LA vets concerned history repeating itself as the VA negotiates stadium deal with UCLA

VA Secretary Bob McDonald in Los Angeles. (Photo: VA blog)

VA Secretary Bob McDonald in Los Angeles. (Photo: VA blog)

On January 28 Secretary Bob McDonald put his name to the draft master plan for the future of the West Los Angeles VA campus, a year after the agency won a settlement in a class action lawsuit brought before the courts to reverse years of encroachment on the campus. In his remarks at a ceremony marking the signing, McDonald spoke about the accomplishments of those involved in crafting the plan, crediting the veterans who’d assisted along the way.

“We know this is a team sport,” McDonald said of the process.  “It has to be done collaboratively.”

The effort that gave McDonald confidence that the master plan he was signing incorporated enough input from local vets involved collaboration on a massive scale. Marine vet Mike Dowling, We Are The Mighty‘s director of outreach, and Anthony Allman of Vets Advocacy helped organize a number of veteran service organizations to get membership mobilized to create the focus of the draft master plan.

Under the guidance of Dowling and others, dozens of VSO reps met weekly after work for six months hammering out formal comments while carrying the message back to their membership to make sure the direction behind the plan was as comprehensive as possible.

Vets Advocacy, the organization formed to settle the litigation and implement the settlement agreement, created a website, www.vatherightway.org, as the primary tool to inform veterans and get their input. The site allowed veterans to learn the history of the campus and the associated encroachment issues, see the schedule of the 12 town hall events, and — most importantly — conduct a survey that asked veterans for their opinions about how the campus could better serve the veteran community. More than 1,000 vets commented and those recommendations were filed to the Federal Register, the official government record of the plan.

That result was no small feat. Veterans answered the call to see to their own well-being in the same way they might have tackled an objective during their time on active duty. It was hard work, and the vets were proud of the fact that they might actually make a difference and be part of the solution.

But during his speech McDonald also credited the leadership of UCLA for their part in making the campus better for veterans, which struck many of the veterans in attendance as odd.  The university was arguably the worst offender in terms of encroachment by virtue of the fact that Jackie Robinson Stadium — home to the Bruins’ baseball team — was illegally built on VA property. What those vets didn’t know at the time was that McDonald was about to sign a document that outlined the terms of an “enhanced use” land agreement that would allow UCLA to continue to use the stadium for another 10 years, at least.

Curiously, the VA remained mum while UCLA issued a press release that outlined several million dollars worth of veteran initiatives that the university intends to carry out in the years to come in return for keeping the stadium.

Some veterans who were active in the draft master planning process expressed concerns that history is in danger of repeating itself by allowing the VA to sign deals with third parties without oversight or veteran buy-in for reasons that have no bearing on the VA’s mission.

“It feels like the VA put the cart before the horse by agreeing to terms before the enabling legislation passes and before any vets saw the deal,” said Seth Smith, a UCLA alumnus and Navy vet. “That timing leaves a bad taste in vets’ mouths. It’s a step in the wrong direction in terms of regaining the Los Angeles community’s trust.”

Richard Valdez, a Marine veteran and chairman of the VSO coalition in Los Angeles, said concerns from vets like Smith are premature because the agreement between the VA and UCLA is not legally effective and requires passage of the Los Angeles Homeless Veterans Leasing Act, which is expected this spring.

“Veterans need to understand that what was just signed isn’t a contract,” Valdez said. “It’s merely an agreement in principle.”

That fact notwithstanding, vet advocates who put a lot of work into the draft master plan question the VA’s timing and wonder why they weren’t given a heads up that the signing of terms with UCLA was going to happen. But VA officials were unflinching when asked about the circumstances surrounding the arrangement.

“We do everything with veterans in mind,” said Vince Kane, the director of the VA’s National Homeless Center. “And we got a good deal for them.”

Veteran expectations about the magnitude of change on the campus may have also been shaped by the language in the federal court’s findings in the original lawsuit (Valentini v. McDonald), which stated that all of the enhanced use land agreements on the VA campus were illegal. That may have led veterans to believe that the agreements would be terminated indefinitely (and even that the stadium might be demolished) in favor of more pressing priorities. After all, where does a Division I baseball stadium fit among the needs of homeless veterans and patients?

Valdez thinks that those who thought that would happen were naive. “Enhanced use leases are a fact of life, and that’s not going to change,” Valdez said. “If we have an issue within that reality, that’s where the vet community needs to focus.”

Dr. Jon Sherin, a physician who ran mental health services for the West Los Angeles VA hospital and serves as a senior member of the Vets Advocacy team, recommended that veterans remain vigilant and not grow cynical. “The work isn’t over,” he said.

“The master plan itself is a monumental achievement on behalf of the vet community,” Dowling said.  “No matter what happens, vets in LA set an example for communities across the nation in coming together to take our future in our own hands.”

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