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NEWS ANALYSIS

LOS ANGELES — Observers in a Los Angeles County courtroom received a quick lesson in closed government — increasingly removed from the people or, as in this particular case, the people removed from the government.

In response to an outburst by an unidentified woman, Judge Peter Lichtman ordered the bailiffs and sheriff deputies to remove not only the woman who made the out-of-line remark but the entire audience — some 45 people in all.

The incident occurred during a recent hearing over the city of Long Beach’s intention to convert the abandoned U.S. Naval Station into a cargo container terminal, to be leased at a discount rate to China Overseas Shipping Company — the huge transport operation, owned and operated by the Beijing government.

The plan has been mired in controversy and litigation ever since the public got wind of it two years ago. The hearing last Monday dealt with a request by the State Lands Commission and the city of Long Beach to dismiss a suit brought by TV host Huell Howser, who maintains that such a use would be a “waste” of public assets.

The judge’s action was triggered when the woman interrupted attorney Alan Hager of the California Attorney General’s Office, who was presenting arguments for the State Lands Commission.

“It is waste,” she exclaimed — a challenge to Hager’s statements that conversion of the naval station was an acceptable use of the property.

Judge Lichtman promptly ordered the bailiffs to remove the woman. She didn’t resist, but as she was leaving, she again protested that the proposal was a “waste.” At that point the judge issued his sweeping order and called on sheriff’s deputies to enforce it. Fifteen minutes later he allowed members of the press, including this reporter, back in the room for the remaining minutes of the hearing.

Attorney Richard Fine, who is handling the litigation for Howser against the State Lands Commission and the city of Long Beach, denounced the judge’s action as “totally uncalled for.”

“It’s not as though it was a bunch of militia guys wearing ‘cammis.’ They were just ordinary people. They weren’t being rowdy,” he said.

Fine made his remarks at an impromptu sidewalk press conference outside the courthouse following the hearing. He likened the judge’s actions to those in prisoner films “where one prisoner does something they shoot everybody.”

“If one wants people to believe in the judicial system, one doesn’t do that sort of thing,” he observed.

Fine said the incident was a first-time occurrence for him, and that he has been doing courtroom work since 1968. The Los Angeles-based attorney noted that in those 30 years he had never experienced a “courtroom clear.” He recalled that occasionally, during a really high-profile, volatile case, people in the audience would start shouting, but the
judge would simply order the bailiff to remove the offenders, not empty the entire room.

Interestingly, the woman who provoked Judge Lichtman was unknown to those in the audience. WorldNetDaily quizzed attendees to find out who she was and whether she had been active in any of the efforts to save the naval station. Only one person had ever seen her before the day of the hearing. Nor did she remain to talk to the press or anyone else
following her ejection from the courtroom. Within minutes, she had disappeared — an action that raised suspicions that she was a provocateur rather than an outraged citizen dismayed by how the hearings seemed to be going.

Be that as it may, those at the hearing said they regarded the judge’s action as “arrogant.” To them it was one more piece of evidence that Americans have lost control over their government. All government. From city hall to the White House — including the judicial system. In their eyes the dispute over COSCO’s takeover of the Naval Station exemplifies
their loss of power. Despite huge protest rallies and other expressions of public outrage, the city council — backed by the Clinton administration — has not budged one inch from its agenda.

But while public concern has been centered largely on the COSCO deal, it’s not the only concern. Turning the base into a container terminal would mean the destuction of historic buildings on the site. The buildings were designed by noted African American architect Paul Williams and are considered his masterpiece.

To prevent the conversion of the site and its transfer to COSCO several lawsuits were launched, including the one by Huell Howser. It was Howser’s TV travel program, California Gold, that drew nationwide attention to the proposed fate of the naval station, back in September 1996. At the time Howser didn’t know the identity of the intended
tenant; the city was keeping that carefully under wraps. Howser knew only that a number of historical, artistically important buildings were going to be bulldozed, gardens ripped out, and the entire site covered with a concrete slab. He brought a citizen’s suit to stop the destruction.

A coalition of heritage organizations also sued, but were bought off with a promise of $4.5 million grant last February.

That left the Howser suit as the only judicial barrier to the city’s plans. Despite setbacks it’s very much alive. Howser — through attorney Fine — argues that destroying the base to make way for a cargo container terminal would be a gross waste of public assets no matter who the tenant is.

“Long Beach wants to tear down some buildings and put in a project that makes economic sense,” Alan Hager argued at Monday’s hearing. “A cargo container terminal will generate revenue. It makes more sense than a park.”

That last was a reference to a proposal by Howser to have the National Parks Service take over the base and convert it to a maritime park — a unique monument to American naval history. The Park Service is studying the proposal.

“This case is not about alternate uses, it’s about waste,” Fine countered. Far from making economic sense, “it’s a waste of at least $569.7 million dollars of Tidelands Trust assets, excluding land value.”

Furthermore, Fine pointed out, the cargo container terminal would be a loser in terms of job generation, according to a report recently completed by the Navy which examined three proposals. An institutional campus would create 4,593 jobs; an automobile terminal, 3,164 jobs; and a cargo container facility, only 3,003 jobs.

The Navy did not consider the possibility of conversion to a national park.

Crucial to Howser’s suit is the role of the State Lands Commission, a body tasked by the legislature with overseeing state public assets and preventing their being wasted. Neither the city nor its harbor commissioner had consulted with the State Lands Commission — or any other government entity — as to what land use would best serve the
public interest.

Said Fine, “The city is bound by the Base Closure Act to consult with the Interior Department to see if the department is interested in having it as a park. It is also bound by the laws of California to consult with the state, the county of Los Angeles, and the State Lands Commission. The city never did that.”

“The State Lands Commission doesn’t deny it has a duty to prevent waste,” Fine continued. “It just doesn’t want to do so in this case. Therefore, the citizens of California have no alternative but to come to court.”

Judge Lichtman didn’t bother to go through the motions of impartial pondering of opposing points of view. No sooner had both sides completed their arguments and he had asked a few perfunctory questions and received answers, than he announced he “respectfully disagreed” with Fine.

In the second surprise of the day, he whipped out an already-prepared five-page decision in favor of the State Lands Commission.

“Using tidelands for one trust purpose to the complete exclusion of another trust purpose is perfectly legal,” he had written. “It is not a waste of Tidelands Trust assets.”

Since the courtroom had been emptied of all observers except the press Judge Lichtman was spared having to listen to possible outbreaks from irate citizens.

Fine had expected the decision going against him, but was taken aback by the fact that it had been prepared.

“The judge had predetermined what he was going to do prior to the time we came into the courtroom,” he said at the sidewalk press conference.

“Were you surprised that he had prepared a five-page dismissal of your case?” asked radio talk show host Peter Ford, who had attended the hearing. “If this is a court of justice where both sides are supposed to be heard, how could he have written this ahead of time?”

“I think he made a mistake in doing that,” Fine answered. “He would have been better off had he held the decision back and issued it later this afternoon. An action like this — after he had already cleared the courtroom — will serve to further undercut the trust that people have in the judicial system.”

Commenting on the ruling itself, Fine observed that Lichtman had “basically argued that this is a question of one land use over another — he rejected our argument that the State Lands Commission has the responsibility to oversee the uses of the trust. He wouldn’t look at that at all, and that’s really the guts of what this case is about.”

Fine put to rest a rumor that Long Beach was already engaged in tearing down buildings at the station.

“We checked into that, and the buildings aren’t as nice as they were, but they aren’t being demolished,” he said.

The city has a schedule. They put construction work out to bid on June 3, and the bids came in July 3. On August 3 they’ll start “doing something,” said Fine, but probably not before then. “Too many people are watching,” he said.

Despite Judge Lichtman’s ruling, Fine remains optimistic and continues to shepherd cases along different tracks through the court system. He is appealing the Howser case to the California Court of Appeals. He also has a second lawsuit in federal court brought by several residents of Long Beach. It was filed June 15; a hearing is scheduled for July 20 to obtain a temporary restraining order to halt the demolition.

“What we have are skirmishes — by the Lands Commission, the city, the Navy to stop the suit and keep it out of court,” he said. “This isn’t stopping us. We just keep on going, and sooner or later we’ll prevail. No matter how many years it takes, we’re going to win.”

RELATED ITEMS:

June 1, 1998: Roadblock removed in COSCO deal

February 9, 1998: A big break for COSCO deal

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