A major development has taken place in the long and always unfolding saga of the Southwest Museum-Autry National Center “merger.”
On Friday, May 20, The City of Los Angeles Recreation and Parks Commission voted to approve an Autry National Center request for approval to renovate its facility on its Griffith Park campus. (The Autry leases the Griffith Park site from the City for $1 per year, thereby necessitating Recreation and Parks approval for any significant physical changes.)
How the action on the part of the Recreation and Parks Commissioners could have come about is, at this point, mysterious for several reasons.
Local members of the Friends of the Southwest Museum Coalition, which has fought for the Southwest Museum’s retention as a fully-functioning museum on its Mount Washington campus since 2003, monitor Recreation and Parks agendas closely for any relevant activity. The coalition is made up of a great many Neighborhood Councils, resident organizations and preservation groups. However, no one was aware that the Autry item was agendized for May 20.
The item was, in fact on the commission’s agenda for the day. However, the agenda was filed as a “Special Agenda.” It was not posted on the City of Los Angeles web site under meetings and agendas. It was not sent to members of the public who subscribe under the City’s Early Notification System. It was not sent to the long list of city residents who have expressed serious interest in the case, including those who attended a packed 2009 hearing on Autry expansion, nor to those who have in the past sent mail or email communications on the matter.
The State’s Brown Act requires open, 72-hour advanced posting of agendas except in urgent situations. The agenda for the May 20 Recreation and Parks Commission meeting may have been posted at City Hall shortly before the meeting. It is several clicks into the Recreation and Parks Department web site. But there was no apparent outreach done to notify the public, despite a history of great community interest in the matter. Community activists, who certainly would have been at the meeting had they known about it, are left puzzled as to how an issue that has been on the table since 2003 could suddenly be declared worthy of a “Special Agenda” without public notification.
Further, the Los Angeles City Attorney ruled in 2009 that the Recreation and Parks Commission is not eligible to rule on Autry matters because the Commission President, Barry Sanders, is a retired partner in the Law Firm of Latham and Watkins, which represents the Autry. The City Attorney’s office has considered this to be a conflict of interest.
And there is precedent for the commissioners avoiding taking action in matters involving the Autry. In 2009. when the Autry brought a request for permission to expand to the City, the matter was referred to the City Council’s Board of Referred Powers, which acts when a city board or commission is deemed ineligible. (In the 2009 case, the Board of Referred Powers asked, at local City Council Member José Huizar ‘s request, that the Autry put its promises to preserve the Southwest Museum into the form of a signed document. Representatives of Latham and Watkins, acting on behalf of the Autry National Center, refused.)
"In my more than 25 years representing and advising public agencies, I have never seen such a sleazy and underhanded maneuver as what occurred on Friday, May 20th,” says attorney and Mount Washington resident Daniel Wright. “For a public agency to selectively remove from its meeting agenda email notification system persons it knows are opposed to a project is to maliciously trample the core principles of democracy and fair play.”
It is possible for the City Council to assume jurisdiction over the Recreation and Parks Commission ruling—if the Council acts quickly. Impetus most likely would come from Councilmember Huizar, who represents the portion of Mount Washington where the Southwest Museum building is located, and/or from Councilmember Ed Reyes, who represents the North Figueroa corridor, where the museum’s Casa de Adobe is located. They would have to work with City Council President Eric Garcetti (who also represents part of Northeast Los Angeles) to put an item regarding assuming jurisdiction on a City Council agenda. A two-thirds vote of the full council would then be necessary to proceed. This will have to happen very quickly if it is going to happen, as the Council has only five council meeting days (the Council meets three times a week) to assume jurisdiction over any commission’s decision. If jurisdiction is assumed, the Council will then have 21 days to consider whether to veto or uphold the commission action.
The Friends of the Southwest Museum Coalition is asking the public to contact Councilmembers Huizar and Reyes immediately to ask for a motion asserting jurisdiction over the Recreation and Parks Commission ruling. (Addresses and phone numbers are at LACity.org.)
What the Autry brought to the commission is essentially a scaled down version of previous expansion plans. Community members near the Southwest site on Mount Washington and near the Autry site in Griffith Park were never made aware that a new plan was in the works nor that it was finalized.
According the Friends of the Southwest Museum Coalition, what is at stake is a priceless collection of Native American artifacts, one of the two greatest such collections in the world; a 13-acre Mount Washington site that is listed on the National Register of Historic places and a $5 million endowment.
When the Southwest and Autry Museums merged in 2003, the move was presented to the public as a true merger involving two partners. The Southwest had a world class collection and Los Angeles’ oldest museum building, but was cash poor. The Autry had a much better endowment and a collection that was noteworthy, but not on a par with the Southwest. The public was told that two facilities would be maintained. That contention ended however, when the Autry closed the Southwest campus and sought to expand its Griffith Park facility to showcase the Southwest collection. Meanwhile, the Autry’s bank coffers have been exposed as not nearly as flush as originally suggested, with most of the needed money in the will of a very much alive Jackie Autry, widow of Gene Autry, and in expectations of a blue ribbon committee appointed to raise funds for the preservation of the Southwest Museum, something it never did.
Former Autry National Center Director John Grey commonly portrayed the Autry’s involvement as having saved the Southwest Museum. Coalition to Save the Southwest Museum members, as well as Councilmember Reyes, have, in the past, called it “cultural piracy.”
Proponents of keeping the Southwest Museum as a fully functioning museum, meeting minimum legal standards for museums, at the Mount Washington site, argue that anything less is a violation of the Northeast Los Angeles Community Plan, a planning document used by the City that carries the weight of law. Many residents of the Griffith Park area, meanwhile, have been vocal in opposition to an expansion of facilities in the park, demanding that is be preserved as it was originally intended—as undeveloped green space.
After the 2009 Board of Referred Powers meeting, the Autry withdrew its presented expansion plan. It has since purchased a building in Burbank, outside of Los Angeles’ jurisdiction, for storage. It has also refused serious financial opportunities engineered by Huizar for the rehabilitation and use of the Southwest Museum campus and has gone so far as to return grant money intended for waterproofing. Meanwhile, it has continued to seek and receive grant money for remodeling in Griffith Park.
The Autry’s recent request to the Recreation and Parks Commission was framed in terms of spending $6.6 million the institution has been awarded in state Proposition 84 funding. The funding is to be used toward the construction of two new galleries, an outdoor teaching garden and site improvements within the existing footprint of the museum. 18,000 square-feet of museum space are impacted.
According to materials submitted to Recreation and Parks by the Autry, “The two exhibit galleries and the outdoor teaching garden will be devoted to the native people of California, their relationship to the natural environment, and the key resource stewardship practices they have employed in sustaining their traditions and customary manner of living…visitors to the Autry will learn about historical and contemporary ecological issues that impact, and in some cases, may threaten the way Californians live.”
Proposition 84 provides bond funding to projects enabling safe drinking water, water quality and supply, flood control, waterway and natural resource protection, water pollution and contamination control, state and local park improvements, public access to natural resources and water conservation efforts.
One of the exhibit galleries is designed to house a long-term exhibit on “The First Californians,” showing “how nature is weaved into the customs and ceremonial traditions of Native Californians.” The second gallery is designed to house a long-term exhibit focusing on Pomo life and culture, focusing on two female Pomo “doctors” whose work sustained Pomo practices and culture. It is planned to include suggestions as to how contemporary Californians can benefit from this knowledge. A centerpiece of the teaching garden would be a water feature depicting the journey of a river through various riparian ecosystems.
The two proposed galleries would contain over 500 objects from 50 Native American cultures. The Autry proposal does not use the terms “Southwest Museum” or “Southwest Collection.”
If the City Council does assume jurisdiction over the Recreation and Parks action and the Council hears the matter within three weeks, there will not be, at that Council meeting, something so clear-cut as a thumbs up or thumbs down to the Autry’s latest remodeling plan. The Council could insist on an environmental review. It could tell the Autry to submit its plan to a public review process. It could also decide to investigate whether Sanders broke conflict of interest laws in his role as a commissioner.
Community members are not mincing words when it comes to their feelings on the matter.
"If the Council does not vote to take jurisdiction and veto this fraudulent transaction,” says Wright, “the community will finally do what it has tried to avoid: litigation and public boycott of the Autry Museum.”
"A boycott of the Autry is not in anyone's interest,” Wright adds, “and Councilmembers Huizar, Reyes and Garcetti need to lead the way to resolution."