrella.”

Because Autry could not politically prevail in a fully-noticed series of hearings to obtain permits for its original expansion plan, Autry officials have colluded with General Manager Jon Kirk Mukri of the City’s Recreation and Parks Department to process a Notice of Exemption from the California Environmental Quality Act for the basement expansion of exhibition space. There was no proper legal basis for the Notice of Exemption as Mukri and his staff sat in the front row of hearings in 2009 and listened to the Coalition present expert evidence that any effort to render the Southwest’s exhibition spaces redundant would violate the legal protections of the Southwest Museum enacted by the City into the Northeast Community Plan. That is a significant negative land use impact that disqualifies the use of an Exemption. Having used the fraudulent misrepresentations of the Autry to process an improper CEQA document – all without any notice to the public – rendered the Autry’s environmental “review” null and void in California law.

When the Coalition learned of this fraud, through its attorneys of Chatten-Brown &Carstens, the State grant authority and the officials of the City of Los Angeles were put on notice that the Notice of Exemption was null and the State had no authority to make a discretionary $6.1 million grant to Autry. State officials ignored this notice and recently announced the grant award of your tax dollars to the Autry to aid in its cultural piracy.

Last Friday, May 20, 2011, your Coalition Steering Committee got a phone call informing that Rec and Parks Commission President, Barry Sanders (the same man who recently tried to put commercial supergraphic advertising in the City’s parks) had used a Special Meeting agenda to slip the City’s approval of the Autry Basement Expansion onto the Board’s agenda.

In contrast to the Autry’s previous expansion efforts, this one has been done without a single presentation to the Los Feliz community affected by the expansion, the affected neighborhood councils, or the Coalition. The new CEO, Daniel Findley’s strategy appears to have been to “go quiet” on Autry’s plans and find a way to get it past the City of Los Angeles without the knowledge of the thousands of Southwest Museum supporters.

During the last effort to get permits, Mr. Sanders, a former partner of the law firm of Latham & Watkins, was determined by the City Attorney to have a disqualifying interest under Government Code 1090 that prevented the Rec. and Parks Commission from hearing the permit application, because Latham was representing Autry.  How Mr. Sanders was able to act on this most recent application of the Autry for essentially the same type of permit is unknown. His actions however carry a stench of impropriety.

The Rec. and Parks Board, after hearing the testimony of four Autry employees and no one else rubber stamped the Autry Basement Expansion without any mailed notice of hearing to any affected stakeholder. In fact, although Coalition Steering Committee members are subscribed to the Rec. and Parks Board agenda e-mail list, we stopped receiving agendas last month, just before Sanders moved to place the Autry item on the Board’s agenda. Imagine the contrast of hundreds of people in City Council Chambers in June 2009 objecting to Autry’s expansion of duplicative Southwest Museum exhibition space and last Friday when, as a result of the machinations of Recreation and Parks Commission staff and its Board President, no one was in the audience. This demonstrates just how just how far certain partisans in the City’s Recreation and Parks Department would go to hand Autry the expansion permits in Griffith Park free and clear of any continuing obligation to the historic site of the Southwest Museum.

Under Los Angeles City Charter section 245, the decision of the Recreation and Parks Commission may be called up to City Council for review. In order to do so, Councilmembers Huizar and Reyes, in whose district’s the assets of the Southwest Museum reside, must obtain 10 votes (2/3 vote of Council) to “assume jurisdiction” over the Commission’s approval of Autry’s project. Once assuming jurisdiction, Council has the power to veto the Commission decision within 21 calendar days. If the City Council agrees with objections raised by the people of Los Angeles, the Recreation and Parks Department can be directed to prepare a proper environmental document, conduct public presentation of this revised project expansion to the public and neighborhood councils, and negotiate with Autry regarding future use of the Southwest Museum. Additionally, a proper review of the conflict-of-interest laws of the state must be conducted of Mr. Sander’s participation in this latest “dark of the night” set of actions.

As we know from the successful first battle against the Autry’s lawyers and lobbyists, winning at City Hall is a numbers game. The more people from all over the City who demand that City Council overturn the Recreation and Parks Commission’s actions, the more likely Councilmembers Huizar and Reyes will obtain 10 votes (and overcome the obvious lobbying of Councilmember LaBonge – whose district would get the Southwest’s assets).

In many ways, your task in making your opinion known to City Councilmembers is easier this time. Autry has abandoned all pretense that it would ever care for and rehabilitate the Southwest Museum for continued service to future residents and school children of Los Angeles. Councilmember LaBonge cannot argue to his colleagues that the Southwest will be protected because Autry is now saying it will give the building away to anyone who will take it. In this context, the Autry’s breaches of fiduciary duty have become clear and indefensible. All of the misrepresentations about its $100 million endowment, its claims of “good faith” toward maintaining the separate identity of the Southwest Museum have been revealed for what they were: a fraudulent scheme to steal the Southwest’s collections for itself.

Councilmember Huizar recently brought together a group of leaders from Occidental College, Autry, community cultural groups and the Coalition. At that time, Autry CEO Daniel Findley indicated that Autry was willing to enter into a contract to lend artifacts of the Southwest Museum for exhibition at the historic site and even program one of the galleries (similar to its claims during the prior application to expand its Griffith Park building). However, even though Autry walked away with $5 million of the Southwest’s endowment, Autry is currently unwilling to give any of that endowment or provide other operating assistance to the Southwest’s site.

Occidental College, which once had a Southwest Studies program, is interested in reviving it at the Southwest Museum site, but Occidental does not currently feel it has the resources to lead rehabilitation of the Southwest’s building alone. It needs support and help.

Your Coalition Steering Committee has brought to the table representatives of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The National Trust has expertise and connections to resources to help operate the Southwest site using exhibits from the Southwest’s vast collection under a cooperative agreement with Autry. These talks are merely in the exploratory stage, however, but the revocation of Autry’s ill-gotten Recreation and Parks Commission permits would help force a compromise.

If Autry obtains its expansion permits in Griffith Park free and clear of any obligation to the historic Southwest Museum, it will have no reason to enter into a cooperative agreement to share its collections. It will simply take the Southwest’s collections for itself. As has always been the Coalition’s position, the Southwest’s collection is big enough to support exhibitions at the Autry site and the historic Southwest Museum – and such exhibits must be modern, engaging, and more than what was done in the past at the Southwest Museum.

DRAFT LETTER  (link to letter and addresses)
The absolutely best letter is one that you take to write armed with the information from this ACTION ALERT and your own knowledge. Uniquely written letters to City Councilmembers signal a high level of commitment and passion. However, if time does not allow you to write a unique letter, take our sample letter below and make it your own. We have provided the email list for you to send it to.

Faxes are also extremely powerful with Councilmembers. If we run out the paper in the Council office fax machines (like we did last time), that sends a shot across the bow of Council that we mean business. We have also provided a list of places to send your letter via fax to increase your impact.

Finally, there is a personal phone call. We would ask that you make three phone calls: Two calls should be made to the offices of Councilmembers Huizar and Reyes demanding that they take immediate action to overturn the sleazy and underhanded actions of the Recreation and Parks Commission.