HERE’S WHAT I KNOW--When Starbucks introduced this year’s minimalist holiday cup, Arizona evangelist Josh Feuerstein charged Starbucks with “removing Christmas from the cups because they hate Jesus.” His criticisms created some buzz on social media and Donald Trump even suggested a boycott. 

Can the meaning of Christmas be found in the icons represented on Starbucks cups of the past? Since Starbucks introduced the holiday tradition, images have included cartoon carolers and skaters, reindeer-like animals, pine trees, and ornaments, none of which have a particularly religious theme. 

Religious leaders and authors have been discussing the meaning of Christmas for centuries. Charles Dickens, described by London’s Sunday Telegraph (December 18, 1988) as “The Man Who Invented Christmas” certainly had his own ideas about the holiday. 

Certainly, A Christmas Carol has become a mainstay of the holiday. At the time Dickens was writing the novella, the British were examining traditions of the past along with new traditions like Christmas cards, trees, and the newfound popularity of caroling. 

Dickens’ idea to write the holiday classic had more to do with his dismay about the effects of the Industrial Revolution on the plight of poor children than on holiday traditions, per se. When Dickens was just 12, his father had been imprisoned, forcing the young Dickens to move to nearby lodgings. He sold his books and stopped attending school so he could work in a factory. 

As a reporter, Dickens visited Cornish tin mines that were employing child labor around the same time the Parliament had prepared a report on the effects of the Industrial Revolution on impoverished children. Dickens tossed aside his idea of writing a political pamphlet in favor of penning a Christmas novella that had the potential to reach a much wider readership to address the concerns of poverty and social injustice. 

Dickens’ estimation was on target. Long past his death, he continues to touch readers with his tale of Ebenezer Scrooge visited by the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley, as well as the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come. The ghosts all point out to Scrooge that the meaning of Christmas can be found in “goodwill and cheer.” 

To Dickens, Christmas was a time for families “bound together all our home…enjoyments, affections, and hopes.” In the broader sense, he was warning about the love of money over family and people. Scrooge, through his ways, was left lonely and unhappy until he was brought into the family of Tiny Tim, his employee’s son, where he learned that helping others was a path to improve his own life. 

What is the meaning of Christmas?  Most of us, whether we celebrate in the religious sense or not, have some memories and traditions, whether that means listening to Christmas music, watching “Charlie Brown’s Christmas,” baking special cookies, or exchanging gifts with colleagues and friends. 

Yes, Christmas does celebrate the birth of Jesus for those who practice Christianity. A red cup, with or without iconic Christmas images, can be interpreted however you would like. As a Jew, I have always cherished that Christmas seems to bring out a sense of community and a chance to reflect at the year’s end. 

No matter what Christmas means to us individually, we can hopefully take a cue from Dickens to remember the true gift is of ourselves, not in scoring a Hoverboard scooter or iPhone 6S. Perhaps Christmas can bring the chance to decide how we will help others, whether in our personal lives or a more global sense.

 

-CW 

 

GELFAND’S WORLD--This being the antepenultimate column of 2015 for me, it seems appropriate to tell the story of a friend of mine who had to deal with corporate America. But this wasn't the usual corporate screw job by a credit card company or by a cell phone company. This was a combination screw job by both a credit card company and a cell phone company together, in one and the same incident. 

There are two reasons to tell this story in these, the final weeks of the year. First, it is illustrative of what our society is becoming, what with the big corporations turning us all into unpaid clerks, and customer service becoming customer disservice. The other reason is that I get to use the word antepenultimate in a published piece. You don't get to do that very often, much less twice in the same place. 

So here is Rod's story. 

He got a credit card statement a few days ago. There was a charge for $118 for his Sprint cell phone service. Only one problem -- he doesn't use Sprint. The charge was completely bogus. 

It wasn't even identity theft. He didn't have dozens of other charges for expensive luggage or diamond rings. It was just this one charge. So Rod did what any normal American would do. He called the number on the back of his credit card and explained. He told them that he doesn't have an account with Sprint. Therefore, they shouldn't be charging him for Sprint service. 

"You'll have to call Sprint" he was told. He again explained that he doesn't have an account with Sprint, but he was politely told to bug off. Apparently, this was the best that the voice on the other end of the line could do for him. So he called Sprint. 

"You need to talk to your credit card company." It seemed that Sprint did not have any record of his account, which isn't terribly surprising since he doesn't have an account with Sprint. Apparently, the Sprint clerk didn't have an icon on his computer screen labeled non-customers who don't have accounts with us but just got billed $118 anyway, and now they're mad

Rod politely explained that the credit card company had just given him the exact same advice except in reverse. This attempt was, as they say in the novellas, to no avail. 

There's a reason we call it the runaround. You end up running in a giant circle from one customer service desk to the other, and then back again, ad nauseum. The more common form of runaround is within the offices of a single corporation. You get sent from billing to customer relations to billing, and so on. But in this case, Rod was getting carommed between two separate corporations. 

I'm happy to report that in this holiday season, I have a happy ending to this story. Mind you, it took Rod another 3 hours of his life to achieve that level of happiness, but he did get there. Here's how. 

Rod is what I would call a particularly assertive sort of fellow. You may remember when books on assertiveness were all the rage. Many people bought them, but few seem to have absorbed the lessons. Rod didn't need to buy a book on assertiveness training. He seems to have been born with it. 

Rod simply gave up on the 800 number folks and found the number for the cell phone corporate headquarters. It's actually not all that hard to do. Corporate telephone numbers are not state secrets. Mind you, the clerk on the other end of the 800 number will usually refuse to give you the number of corporate. You will get some lame excuse that the poor clerk just doesn't have that number. Feel free to say that you don't believe him, but don't belabor the point. 

Just go online and look for the corporate website. Find a telephone number on it. You could try calling the public relations number, as they will always call back eventually. There's also a number called investor relations. I don't exactly know what they do, but it sounds like they would be the type to call back. Usually you can just call the corporate headquarters and ask to be connected to the office of the president. 

You won't get direct access to the CEO, but some nice person will answer, and you can explain your problem. That person will generally turf you to the person who can do you some good. So Rod got corporate, and explained that Sprint had billed his credit card number for service he doesn't have. 

Corporate figured out what was wrong. It's actually a little outrageous, if not exactly astonishing. Sprint, as in so many other companies, allows the customer to call in to pay a bill. But Sprint doesn't want to waste money paying clerks to take those payments. Instead, the computer on the other end of the line has voice recognition software. It asks you questions, and you give it answers. 

Sometimes the voice recognition software understands your reply correctly. 

In Rod's case, it did not. Somebody else called into Sprint's system, gave it a credit card number, and Sprint dutifully charged Rod for the service. Rod inferred from his conversation with Sprint that the voice recognition system had simply misunderstood somebody's speech. It happens from time to time. 

We can also imagine a different possibility, that this somebody was trying to pay a bill by using a credit card number that was not his own. But this sounds a little farfetched. Why engage in credit card fraud when you can simply avoid paying the bill? 

Whatever the glitch was, Rod had gotten billed that $118. And here is the crux of the matter. When Rod got charged that amount for something he never purchased, the burden should have been on the credit card company. Or at the very least, the dispute should have been between the credit card company and Sprint. The two giant corporations should have determined who owed what and to whom, rather than expecting Rod to fix their mistakes. 

The burden should never fall on Rod, since it was not his purchase. Yes, it is up to Rod to inform the credit card company that there has been an incorrect charge, but that should have been the end of it for him. The clerk at the credit card company should have been able to see that Rod did not have Sprint service at anytime up to this particular billing. and should have remedied Rod's problem on the spot. Then Sprint could have resolved its billing error as it saw fit, perhaps by contacting its actual customer. 

Because neither clerk could solve Rod's problem, or because they labored under rules that prevented solving Rod's problem, Rod was forced to go to the corporate offices at Sprint. 

By going to corporate, Rod got his credit card charge reversed immediately. His credit card company showed the reversal of the charge within the hour. All is right with the world, and Rod was only out the 3 hours of calling that it took him. 

Here's the take-home lesson: Give that guy on the other end of the 800 number his one chance to fix your problem, but don't accept getting the runaround. Escalate the problem sooner rather than later, and thereby get hold of somebody who has the authority to fix your problem. One reminder -- if you are connected to the 800 number and getting the usual runaround, asking for the supervisor usually isn't the effective form of escalation. Even if you get a supervisor, whatever that might be, you are still dealing with somebody who doesn't have the authority to fix your problem. 

A very short story 

Here's another example: One woman I heard from was trying to sign up for health insurance using the Covered California system. The insurance company mistakenly applied her December 2015 payment to January, 2016, and then told her that she didn't have insurance for December. A series of clerks on 2 or 3 continents promised her that the problem would be fixed in 5-7 days. Three weeks later, still no joy on the December insurance. A call to the office of the Insurance Commissioner of California sped things up remarkably. 

The overall strategy

Mind you, I am not suggesting going right to the top every time you have a corporate version of the sniffles. Some things really are just the sniffles, and not pneumonia. But when the clerks don't deliver, it's time to go to corporate. 

Notice that we, the consumers, didn't create the system where we have to be so demanding. But in this modern era, corporations save money by getting rid of the local staff, and then you are supposed to try to fix your problems by calling that 800 number. What you get are boiler room staff who are reading off of a prepared script. When I run into that, I say, "Excuse me, but could you please stop reading the script for a moment so I can explain the problem." Once in a while it works. 

One last story 

It was a while back, probably a couple of decades, but I still remember how a corporate screw job turned into a source of humor. 

One day, I got a letter in the mail from a new toll road authority down in Orange County. I was vaguely aware that Orange County had OK'd a toll road running parallel to the 5, but that was about all I knew. Nevertheless, this letter said that I had been driving on their toll road without paying, and now I was being assessed the fee and a fine. 

This was all a little strange, because I could state with certainty that I had not been anywhere near Orange County on the day of the alleged violation. I had not even been into Orange County within several weeks of that day, either before or after. 

But this toll road authority letter explained that they had a photograph of my car on their road. They had some automated system that took photos of cars that didn't use their system of payment, whatever it was at the time. 

That story about the photo was peculiar in the same way as Rod's more recent story. In each case, corporations expected us to jump through their hoops. I called the company and asked them to send me a copy of the photo. After all, if I am being charged with something, I have a right to see the evidence. The person on the other end of the line seemed a little surprised, but promised to get back to me. 

A day later, I got a return phone call. The toll road representative sheepishly explained to me that the license plate in the photo had been read incorrectly. My citation would be erased. 

I remained a little dissatisfied, because in my experience, what some clerk promises over the phone doesn't always come to fruition. Suppose some other office in the toll road authority didn't get the memo, and sent me another dunning letter? So I asked that they send me a copy of the photo for my files, so that I would be able to demonstrate by actual evidence that my car was not on their road at that time. 

You can probably guess what the answer was. They refused to send me a copy of the photo. They claimed that this would violate the privacy of the driver of the other car. That was an inadequate answer, to say the least. The photo was a necessary part of my defense if I ever needed to defend myself. You might even call the toll road's argument stupid. But I never did get that picture for my files. 

Dealing with this new digital age 

There are all sorts of issues with regard to this digital era and the control it has over us. Rod's run-in with the credit card company and the cellular phone system is illustrative. The phone company couldn't be bothered to put adequate safeguards in place to protect the integrity of its billing system. The credit card company left it to Rod to fix the mess, even though the credit card company could have done a simple charge-back to Sprint and left it to Sprint to sort things out. 

A new threat to our privacy 

The following is a bit of a change of subject, but bear with me. There's one more device that will potentially be a new threat to our privacy. It's the drone. If you haven't seen one up close, come down to the harbor, where we see them almost every day. Drones can be barely the size of your hand, or they can be a little bigger. You can buy them in a drone store (I didn't make this up) or from Best Buy. And the drones have look-down capabilities that give the creep on the next block the same sort of ability to violate your privacy that we once attributed to the NSA. 

By coincidence, drones are not only dangers to our privacy, they are dangers to civil aviation and the aircraft that fight brush fires. For this reason, the FAA is now about to adopt a rule that drones need to be registered. There will also be an age requirement for such registration. I don't think that this will solve the privacy issue, but it's a start. 

(Bob Gelfand writes on culture and politics for City Watch. He can be reached at amrep535@sbcglobal.net. Note: Rod is the pseudonym for a real person.)

-cw

 

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 13 Issue 102

Pub: Dec 18, 2015

RECYCLING DEBATE-You have to hand it to libertarian writer John Tierney. He doesn’t give up easily. His long-winded 1996 article, “Recycling Is Garbage,” allegedly smashed the New York Times Magazine’s hate-mail record. It covered the same ground as his recent New York Times op-ed, “The Reign of Recycling,” stating: “Recycling may be the most wasteful activity in modern America: a waste of time and money, a waste of human and natural resources.” 

Is recycling really “the most wasteful activity in modern America?” That’s quite a charge. (What about all that Kardashian coverage?) But it may be true that it would be cheaper to put all our waste in a hole someplace and forget about it. Assuming, as Tierney does, that there are enough conveniently located holes. It would be even cheaper to use the medieval method of tossing it in the street. 

But that’s not the way most people think these days. The consensus is that there are limits, both on the amount of land you can dump in, and the amount of materials you can waste. 

In any case, no one seems to have listened to Tierney. 

Recycling has come a long way. Particularly in the city of Los Angeles. In his recent op-ed, Tierney pessimistically states that recycling “is stuck [at] around 34 percent’’ of America’s trash without sourcing his figure. He quotes a former Environmental Protection Agency official who says going beyond that is impractical. 

You wonder when the official said that. 

According the State of California, the City of LA has achieved a landfill diversion rate of 76.4 percent – the highest of any of the nation’s 10 largest cities, and higher than the statewide 75 percent urban goal set for 2020. And it’s not just Los Angeles City. California’s sanitation officials portray recycling as a state success story, with most of its communities recycling 50 percent of the waste that used to go into landfills — with many recycling as much as 65 percent. According to County Sanitation Districts’ official Nick Morell, an onslaught of new technologies has made it easier to recycle food and other difficult wastes. 

“We’re really mining the waste stream,” he told Capital & Main. To encourage recycling, the state is raising landfill dumping fees from around a dollar to $4 a ton. (Tierney also seems to favor an even higher “landfill tax.”) “We like the carrot and stick approach,” Morell added. Now that more manufacturers are actually making their products easier to recycle (even a new BMW is designed to be recycled after a few hundred thousand miles) and recycling techniques advance, fewer materials end up in landfills. According to Morell, this has helped L.A. County avoid a landfill shortage. 

Tierney seems to allow that only recycling paper and metal can be cost-effective, but he notes that demand for such materials is highly variable. He also accuses “politicians” of pushing the recycling of yucky materials like food wastes, which he claims are cheaper to landfill than to compost. 

But composting isn’t the last word here. After April 1, many if not most California businesses, including state agencies, will have to recycle their organic waste. Morell says in addition to composting, the county is introducing reactors that will ferment such waste to yield methane that can fuel electric generators, just as it does at some conventional landfills. Morell also cites wet food waste as a useful water source. Tierney, who writes a New York Times science column, seems ignorant of the fast-moving technology of recycling. Further, while alleging that recycling raw materials costs jobs, he ignores the tens of thousands of new jobs emerging in the recycling industry. 

Meanwhile, as Morell notes, recycling is now so well-established that even landfill operators do it themselves to make some extra money and save precious landfill space. That Tierney doesn’t believe such land is precious is something we shall deal with momentarily. 

There is obviously room for improvement and there’s no doubt that, in particular, recyclable exports have suffered as importing nations have demanded higher quality products and scrap metal prices have sagged. Yet there’s lots of evidence that recycling just keeps moving ahead, even if it has lately hit a speed bump, with California officials stating that goals of 90 percent recycling are now in reach.

Tierney could not agree less. He maintains that “to public officials, recycling is a question of morality, not cost-benefit analysis.” 

While to its enthusiasts, he claims, it’s a middle-class religion. He notes that, due to falling oil prices, recycling household waste is much less profitable. No one wants food composting next door, he also claims, citing a case in Delaware. He believes: “[C]ities have been burying garbage for thousands of years and it’s still the easiest and cheapest solution for trash.” He seems personally affronted that, as a 2013 survey found, “82 percent of Americans feel a sense of pride when they recycle.” 

Environmentalists argue that there’s a good reason for this. 

In their online rebuttal to Tierney, enviros Richard Fuller and Magdalene Sims note that if you bury all the trash, you are burying paper and metals – materials that Tierney agrees produce “more than 90 percent’’ of all the greenhouse benefits of recycling. They claim that most experts agree that $40 a barrel oil prices are certain to soar. And they add: “Today, there are many more people on the earth generating an exponentially greater amount of garbage, including a lot more toxic trash than ever before. Simply putting all that into the ground is not a forward-looking solution.” 

Tierney’s big stumbling block is his blind insistence that landfills are better than recycling. He provides no data for this, adding an unsubstantiated assertion that “[T]hey have been welcomed in rural communities that reap large economic benefits.” He also makes a rather weird generalization about landfill availability. In his 1996 article, he “found that all the trash generated by Americans for the next 1,000 years would fit on one-tenth of one percent of the land available for grazing.’’ According to Department of Agriculture figures, that boils down to about 58,000 acres. Ted Turner has ranches far larger than that. 

But this is grazing land that tends to be located hundreds, or even thousands of miles from the large waste-producing cities. So even if the city fathers of Yankton, S.D. agreed to accept urban waste from Seattle 1,500 miles away, it would not pencil out. Assuming Yankton wanted it. I would not assume that. Even counties abutting LA County are restricting LA dumping. 

They are not alone. Maybe it’s my luck, but in nearly 40 years of municipal reporting in small and large communities in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and California, I never heard of any place that “welcomed” landfills. In every community that had one, the key conversation was how to get rid of it or prevent its expansion. These landfill communities’ leaders had been told, as Tierney states, that there was enough greenery around to “buffer residents from the sights and smells.” 

The reality was usually a countryside permeated by the reek of unsorted raw garbage arriving in an unending stream of dripping, two-lane-blacktop-busting, diesel-belching, five-ton trucks. What’s more, in the 19 years since Tierney first made his case, much of the “rural” landscape located a drivable distance from refuse-exuding cities like New York and Los Angeles has become densely developed. 

So now you have to sell landfills to the affluent, property-value-obsessed burghers of places like Diamond Bar or Morristown, N.J. Or even the not-so-affluent people of Kern County, who have already filed suits against Los Angeles’ waste dumping. LA County’s landfill alternative is a tract purchased back in 2000 that is 200 miles away and which would cost twice as much to use as the facilities it would replace. 

Jackie Cornejo, who guides the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy’s Don’t Waste LA project, which has resulted in laws repurposing the city’s waste flow, explains the landfill health problems untouched by Tierney. (Disclosure: LAANE is a sponsor of Capital & Main.) 

“Pollution from landfills and diesel-powered collection vehicles harms public health, increasing hospitalization and leading to missed school and work,” she said. “[It] increases rates of cancer, heart and respiratory diseases, and contributes to premature death.’’ 

There’s an even more important issue. Landfill gases from organic wastes include methane, much of which escapes to boost global warming far more than do equivalent amounts of carbon dioxide. As Mariel Vilella, Zero Waste Europe’s associate director, recently stated: 

“For far too long the climate impact of waste management has been overlooked. Now it’s clear that waste prevention, reuse and recycling are climate change solutions that need to be fully integrated into a low carbon economy.” 

Tierney’s thesis reflects the classic right-wing credo that natural resources, whether they are the materials in plastic bottles or the land in which to dump them, are infinite. But as our current pope put it, “[T]he lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods…leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit.” 

If that’s religious thinking, so be it.

 

(Marc Haefele is a commentator on KPCC’s Off Ramp program and has written for the New York Times and Los Angeles Times. This first appeared at CapitalandMain.com.)  Photos: Britta Gustafson (top) and Ashley Felton (lower.)  Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

-cw                

  

CityWatch

Vol 13 Issue 101

Pub: Dec 15, 2015

 

MY TURN--When Councilman Felipe Fuentes (District 7) evicted tenants in the North Valley City Hall, he included a police substation as well as the Sunland Tujunga Neighborhood Council in his purge.  Even though a hue and cry was raised by his constituents and this writer; we were told that he had every right to do that.  Apparently, who occupies city property is under the purview of the Councilmember in that district. 

It opened a Pandora's Box.  There are 96 Neighborhood Councils (NC's) in the City of Los Angeles.  They receive a budget of $37,500 annually.  This must cover their events, flyers and administration.  Some pay half their funds in administrative costs ... others don't have an office and parcel out administrative duties and records to their Board of Directors.  In keeping with the LA Charter, NC's are supposed to be independent of City government, even though they are a city agency.  There is no template on how they are to spend their budget allocation.  

The question was raised by the Los Angeles Alliance of Neighborhood Councils (LAANC): if the NC's were part of the City why couldn't they utilize the vacant space owned by the City and also receive a dollar a year lease as some of the other non-agency organizations were paying.  This way their budget would be better spent on their stakeholders. 

Sounds simple, no?  Board of Neighborhood Commissioners ( BONC) member Lydia Grant brought it before her Commission and it was approved to send to the City Attorney for the correct legalese.  It is supposed to have the legal approval next week.  Then the Rules, Neighborhood Committee can act on it or send it directly to the City Council. 

In doing some research on this situation I discovered that the NC Budget Advocates had been requesting a list of LA City owned real estate and vacant land for at least four years.  After all, it is considered assets and they were charged with advising on the Mayor's annual budget.  At the last Budget Advocates meeting, Matt Szabo from the Mayor's office told the assembled group that such a list did NOT exist and that it would take approximately a year to put one together. 

I found this hard to believe.  I would assume that these assets would amount to millions if not billions of dollars.  In the last couple of weeks the City Council passed a resolution ordering the Banks owning what are called nuisance vacant foreclosures to release them. The City would fix them up and take the cost out of the proceeds when they get sold. 

So if the City Council is giving the Banks these instructions ... how about knowing what real estate inventory is in the City portfolio? 

When it comes to City money I go to our financial guru Controller Ron Galperin.  Not only is he one of the most knowledgeable when it comes to City finances but also the most transparent.  Turns out he shares my frustration and bewilderment.  The Controller's office oversees money going out ... they don't have jurisdiction on the money coming in like rents, property sales etc. 

According to Controller Galperin, "The Controller's Office has been working very hard to compile a list of City-owned properties.  Unfortunately, because the lists we've been provided  by General Services Department (GSD) are inaccurate and/or outdated and/or incomplete, we've often had to go to other resources to build our database. 

For example, we have sought property records from the County Assessor's office. Unfortunately, the Assessor's information doesn't tell us the whole story.  For instance some property listed as belonging to the City might belong to the DWP. 

Nevertheless, we are determined to build this list--and to publish it on our open data site. What's more, we are determined to build a detailed list that tells us which City agency owns the property and how it is being utilized. These properties belong to the City of Los Angeles and the people who live here. All Angelenos have every right to know what properties their City owns and how they are being used. 

I went to GSD looking for some answers.  Asset Management comes under their jurisdiction, along with a bunch of other categories.  I found their website to be somewhat of a fairy tale or to be kind...wishful thinking.  The following is what they profess to do.

 

MISSION STATEMENT 

 The Real Estate Division's mission is to ensure optimal use of all Council-controlled City owned vacant and improved properties and maximize the value of each of these assets. The City relies heavily on the expertise of Real Estate Division in the following areas:  acquisitions, appraisals, sales, relocations, leasing, title research, negotiations, property management, energy conservation, and Real Estate Division is committed to providing exemplary services to its customers. 

ACCURACY: Every Real Estate Division employee will be committed to maintaining and developing accurate information on its real estate portfolio. 

TEAMWORK: Real Estate Division is committed to collaboratively working together within division and other City departments. Since all of our work is so intricately woven together, it is imperative that we are all collegial and cooperative in the performance of City work. 

It continues to describe its work 

The City of Los Angeles owns and leases real property worth billions of dollars used for diverse public purposes such as office buildings, police stations, fire stations, libraries, public parks, open space, roads and maintenance facilities. Asset Management division negotiates the purchase or lease properties for the City, and annually reviews the capitalization of owned and leased properties to identify refinancing or lease renegotiation opportunities. Also, develops and operates projects jointly with other governments and the private sector to accomplish the real estate needs of the City. 

It sure sounds good.  Terry Gomes, Budget Advocate Co-Chair and LANNC president, had issued a Public Records Act (PRA) request more than a year ago for the list touted in their Mission Statement.  These requests are supposed to be answered in 60 days.  Follow up has not produced anything! 

Mayor Eric Garcetti prides himself on his administration being at the vanguard of technology and transparency.  I sent requests for information to the two people in the Mayor's office who were aware of this situation and Deputy Mayor Barbara Romero.  I also sent a few questions to GSD General Manager Tony Royster.   Surprise ... Surprise. Not one response.  Obviously, having this exposed to our hundreds of thousands of influential readers is not important. 

WE are facing a homeless crisis.   Some of the open land owned by the City would be viable for people who live in their cars or recreational vehicles, to have a place to park aside from the street.  Some of the vacant public facilities could house many of the homeless since the allocation of monies set aside by the City Council isn't sufficient to take care of our needs. 

Not knowing, and if there is such a list not distributing it to other City agencies, is disgraceful! The Mayor just completed his annual review of his General Managers.  I'd love to see the report on GSD. 

I will close with one last quote from the GSD website 

Real Estate Division will be the City's resident expert for all real estate issues. Real Estate Division will implement the highest level of customer service and efficiency and is committed to providing detailed review and analysis of existing facilities and sites. Real Estate Division will also be the leader, in providing real estate advice to the Mayor, City Council, City departments and the general public for city owned property. Finally, Real Estate Division will continue to maximize financial and programmatic needs of all city owned properties

And … a quote from my own personal ‘department of public opinion’: Balder Dash! 

As always comments welcome …

 

(Denyse Selesnick is a CityWatch columnist. She is a former publisher/journalist/international event organizer. Denyse can be reached at: Denyse@CityWatchLA.com)

-cw

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 13 Issue 102

Pub: Dec 18, 2015

DRUG POLITICS--Some folks are just so awful and scurrilous that jail is almost too good for them.  As with the bankers and investment companies that destroyed and burned up the life savings of many Americans since the turn of the century (a form of murder, from a financial point of view), pharmaceutical companies have allowed life-saving medicines (many that have been out for decades and are very inexpensive to make) to skyrocket in price ... 

... and one of the most scurrilous monsters of them all, one Martin Shkreli, just got arrested by federal agents in Manhattan. 

You remember this despicable individual, right?  Heck, even the name "Shkreli" denotes some troll-like connotation (it sounds like "Shrek", although that fictional character was honorable and self-sacrificing).   

Shkreli fit the bill of everything wrong with corporate and pharmaceutical America ... a boyish-looking and insensitive hedge fund manager who jacked up a life-saving medication for toxoplasmosis from $13.50 to $750 a pill. 

Apparently, Mr. Martin Shkreli illegally took stock from Retrophin, a biotechnology firm he started in 2011, and used it to pay off debts from unrelated business dealings.  He also engaged in complicated shell games and false consulting arrangements after his now-defunct hedge fund lost millions. 

While it's probably not fair to broad-brush every pharmaceutical company and player with this corrupt and spoiled brat, it is fair to state that pharmaceutical companies--in particular, generic companies--are jacking up prices of medications that should be dirt cheap because...well...they can. 

Over two years ago, I wrote the "Doxycycline Debacle" for CityWatch, and the complaints I have today are still entirely accurate: 

1) Pharmaceutical companies that make new products sometimes go astray in their pricing, but most of their profits go to the development and distribution of necessary and improved medications...yet generic companies charge brand-name prices for medications that should cost pennies.  Brand-name medications are often cheaper to get than generic medications, and their makers are by far more compassionate towards patients. 

2) Big-chain pharmacies play all sorts of games to arm-twist patients into generic medications that aren't always cost-effective, and might even have relationships with generic pharmaceutical companies than are anything but kosher.  If you want a pharmacist who is a patient advocate, then go to Costco...end of that discussion. 

Now one of the most problematic generic companies, Mylan Pharmaceuticals, which makes the excellent and decades-old doxycycline, and charges hundreds of dollars a month for patients who need it (for anything ranging from acne to resistant skin infections), has been caught up in a Department of Justice probe about its sales practices. 

No one reasonable expects these pharmaceutical companies to just give away their medications and lose money, but "profits" doesn't need to be synonymous with "plundering".   

Particularly when patients' health, and even their lives, depend on them. 

There's not a day that goes by when my patients don't complain about feeling victimized by their health care costs--and their drug costs are particularly part of the problem. 

So allow me the guilty pleasure of doing a holiday-season "happy dance" when one of the worst pharmaceutical players of all, one Mr. Martin Shkreli, gets a taste of his own medicine. 

And for anyone else trying to make profits--and I mean the obscene profits by which innocent people really get hurt--perhaps another profession than "pharmaceutical executive" is in order.

 

(Kenneth Alpern, M.D. is a dermatologist with offices and clinics serving patients from West Los Angeles to Temecula.  He is also a Westside Village Zone Director and Board member of the Mar Vista Community Council (MVCC), previously co-chaired its Planning and Outreach Committees, and currently is Co-Chair of its MVCC Transportation/Infrastructure Committee.  He is co-chair of the CD11Transportation Advisory Committee and chairs the nonprofit Transit Coalition, and can be reached at  Alpern@MarVista.org.   He also does regular commentary on the Mark Isler Radio Show on AM 870, and co-chairs the grassroots Friends of the Green Line at www.fogl.us. The views expressed in this article are solely those of Mr. Alpern.)

-cw

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 13 Issue 102

Pub: Dec 18, 2015

 

PENSION REFORM-A pair of potential ballot initiatives written to overhaul California’s public pensions could face a rough road, according to a new poll. 

The results from a Capital & Main-David Binder Research poll of 500 likely voters shows that if the election were held today, the numbers of those voting for the measures and those against them appear to be dead even. Those numbers are not what pension-reduction advocates had hoped for going into the 2016 election cycle. 

Drafted by former Democratic San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed and former Republican San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio, the so-called Voter Empowerment Initiative, and its sibling, the Government Pension Cap Act, received their official summary language (though not their official titles) from the state attorney general last week. Low numbers and lack of support among DeMaio’s fellow Republicans had already forced the pair to abandon a previous effort, the Voter Empowerment Act, last August. But the new polling data don’t hold the bulletproof voter support for either proposal that Reed has said he is counting on.  

The first measure, which would move new state and local employees from traditional defined benefit pensions into 401(k)-style retirement savings plans, tested at 42 percent in support and 42 percent opposed; its sibling measure, which would cap the amount of money government employers could pay for most new hires’ retirement benefits at no more than 11 percent of wages, or a maximum of 13 percent for public safety workers, found 40 percent support and 40 percent opposed. The poll, conducted between December 10-13, has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percent. 

Last week Reed told the Sacramento Bee that one of the measures would need to test at least at 60 percent to withstand the erosion expected in a heated campaign and to attract the roughly $2 million to $3 million needed for a three-month signature collection drive. After qualifying, the effort would need another $25 million to run a statewide campaign. 

“Generally an even split at this early stage does not bode well for an initiative,” said Floyd Feeney, a professor at the University of California Davis School of Law, in an email to Capital & Main. “Initiatives as a group tend to lose support as the battle progresses. This is a tendency, however, and not an ironclad rule. Money also counts.” Feeney has written two books on ballot initiatives and served as legal advisor to the Speaker’s Commission on the California Initiative Process in 2000-01. 

Veteran Republican political consultant Mike Madrid, of the Sacramento-based Grassroots Lab, said the pension-ballot poll’s dead-heat numbers aren’t impossible to surmount but will present daunting challenges for those seeking to reduce pensions. Especially in a 2016 election cycle that already includes a presidential race, a U.S. Senate seat up for grabs, and a ballot that could have as many as 20 other initiatives. 

“What you’ve got is this mushy middle that can be moved with money and argument in either direction,” he said. “People are going to be sick of campaign ads by about early October. When there’s that many political messages coming at you, the voters just tune out. Unless it’s something like legalizing marijuana, or ending the death penalty or porn actors having to wear condoms.” 

Opponents of the proposals, chiefly within organized labor, have expressed confidence that they would be able to erode support for the measures further if a campaign were to proceed. Last April political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, when asked about Reed and DeMaio’s Voter Empowerment Act, told Capital & Main, “There is an axiom in politics: It is the group whose rights are threatened that generally comes out to vote, no matter the group. And with unions, they do it every election. And they’ve got money and they’ve got organization.”

 

(Dan Braun works with unions, social justice groups and others engaged in creative change campaigns. He lives and drums in Echo Park, Los Angeles. Bill Raden is a Los Angeles writer. This was first posted at Capital & Main. Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

 -cw

 

CityWatch

Vol 13 Issue 102

Pub: Dec 18, 2015

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