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‘Backroom Deal’ Alleged in Council’s Selection of Bergamot Arts Center Developer

Phil Brock For Council 2014

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark

Michael Feinstein for Santa Monica City Council 2014

Frank Gruber for Santa Monica City CouncilHarding Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP  law firm
Harding, Larmore
Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

Pacific Park, Santa Monica Pier

Santa Monica Convention and Visitors Bureau

By Jonathan Friedman
Associate Editor

September 12, 2014 -- Supporters of Measure D, the November ballot proposal that would prohibit the City Council from making major changes to the Santa Monica Airport without voter approval, are calling shenanigans after the council on Tuesday selected a developer for a major project a few days after he donated $10,000 to the Measure D opposition committee.

John Jerabek, who is is leading the local effort in favor of Measure D, said in a press release issued Friday that the council’s decision “smells like a back room deal.”

Council members denied the charge, with Kevin McKeown writing in an email to The Lookout that “the Measure D gang is sounding increasingly desperate.”

Worthe Real Estate Group head Jeff Worthe made the donation Sept. 5. Four days later, his team and two others were up for consideration by the council for the nearly $100 million project to redevelop Bergamot Station Arts Center. City staff and a majority of the Arts Commission recommended the selection of a team called 26th Street TOD Partners.

After nearly five hours of public testimony and debate, the council voted 5-1 to reject staff’s recommendation and select Worthe (“Council Rejects City Staff’s Recommendation for Bergamot Arts Center Developer,” September 11, 2014). The developer is also heading a project to build a Frank Gehry-designed Downtown Santa Monica hotel (“Santa Monica Residents Respond to Proposed Gehry Building,” March 22, 2013).

“Jeff Worthe’s huge contribution makes a couple of things clear: first, City-connected developers understand that closing the airport could be a huge bonanza for them, while leaving the rest of us to deal with the traffic and congestion that will result,” said Jerabek in the press release.

He continued, “Second, the timing of the contribution and the City Council’s vote to award the right to develop Bergamot Station smells like a back room deal.”

Worthe could not be reached for comment.

John Fairweather, who chairs the committee campaigning against Measure D and for the rival Measure LC that will also appear on the November ballot and give the council more flexibility over control of the airport property, said Jerabek made “a ridiculous accusation.”

“Mr. Worthe donated online on our website,” wrote Fairweather in an email to The Lookout. “Neither I nor anyone else involved with [the committee] have spoken with him, but we are very grateful for his much-needed contribution.”

He continued, “Mr. Worthe lives in Santa Monica, and it is my assumption that like the rest of us, he cares deeply about the city and the environment in which he and his family live.”

Measure D proponents are promoting their proposal as a method to give residents a say on the future of the airport, which sits on City-owned land. They also claim it will prevent “over-development” of the site.

Opponents of Measure D/supporters of Measure LC say their rivals are being misleading and that Measure D is nothing more than a scheme by aviation interests to keep the airport open indefinitely.

Among those opposing Measure D and supporting Measure LC is Councilmember Ted Winterer, who wrote in an email to The Lookout that Jerabek’s allegation about Tuesday’s vote was “insulting.”

“Did I know about Jeff Worthe's contribution to the Measure LC campaign prior to the vote on the Bergamot Arts Center? Yes,” Winterer wrote. “Am I grateful that a Santa Monica resident gave a generous contribution to a campaign run by Santa Monicans to contest Measure D, which is almost 100 percent financed by Washington lobbyists who are seeking to influence our local elections with hundreds of thousands of dollars of out-of-state money? Yes.”

He continued, “Did the contribution influence my vote, which was widely lauded by [Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City], heads of neighborhood organizations and the Bergamot gallery owners? Absolutely not.”

Winterer, McKeown and Fairweather wrote in their communications to The Lookout that their side is losing greatly on the fundraising front because Measure D proponents/Measure LC opponents have deep pockets.

Their assessment is accurate. While Measure D supporters/ Measure LC opponents are nearing the half-million mark in money collected, including a recent $25,000 donation from actor and pilot Harrison Ford, their rivals have taken in a little more than $20,000 as of last Monday.

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