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Jimbo and Me – In Search of the Elusive Professor Dolan

WHAT’S METRO HIDING? - James Francis Dolan, PhD.  Professor of Earth Sciences at USC’s Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

The guy may be tone-deaf, for all I know, but he is literally one of the region’s true geology rock stars.  The go-to guy when it comes to faults, tectonics and all that jazz.
I have no idea if his friends call him “Jim” or “Jimmy” or “J. F.”  Somehow with all his contagious enthusiasm and dry sense of humor, I imagine that he’s a Jimbo, but it’s just a hunch.  Jimbo Dolan, USC rock star.

His rock star qualities became apparent at Metro’s Oct. 19 presentation when, as a member of a panel paid by Metro, barely able to conceal his authentic intellectual pleasure at discovering new faults, he moved County Supervisor and Metro Board Member Zev Yaroslavsky to remark that he would have become a geologist if he had had such teachers at UCLA.  

Yaroslavsky repeatedly referred to Professor Dolan as “Professor Dillon,” so maybe this is a case of where there’s Gunsmoke, there’s fire.  As for the supervisor’s scientific ambitions, the retort from a Trojan would, of course, be: if you’d have gone to USC, you would have had such teachers.  

While there may be some who wish that Supervisor Yaroslavsky had had Dolan or at least a Dolanesque geology professor back in the day, one can at least agree that “science can be fun and fascinating.”

After having seen JD live at the Metro presentation – yes, that’d be the one that Metro Board Member and County Supervisor Mike Antonovich described as Metro lucha libre, where you know the outcome before the match begins – I was interested in learning more about our faults.  No, not about my own individual faults, as I have enough people in my life to constantly remind me of those.  But I was fascinated to learn there was a major fault along Santa Monica Boulevard, complete with the requisite scarps.

I also loved hearing about Professor Dolan’s sense of time.  He mentioned how geologists have a different perception of the time-space relationship and how he once found himself saying, “Yeah, those rocks are really young: they’re only ten or fifteen million years old.”  I can only imagine that an added benefit of studying under Professor Dolan would come to any of his students ever needing any extra time to finish off a term paper, report or thesis.  Need a deadline extension?  No problemo.  What’s an extra week or even an extra month, given the context?

Having read a bit more about Dr. Dolan and having written about his Alquist-Priolo conclusions in the Huffington Post (in an article entitled “Fault-y Towers: Don’t Mention the Core!”), I wanted to take the opportunity to chat with him in person.  This was, it should be duly noted, before the October Metro report was seriously called into question by the independent review conduct by Exponent Consulting.  

But whether the conclusions drawn by Professor Dolan and his cohorts regarding the seriousness of the Santa Monica fault were justified or not, I was interested not only in his scholarship about the Santa Monica fault, but actually mainly about other faults in the region, including the Puente Hills fault with its potentially devastating power to wreak the ultimate destruction on Downtown LA.  I was concerned that maybe the extent of the faulting in the region wasn’t adequately documented, and wanted to hear his reaction to the suggestion that more funds be devoted to mapping the area to the same extent Metro had done with the Santa Monica fault.

Our Deputy City Manager called Dr. Dolan to try to set up a meeting.  Dr. Dolan answered his own phone, unpretentious unlike other rock stars.  Does Eddie van Halen pick up his own phone?  How about Justin Bieber?  But Dolan does and he graciously said he would be happy to talk to me.  But there was a catch.  He also said that he was under contract to Metro; we would need to talk to Metro to be able to talk to him.  

After repeated calls to Dennis Mori, Metro’s current Executive Officer, capital development, we finally got a response. (Mori is also the former project manager of the Red line, whose construction was perhaps most well-known for its near-fatal sinkhole on Hollywood Boulevard).  The answer to my request was “no.”  I felt like Michael Moore when GM denied his request to meet with then-General Motors CEO Roger Smith.

Metro was clearly being overprotective of their rock star.  Yet I still wasn’t sure what their reluctance was.  Were they scared that I was going to try to lure him to become Beverly Hills’s Chief Geologist? We do have a Chief Arborist, but not a Chief Geologist.  At least, not yet.   

Perhaps they didn’t want me to talk to him about the fascinating subject of Alquist-Priolo zones?  I had written at this URL about the potential consequences of the new fault discoveries.  Perhaps Metro didn’t want to be seen in the greater development community of greater LA as being at fault for the faults.  As I wrote, while that might stifle overdevelopment and be frowned upon in some quarters, in others it would be looked upon as a holiday gift, namely by those who prefer more human-scale, low-rise development.

Why was Metro denying access to Professor Dolan?  What of open-source scholarship?  It seems the only reasonable conclusion is that Metro wants to control Dolan, control the message, control the spin.  But to what end?  

If Metro restricts access to their experts, just how objective, just how independent can those experts really be?  For people in Beverly Hills, the answer will be something they feel they already knew all along.  Are there parts about the good professor’s data or conclusions which could somehow, somewhere work against what Metro perceives to be its interests?  Why did GM so studiously avoid allowing Roger Smith to talk to Michael Moore?

In the case of Metro, the issues would seem to be as follows:

Metro is not particularly interested in the impacts the potential new Alquist-Priolo zones indicated by Dr. Dolan’s scholarship would create on their developer friends.  They like TOD (transit oriented development, or “death” in German) and density because it increases ridership.  So while they’re happy to use the new fault information to put the kibosh on any Santa Monica Boulevard station, they are also concerned about the effects building restrictions could create upon ridership both in Century City and along the length of the Santa Monica fault.

Furthermore, living in an earthquake zone and with many more potentially deadly and unmapped faults all around us, additional study and mapping of faults could muck up future subway expansion plans.   It seems that Metro is employing a very selective “don’t ask, don’t tell” strategy.

Don’t ask, for example, about the Puente Hills fault with its potentially devastating effects on huge swaths of the Downtown LA area.  As mentioned, I wanted to talk to Dolan, among other things, about this fault.  The conclusions it might lead to are perhaps not what Metro, their developer friends, as well as the politicians who benefit from their developer patrons, might want to hear.  So don’t ask, don’t tell.

Dolan seems apolitical, and the only way to spin his viewpoints would be to control what he says; muzzle him about other potentially niggling facts, which as a scientist, he might be forced to conclude, but which would be bothersome to other aspects of Metro’s agenda.

In rejecting my request to meet with Professor Dolan, the “official” Metro line from Metro PR-meister Jody Litvak, responding on behalf of Dennis Mori, was that these paid experts – some of whom also happen to be professors at major universities – receive far too many enquiries from elected officials and media reps to reasonably fulfill.  How odd: I seem to remember that Art Leahy said the experts would be available to media reps under the guise of “we’ve got nothing to hide” and “full transparency” messaging.  In fact, his exact words at the Oct. 19 meeting were: “The panels that have just presented are available not only to answer questions now but they’re available to the media following the conclusion of this item on this committee.”

Let me get this straight: there are so many media requests to talk to Professor Dolan that there’s no time left over to talk to elected officials, especially in jurisdictions which passed Measure R by the highest of margins?  If there are really that many media inquiries, maybe this guy just needs a press agent.  Rogers and Cowan, where are you?  You may have thought you had your hands full with Britney Spears, but another type of rock star awaits.

As a writer for various publications including the Los Angeles Business Journal, Huffington Post and the Beverly Hills Courier, I could perhaps reasonably qualify as a member of the media, but denying elected officials, especially those in areas that could potentially be affected by Metro’s plans,  access to these experts seems nothing if not Orwellian.  Are they afraid that independent elected officials (i.e. those who haven’t gotten financial donations from some of the potential beneficiaries of the subway routing) might ask questions that lead to different conclusions from their own spin?

I would have complete understanding if Metro were trying to restrict access to Lloyd Cluff, who was one of the “distinguished” and “independent” panel members conducting the peer review on the study.  Cluff was until earlier last year the Director of Risk Management for PG&E, which gained notoriety throughout the state for their attempt to manipulate California voters through Proposition 16, a brazen and opportunistic ploy to protect PG&E’s monopoly within its sphere of influence (and which voters wisely rejected, despite the $46 million PG&E spent on propaganda).  These textbook efforts to abuse the initiative process to cement their local monopolies were followed a mere few months later by PG&E’s gas explosion in San Bruno which killed eight people.  Not a great year for PG&E.

Asking Cluff to be part of the peer review is a little like asking the risk managers for Chernobyl to serve on a Nuclear Power Safety Committee.  The analogy isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem to some.  After all, this is the same Lloyd Cluff who evidently feels it’s OK to build nuclear power plants on fault–lines.  Cluff’s response to State Senator Sam Blakeslee, who expressed concern about the safety of his constituents living near PG&E’s nuclear power plant on a newly-discovered fault line was: “There’s uncertainty in everything.  We don’t see a concern about the uncertainty.”  So let’s get this straight: according to Cluff, it’s OK to build a nuclear reactor on a fault line, but a subway station is verboten?

So, yes, I completely get it if Metro wants to deny anyone and everyone access to their paid expert Lloyd Cluff, former Risk Manager for PG&E, the investor-owned utility which was responsible for the deadly San Bruno explosion (not to mention the attempted initiative scam that was Prop 16).  

But Jimbo Dolan?

Unfortunately, it would seem so.  And here we have yet another reason why additional checks and balances should be imposed upon Metro, a public agency whose board consists of a number of elected and appointed officials, but whose board has not been elected directly by the taxpayers funding it.  For starters, Metro should be subject to an extensive governance audit.  The function Metro is supposed to serve is much too important to be left to a byzantine construct where a bureaucracy seems to be running the show, playing favorites and managing the board members in a way that would put some of Franz Kafka’s corporate cultures to shame.

Unfortunately, Metro’s refusal to allow elected officials access to Professor Dolan and the other panel members (sans Cluff) unnecessarily degrades Professor Dolan to just another talking head and for all Metro’s talk about the “independent” panel, gives cause to question his “independence”.  Tom Lehrer’s words about former VP Hubert Horatio Humphrey come to mind in slightly modified form: “Once a fiery scientist spirit, ah, but now when he speaks he must clear it.”

What a shame that Professor Dolan’s ivory tower isn’t open to all; and as such, unfortunately, it perforce must lose some of its stature.  Selective data by its very nature must lose credibility.  After all, isn’t a great scientist willing to look at the bigger picture and all the consequences – at least isn’t afraid to examine and confront them all head-on?

Another Dolan was once proclaimed to be a “genius” for his mere suggestion of steak and a bottle of Lowenbrau.  In the immortal words of Arthur Prysock “Tonight is kind of special.”

Today would be kind of special if Metro would “free Professor Dolan” and allow him to do what he does best: share the full wealth of his knowledge with those who are interested.  All those who are interested.  After all, that’s the Academic Way, isn’t it?  In fact, on Supervisor Yaroslavsky’s website we can read the following:

“While acknowledging that such discoveries [i.e. new faults] can spark concerns, Dolan said in an interview that he prefers to take an all-news-is-good-news approach.

‘I think anything we learn about active faults in LA is always good news,’ he said, ‘because it’s absolutely critical that we fully understand the seismic threat facing us as residents of earthquake country.’”

While SC’s Professor Dolan, much like the eponymous steak and Lowenbrau-loving character from the Clio-worthy 70’s commercial may very well also be a genius, it’s difficult to appreciate the Professor’s brilliance if access to his knowledge and insight are being restricted by a Metro muzzle.

What happened to the all-news-is-good-news approach?  Isn’t all information good information?

Guess not for Metro.

C’mon, Metro: take the muzzle off of Professor Dolan.

(John Mirisch is a member of the Beverly Hills City Council. He contributes Huffington Post and various other publications including CityWatch) –cw

Tags: John Mirisch, James Dolan, Dr Dolan, USC, Metro, Los Angeles County, Zev Yaroslavsky, Mike Antonovich, earth quake faults, Downtown LA, Santa Monica










CityWatch
Vol 10 Issue 13
Pub: Feb 14, 2012

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