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Critics ask attorney general to investigate state rail officials who also hold local offices

September 28, 2010 |  1:17 pm

Critics of the California high-speed rail project Tuesday urged the state attorney general to investigate whether two prominent officials in Los Angeles and Anaheim have conflicts of interest because they sit on the bullet train’s board of directors while holding other public offices.

Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design in Palo Alto asserts that Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle and Richard Katz, a board member for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, might be violating a state law that forbids public officials from simultaneously sitting on boards, commissions, committees or any other government body with interests that are likely to clash.

The group is armed with an opinion from the Legislature’s legal office, which concluded in April that a court would likely rule that Katz and Pringle, chairman of the high-speed rail board, hold incompatible offices, a finding that could force them to resign from one or more of their positions.

Anaheim City Council members and the MTA board make decisions related to segments of the high-speed rail project planned for Los Angeles and Orange counties, where a leg of the system would terminate in Anaheim. Pringle also is a member of the Orange County Transportation Authority board while Katz sits on the board of Metrolink, the commuter rail line that serves six counties.

“Local office and service on the high-speed rail board just don’t mix.” said Elizabeth Alexis, a co-founder of Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design. “The biggest problem is maintaining public confidence in the integrity of the process. The project needs to be not just clean. It needs to be squeaky clean.”

Alexis pointed to recent concerns expressed by state Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), who chairs the Senate’s transportation committee, which monitors the high-speed rail project.

In June, Lowenthal addressed a proposed deal -- backed by Pringle -- to use $200 million in high-speed rail money to complete a huge, canopied transportation center next to Angels Stadium in Anaheim at the southern terminus of the bullet train's first phase. Lowenthal said it looked like parochial interests were taking precedent over statewide interests.

Pringle said the incompatible office question “is a gray area,”  and it remains speculative that there would be a disqualifying conflict between the interests of the local agencies he represents and the high-speed rail authority. Until there is a ruling to the contrary, he said, his understanding is he may continue to serve in multiple roles.

Katz, a former state legislator and an experienced transportation official, recently discounted the April letter from the legislative counsel, saying the office “always takes the middle ground.” He said the matter will be clearly resolved only if and when a court rules on the question.

Both Katz and Pringle argue that their local government experience has been a significant help to various agencies coordinating bullet train plans and trying to integrate them with local rail systems and communities along the route.

“There’s been more access to high-speed rail from local government in Southern California since Pringle and I got on the board than there ever has been before,” Katz said. “I don’t see how just sitting on the MTA or Metrolink board is inherently incompatible.”

-- Dan Weikel and Rich Connell