Accusations from Inglewood Mayor James Butts and South Bay State Senator Steven Bradford fly freely

California lawmakers’ September decision to table Senate Bill 789 represented the most recent major development in the battle over a proposal to build the Los Angeles Clippers a home arena in Inglewood. The bill would have limited legal challenges to the arena’s development under California’s landmark environmental law, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Several large environmental groups, along with the Judicial Council of California, opposed the legislation.

But the decision to shelve the bill has sparked heated accusations by elected officials, including state Senator Steven Bradford (D-Gardena) and Inglewood Mayor James Butts, against two Inglewood community groups who appeared in Sacramento to voice opposition.

Days after the committee’s decision, Bradford published an op-ed accusing SB 789 opponents of being “shadow groups” that are “functioning as a front for entertainment tycoons.” In particular, Bradford targeted Uplift Inglewood, a coalition of Inglewood businesses and non-profits who have organized steadfast resistance to the arena proposal. Bradford writes, “If groups like Uplift Inglewood truly cared about our city, they would welcome these new developments with open arms.”

But Bradford, who introduced the SB 789 legislation, does not give a shred of evidence that Uplift Inglewood is controlled by “groups of wealthy elites look[ing] to exploit lower-income communities.”

In fact, his previous public relationship with one of Uplift Inglewood’s central figures calls into question why Bradford believes the group is illegitimate. That individual – Inglewood resident D’Artagnan Scorza – said he’s “surprised” by the senator’s words and support for SB 789.

“We just don’t understand where he’s coming from,” Scorza said. Another member of Uplift Inglewood had less diplomatic words, calling the Senator’s claims “totally baseless.”

Scorza, who grew up in Inglewood and now serves on Inglewood’s school board, has been one of the primary advocates of Uplift Inglewood’s mission after he was approached by the organization’s founder in 2016. Since then, he has helped the group push for more affordable housing and a rent control ordinance in Inglewood, where rents have risen 25% since 2012.

The amicable relationship between Bradford and Scorza goes back years. Bradford endorsed Scorza’s successful run for the school board and Scorza once phone banked for Bradford’s state Senate campaign.

“I’ve been very proud to support his efforts,” Scorza said. The senator was not available for comment at the time of publication.

Inglewood Mayor James Butts joins the fray

Alongside Senator Bradford, Inglewood Mayor James Butts has also targeted Scorza and other groups for opposing the Clippers

Clippers Arena Proposal Inglewood Mayor James T Butts Community Alert
Screenshot of the Oct. 2 “Community Alert” sent by Inglewood Mayor James Butts

development. Known for his at-times aggressive response to critics – in 2015 Butts sued an Inglewood resident for using publicly available footage of city council meetings to make negative videos about him – the Mayor sent a “community alert” on October 2 to an email listserv of city leaders and residents numbering in the hundreds to thousands.

Indirectly referring to Scorza, the message warns of an Inglewood school board member lobbying against SB 789. Butts claims the bill would “protect the City from abuse of the CEQA law to slow down our potential arena.” He then urges recipients, “Don’t be fooled by these alleged ‘Community groups’,” and asserts, like Senator Bradford, the organizations in question are “funded very substantially” to “misinform the public.”

The mayor also used the email to raise doubts about the legitimacy of another community organization opposing the arena, Inglewood Residents Against Takings and Evictions (IRATE), calling them a “group in name only.”

Despite the attacks, Scorza said he wants to “keep this dialogue at the policy level,” emphasizing that his main goal is “ensuring residents’ voices are being heard.”

Doug Carstens, a Hermosa Beach lawyer representing IRATE, agrees that public dialogue has taken a backseat in the course of developing this proposal. Carstens’ law firm filed suit against the City of Inglewood in July, alleging the city violated CEQA by making plans for the arena without properly soliciting public opinion.

“There’s a lot of information known to the Mayor and the city council and city staff that’s not being shared with the public,” he said. “They know exactly where they want to site things, they know exactly what they want to site.”

Now that the city and a development company representing the Clippers have entered an Exclusive Negotiating Agreement, Carstens said the city can conduct planning sessions with real estate developers that are closed to the public. According to him, shutting out public opinion “defeats the purpose” of the law. Having successfully litigated CEQA suits across Southern California, he believes the fastest and fairest way to develop is by following its provisions.

“Complying with the law is a lot more efficient and time-saving,” he said. “If you talk with the people, if you involve them, get them to buy in, if you share with them information, there may be opposition but it can be dealt with and diffused.”

Though the Mayor was unavailable for comment, the city council has previously argued that CEQA challenges to the Clippers development would unnecessarily slow the process and make it difficult to finish the arena by 2024 – the year the Clippers’ contract ends with their current home, the Staples Center. Senate Bill 789 would have forced CEQA lawsuits against the project to finish in 270 days, a window the Judicial Council of California called “extremely tight” and “at odds with how our justice system has historically functioned.”

Senator Bradford and Mayor Butts have made it clear they expect the bill to be revived when the California legislature returns to session in January 2018, while Uplift Inglewood and IRATE plan to continue organizing opposition. In the meantime, the war of words rages on.