INSIDE INGLEWOOD - A fire alarm sounded during the December 18 Inglewood city council meeting. It sounded just as the ceremonial congratulations to a housing lottery ended and before the night’s real business began.
Only four of the five council members were present. An unusually high number of city staff was on hand immediately prior to the alarm’s engagement. An evacuation eventually occurred, and the meeting was postponed until the following day. Details about the cause of the fire alarm remain unclear and official reports have been conflicting.
Before the false fire alarm klaxons had been quieted, Inglewood mayor James T. Butts declared the resumption of a city council meeting to take place for five minutes between 12:55 and 1 p.m. the following day. The decision was made privately and announced by assistant city manager and CIO Michael D. Falkow to a handful of people more than 30 minutes after the evacuation.
According to some city officials on the scene, there was no reason to not return to the meeting as scheduled. Such a resumed meeting, absent of an emergency condition as described by Brown Act Section 54956.5 and held a scant 16 hours after its informal, unofficial and unlawful announcement, would clearly violate the 24-hour clause set forth by California State Law.
The December 18 city council meeting could have been reconvened the night it was briefly interrupted.
The city council, which tends to vote 3-2, was absent one of its majority voting block members during the December 18 meeting. District 3 council member Eloy Morales Jr., who has to date exhibited a 100% monolithic voting demeanor alongside Inglewood Mayor James T. Butts and D-4 council member Ralph L. Franklin, was not present for the night's meeting.
The false fire alarm occurred mere minutes before the Inglewood city council was to vote on the adoption of Agenda Item DR-2, a resolution to amend the city charter that would raise the city's property transfer tax from $0.55 per $1,000 of property value to $5.10 per $1,000, a 1000% increase. Of the $5.10, the city of Inglewood would collect $4.00.
The December 18 meeting started at 7 p.m. and the false fire alarm was thrown at approximately 8 p.m. As the fire alarms rang, the mayor remained unmoved as he posed for pictures.
After a few minutes, all attendees were asked to exit via the stairwells on the north side of the building. Inglewood police officers responded several minutes later. LA County Fire Department personnel were said to be on the scene inspecting the allegedly faulty fire alarm box. A tour of the grounds, with video running, revealed no such personnel nor any LAFD vehicles on or near Inglewood city hall.
Several people congregated near the west and east exits of city hall. Police officers were gathered at the east door. The south doors were open, and this reporter stepped through even as the east door was blocked save for city personnel. The north door, near the employee parking lot, had only D-4 council member Franklin and the recently arrived city attorney Cal Saunders, bags in hand, discussing unknown business.
According to city officials on the scene, the false alarm was triggered on the sixth floor. Only the first and ninth floors are open to the public on evenings that city council and city commission meetings are held. The ninth floor is where the council meetings are held. All other floors can be accessed only via magnetic security cards issued by the City of Inglewood.
According to L.A. County Fire Dept., the alarm came from the ninth floor. Moments after the alarm sounded, Falkow, city attorney Cal Saunders, city employee Tanisha Johnson (who had just "won" a house lottery from the City of Inglewood) and one other city employee (identified by her City of Inglewood badge) were videotaped emerging hurriedly from the ninth floor staff offices opposite the council chambers.
The staff offices are kept locked during city council meetings, and are accessed only by those with magnetic security cards issued by the City of Inglewood.
When the virtual smoke had cleared nearly 30 minutes later, Falkow declared to a group of fewer than six remaining residents that he had "received a telephone call from the mayor" that a five-minute meeting would be held the following day "at 12:55 p.m." The reason given by the mayor, according to Falkow, was that the mayor "had another meeting at 1 p.m."
One wonders how no fewer than 25 Agenda Items remaining open from the previous night's interrupted meeting could possibly be discussed in five minutes.
FALSE ALARMS AT JUST THE RIGHT TIME AND RIGHT PLACE - Such false alarms have taken place under similar circumstances three times in as many years.
The first time was on March 9, 2010. A false bomb threat was called in to city hall at the very time a decision regarding the replacement of city manager Tim Wanamaker, who had resigned that week. Wanamaker was convicted of felony misuse of funds in 2011 and sentenced to three years probation just this week.
Following the false bomb threat, Falkow was quoted in the news blog IntersectionsSouthLA.com that "[t]he council will hold a special meeting Monday morning where they will likely confirm an interim city administrator since the last scheduled open session meeting was canceled due to a bomb threat that lead to the evacuation of city hall."
On the scene of Tuesday's false fire alarm, Falkow took the time to speak to this reporter about the night's events. At one point he mentioned, without provocation, the bomb threat from 2010. "There was a similar incident that happened about five years ago, no, three years ago, when Wanamaker was here. So they were firing him and somebody called in a bomb threat."
Council members Morales and Franklin were present and holding public office at the March 9 meeting. Morales, then acting as Mayor Pro Tem, was quoted by IntersectionsSouthLA as saying, "'We are confident that the city will continue to move forward with projects and initiatives that are important to our community without interruption while we seek his replacement.'"
The second similar incident took place in October 2012 at Inglewood's District 1 Community Room on Manchester Avenue. The area's council member, Mike Stevens, had called a Town Hall meeting to discuss the hundreds of millions of misappropriated FAA funds for the Residential Sound Insulation program. An unprecedented attendance by Morales, Franklin and Mayor Butts was noted.
Also of note was the subsequent appearance of the LAFD. The LAFD vehicle arrived silently and with its lights off after entering casually from a nearby residential street. The meeting was quickly closed and the residents sent away owing to what LAFD Captain Dorsey announced was his receiving a "phone call." There was no official declaration of "overcrowding."
Council members Morales and Franklin walked away after being approached with questions about the official reason the meeting may have been closed.
With this third false alarm, which took place under highly questionable circumstances, there remains the question whether those present at all three such incidents may have been involved. What is not questionable is California State Law, which will without doubt be violated should there be a continuation of a non-urgent, non-emergency meeting conducted within 24 hours of its informal announcement.
With no legal posting of such a meeting, it should not be difficult for the L.A. County District Attorney to step in. The DA has the authority to investigate and prosecute such matters via its Public Integrity Division.
(Randall Fleming is a veteran journalist and magazine publisher. He has worked at and for the New York Post, the Brooklyn Spectator and the Los Feliz Ledger. He is currently editor-in-chief at the Morningside Park Chronicle, a monthly newspaper based in Inglewood, CA and on-line at www.MorningsideParkChronicle.com)