INGLEWOOD, Calif. — James T. Butts Jr., the mayor of this city, has basked in triumph but expressed displeasure as an historic moment approaches.
Long dogged by high crime, high unemployment and gang violence, Inglewood now is the home of SoFi Stadium, a majestic building set to open Sunday night when the Los Angeles Rams play the Dallas Cowboys.
It would not be happening without Stan Kroenke, owner of the Los Angeles Rams. Or without Roger Goodell, commissioner of the NFL. And certainly not without Butts, whose tactics in making the 70,000-seat stadium a reality and his general style have been routinely described as controversial.
“The only thing that’s controversial about me is that I get (expletive) done,’’ Butts told USA TODAY Sports.
In addition to attracting the Rams, the Los Angeles Chargers and facilitating construction of the stadium and entertainment complex, Inglewood – which sits about three miles northwest of the Los Angeles International Airport and has approximately 110,000 residents – also has secured a deal for the Los Angeles Clippers to relocate here.
Inglewood Mayor James T. Butts, far right, joins Chargers owner Dean Spanos, far left, and Rams owner Stan Kroenke for a ribbon-cutting ceremony at SoFi Stadium this week. (Photo: Rich Fury, Getty Images for Hollywood Park)
“This little nine-square mile city, 95% Black and brown has done all this stuff,’’ Butts said. “And what do we talk about? We talk about the things that make me controversial."
Since setting out to bring the NFL to Inglewood and erecting a new stadium, Butts has been sued for misrepresenting the city’s financial health, investigated for alleged conflicts of interest, tied to a violation of the state’s disclosure laws, and accused of stalking and harassing his former executive assistant who also is his ex-girlfriend.
“There’s two things that men and women don’t give up without a fight and that’s money and power,’’ Butts said. “And I never had the illusion that we were going to be able to redirect the flow of billions of dollars of construction, economic development and prosperity into a nine-square mile city when it could be ceded elsewhere without a fight, both political, media wise and dirty-tricks wise."
There is no evidence the controversy has alienated Butts from the NFL.
On the contrary, during a ribbon-cutting Tuesday at SoFi Stadium, Butts stood alongside Kroenke and Chargers owner Dean Spanos. After Kroenke cut a white ribbon with an oversized pair of scissors, Butts traded elbow taps with the two NFL owners.
Goodell, delivering prepared remarks by video, cited “the partnership of Mayor Butts and the Inglewood City Council’’ in the NFL’s plans to leave a lasting, positive impact on this city.
The Rams, Chargers and NFL did not respond to requests for comment about controversies that have dogged Butts.
"This man has consistently and repeatedly done things that have been corrupt and yet somehow these major developers of sports teams continue to do business with him," said D'Artagnan Scorza, president of the Inglewood Unified School District, “because ultimately it gets them what they want, right?"
'There are idiots in every race'
With private funds, Kroenke built SoFi Stadium as the centerpiece of a 300-acre development that is 2½ times the size of Disneyland and expected to cost about $5 billion. An artificial lake shimmers on the south end of the stadium and a 6,000-seat performing arts theater and a 200,000-square-foot building to house employees of the NFL Network are nearly finished.
The plan also calls for a 300-room hotel, more than a million square feet for residential, commercial and retail space, four parks and, Butts said with a grin, “a partridge in a pear tree." But much of the project remains under construction, which Butts said will take about five more years to complete.
During his speech at the ribbon cutting Tuesday, Kroenke recalled his trip to Inglewood’s city hall in August 2013 for his first meeting with Butts about the possibility of building a stadium and moving the Rams from St. Louis to Inglewood.
“He just said very simply, ‘What do you need?’ ” Kroenke said. “And he’s supported us steadfastly ever since."
During his own speech Tuesday, Butts recounted how 22,000 signatures from Inglewood residents were collected in 2015 for an initiative allowing for the construction of a football stadium. Rather than put the measure on the ballot and up for vote, Butts explained, the five-person City Council led by Butts unanimously voted the initiative into law and avoided the risk of voters rejecting the initiative.
“… so we owe a great debt of gratitude to them,’’ Kroenke said.
Butts did not mention that the City Council had taken advantage of a loophole in state election law to avoid a vote by the people. But in an interview with USA TODAY Sports, he said, “We avoided the circus of an election where the opponents downtown and others places that would want to stop this multi-billion-dollar development from being born here in Inglewood and just kill it."
Despite positive publicity generated by the sleek, new stadium – which is scheduled to host Super Bowl LVI in 2022, College Football Playoff National Championship in 2023 and the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2028 Summer Olympics – the mayor’s alleged misdeeds have continued to create unwanted attention and news media coverage.
“If I were white, I’ll tell you this right now, they’d be doing so many stories about the Inglewood miracle,’’ Butts said.
When USA TODAY Sports pointed out that Scorza, one of Butts’ most vocal critics, is Black, the mayor chuckled.
“There are idiots in every race, too,’’ he said.
Scorza, 40, said he grew up in Inglewood and experienced homelessness before getting accepted into UCLA. He said he earned a Ph.D. in education and is executive director and founder of the Social Justice Learning Institute, which is dedicated to improving the education, health and well-being of minority youths.
James T. Butts was elected major of Inglewood, California in January 2011. (Photo: Robert Hanashiro, USA TODAY Sports)
Scorza is also a spokesperson for Uplift Inglewood Coalition, a group that has pressed Butts to ensure Inglewood residents benefit from the stadium.
The mayor has shown similar disdain for other critics, such Diane Sambrano, a longtime Inglewood resident and activist. On June 12, after adjourning a City Council meeting, Butts, whose microphone still was on, could be heard saying, “Go choke yourself, Diane."
During the meeting, Sambrano had criticized the City Council for granting the Clippers use of public land to hold a press conference.
"That lady irritates me,'' Butts told USA TODAY Sports. "But I don't recall saying it. If I did say it and it was caught on microphone, boy, I'm sorry. It teaches you a lesson about hot mics."
In 2015, the city filed a federal lawsuit against Joseph Teixiera, an Inglewood resident and activist, for his using video clips of City Council meetings in YouTube videos critical of Butts. The city argued Teixeira had violated copyright law.
A federal judge tossed out the case, harshly criticized the city officials for the apparent attempt to restrict Teixeira’s political speech and ordered the city to pay more than $117,000 for Teixeira legal fees.
“We were advised by an attorney that (Teixeira) couldn't do what he as doing with our council broadcast,'' Butts said. "If we hadn't had the advice of an attorney, we wouldn't have done it.''
Other issues involving Butts that have drawn attention from critics:
►In 2016, Butts and Inglewood were hit by a whistle-blower lawsuit claiming the mayor and other city officials had illegally distorted the city's financial picture in attempt to attract an NFL team. The suit was filed by Barbara Ohno, the city's former budget manager who worked for the city from August 2014 to September 2015, and was settled out of court.
Butts noted the city fired Ohno before the suit, which alleged her firing stemmed from informing state and federal authorities about the alleged fraud. Butts said the settlement was for less than $50,000, an amount he said the city considers "nuisance money."
► The Los Angeles County District Attorney and the FBI investigated a $100-million waste-collecting contract that was awarded in 2012 to a Consolidated Disposal Services, which subsequently gave Butts' brother, Michael, a $72,000-a-year job. The mayor was not charged with wrongdoing. A bankruptcy petition that was filed by Michael Butts in 2013 but did not surface publicly until 2018 showed Michael Butts was paying rent to the mayor at the same time he was working for Consolidated Disposal Services.
Butts said his brother was working for Consolidated Disposal Services before Inglewood awarded the contract. Butts said he abstained from the vote even though he wasn't required to and no law prevents his his brother from working for a company that has a contract with Inglewood.
“Am I the only person in the world whose brother couldn't work?" Butts said.
► The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office concluded in 2019 that the city of Inglewood violated state disclosure law during negotiations with the Clippers to build an arena. The DA's office cited the appearance of a “concerted effort’’ to limit information released to the city.No action was taken because the complaint was received two years after the violation of a law that has a 90-day statute of limitations for alleged violations.
Butts disputed the DA office's letter detailing its conclusion. He said the city twice cured the matter before a complaint was filed, and he questioned why the DA office even pursued the matter so long after the statue of limitations had passed.
"This was a hatchet job,'' he said.
► Melanie McDade-Dickens said she was making about $260,000 a year when she was fired in 2019. She alleges in a claim the termination was the result of her ending a romantic relationship with the mayor, and is seeking $12 million for wrongful termination.
Butts said McDade-Dickens was fired for "acts of misconduct where I was not a witness to any the acts. and it had nothing to do with a personal relationship.''
The city has denied the claim and McDade-Dickens has until the end of the year to file suit, according to Butts.
“Look, I wish her the best,’’ he said. “It’s really tough to lose not only a good job, but a position where you were sitting here having the ability to witness history.’’
'What is controversial about me?'
The mayor uttered those words last while wearing a Rams jacket at SoFi Stadium. During a stroll around the building, he gazed at the playing field, gleaming artificial turf with crisp, white numbers marking the yard lines.
“It doesn’t even look real,’’ he said. “It looks like a video game.’’
He marveled at the Oculus, a double-sided, scoreboard hung from the center of the building.
“The pride and joy of this structure,’’ Butts said. “It’s a 2 million-pound display board and it will provide you with views of the action on the field from any angle where you sit from, any seat that you sit in.’’
Hollywood Park racetrack opened in 1938, closed in 2013 and was torn down several years later to make way for SoFi Stadium and an entertainment complex. (Photo: Robert Hanashiro, USA TODAY Sports)
SoFi Stadium, the new multi-billion dollar facility in Inglewood, California, is scheduled to open Sunday with the Los Angeles Rams playing host to the Dallas Cowboys. (Photo: Marcio Jose Sanchez, AP)
He noted the breeze blowing through the open sides of the stadium bowl.
“It's hot outside but you have ocean breezes in here,’’ he said. “Inglewood has one of the most desirable microclimates in the country.’’
There was far less desirable about Inglewood in 2011, when Butts, running for political office for the first time, won the mayoral election. He moved into his ninth-floor office at city hall a year after it was vacated by Roosevelt Dorn, the scandal-plagued mayor who stepped down a day after he plead guilty to a misdemeanor conflict-of-interest charge.
“You see, you got a city that was seven months away from capital bankruptcy, not going to make payroll in 2011,’’ Butts said. “An $18 million structural deficit. Murders up the (expletive).’’
With things looking grim, the voters chose a candidate with an MBA from California State Polytechnic University at Pomona and street cred. In 1972, Butts joined the police force in Inglewood and his law enforcement career spanned more than two decades.
“Had my rear windshield blown out,’’ Butts said. “I had my headlight blown out in another one. I was on a SWAT operation and someone shot at the car I was secreted behind and the bullet went through the trunk and dimpled the fender right in front of my face.
“So, yeah, I’ve been shot at."
In 1991, he became the first Black chief of police in Santa Monica and kept the job until 2006. He spent five years working in a public safety position with Los Angeles World Airports before deciding to run for mayor.
Now in his third term and entertaining the thought of another decade as mayor, Butts clearly enjoys the job and just as clearly detests "the losers,'' “the haters’’ and the idea he is controversial.
“What is controversial about me?’’ he said. “That I say that I’m going to do things and then I do them?
“My father left the South, left his entire family so that his children wouldn’t be raised in the South and have their ability to achieve limited. And I respect my father’s sacrifice to leave his large family and be out here where he knew no one. I respect that, and I have his name. But this is what people do to me. No one can ever say, 'Oh, you know, he doesn’t get (expletive) done.' "
On the list of big things to get done: find funding for a $2 billion “people mover,” a monorail-like system that will transport people from an Inglewood metro station to the Forum, SoFi Stadium and the proposed Clippers arena.
Butts said the city has found $350 million grants and that he intends for the project to be paid for without imposing a new tax on Inglewood residents.
“Getting three professional sports teams to commit in 2½ years is impossible,’’ Butts said. “Everything else is merely difficult."
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