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LA SKID ROW-The following is the type of “State of the Union Address” most Black folks would want to hear from the Black President of the United States of America in 2016 who happens to be termed-out and safe from any significant white retribution. 

“My fellow Americans…it is now 2016 and if there truly is a thing called “white privilege,” I can’t figure out why so many white people are struggling to live better than the rest of us. After all, they are the ones who conquered this country, set-up all the laws and rules, established civility and order and created Uncle Sam – ensuring that our military might has the best of all resources to make sure white people stay at the top of the food chain. 

Hundreds of years ago, whites enslaved Africans, brought them to this country and forced them into slavery. Today, Blacks remain at the bottom of the heap and still have not received reparations for the countless hours of free labor – work that allowed White Americans to pocket their savings and profits, thus creating “Financial White Privilege.” 

Today, those Africans are called “Black people” and while the Civil Rights Act exists, some might argue that the US Constitution still technically considers Blacks as 3/5 of a human.  

Whites have now encouraged other minorities, including Asians, Latinos and even certain “hand-picked” Blacks, to join them in looking down on the greater Black race, thus giving these supporters their own sense of “White privilege.” 

A lot of Black folks have a problem understanding is why are all these people are looking down at us when they themselves are struggling. 

Here in Skid Row, also known as “the homeless capitol of America,” the majority of the homeless and low-income population suffering from extreme poverty are African-Americans. On the other end of the spectrum, almost all of the Executive Directors and CEOs of the Skid Row non-profits are whites and non-Blacks. 

There is an obvious financial discrepancy between races and blatant the reasons why these differences extend into much deeper dimensions -- especially when one recalls the existence of a “Skid Row Containment Zone Policy” in the 1970’s…followed by the 1980’s crack cocaine epidemic…which combined to drive Blacks to Skid Row in droves.  

We watch as Black athletes paraded to the world in the Summer Olympics in a “Our Blacks are better than yours” fashion. But “White privilege” continuously reminds Blacks in Skid Row that either, “they don’t know what they’re doing and/or saying,” or “they need a caretaker to help them improve their lives.” The latter helps “create jobs” to take care of Blacks, ensuring the “privilege” of job security for the non-profits who still make it a habit to look down on Skid Row residents and their efforts to improve where they live. 

Consider the plight of Skid Row residents who are in the process of creating the Skid Row Neighborhood Council. Instead of encouraging them and doing everything to help them (which would resonate into their personal lives helping to boost the necessary confidence, motivating them to “do-for-self” and improve their lives,) there is a hateful undertone which breeds self-doubt. It’s a wonder these neighborhood activists have actually gotten this far. 

And it’s not even the upper 1% of life’s totem pole who’s invoking “White privilege” over Skid Row residents, it’s the “middle-of-the-packers” who are acting as gatekeepers. 

So let’s update this. Slaves were prevented from learning how to read or write, Negroes weren’t allowed to vote or ride in the front of the bus, African-Americans weren’t allowed to own property and now the Black residents in Skid Row cannot create a governing body to help all Skid Row residents, businesses and non-profits. Wow. 

So which is it … should we be productive citizens in society … or should we just waddle around and let “White privilege” do it all for us? 

If it’s the latter, why are so many “White privilegers” barely living, keeping their heads above water from paycheck to paycheck, and all the while giving themselves a false sense of achievement by looking down on Black Skid Row residents? 

In essence, Skid Row looks the way it does because of “White privilege.” Those people have all the jobs that matter, get all the funding and make all the decisions. And then, “White privilege” conveniently blames Blacks for not helping themselves out of their own plight. Hilarious -- but not funny. 

If this sounds ridiculous, just know that we’ve been listening to the same line of thought ever since our ancestors were dragged off the first slave ship named “Jesus” (seriously). 

And now, “White privilege” has the nerve to say that “Black Lives Matter.” Why? Because they get paid and benefit in so many ways from “Black suffering.” 

And to be clear, there is no honor in law enforcement killing unarmed Blacks. Feeling empowered through the killing of weak, vulnerable humans is the same as not feeding a bull for months, cutting off his horns and then pumping it full of bullets. This type of killing only exposes the fear and weakness of the shooters who need to clip a bird’s wings to feel dominant. “Brotha Africa” was murdered in Skid Row last year in a manner similar to this. 

Skid Row’s state of affairs is not good. And there’s no end in sight. 

May God bless you and may God bless Skid Row!

 

(General Jeff is a homelessness activist and leader in Downtown Los Angeles.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

-cw

 

 CityWatch

Vol 14 Issue 4

Pub: Jan 12, 2016

PERSPECTIVES-There is no debate that dealing with homelessness will cost big money.

For Los Angeles, either a bond measure or tax would be required, but a super-majority of voters would have to approve it.

According to Council Member Mike Bonin, as reported in the LA Times, “I think if we can show that we have an actual strategy, they’d be willing to invest in it.”  

That’s an understatement.

There would be plenty of sentiment in favor of providing shelter and services for the homeless in our city.  Arguably, it is the largest segment of its kind in the nation – and growing.  The problem is no longer confined to freeway underpasses and rundown industrial corridors. People are camping in city parks and near public buildings in full view of all.

Closer to my home, the vicinity of North Hollywood Park, near the Amelia Earhart Regional Library, has become a magnet for RVs and blue tarps. This was not the case, at least the current scale of habitation, not that many years ago.

But what strategy should be implemented?

Voters will not be in the mood to throw $2 billion at the crisis without safeguards guaranteeing the funds will be applied effectively, with the most bang for the bucks.

The most important objective is recognizing the limits of such a financial commitment.  Not everyone in the homeless population will benefit.  A strategy that attempts to address all segments will fail.

Just as emergency medical responders employ triaging in dealing with victims of a disaster, housing and other assistance will have to initially target those who can benefit the most; others will have to wait or acquiesce to scaled down support.

On the lowest rung of the homeless ladder are those who do not wish to leave the street life behind.  They include the mentally ill, substance abusers and just the hard core who want to be left alone. Unless laws are passed making forced institutionalization possible, some persons will always choose life on the sidewalks.  Even with institutionalization, we would need the facilities, not to mention the staff and medical services to operate them. $2 billion would barely make a dent. Sadly, this is not a practical option.

The priority must be to rescue the ones who can – and want to be helped.

They amount to a very diverse group, in various levels of need. A one-size-fits-all solution will not work.

Traditional affordable or subsidized apartments are not for everyone.  Only those who are responsible enough to care for their accommodations should be eligible to occupy them.

Dormitories could be an option for those who will need acclimation to a structured life.  Supervision, security, education and medical services will be essential.  Underutilized city or county properties might be good choices for constructing dorms or repurposing existing facilities.

Lastly, we could consider tried-and-true campgrounds as short-term solutions.  The National Guard could design and construct camps. If we can house military personnel in tent cities in war zones, we can certainly create livable encampments in the greater metropolitan area.

The more realistic a plan the city can offer, the more likely the voters will support it.

The city must also consider offsetting the cost to some degree.  The most sizable piece of the general fund is compensation.  Retirement benefits have grown from 2% of the general fund to 20% in just 10 years.  That trend must be reversed, more so now in view of helping the homeless without disproportionately burdening the taxpayers.

(Paul Hatfield is a CPA and serves as President of the Valley Village Homeowners Association. He blogs atVillage to Villageand contributes toCityWatch.The views presented are those of Mr. Hatfield and his alone. They should not be construed to represent the opinions of the VVHA or the residents of Valley Village, individually or as a group. He can be reached at: phinnoho@aol.com.)

-cw

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 14 Issue 4

Pub: Jan 12, 2016

GELFAND’S WORLD--I ran into an acquaintance the other day who made an interesting observation. His view was that a local organization -- it just happened to be a neighborhood council, but could have been any other local group or nonprofit -- was anti-business. His suggested solution was that the council include more business owners. I'm not sure if this is the best available remedy, but I think the overall question is of interest: Just what does it mean to be anti-business or to be pro-business? 

I think it's an interesting question because for me, it's never really been a case of being anti-business in general. It's always been some specific issue involving species preservation or danger to the public. But I'm willing to believe that there are some people who are genuinely anti-business as a core belief. But what does this mean? 

I asked a few people for examples of anti-business sentiment or behavior. Here are some of the answers they gave. 

The city of Los Angeles has what is called a Business Receipts Tax. Without going into the details, [http://finance.lacity.org/content/BusinessTaxInformationFAQ.htm] I'll summarize the feelings of one local business owner. "If you are going to start a business and you can choose whether to be in the city of Los Angeles or just over the line into an adjacent city, you will want to stay away from Los Angeles." It's considered that much of a negative. 

Here is another example. The county has a department that you have to get past if you are going to open a restaurant or other food service business. Honorable people who are trying to obey the law get trapped in an endless cycle of inspections and new demands, a process which drags out the process of new business development. One local business owner I know still spits tacks, at least figuratively, whenever I ask him about what the system put him through. Another local person actually died before he could get his gelato shop open, due to all the red tape. 

These are laws and governmental procedures that are directly anti-business. You can argue that the business tax and the health inspectors serve a purpose, and reasonable people can argue over where exactly to draw the line in each case. 

But that's not the question I was immediately interested in. I was more interested in the personal issue. 

What is the attitude or behavior of a neighborhood council board member that might be considered to be anti-business? I got a couple of specific examples. 

The first example was a board motion that my informant took to be ruinous to local businesses. In this case, it was an attempt to help the homeless by directly endorsing the idea of supplying them with small habitations, the ones referred to as tiny houses. 

The second example was a discussion supporting the idea of raising the minimum wage for hotel workers. 

I think you can debate the merits and demerits of these ideas for weeks on end, but it is obvious that a lot of business owners would oppose making it easier to create homeless encampments on their streets, and the hotel industry would oppose having a minimum wage imposed on it, particularly in the absence of a statewide or national minimum wage increase. 

When questioned further, various colleagues offered a lot of other broad topics that fit within the bounds of opposing business development. Fights over rezoning might be thought of as anti-business. For example, a substantial majority of neighborhood council board members opposed the Ponte Vista development here in San Pedro, based on its size and density. You couldn't be more anti-business than that, as long as you consider that it was being anti-business about one specific investment. (Disclosure: I was on a neighborhood council board at the time, and was a supporter of the position to oppose the Ponte Vista development as originally presented.) 

The Sunland Tujunga Neighborhood Council opposed a Home Depot development and won. A lot of people found this position to be meritorious, but we have to admit that its merit lies in the opposition to a particular business gaining a position within the community. 

One of our City Watch contributors has offered another example. The city of Los Angeles was distinctly unfriendly to Walmart with regard to it going into the Chinatown area. More recently, we've seen arguments over the redevelopment of the old Sportsman's Lodge. 

In several of these examples, the question involved whether to support or oppose a particular development. I suspect that reasonable people can have different opinions over whether a development such as Ponte Vista is, on the balance, more of a public good or more of a public negative. 

But I suspect that to the person who brought this idea up with me, this still isn't quite the right question, and definitely not the right answer. So allow me to hazard a guess as to what is bugging my friend and, I suspect, lots of other observers. 

It's not so much that a few neighborhood council board members are opposed to some particular real estate development at one particular time. The problem is that most of us simply don't attempt to put ourselves in the place of the shop owner or even the hotel. Because we don't try to think about their problems, we don't find ourselves in productive discussions about their plans. We don't go out of our way to walk the proverbial mile in their shoes. 

I suspect that it's this indifference that is annoying to the local business owners. They are used to the devotedly anti-business arguments, but seeing their complaints ignored entirely must be a little galling. 

It wouldn't be a useful discussion without bringing up one additional point. Most of us don't worry too much about business getting its way with government. That's because most of us see government -- pretty much all government from the city council all the way up to the congress -- as being bought and owned by business interests. Those campaign contributions come from some mighty deep pockets, and they speak loudly to our elected officials. 

Perhaps my old friend and I are both correct. The biggest developers get their way, but that doesn't do anything for the mom & pop store trying to stay afloat. The guy trying to open his ice cream shop gets endlessly delayed by governmental red tape, and the local town council doesn't come to his assistance. 

There are one or two points where I will probably disagree with my pro-business friends and colleagues. I strongly support the existence and expansion of labor unions as a macroeconomic device. They are the one way we may have available to keep the top 1% from owning everything instead of only half of everything. I don't think that this notion has anything to do with the survival of the mom & pop store on 6th Street in San Pedro or the shoe store on Van Nuys Blvd. 

I'm also in favor of rules and regulations that protect our health and safety. We've had some close calls with refinery fires in recent years, and there are a lot of methane and irritants getting into our air from the SCG gas leak. There is a kind of business that brings out the anti in me, and that is the business that endangers our lives. 

But the city of Los Angeles is becoming well known for being the place that is cold and indifferent to new business formation. The elected leaders claim otherwise, but it's been slow going on the road to less red tape. If this is so obvious to me and a lot of my friends, then perhaps we ought to make a little more effort towards cutting that tape. It should be low hanging fruit. 

Addenda 

It seems that the Cleveland-Los Angeles-Anaheim-St Louis-Los Angeles Rams are about to come into existence. In looking at the team's history, we find a nomadic organization that began in Cleveland but only stayed about a decade, moved to Los Angeles and stayed for another 3 decades before moving to Orange County, then went to St Louis for what will be another 21 years, and now will be, once again, in the greater Los Angeles area. 

It will be interesting to see whether the team remains in Los Angeles past its traditional quarter-century mark. It will also be interesting to see how a Sunday afternoon game impacts traffic on the 405, considering that this is the likely route for most ticket holders. Add that to airport traffic and the forecast is slow going. 

For the south bay and harbor area, it's a blessing that the new stadium isn't going into Carson or the downtown area. I suspect that it's a mixed blessing at best for the west side. 

Kevin Drum has written an interesting piece on privacy vs. the right to use drones.  

Finally, in response to several comments over my last piece on humans confining themselves to constrained areas such as cities, rather than spreading out at low density over the entire ecosphere: I usually treat misunderstandings on the part of the readers as my own fault, since it is up to me to make the point clearly. 

In this case, the piece was not written to excuse lousy city planning, corruption of the regulatory process, or more to the point, the failure to consider ecological concerns in doing city planning. The fact that NYC doesn't have a lot of remaining indigenous wildlife is of some concern, but I fail to see that a city which averaged 20 stories would be any better than a city that averages 40 stories (or whatever NYC actually is) in terms of preservation of wildlife. 

Likewise, I can certainly agree that building tall, dense blocks of living spaces has to conform both to safety considerations as well as my proposed protection of the ecological space. 

(Bob Gelfand writes on culture and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at amrep535@sbcglobal.net).

-cw

 

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 14 Issue 5

Pub: Jan 18, 2015

WHO’S DELIVERING YOUR DRUGS?-- The illegal drug trade in the United States is a multibillion-dollar industry, and the U.S.- and Mexico-based gangs pulling the strings have long captivated the media and eluded law enforcement. 

For years, Sam Quinones chronicled the Los Angeles Police Department's efforts to eradicate violent gangs from the city. And, as he wrote in our January/February 2015 issue, law enforcement tactics have seemingly paid off: Since 2008, Los Angeles gang crime has decreased by nearly 50 percent. Robberies and assault rates have plummeted, and attacks on black residents by Latino gang members have also drastically decreased. But despite the fact that gang visibility in Southern California has diminished, Mexican gangs are gaining ground across the U.S.   

A new analysis from the Drug Enforcement Agency shows that seven Mexican transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) have seized complete control of the U.S. drug market. Mexican cartels deliver drugs to more cities in the U.S. than any other transnational gang, including those from Asia, Colombia, and the Dominican Republic. 

Throughout the country, Mexican TCOs wield unrivaled power, dominating the trafficking of cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, and marijuana. Mexico is also the biggest producer of clandestine Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that has been deemed responsible for 700 deaths since 2013.

Mexican cartels deliver drugs to more cities in the U.S. than any other transnational gang, including those from Asia, Colombia, and the Dominican Republic. 

In Mexico, TCOs are largely to blame for the growing number of homicides throughout various parts of the country. La Jornada reported last month that 12 out of every 100,000 people are killed in incidents revolving around organized crime. Social science journals are catching on to the disturbing repercussions of gang activity: On January 5, Health Affairs published a study claiming that the rise in homicides in Mexico since 2005 has, in turn, decreased life expectancy among Mexican males. 

The success of Mexican TCOs in the U.S. is attributed to several factors. According to the DEA report, TCOs have devised a supply chain system so complex, it's often impossible for law enforcement to trace drug transporters back to their affiliates. They also use a variety of transportation tactics—from tractor-trailers, cars, boats, planes, and the infamous subterranean tunnels that run beneath the border. One creative strategy devised by the Sinaloa Cartel includes hiring older U.S. citizens to drive tractor-trailers loaded with drugs because they're less susceptible to law enforcement inspection than younger drivers. In Phoenix, Arizona, transporters carry drugs in backpacks and off-road vehicles through expansive and desolate desert and mountain territory. 

Not mentioned in the DEA report is the assistance TCOs receive from U.S. law enforcement officials. In the last 10 years, countless U.S. border patrol agents have been arrested for collaborating with drug traffickers. Just this past year, formerTexas "Cop of the Year" Noe Juarez, who allegedly had been working with Los Zetas since 2006, was seen on video selling illegal assault rifles to an undercover informant. Back in September, former special deputy Chris Mattingly of Bullitt County, Kentucky, was indicted on charges of trafficking more than 1,000 grams of marijuana and accused of working with Mexican drug cartels. 

But it’s really cartels' alliances with U.S.-based gangs, rather than law enforcement, that give the gangs their power. Mexican TCOs have teamed up with 46 stateside gangs. Los Zetas, for example, are affiliated with 12 gangs, including the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas,  The Crips, and La Eme ("The M"), one of the most violent gangs in the U.S., which primarily operates within prisons, according to Animal Politico. Then there's the Almighty Latin Kings, a gang boasting membership numbers between 20,000 and 35,000 that has collaborated with all seven Mexican TCOs. 

Yet what stands out most in the DEA report is the importance of location in the business of drug trafficking. The analysis draws special attention to ports of entry (POE), especially in California. "Some Southern California gang neighborhoods were once so self-contained that they resembled rural villages," the authors write. 

However, as Quinones points out, gang presence in Los Angeles is not what it once was. Quinones traced the shift to a handful of techniques adopted by the LAPD to curb gang activity. They enforced gang injunctions—making it illegal for gang members to loiter in groups. They urged officers to get involved in community policing—a method that encourages police to spend less time in their cruisers and more time creating proactive relationships with neighbors. 

While those techniques may have reduced gang numbers, the DEA report points to another factor driving down the number of gang members in the city: Many of them have recently relocated. Gangs are moving out of traditional metropolitan areas and settling in more rural and suburban locations such as eastern Washington, western Colorado, and North Carolina. Likewise, the report predicts that Philadelphia and Boston might soon replace Chicago and Los Angeles as prime drug trafficking hubs, as TCOs are eager to stay out of law enforcement's eye. 

(Julie Morse is Julie Morse is an editorial fellow at Pacific Standard … where this report was first posted. Previously, she covered women's issues in Mexico City.)

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 14 Issue 5

Pub: Jan 18, 2016

EASTSIDER-I was going to write about what the City is doing regarding the Airbnb situation – as in, hiding in the basement.  And also what Airbnb is doing, as in, well -- spending billions and accumulating zillions of news articles. Then I realized that was a cop out -- the issues surrounding Airbnb are a big deal for the future of Los Angeles. We need a real dialogue, not mere reporting. 

Two overriding issues are central to regulating short-term rentals so that the residents of the city and these dot.com app companies can coexist. We must enforce existing zoning laws and codes; and we must ensure that new entities like Airbnb do not destroy the fundamental nature of LA’s fascinating and diverse neighborhoods. 

Enforcement of Existing Laws and codes has never been a strong point in the City of Los Angeles -- unless you are on the other side of something that the City Council wants to do. Witness the chopping down of 58 oak and sycamore trees in Sycamore Canyon or what happened in places like Venice where affordable housing is being turned into mini-hotels

It is a fact that Code Enforcement by the LADBS is not a happening thing. It’s that old LA story the City Council understands so well -- if you want to cripple a function, simply fail to fund it properly in the budget. And they did a good job of this. As for the Zoning and the Planning Department, when Deputy Planning Director Alan Bell wrote a memo confirming that there are serious legal questions about short-term rentals under existing Zoning codes, his memo disappeared. And suddenly, he took an early retirement. “These are clues,” as Inspector Clouseau would say. 

So it seems to me that if the LA City Council is going to pass a short term rental ordinance in order to receive the tax revenue, the first priority for the use of that money should be to pay for the necessary staffing to enforce our existing codes. If there’s any money left over, then it can be put into the general fund kitty for whatever. 

Preserving Our Neighborhoods is tricky since there is no “Los Angeles City,” as such – but rather a whole bunch of neighborhoods that together define LA. And those neighborhoods are precious, for without them, LA is simply a vast, obscene machine – a place that few are “from” -- and where the elite constantly tear down and rebuild structures to feed the maw called “reinventing Los Angeles” -- attracting all the suckers to come here so they can skim the profits. 

If you think about it, that was the genius of our flawed Charter Reform that created the Neighborhood Council system – designed to preserve and encourage our various neighborhoods to represent their uniqueness, to reverse the actions of the City Council that was turning our City into 15 Fiefdoms.  Through the NC system, we even have a rough outline of who our neighborhoods are since there are now 96 defined and separate Neighborhood Councils. 

Without that system, flawed as it is, I don’t think we would even talk to each other. For example, most of us still drive cars, Mayoral pronouncements to the contrary. From where I live in Glassell Park/Eagle Rock, it takes about an hour and a half to travel roughly 11 miles to Westwood, one way.  Heck, during rush hour, it takes almost an hour to go less than five miles from my house to downtown LA on surface streets!  

And using most public transportation, it takes even longer. Unless, of course, you live in a “transportation corridor” near a train or bus stop. But to do that, you have to be able to afford the outrageous rents charged by the owners of the buildings along the corridor. 

So, by and large, people from one neighborhood do not venture forth into other neighborhoods, except for work. I rarely see our friends in Mar Vista and Santa Monica anymore. Same for our friends in the Valley. I haven’t been down to South Central more than once or twice in the last five years.  Honestly, the only time I have any real contact with the greater Los Angeles community is at the LANCC meetings. 

That’s why the Neighborhood Councils are so important, and why the City needs to pay serious attention to allowing hi-tech, no-skin-in-the-game dot.com app designers like Airbnb just blow into town, pay a few bucks in taxes, skim off a bunch of money, and fundamentally alter the character of our neighborhoods. 

And if you don’t think that Airbnb and its ilk will change the character of our neighborhoods, think again. Talk to the residents of Venice, an area that is turning into the new “hotel row.” And watch as the folks who live there witness their affordable housing turn into rental hotels. Just talk to the Brentwood Homeowners Association about the McMansions popping up like mushrooms, turning into party houses and hotels, destroying the character of their neighborhood. 

Going Forward…please remember:  the reality is that even as we speak, the City is drafting a “Short-term Rental Ordinance,” and the fact that there has been a deafening silence from the Council members as to what they are doing is not a positive sign -- particularly when you consider that Airbnb has a huge bag of money to buy access to our cash-strapped City Council and Mayor. 

While it may sound harsh, Airbnb and its progeny have absolutely no interest in Los Angeles other than profit. We all represent the same pot of money -- be it New York, Paris, San Francisco…or LA. 

So what’s our guarantee that when the City passes a short-term rental ordinance they will use the tax dollars to enforce the laws and the codes to preserve affordable housing or maintain the character of our neighborhoods while regulating those short-term rentals? 

None, if history is a guide. Those taxes will go into the general fund for the purpose of balancing the unbalanced city budget and pay for the councilmembers’ pet projects.  

This is why it is so critical for people to get involved. Write, call and talk to our elected officials and their staffs, both individually and in groups. Weigh in. Try and effect an ordinance that will allow our residents to implement what Airbnb was originally advertised as -- a “sharing economy” mechanism whereby people can “share” an extra room for a week or so at a house while the owner is away. That kind of a “sharing economy” could actually be cool.

 

(Tony Butka is an Eastside community activist, who has served on a neighborhood council, has a background in government and is a contributor to CityWatch.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

-cw

 

CityWatch

Vol 14 Issue 5

Pub: Jan 15, 2016

PLATKIN ON PLANNING--The Los Angeles Business Journal is preparing a story on the “backlash to development in the city of Los Angeles and how developers and business groups are starting to fight back.” 

As part of the Journal’s research for the article, their reporter contacted me for a take on the Neighborhood Integrity Ordinance and the amendments to the Baseline Mansionization Ordinance.  I have written favorable articles on both topics for CityWatch, and apparently these and other CityWatch articles caught the Business Journal’s eye.

Slightly reworked, this is why I told them the two proposals are necessary and deserve support: 

The Neighborhood Integrity Initiative (NII) is not opposed to private real estate projects (a more precise term than "development") per se, but to projects that are so large and tall that they conflict with both LA’s zoning code and General Plan.  The investors' business model is based on relief from zoning regulations, as well as General Plan designations, for their otherwise illegal projects.  This is why the thrust of the NII is to halt amendments to the General Plan that only apply to site-specific projects, and often to single parcels. If investors want to build according to LA’s adopted plans and zoning codes, that is their right and no one would complain.  But, when contractors and investors request generous Plan Amendments, and the City Council then dishes out these approvals with little concern for infrastructure capacity, availability of public services, or the compatibility of the proposed projects with existing neighborhood character and scale, opposition quickly snowballs. 

This is the agenda if the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, and it is important to not misrepresent it as a blanket backlash to development.  It is also important to recognize that the NII is only a first step.  Even if General Plan Amendments were correctly processed, Los Angeles would still need to update most of its General Plan elements, as well as to extensively repair and upgrade the city’s infrastructure and public services.  Roping in out-sized development is only a small but important step in this direction. 

As for mansionization, the City of LA's adopted planning policies, as well as the City Planning Commission's approved planning policies, called Do Real Planning both support the preservation of single-family neighborhoods in terms of their character and scale.  The grass roots challenge has been to bring the City's zoning laws for single family homes into conformance with its adopted planning policies. The first effort was the Beverly Grove ICO (2006), sponsored by then Councilmember Jack Weiss after much foot dragging.  On purpose, however, his ordinance only stopped McMansions larger than those that the contractors intended to build.  As a result, the Jack Weiss-sponsored ICO was a total fraud.  Its only achievement was to allow the mansionization process to proceed without a blip. 

The second effort to control McMansions was the Baseline Mansionization Ordinance/BMO (2008).  By the time the City Council adopted the BMO, it contained so many loopholes that it, too, did not make the slightest difference.  In fact, it was so undermined that the Director of Planning and the President of the City Planning Commission both opposed it because of its loopholes. 

As a result of this deception, contractors are now quickly demolishing about 2000 older homes per year in order to build large, boxy, spec houses that fully comply with the BMO.  In general, these mega-houses are three times the size and price of the homes they replace.  They might be compatible with a large suburban lot, but in an existing R-1 lot these houses are far too large for the both the lot and the character and scale of the surrounding neighborhood. 

The third effort to stop mansionization is a based on a Council motion from Paul Koretz.  It directs the Department of City Planning to remove any loopholes from the Baseline Mansionization Ordinance that promoted mansionization.  City Planning’s draft is now out, and it has quickly become a political hot potato.  On one side is the McMansion-machine of investors, contractors, realtors, and some elected officials.  They want to retain as many zoning loopholes as possible, such as the continued exclusion of attached garages from square footage calculations.  While there are not many mansionizers in LA, they have a disproportionate influence at City Hall. So far they have managed to gut two ordinances that restrict McMansions, and they are now hard at work to do the same with the proposed amendments to the Baseline Mansion Ordinance. 

On the other side are most LA neighborhoods, as represented by Neighborhood Councils, homeowners and resident associations, and concerned individuals.  In their view big, boxy, ugly houses totally conflict with the character and scale of existing neighborhoods.  In general, the neighborhoods like several features of the proposed amendments, specifically the elimination of the bonuses for green building materials, which are now a mandatory requirement, and for an articulated front facade.  The neighborhoods also like the reduction in the by-right floor area for smaller R-1 lots from .5 to .45.  And, they particularly support the elimination of the exemption for attached garages. 

What the neighborhoods do not like and would like amended further is the elimination of the bonus for proportional stories and a new exemption for unlimited balconies, decks, and breezeways if they have lattice tops or no ceilings.  

The contractors and their boosters, like LA Councilmember Gil Cedillo, have dreamed up many arguments in support of the McMansion business model, but so far we have rebutted their arguments as fast they can spin them.  For example: 

  • The Councilmember claimed that restrictions on McMansions stop the construction of affordable housing.  We replied that the houses that the contractors demolish are far more affordable than the McMansions that they build in their place.  We also pointed out that the number of Angelenos in these houses, before or after, is virtually unchanged.  There is no increase in the number of housing units, much less an increase in affordable housing.   

  • The supporters of McMansions also said that people should be able to do whatever they want with their own property, and we pointed out in response that this claim violates the basic principle of zoning, which is to protect the quality of life and value of all property, not to green light real estate speculation. 
  • They also argued that zoning amendments to stop mansionization would depress property values, but we pointed out that in Beverly Grove, which has the toughest anti-mansionization ordinance in Los Angeles, exactly the opposite has happened.  Home values have increased since the City Council adopted the Beverly Grove RFA over 18 months ago.  There is an exception, however.  McMansions reduce the market value of adjacent homes by $50,000 to $100,000 since many prospective homeowners despise them.  The curb appeal of an existing house sandwiched in by McMansions barely exists. 
  • We also heard that large and multi-generational families require large houses, but we pointed out that there is not a shred of evidence that the families moving into McMansions are either large or multi-generational.  We also noted that family size is not a legitimate external hardship that justifies a variance or its equivalent. 
  • Another common argument is that the proposed ordinance would make it difficult to add several rooms to a house or a covered porch/patio. These hypothetical scenarios are contradicted by extensive home improvements in all local areas where mansionization has been restricted through Specific Plans (SP), Historical Preservation Overlay Zones (HPOZ), Interim Control Ordinances (ICO), and Residential Floor Area Districts (RFA).  In these areas there are many types of legal home improvements, including additions, remodeling, and decks.  All of these improvements could continue under the proposed amendments.  Furthermore, any neighborhood that wanted still larger houses could simply request a new Residential Floor Area District since that provision will remain in the Baseline Mansionization Ordinance. 

No doubt new pro-mansionization arguments will bubble-up over the next few months, usually postulating hypothetical scenarios that do not actually exist and are contradicted by reality.  Whether the venue is right here in City Watch or before the City Planning Commission and the City Council, we intend to quickly rebut them all and ask for public support in our efforts.

 

(Dick Platkin is a former LA City Planner who writes on local planning issues for City Watch.  He welcomes questions, comments, and corrections at rhplatkin@gmail.com. ) 

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CityWatch

Vol 14 Issue 5

Pub: Jan 18, 2016

ROOS COLORED VIEW--Wednesday morning dawned a superlative sunrise here in LA … roseate clouds fronting exhilaratingly blue sky, a morning-after display suffused with color worthy of our news.

Not Obama’s Tuesday night swan song, nor Mayor Butts’ hyperbolic certitude regarding Inglewood’s free municipal lunch (at 5:10), but the naming of a successor for Los Angeles Unified School District’s (LAUSD) hundreds of thousands of stakeholders, its children, its parents, its administrators and educators, its operatives and critics, disciples, roadies and acolytes, visionaries and venture capitalists.

Home town girl all growed up, weatherer of successive activist administrations through a battened down, pragmatic work ethic: Michelle King has surfaced to assume America’s most volatile and politically electrified superintendency – our LAUSD’s.   

I’ve heard it remarked this is LA’s Hope moment, but I do not think so. King’s promise is not of suppressed anticipatory excitement, but of commonplace relief. None of us actively engaged in public education actually wants the drama of ideology, we want schools that work, institutions anchored to our communities, giving and taking in equal measure, part and parcel of our society’s bedrock. We don’t want to be utilized as part of neoliberal capitalism where education is a sector exploited for its privatization potential. Our kid’s education is not a commodity, it’s just part of their ontogeny. We want a village that will raise our children. Correctly, adequately, properly and in exactly the same way as are Walton or Gates or Obama children.

Traveling through public spaces in town yesterday everywhere could be witnessed folks high-fiving. I stuck my hand out and high-fived innumerable strangers. I knew what they were talking about without overhearing their words: everyone’s just plain relieved. She’s come home, the board’s recovered its senses. The tempering of jittery nerves regarding LAUSD and its future was palpable. 

LAUSD’s school board made a very courageous decision in opting for the quietly competent administrative “tortoise” who has not been swinging from educational lianas, leveraging criminal racketeering into higher education diplomas. Michelle King is politically savvy perforce, and the board has satisfied its members through private conversations that her political ideology is sound enough. The prerequisites for this job are ultimately not complex, and the in-house candidate has an advantage in this politically charged climate: she is a known, knowing and competent candidate, and she demonstrably will in fact work for “the children” and not just pretend as much.

Thank you, Mes/sr.s Zimmer, Vladovic, Schmerelson, Rodriguez, Ratliff, McKenna and Garcia.

(Sara Roos is a politically active resident of Mar Vista, a biostatistician, the parent of two teenaged LAUSD students and a CityWatch contributor, who blogs at redqueeninla.com

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CityWatch

Vol 14 Issue 5

Pub: Jan 18, 2016

 

EDUCATION POLITICS-It's hard for a proposed investigation of "teachers jail" to be taken seriously, when their unchallenged initial assumption is still that teachers are sent to teachers jail for "being verbally abusive, excessively missing work, failing to follow the rules for giving standardized tests, or sexual misconduct." Nothing could be further from the truth and they all know it. 

The vast majority of teachers sent to teacher jail are there because LAUSD will save approximately $60,000 a year in combined salary and benefits in just the first year they are gone. When they replace this falsely charged teacher with a cheap, younger teacher at a fraction of the cost, that fact is mysteriously never mentioned. How could any audit based on a false premise and half truths ever end positively?

Nowhere in this "Audit Request" is there mention that 87% of targeted teachers are over 40 and are at the top of the salary scale. Many have only a few years before they would become vested in lifetime health benefits valued at $300,000. LAUSD already has over $12 billion in unfunded benefits and this reality is forcing LAUSD into bankruptcy. However, this fact cannot be mentioned anywhere as a motive for targeting high seniority expensive teachers.

An even more basic question is never addressed: why is it necessary to house charged teachers at all for as much as 4 or 5 years, before giving them a hearing on the bogus charges against them? 

And then, the District's expensive outside attorneys misuse the 4-year rule designed to stop stale charges from being brought against teachers by LAUSD. They bring up this rule to stop targeted teachers from defending themselves by bringing up their unblemished careers prior to being “falsely imprisoned.” 

It’s also worth noting that the LAUSD administration has never explained why it is necessary to house teachers in intimidating and coercive LAUSD offices for years instead of at home. In the past, they’ve allowed teachers to be housed in their homes while these supposed investigations are taking place -- investigations that never come to fruition in a timely manner. A jailed teacher is constantly being intimidated and coerced into signing a 6-page document of resignation, waiving the right to take all future legal actions against LAUSD. Is this supposed to bring the teacher jail nightmare to an end? 

When I hear Donald Trump use his defamatory and indefensible rhetoric against Muslims and Mexicans -- just to name a few -- I must confess I have already become accustomed to this type of hate speech. LAUSD's presumption that legally presumed-innocent teachers must be confined for the "safety of students" is the same kind of unsubstantiated unconstitutional nonsense that presupposes guilt and seeks to inflame people. It savages senior teachers, the vast majority of whom have done nothing wrong...except maybe make too much money in the eyes of the LAUSD administration.  

The most often-cited reasons for placing an employee in this condition range from being verbally abusive, excessively missing work, failing to follow the rules for giving standardized tests, or sexual misconduct. At this point, the outcome of the “Teacher Jail” process is unknown. 

This is particularly important in the case of allegations of sexual misconduct – charges that must be vigorously investigated and prosecuted. However, the need for this audit is two-fold. We must rapidly resolve issues of sexual misconduct and terminate such employees. But we must also exonerate employees who are innocent and to keep them from languishing in limbo.

Los Angeles Unified School District estimates that its average educator costs $96,176 annually in salary and benefits. This means that, in 2014, LAUSD paid out approximately $38 million to the 400 employees who were housed in “Teacher Jail.”

(Leonard Isenberg is a Los Angeles observer and a contributor to CityWatch. He’s a second generation teacher at LAUSD and blogs at perdaily.com. Leonard can be reached at Lenny@perdaily.com) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

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CityWatch

Vol 13 Issue 103

Pub: Dec 22, 2015

JUST THE FACTS-I find it troubling to complain about our crumbling City of the Angels. As a native Angelino, a former Los Angeles Police Officer and a 12-year member of the LA City Council, I am distressed to see what is happening to our once proud, well-managed city. 

When my former colleague and friend Eric Garcetti was elected as Mayor, I was very pleased with his “Back to Basics” agenda for Los Angeles. I imagined that, with his combined experience as a city councilmember and council president and now as Mayor, our sidewalks would be repaired, our streets would be paved and the growing homeless population would be addressed. Multiple promises involving billions of dollars and resources from state, county and local agencies have been made through repeated news conferences and press releases. 

Given the current division and separation of powers among the offices of the Mayor, the City Council and the various departments that connect the massive Los Angeles bureaucratic government, nothing is being done to correct the situation. Leadership is proposing $1.85 billion to address the homelessness situation, along with increased water and power rates to allegedly address the many social, quality of life and infrastructure issues facing the city. 

Our elected city officials must find a way to put themselves on the same page -- to once and for all “Get Back to Basics.” Without a coordinated, well-organized effort by those who’ve been elected to represent the various interests of Los Angeles, we will never overcome the multiple problems destroying LA and our many unique and diverse neighborhoods. The time is now. The agenda is clear. We must work together to make Los Angeles the city we expect it to be – clean, organized and well-run for all the people. Rich and poor, white and Black, Latino and Asian. Everyone. 

City Council should focus on quality of life issues, to stay on the same page until matters are resolved. But bouncing from one agenda item to another with no rhyme or reason has been the practice. And in the end, little if anything gets done to address the ills of Los Angeles. 

We might think about what City Controller Ron Galperin is doing to earn his salary, and what he is doing to address the management of the various city departments responsible for our streets and communities. 

On a positive note, Los Angeles County and its 58 cities, including Los Angeles, welcomed an estimated 45.5 million tourists last year. There is an increasing number of visitors coming from China as well as from Canada and Mexico. Tourism is important for our region’s economy; visitors must feel safe and secure when visiting Los Angeles, and other cities in the United States from coast to coast. 

LAX records reflect that approximately 74.5 million travelers came through our congested airport and ventured into communities throughout Los Angeles County. This has all happened with an airport still in need of major improvements that is undergoing an $8.5 billion modernization over the next many years. Unfortunately, the drive from various regions around LA County to LAX remains a frustrating experience for both drivers and passengers. If you have a 7 am flight out of LAX and live in the San Fernando Valley, you need to leave your home at 4 am to avoid gridlock along the 101 and 405 freeways and to navigate the additional security measures in place at LAX. 

As 2016 ushers in many national, state and local elections, I will be commenting on the various races, providing information to help you vote for candidates that won’t forget you and your needs once elected. For the record, I am not a Republican nor Democrat but rather one of the growing number of frustrated voters supporting a candidate and not a party.   

(Dennis P.  Zine is a 33 year member of the Los Angeles Police Department and former Vice-Chairman of the Elected Los Angeles City Charter Reform Commission, 12 year member of the Los Angeles City Council and current LAPD Reserve Officer. He writes Just the Facts for CityWatch. You can contact him at Zman8910@aol.com) Photo at top: LA Times. Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

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CityWatch

Vol 14 Issue 5

Pub: Jan 15, 2016

FIXING LA--Disabled Angelenos are on the verge of finalizing a historic settlement that will invest heavily in repairing L.A.’s sidewalk network. Photo of 2011 rally via CALIF website  

New court filings today reveal more details about the settlement in Willits v. City of Los Angeles, a class action lawsuit over L.A.’s failure to make the public pedestrian right-of-way accessible to disabled people. Today’s documents concur with the basic outlines of the settlement revealed in April 2014: the city of Los Angeles will spend $1.4 billion dollars over the next thirty years to repair damaged sidewalks that impede access.  

According to Kara Janssen, an attorney for the Disability Rights Legal Center, “[the settlement] is now public because it has been fully executed by all parties and was filed as part of our motion for preliminary approval, which is a necessary step in class-action settlements. It is not yet in effect because the court still has to approve it once class members have received notice and had time to file objections.”

The details are primarily contained in a joint motion [PDF], exhibits [PDF], and a settlement agreement [PDF], all filed today.  

Here is the overall summary:

The proposed Settlement requires the City of Los Angeles (“the City”) to expend in excess of $1.367 billion over 30 years to make its public sidewalk and crosswalk system accessible to persons with mobility disabilities. It will require the City to install, repair, and upgrade curb ramps; repair sidewalks and walkways damaged by tree roots; repair broken or uneven pavement; correct non-compliant cross-slopes in sidewalks; install tree gates and missing utility covers; and remediate other inaccessible conditions. The proposed Settlement will also permit Class Members to submit requests for access repairs such as curb ramp installations and tree root fixes at specific locations, which the City will use its best efforts to remediate within 120 days of receiving the request. In addition, the proposed Settlement calls for the hiring of an ADA Coordinator for the Pedestrian Right of Way, and includes effective reporting, monitoring and dispute resolution mechanisms.

The city’s initial commitment will be $31 million annually for five years, gradually ramping up to $63 million annually for the final five years.

There is an extensive list of types of sidewalk repairs the city will perform: 

  • Installation of missing curb ramps;
  • Repair of damage caused by tree roots to sidewalk or walkways surfaces;
  • Upgrading of existing curb ramps;
  • Repair of broken and/or uneven pavement in the pedestrian rights of way (including utility covers and repair covers) deeper and/or wider than 1/2 inch;
  • Repair of vertical or horizontal displacement or upheaval of the sidewalk or crosswalk surface greater than 1/2 inch (including sidewalk flags, curbs and utility covers);
  • Correction of non-compliant cross-slopes in sidewalks or sections of sidewalks
  • Removal of protruding and overhanging objects and/or obstructions that narrow pedestrian rights of way to less than 4 feet of accessible width;
  • Widening of pedestrian rights of way and sections thereof to provide 4 feet of accessible width;
  • Providing 4 feet of clearance to the entrances of public bus shelters;
  • Repair of excessive gutter slopes at the bottom of curb ramps leading into crosswalks;
  • Elimination of curb ramp lips on curb ramps;
  • Installation of accessible tree grates, or other compliant remediation, where such grates are missing from tree wells;
  • Installation of missing utility covers where such covers are missing from sidewalks, crosswalks or pathways; and
  • Remediation of other non-compliant conditions.

The settlement also commits the city to:

  • within one year, hire an “ADA Coordinator for the Pedestrian Right of Way” whose responsibilities will include: generating twice-annual status reports on sidewalk repair progress, and recommending city policies and procedures to overcome barriers to access.
  • within two years, create and maintain a publicly-available database listing and mapping completed and requested repairs and improvements.
  • within two years, provide an “Access Request Program” that disabled people can use to submit requests for repairs in specific locations. Initially 20 percent of the city’s annual settlement funding will be targeted to fulfilling these requests.

Though lawyers on both sides have approved the settlement, there are still a few more steps before extensive sidewalk improvements commence. The court needs to go through its steps for approval. Then the clock starts ticking for the city to act; initial city expenditures need to start within a year of final settlement approval. The city has a preliminary “fix and release” plan that has been criticized by walkability advocates and by some City Councilmembers. There are a lot of moving pieces, but it looks like help will soon be on the way for many of the city’s ailing sidewalks.

 

(Joe Linton is the editor of StreetsblogLA.  He founded the LA River Ride, co-founded the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, worked in key early leadership roles at CicLAvia and C.I.C.L.E., served on the board of directors of Friends of the LA River, Southern California Streets Initiative, and LA Eco-Village.)

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CityWatch

Vol 14 Issue 5

Pub: Jan 28, 2016

DEVELOPMENT HELL-The adult mind, the educated mind, and the organized mind has no trouble figuring out that when asking for the will and money of the electorate, you don't slap that electorate in the face.  

To be certain, Mayor Garcetti is more affable, more invested, and more politically savvy than his predecessor. But all the smiles, handshakes, town halls, and political gestures doesn't take away from the reality that -- in fact, his constituents are being slapped around, shaken down, and tapped out while being asked to pay more and do more for their basic City services. 

I certainly think that Eric Garcetti cares about the plight of the average Angelino more than did his predecessor. Antonio Villaraigosa had tower fever and was more than willing to send the citizenry (and even the representative Councilmembers) straight to Hades if a developer/political donor wanted to build a mega-development with no infrastructure or environmental considerations to justify it. 

"Overriding considerations" was a Planning term we all saw used in the case of the Casden development when Expo Line supporters and opponents alike stood shoulder to shoulder in opposition to it on the Westside. This term, translated into English, is effectively a middle finger to the will of the taxpaying citizenry, environmental science, the laws of physics, and common sense -- but is still being practiced today. 

A proposed mega-development, next to the future Bundy/Olympic Expo Line station, has been insufficiently vetted, lacks consensus and appropriate mitigations, requires a slew of variances all while being shoved through Planning in the dead of the holiday night. Even local Westside Councilmember Bonin, a big fan of transit-oriented development, opposes the project as is. He was similarly caught off-guard. 

So as the insults, rape and pillage of taxpaying Angelinos continue unabated, here's a few suggestions to moor moving forward together. They are offered with  kindness, compromise, recognizing the need for all of us to stand up and do right -- and with the understanding that Majority Rule remains the law in our city, state, and nation: 

1)    Whether it's Charter Reform or Mayoral insistence to implement this practice, I am suggesting that proper fiscal dealings be done with Neighborhood Council representatives in the room. 

2)    When it involves City budgeting and resources, the NC reps should be there in equal numbers and representation along with the developers, private interests, lobbying groups, or public sector employee unions. 

3)    Measure "R-2" involves more sales taxes and spending on transportation projects. Mayor Garcetti’s excellent outreach to the South Bay, the San Gabriel Valley and to Southeast LA County Cities should be continued. Similarly, the connection of the Green Line to the Metrolink network is one that can and should be done with cooperation and funding from the local cities, as well as with Orange and Riverside County transportation boards. (And don't let Metro pass any Eastside Gold Line project until Metro Rail and Metrolink are similarly linked!)

4)    If we want to please the majority, and create a first-rate bicycle network, don't let major projects like the Expo Bikeway lose a valuable connection because of a few neighbors.  

5)    There are reasonable concerns and mitigations to be addressed and done, but a public right of way and public easement is just that – public -- and a lopsided battle overwhelmingly opposed by the general public should be treated as such. We already have an at-grade/street level Expo Line crossing at Overland because a few locals misguided and misled their neighbors against a proper rail bridge there; we don't need to repeat the mistake with the Bikeway. 

6)    Whether it's the Save Valley Village effort or the efforts of the rest of the Westside to avoid the rape and pillage that is going on in Del Rey, under the guise of "affordable housing." A similarly lopsided battle of the community against a few inappropriately-powered developers should also be ruled in favor of the majority. Compromise is a great thing, of course, but mitigations and right-sizing remain common sense. 

7)    Right now it's very hard for Angelenos to figure out if they should spend their money on efforts like Save Valley Village or the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative or on Measure R-2. But Planning, the City Council, and the Downtown crowd are making it easier for citizens and taxpayers to spend money on the lawyers who will actually represent their interests. 

I give Mayor Garcetti and the City Council about three months to come up with a counterproposal of decades-overdue City budgeting and planning reforms, or else the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative will pass with all the intensity of the legendary Proposition 13. And Measure R-2 will be threatened if not eliminated from passing at a time when we need more money for transportation operations, new rail and bus lines, and a 2024 Olympics. 

Three months to stop slapping the bejeezus out of City (and, by extension, County) taxpayers who are seeing their taxes, their utility rates (which, in effect, are just more taxes), and user fees continue to go up while fiscal discipline and prudence go down. 

Mayor Garcetti and the Downtown crowd have done a few things right for which they sincerely deserve credit. However, if they do not pull off the right reforms within three months, they may discover that it is no longer the voters and taxpayers who are the April fools -- but rather the Downtown "leadership" who will feel like fools come this November.

 

(Ken Alpern is 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.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

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CityWatch

Vol 14 Issue 5

Pub: Jan 15, 2016

CONNECTING CALIFORNIA--Do you want your ham and eggs, California?

It is one of the oldest and most enduring ideas in our state: Government should provide everyone with a minimum amount of money on a regular basis. It goes back to the 1930s, when Californians narrowly rejected the so-called “Ham and Eggs” proposals to give Californians a $30 check every Thursday.

Now, this notion is back, a subject of books and op-eds and speeches, especially in the Bay Area, and with some bipartisan political momentum. Thinkers on the left have embraced it as a bulwark against poverty, inequality, and corporate power. Feminists and children’s right advocates argue that it would offer a method to pay people for the crucial work of homemaking and child-rearing. Some libertarians and conservatives like the idea as a way to consolidate the sprawling number of government programs and replace them with a cash grant. And technologists and venture capitalists in Silicon Valley see it as vital insurance against the likelihood that advances in artificial intelligence will eliminate millions of jobs and careers.

The “Ham and Eggs” idea has different names and comes in different concepts. Some proponents talk about a universal basic income, or a guaranteed minimum income, that would be a backstop so that all citizens or families have a sufficient income to live on. Conservatives often prefer to call it the “negative income tax,” since they would expand the tax system to provide supplemental pay to those who need to reach a minimum (the federal Earned Income Tax Credit does this already to a limited extent).

In the rest of America, the idea is usually dismissed as socialistic or irretrievably expensive. But in California, it has remained stubbornly strong. Why? It may persist because our boom-and-bust economic culture produces moments of real desperation for millions. It may reflect our well-known weakness for grand utopian ideas that aren’t taken seriously in the more sensible and less interesting parts of the United States. Maybe Californians have more of an appreciation for the technologically advanced future when it will take much less labor to take care of us, so we’re more inclined to decouple work from income and establish some other societal profit-sharing scheme to bankroll our leisure time.

What is undeniable is that California has long had an outsized role in promotion of social insurance schemes. It was a Long Beach doctor, Francis Townsend, who suggested the program that became Social Security. The “End Poverty in California” movement of the 1930s, which included pensions for all, provided national exposure for the idea of guaranteed income.   

And so did “Ham and Eggs”—which took its name from the concept that a $30 weekly check to Californians would guarantee them a square meal. Two statewide initiatives in 1938 and 1939 for “$30 Every Thursday” to Californians age 50 and older produced two of most contentious and violent political campaigns in California history, with organized crime, national business groups, and even President Roosevelt playing roles. The writer Carey McWilliams called “Ham and Eggs” the “most fantastic, incredible, and dangerous” movement California had produced.

Those defeats hardly discredited the idea. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was a strong proponent. And so were voices on the right, led by the conservative economist Milton Friedman—an important California figure who advised Governor and President Reagan, backed Prop. 13, and spent the last 30 years of his life at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.

Friedman designed and promoted a proposal for “the negative income tax.” He saw direct cash payments to the poor as more efficient and less distorting of markets than the government’s complicated stew of welfare programs. (The appeal is not dissimilar to the popularity of school vouchers among conservatives.) Friedman helped inspire the only president born in California, Richard Nixon, to offer his own proposal in 1969; it failed, but the concept didn’t die. The idea has been advanced every few years, often with a Californian doing the advancing. Before his disastrous tenure as mayor of San Diego, Congressman Bob Filner sponsored legislation to establish a guaranteed income.

Over the past couple of years, the idea of guaranteeing money has developed new currency in the context of growing concerns about California’s staggering inequality and the highest poverty rate of any U.S. state. Once dismissed for its high costs (estimates put the cost of providing a minimum guaranteed income to keep every American out of poverty at around $2 trillion), it now looks like a bargain compared to the massive spending promises of Bernie Sanders or the enormous tax cuts proposed by Republican presidential candidates.

We’ve seen elements of guaranteed income in proposals among liberals to double the size of Social Security, and in the successful movements in California cities for a higher minimum wage. A guaranteed income feels like the next national wave, on both left and right. Thinkers on the left, like the California-based academic Robert Reich, have come out for it. And on the right, presidential candidate Marco Rubio and new House Speaker Paul Ryan have made proposals to consolidate existing welfare programs into cash grants that would be run through states. It’s also a hot topic in academia. Economists have researched similar programs—in places like Brazil and Mexico—and found that poor people who are given cash grants usually use the money responsibly and efficiently.

But in California, the most intriguing support is centered among the technologists and venture capitalists of Silicon Valley. There, the primary arguments for basic income are twofold. First, that a guaranteed income will protect the people who lose their jobs because of California’s technological innovations. Second, that more people would have more time to create and be entrepreneurial if they didn’t have to worry about paying their bills.

“Universal basic income might be the most meaningful way we could subsidize the earliest stages of innovation,” wrote venture capitalist Roy Bahat, the head of Bloomberg Beta, the venture fund backed by Bloomberg LP, in the Washington Post. “It could multiply, by many factors, the amount of time people can spend creating.” Bahat told me recently that he expected basic income to be “one of the main political discussions of the next decade or two.”

California offers perhaps the most likely venue to try such an idea at the state level; we have a powerful ballot initiative system that would allow for the quick advance of such a proposal, and deep-pocketed potential backers to campaign for it. For weeks, I’ve heard rumors about Bay Area capitalists planning such an initiative, but no one involved would admit to me they were drafting such a measure.

Either way, this is one California idea that isn’t going away. Your check may soon be in the mail.

(Joe Mathews is California & innovation editor for Zócalo Public Square, for which he writes the Connecting California column.)

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CityWatch

Vol 14 Issue 5

Pub: Jan 18, 2016

 

 

The Porter Ranch methane gas leak is emerging from an 'out-of-sight, out-of-mind' situation to more common knowledge, with growing governmental, media, and social focus on this continuing manmade disaster. Likened increasingly to a land-based version of BP's Deepwater Horizon, the leak has serious health implications that are leading to 1000s being moved from their homes and looks likely to have, at the end, the equivalent climate impact equivalent of over 10 years of an average coal-fired plant.* This is both a massive and slow-motion disaster: slow-motion in that capping the leak is a difficult and time-consuming engineering challenge with little ability, it seems, to do more than watch the methane leak (with special cameras) and leak and leak for month after month until is finally capped.  

There are at least four California Senate bills under consideration that call for moratoriums on new gas injections in this storage area, placing financial responsibility for the disaster on 'the polluters', and other measures. (See the material in Senate Porter Ranch Gas Leak Background and Bill Package 010816.)

An old adage is 'never let a good crisis go to waste'.  While wondering what 'good' really means, there is no question that this situation merits 'crisis' status and one question to ask, therefore, is "what can be done to help in the long term based on learning from and within the political focus on this crisis?"  Within this package of proposals, there seems to be a gap that merits filling that will help in identifying and tackling future methane leaks more rapidly, efficiently, and effectively.

In short, it is well past time to institute  more extensive, continuous (okay, frequent/iterative), public mapping of methane leaks along with the requirement to and resources for rapidly addressing leaks.  With something along those lines, California (and the California Air Resources Board (CARB)) could become leading-edge in the nation as to this underemphasized pollution issue and help drive forward the Administration's methane leakage efforts.

Methane leakage is far from only a problem at fracking sites or at major storage sites -- but leakage is a problem through the entire cycle from drilling to end user. Many (including this author) were stunned seeing the work of researchers who mapped methane leaks in Boston and Washington, DC.  As one discussion began,

Residents of Washington, DC are used to jokes about metaphorical hot air, humidity, and the swampy history of their city. But there's something they may not know about the District: it's overrun with methane, which sometimes makes manhole covers explode.

Natural gas is mostly methane, and it is carried through underground pipes to heat buildings and cook food. Those pipes are often old, and this led ecologist and chemical engineer Robert Jackson of Duke University to drive around DC over a period of two months, regularly measuring the air to take methane levels.

He and his research team found methane leaks everywhere, with thousands of places having significantly higher than normal methane concentrations, and some places reaching 50 times normal urban levels (100 ppm vs 2 ppm). A similar study in Boston last year found essentially the same results. In DC, the source wasn't the swamp on which the city was built -- it was fossil fuel.

Those leaks -- all those yellow spikes -- help show the thruthiness lie of 'natural gas has half the emissions when burned' because, well, coal doesn't disappear in the atmosphere between the mine and burning. That 'natural gas' doesn't look so great in total emissions profile if we take well to flame leakage rates seriously. If leakage rates are high enough, natural gas (methane) could actually be worse than coal because methane has roughly 80 times the climate impact of natural gas over 20 years.

Consider all those yellow spikes. Because costing money, they create risks: risks of explosions, risks to health of those breathing the molecules, and risks through worsened climate change impacts.  All those spikes merit erasing ... but can't be dealt with if they remain out of sight (and thus out of mind).

A robust mapping effort would not have to be expensive and could have significant benefits.  Very simply, California could move to put monitoring devices on public vehicles (school buses, police cars, busses).  It wouldn't be perfect coverage but would provide rather robust and frequent monitoring.  Of course, the systems wouldn't have to be limited to only methane.  Note that this has already been done.  Three Google mapping cars were equipped with Aclima monitors to provide air quality data in a test in the Denver area:  

Three Street View cars took measurements of nitrogen dioxide, nitric oxide, ozone, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, methane, black carbon, particulate matter, and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) -- air pollutants which can affect human health or climate change. ...

(And, Google just did something similar around this methane leak.)  

Imagine constantly updated, publicly available information about the air quality of your community. Writ large, from VOCs to CO2 to other pollutants, the pollutants all around us are out-of-sight, out-of-mind.  Data enables decision-making and action.  Visibility fosters support for that action.

California shouldn't let the Porter Ranch crisis go to waste. There should be round-the-clock efforts to reduce and end the leak as fast as possible. The health and safety risks to individuals and community require continuous monitoring and addressing.  There must be measures to address the very real damages that local residents and communities have occurred. Measures are required for reducing risks into the future. And, measures with broader payoff merit implementing.  California should take a lesson from Porter Ranch and act so that methane leakage is never again 'out-of-sight, out-of-mind'.

(A. Siegel is an Energy, Environmental Blogger, at getenergysmartnow.com … where this piece was first posted.)

 

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 14 Issue 5

Pub: Jan 18, 2016

BILLBOARD WATCH-A dozen years ago, a company called MetroLights put up hundreds of unpermitted advertising signs that mimicked the legal bus shelter and kiosk signs on public sidewalks. A few years later scofflaw companies named SkyTag, World Wide Rush, and Vanguard draped buildings all over the city with multi-story “supergraphic” signs. 

Now an unknown company is blighting the landscape with unpermitted advertising signs on plywood walls thrown up around businesses, churches, and other sites. 

MetroLights, SkyTag, World Wide Rush, Vanguard and others sued the city to overturn its ban on new off-site signs, but ultimately lost those court challenges and had to remove their signs. Whether the company or companies responsible for the latest scourge of illegal signage will follow that path remains to be seen. 

At first glance, signs like those in the photo above look identical to those on fences around construction sites all over the city. But Gary Shafner, an owner of the company that puts up the construction fence signs that are legally permitted under a 2007 ordinance, said that his company, National Promotions and Advertising, is not responsible for the unpermitted signs.

The ordinance requires city permits and strictly regulates sign size, placement, and duration. The signs can only be placed around construction sites and vacant lots. 

Some of the illegal signs have been recently cited by the city. In the case of those around the church on Lincoln Blvd. in Venice, the signs were taken off the plywood fence after citations were issued, but new ones appeared a few weeks later.

 

(Dennis Hathaway is the president of the Ban Billboard Blight Coalition and a CityWatch contributor. He can be reached at: Dennis@banbillboardblight.org. ) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda abrams.

 

-cw

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 14 Issue 5

Pub: Jan 15, 2016

VOICES--On Sunday, Jan. 17th at 5:00 pm, residents from all areas of Los Angeles will be wearing black as they gather for a Candlelight Vigil in front of LA Mayor Garcetti's home (The Getty House 605 So Irving blvd, Windsor Square) in memory of all the dogs and cats dying on the streets of LA every day, and the adoptable dogs, cats and rabbits that never made it out of our city shelters. 

The failure to provide World Class leadership by Los Angeles Mayor Garcetti's appointed Animal Services General Manager Brenda Barnette has caused an already broken department to implode. 

The result of the Mayor's failure to address the hundreds of complaints about the General Manager from both her staff, shelter volunteers, the animal welfare community and LA residents, has caused packs of dogs, many of them pets, allowed to roam in North and South Central, Panorama City, and Sunland. 

These hapless animals, many off leash or abandoned by their owners, create a public health hazard. Dogs get hit by cars daily, often fighting just to survive, sleeping under cars in the cold rain, and allowed to breed, as described in the Queen Latifah narrated documentary "Dogs Of South Los Angeles." 

Despite being presented with the facts, the GM has shown a total disinterest in the problem. 

Get more details and then join us next Sunday. Speak out for LA’s animals. 

Action Info: 

Candle Light Vigil 

When: Sunday, January 17th. 2016  5 PM – 7PM 

Where: 605 South Irving Boulevard in Windsor Square. 90005 The Getty House, official residence of the Mayor of Los Angeles, California. Plenty of free street parking. 

Contact Info: 

Paul Darrigo 323-244-8020 

Michael Bell 818-419-9004

Facebook

 

(Paul Darrigo is an animal activist and lives in Los Angeles.)

 

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 14 Issue 5

Pub: Jan 15, 2016

VOICES--It’s good to be the king. Ask Herb Wesson. Since his recent self-administered anointment, life running the City Council has been infinitely more enjoyable. Particularly with respect to City Council Rule 93, which Mr. Wesson doesn’t like but which nonetheless requires that City Council meetings be televised, gavel-to-gavel, unedited and with cameras operated “so that they are focused only on the officially recognized speaker.”   

Mr. Wesson likes focusing only on the officially recognized speaker…just not when that speaker happens to be a member of the public trying to address his or her elected representatives. A lesser municipal leader might feel compelled to obey Rule 93, simply because that kind of rule of law is what holds together our society, but not Mr. Wesson. 

He took the bull by the horns and personally directed the camera staff to show speaking members of the public only in a face-obscuring wide shot. As for his own regal visage…well, the Council President is always ready for his close-up. 

Unfortunately for Mr. Wesson, that camera doesn't belong to him, and, given the numerous admonishments he's received over the past six months with respect to his flouting of Rule 93, one might even say that he is pushing his luck. 

City council meetings are telecast for one reason--to afford all Angelenos (regardless of work schedule, car ownership, geographic proximity to City Hall, ability to pay for daycare, or any other factor) the opportunity to observe those meetings and so have a clean shot at being a fully-informed citizen. 

It is not for me or Mr. Wesson or any individual to decide which aspects of the meeting viewers should see or whether certain participants of the meeting should be pictured in close-up, or from a face-obscuring distance, or at a certain audio volume or  etc. It's self-evident, and required by Rule 93, that members of the public watching the telecast should be given a straightforward presentation of the meeting, whereby all participants are presented at the same volume and with equitable framing. 

Channel 35 is taxpayer funded so it's the public who owns the cameras and microphones and gavel with which Mr. Wesson presides over City Council meetings. 

And it's not acceptable for them to be given a telecast in which those of their fellow Angelenos who made the considerable effort to contribute a public comment in person are barely visible, while the members of the Council are without exception presented in full close-up-- a fact that has not gone unnoticed by certain members of the council currently running for office. It's good to be the king.   

Photo: As a result of Mr. Wesson’s camera policy, the author (making a public comment above left) has been reduced to the size of Councilmember Blumenfield’s nose.  

 

(Eric Preven is a Studio City based writer-producer and public advocate for better transparency in local government.  He was a candidate in the 2015 election for Los Angeles City Council, 2nd District.)

-cw

 

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 14 Issue 5

Pub: Jan 18, 2016

STRAIGHT SHOOTER--This is not a good week for people concerned about jail violence. First, the law enforcement liability numbers are in, and the results are worse than bad. There’s been a 43.4 percent increase in money paid by the County to deal with law enforcement liability including excessive force claims against the Sheriff’s department -- an increase of  $14.6 million over FY 2013-14 to a robust  total of $48.3 million for FY 2014-15. Second, the LA County Board of Supervisors is poised to adopt a motion this Tuesday, which will remove the last hope of the proposed Civilian Oversight Commission having any teeth or independence. 

Apparently, the Sheriff and Board-appointed Inspector General Max Huntsman are close to sort of being close to a sort of final Memorandum of Agreement which will determine the extent of any access the Commission may gain to internal records of the Sherriff’s Department. So much for unfettered access.     

To be fair, it’s not an easy task, setting up an oversight commission like the one proposed. But what’s unacceptable is that there were measures that could have been taken expeditiously, at the time that civilian oversight was first proposed by Supervisor Ridley-Thomas and Gloria Molina in September of 2013. The best example is the concept of “golden key access.” 

I will never forget the first time I heard Miriam Krinsky, now one of Sheriff McDonnell's top advisers, explaining that concept after she'd been on a fact-finding mission to New York for the CCJV. On January 4, 2016 an op-ed in the New York Times, by Michele Deitch and  Michael B. Mushlin, struck the very same note: "The awareness by prison staff that a monitor could show up at any time would check employee misbehavior. The culture of a prison changes when outsiders shine a light on its operations and conditions."    

It is inexcusable for the Board of Supervisors to delay independent oversight measures that will save the county money and keep residents safer. Sheila Kuehl, Hilda Solis and Sheriff Jim McDonnell all ran on the promise to make meaningful civilian oversight a priority and a reality. What are they waiting for?  

(Eric Preven is a Studio City based writer-producer and public advocate for better transparency in local government.  He was a candidate in the 2015 election for Los Angeles City Council, 2nd District.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

-cw

 

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 14 Issue 4

Pub: Jan 12, 2016

STADIUM WARS--Decision time is drawing close for the NFL to pick a team or teams to move back to Los Angeles, and this week the three combatants—the San Diego Chargers, Oakland Raiders, and St. Louis Rams—all submitted their official move requests to the league. 

The Rams have a plan to return to LA by way of a $1.86-billion Inglewood stadium, and the Chargers and Raiders have thrown their lot in together to lobby for a $1.7-billion stadium in Carson. Via the LA Times, we're getting a look at the argument one team, the Rams, made in explaining why they and their Inglewood stadium are the best choice for Los Angeles. 

The Inglewood stadium site has the best location, says the Rams; it's centrally located (between four freeways) and will be less than a mile away from a future Crenshaw Line station. The site will also have 12,675 dedicated parking spaces, plus "32,000 parking spaces available within one mile of the stadium and just under 42,000 available within two miles for large events such as the Super Bowl."

  • The Inglewood stadium would rise in an area that, for its association with the now-gone Hollywood Park racetrack and the recently renovated Forum, is already well-known to Angelenos. 
  • The site has all the necessary environmental approvals and has been primed for construction, so it's basically "shovel-ready" right now, according to the application. 
  • The nearly three-million-square-foot stadium would be the NFL's largest, and would be ready to go by 2019. (As the LA Times notes, the previously mentioned completion date was 2018. There's no explanation given for the new, later date.) 
  • But it's not the size of the stadium; it's how you use it. This one would accommodate two teams equally, offering each their own locker rooms, team offices, and owners' suites. (They are exactly the same in size, so no team would get the unfair advantage of larger locker rooms.) That means the Rams could share with, say, the Chargers, as they've said they're open to doing.
  • The clear roof and open sides of the stadium will protect football fans in "inclement weather" and be four degrees cooler in the seating area than an open stadium (excellent for those warm LA days).
  • The Inglewood stadium isn't just bigger than the one in Carson, it's got more seats from general admission up to the suites and club seats, which translates into more potential dollar signs for the NFL. The stadium would have 70,240 seats, plus room for 30,000 more in standing-room only conditions. It would also hold 274 suites and 16,300 premium seats. 
  • An Inglewood Super Bowl could make up to $50 million more than a Carson Super Bowl, say the Rams.
  • The NFL could take up in the multi-use complex rising up alongside the stadium (on the site of the old Hollywood Park racetrack) and create a central "NFL retail and entertainment district" in Inglewood.
  • The neighboring event venue could possibly host NFL-related events like the annual draft selection. "Other potential NFL opportunities on the campus include an NFL retail store, a West Coast wing of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and NFL-themed hotels."
  • LA was the Rams's stomping ground from 1946 to 1994, and people have not forgotten them. An LA Times poll taken in January 2015 showed that 62 percent of the more than 35,000 respondents wanted the Rams to come back to the city. 33 percent of poll-takers sided with the Raiders, and the Chargers only got 5 percent of respondents' support. The results of an NFL focus group in LA showed that "30 out of 53 respondents preferred the Rams to relocate, followed by 17 votes for the Chargers and 6 for the Raiders."
  • Rest assured there will be no money-related hiccups in the project because Rams owner/stadium developer Stan Kroenke is rich and can definitely pull this thing off, plus he's married to a Walmart heiress. 

(Ok, so what it actually says is "Mr. Kroenke, as developer of the Inglewood project, has a demonstrated ability to deliver on large real estate development projects," but they mean pretty much the same thing here.)

(Bianca Barragan is associate editor at CurbedLA.com, where this piece was first posted.)

-cw

 

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 14 Issue 3

Pub: Jan 8, 2016

EDUCATION POLITICS 2015--Under Bennett Kayser’s (photo) leadership, the LAUSD’s Budget, Facilities and Audit (BFA) Committee exposed details of John Deasy’s iPad program that helped lead to the former Superintendent’s resignation. Kayser was rewarded for his efforts with a campaign to unseat him that was heavily funded by the California Charters School Association (CSSA) and other corporate education “reformers.” After an election that included accusations that were not ethically sound, a $25,000 “Voteria” payout to one lucky voter and an attack based on Kayser’s Parkinson's diagnosis, Ref Rodriguez replaced Kayser (photo) on the Board. The effects of this change have already been felt in the District. 

Helping to force the resignation of a Superintendent placed on the Board by Eli Broad was an act that required a tenacity that does not seem to be possessed by the current BFA Committee. For example, after a presentation about the ways that the LAUSD Charter School Division is ignoring reports about violations of the ed code, the current Chairperson, Monica Ratliff, directed the Office of General Counsel (OGC) to look into the accusations. 

Had this instruction been followed, it could have been an important step in making sure that the LAUSD is properly regulating the charter schools under its jurisdiction. Unfortunately, instead of conducting an independent investigation, the OGC “communicated [these concerns] to the Charter Schools Division”, which was ironic considering the entire point of the presentation was to point out that the CSD was already aware of the accusations and that they had chosen not to pursue action. Not surprisingly, the CSD reported back to the OGC “that members of the Charter Schools Division have been working diligently on [these] concerns.” 

This conflicted with what the CSD had previously reported and the fact that corrective actions have still not taken place. With this type of inaction, is there any question how the Rodriguez affiliated “Lakeview Charter Academy was insolvent for nine years” without action by the CSD?  

Ref Rodriguez is more specific in his refusal to listen as he blocks  those who disagree with his viewpoints from his social media pages. Since his Facebook page and Twitter feed are promoted on his LAUSD hosted web site, this makes his censorship an example of government “abridging the freedom of speech”. The OGC tries to justify Rodriguez’ actions with the argument that “under the law, communication, even communication with a government entity, is not unfettered.” So much for the ability of citizens “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” 

As the department responsible for fulfilling public records requests, the OGC also utilizes its power to block the dissemination of information that can influence dialog within the District. Despite the District’s anticipation “that responsive records [would] be available on December 23, 2015”, the OGC has still not released information about Disruptive Parent Letters in response to a request that was made on August 17. 

Additionally, a response to a renewed request for information about the forced retirement of former Food Services head David Binkle has been delayed by the OGC for 14 days because “the District needs to search for and collect the requested records from field facilities or other establishments that are separate from the office processing the request.” In previous correspondence they admitted that they were already in possession of at least two documents but would not release them because at that time they were part of an audit that was “the subject of an ongoing investigation.” 

A District that does not take complaints seriously, blocks stakeholders from social media accounts and refuses to release information to the public does not sound like one that is serious about its goal of “parent and community engagement”. Perhaps this goal is meant to be aspirational like “100 percent attendance” or “100 percent graduation”; achievements that are unattainable but that look good on paper. 

Under this scenario, the LAUSD only has to let the public speak but does not have to listen to what they are saying. However, true engagement requires much more, starting with an OGC that does not work against the interests of the people it is supposed to serve.

 

(Carl Petersen posts at Change the LAUSD and was candidate for the LA School Board. He is an occasional contributor to CityWatch.)

-cw

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 14 Issue 1

Pub: Jan 1, 2016

 

 

 

PLATKIN ON PLANNING--Old planning disputes are still with us: For those with memories going back to the 1980s or curiosity about that decade, the planning disputes now widespread in Los Angeles are an echo of what already took place three decades ago. Then and now, they include gentrification, over-priced housing and the lack of affordable house, rent control and rent stabilization, law suits against City Hall (AB 283), citywide initiatives (e.g., Proposition U) to restrain out-of-control real estate speculation, lack of sufficient infrastructure, mass transit, preservation of residential neighborhoods, overlay ordinances to chill out irate neighborhoods in lieu of citywide fixes, and repeated failures to consider adopted plans when dishing out zoning exceptions. 

In Los Angeles we may have lots of sunshine, but there is not much that is really new underneath that warm sun, such as the protection of single-family neighborhoods, including their character and scale. 

This is why all of LA’s official, legally adopted plans and policy statements, such as the City Planning Commission’s Do Real Planning, are uncompromising in their goal of preserving single-family neighborhoods. 

This not only refers to the basic land use, which is single-family homes, but also to scale and character. It is these policies, in fact, that gave rise the Historical Preservation Overlay Zones of which Los Angeles now has over 30, with many more in the cue. 

They also led to Specific Plans protecting residential areas, such as the Mulholland Corridor Specific Plan and the Mount Washington/Glassell Park Specific Plan. They also resulted in four Residential Floor Area districts, and over 20 short-term Interim Control Ordinances. 

Finally, the policies also prompted re:code LA, an ambitious program that will eventually rezone all residential areas of Los Angeles. Although the final re:code LA zoning ordinances are not yet completed , they are certain to bring forth a tsunami of controversy, especially if they change the use, character, and scale of residential areas. 

Hovering in the background, then and now, is a perpetual fight in Los Angeles between those who view their residences as homes versus those who view them as nothing more than a house. For the former, mostly residents and their neighborhood associations, a home is where they live and raise families, including the surrounding neighborhood. 

But, for the latter, houses and especially the land underneath them, are a commodity that can be bought, sold, or expanded based on a simple calculation: maximization of profit. Legally adopted plans and zones, as well as the myriad of overlay ordinances in Los Angeles, are not tools to protect homes, neighborhoods, and their residents, but regulatory devices that hinder the business of real estate speculation. 

The goal of these speculators is to, hopefully, sweep these ordinances and regulations aside, or, as a backup, make sure there are enough escape hatches embedded in new ordinances so they do not get in their way. 

While this difference between a house and a home might be the common denominator for nearly all of the planning disputes in Los Angeles, it is painfully visible in the disputes over the construction of McMansions in single-family neighborhoods, as well as the closely related construction of tall, narrow, attached homes called small-lot subdivisions.

***

Lessons from Beverly Grove: The neighborhood where I live and that I and other City Watch writers have written about, Beverly Grove, is a living laboratory for these protracted fights. Over a period of ten years and still counting, vocal brokers and contractors conjured up endless greed-is-good arguments to justify their business model. Spinning tall tales to gullible local residents that they were sitting on a pot of gold that could only be accessed through the construction McMansions, they would use third parties to buy small houses from desperate people, illegally demolish their homes, and then quickly build and sell a big, boxy spec house. 

But, just as quickly as the mansionizers could spin their yarns, local residents would rebut them. For example, claims of widespread public support for McMansions evaporated when residents went public with two independent surveys conducted by Council District 5. They both revealed that nearly two-thirds of local residents favored controls on mansionization. Likewise, when tea-bagger type arguments sprouted, such as “No one can tell me what do with my property,” we coolly replied that the purpose of zoning was to protect property values and the quality of life, not just give real estate speculators like them a free rein at the expense of their neighbors. 

Likewise, we also rebutted repeated claims that mansionization raised property values, while ordinances to stop mansionization would reduce property values. We showed that houses next to McMansions lose $50,000 -100,000 in value, even though the overall value of homes in areas protected by overlay ordinances, such as an RFAs and HPOZs, experience the same positive real estate trends as surrounding unprotected areas. 

One of the most ridiculous arguments we easily debunked came from the City Council no less: McMansions increase the supply of affordable housing in Los Angeles. The facts are exactly the opposite. The demolished homes were affordable, while the big, boxy houses cost far more than displaced residents could afford. 

Now that the Beverly Grove Residential Floor Area District has been adopted and enforced for over a year and half, we have other information to share with anyone concerned about mansionization and supportive of City Planning’s efforts to remove the loopholes from the Baseline Mansionization Ordinance. 

First, there is still a robust real estate market in Beverly Grove, with the small houses that used to be demolished now worth more than they were before the RFA. The realtors who predicted doom and gloom are as busy as before trying to buy houses for anonymous people who claim they want to live in our area. The same realtors even use the same gimmick of mass-produced hand-written offers to buy houses. 

Last, but not least, there are plenty of new home improvement projects under way in Beverly Grove, as well as new additions fully permitted by our RFA, and even some totally new RFA-compliant houses. These new houses are not only smaller than the McMansions that are now banned, but some of these new houses are extremely attractive, a charge never leveled against McMansions. 

In fact, we are happy to show any reporters or other doubters around our neighborhood how effective the Beverly Grove RFA has been and how a citywide version, supported by neighborhood groups across Los Angeles, could achieve similar results for nearly 4,000,000 people, rather than about 2000. 

Bottom line, Beverly Grove demonstrates that homes values are fully compatible with good design and the preservations character, scale, and quality of life. 

It also demonstrates that the reincarnation of Proposition U, the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, would do far more to transform Los Angeles into a global city, than periodic waves of deregulated real estate speculation, whether McMansions, small lot subdivisions, or over height mega-projects.  

Blade Runner imagines what a deregulated Los Angeles would look like.

 

(Dick Platkin reports on local planning issues in Los Angeles for CityWatch. He is a former LA City Planner, who now serves on the Board of the Beverly Wilshire Homes Association and the East Hollywood Neighborhood Council Planning Committee. Please send any comments or corrections to rhplatkin@gmail.com.) 

-cw

 

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 14 Issue 1

Pub: Jan 1, 2016

EASTSIDER-Recently the folks at Naked Capitalism posted a damning article about CalPERS hiring a sleazeball outside fiduciary Counsel, based on the staff recommendations carefully crafted by its CEO, Anne Stausboll. (Photo) 

This got my attention, so I started to give the issue a closer look. 

First, you should understand that for the majority of classifications in a big state system like CalPERS, selection of employees is governed by the California State Personnel Board. That system is designed, however imperfectly, to put the public service in charge of our hiring process instead of the folks on top being able to hire their buddies, or worse. That’s why we have a civil service examination process; that’s why we have the requirement that agencies can only hire from those on a ranked examination list. 

The fly in this ointment, however, is exempt jobs -- such as the outside fiduciary counsel to CalPERS. For these types of jobs, there is no statutory requirement to go through the State Personnel Board, nor is there much specific legal criteria for hiring, other than the requirement that the CalPERS Board must take the final vote to hire. 

At the same time, this is an immensely critical job -- in fact, many of the very problems of corruption and manipulation which got Anne Stausboll her job in 2008 had to do with exactly this kind of issue -- fiduciary responsibility. In the prior case, then CEO Fred Buenrostro wound up charged and convicted of fraud and manipulation when he played footsie with Board member Alfred Villalobos, as they manipulated the pension fund’s investment decisions. I should note that Villalobos committed suicide in 2015 as he was about to face trial. 

Had the fiduciary counsel to the Board been doing their job back then, (or for that matter had key staff employees stepped up,) the fraud and manipulation would have been much more difficult to conceal. Moreover, the Board might have been able to take affirmative action in a timely manner, avoiding hundreds of millions in damages to the fund and over a decade of litigation. In fact, since Ms. Stausboll was the Chief Operating Investment Officer from 2004-2008, she can’t very well claim that she doesn’t understand such issues. 

So, within this context, let’s see how CalPERS handled the selection of their new fiduciary board counsel Robert Klausner, whose claim to fame would seem to be that of a “pay to play” scheme with Jacksonville’s Police and Fire Pension Fund. In addition, he represented the Louisiana State Employees Retirement System, home to such paragons of governance as the infamous Huey ‘The Kingfish’ Long. And just to put the icing on the cake, Mr. Klausner is not even licensed as an attorney in the State of California! 

Back to the analysis. First, I asked myself, how would a topnotch CEO handle the hiring process of such a key position for a Board of a $300 billion agency with over 2700 employees? Normally, you would go out and find a reputable consultant who manages these types of employment decisions as their main job function, and who have a proven track record. In conjunction with staff, they would prepare a list of minimum qualifications and desirable qualifications, reference lists, and outreach methodology. 

From there he or she would develop a pool of at least 10-20 potential consultants, and set up an interview panel of people who are knowledgeable in the subject matter, but who do not work for the agency in any capacity. That interview panel would then meet and score the potential consultants, usually with face-to-face meetings. There would be a scoring sheet process used to limit the final list of candidates to three or four. 

From there, the CEO would present a final list of candidates to the Board, answering any questions, and have the Board conduct the final interview process to determine the ultimate hire for outside fiduciary counsel. Typically an appointment such as this would be for a three year period, which guarantees a timely and periodic review process. 

Notice that such a process keeps the staff out of the hiring decision, insulating both themselves and the Board from any hint of impropriety, and providing a timely feedback loop. 

Now let’s see how Anne Stausboll handled it. First, CalPERS Interim General Counsel Gina Ratto sent out with a memo in March 2014 to “All Interested Parties” regarding the search for an Outside Fiduciary Counsel. The stated purpose of the search was to find someone who would “advise the CalPERS Board of Administration on questions of fiduciary duty.” 

However, three paragraphs later, the position was redefined as “CalPERS outside fiduciary counsel respond to opinion requests from the CalPERS Board and staff, directed through the System’s General Counsel.” (Emphasis added) My reading of this language is that the fix was already being put into place, giving the outside fiduciary counsel a de facto dual reporting relationship -- with everything going through or vetted by the CalPERS General Counsel. You know, the one the CEO controls. 

We next discover in an August memo that the General Counsel and Deputy Counsel have signed off on an analysis that carefully sidesteps how bad the selection process has been. For example, we discover that outreach has been negligible -- they report that in looking for fiduciary counsel for the largest public pension plan in the United States for a five year contract, only ten firms have provided bids. And yet “staff” seemed to be overwhelmed by this number and had to set up a special Interview Panel! 

Buried in this document is the fact that “staff”, whoever they are, had winnowed down the overwhelming number of 10 applicants to five who would be eligible to be interviewed by this special panel. There is absolutely no explanation as to what process, if any, was used to cull out half of the applicants. 

Even better, let’s see who was on this interview panel: Anne Stausboll and a large subset of her executive management team -- Chief Financial Officer, General Counsel, Deputy General Counsel, and Senior Investment Officer for Real Estate, virtually all of whom had been hired by and/or report to CEO Stausboll. This panel interviewed the five firms and then, based on their internal “consensus”, wound up recommending two firms for Board consideration. 

I wouldn’t be this harsh except that this hiring process was hardly the “open and transparent” new CalPERS that the CEO promised when she took over from her indicted predecessor in 2008. And note that the staff recommendation was for only two, not the traditional three, firms to be considered by the Board -- with a throwaway line in the memo that, if the Board really wanted to be bothered with three firms, they could consider the other of the two current fiduciary outside firms. 

At the Board meeting, the Board was given a push by staff to hire the bright and shiny new Florida law firm of Robert Klausner -- instead of the old and boring incumbent firm, Reed Smith. I should point out that Robert Klausner is not even licensed to practice law in the State of California, yet the minimum qualifications for the position clearly require attorneys who are licensed in California. 

The staff response to such quibbles is that Mr. Klausner employs attorneys who are licensed in California. How reassuring. Just like their glossing over Klausner’s scandal ridden past, as reported in the Naked Capitalism article, even though the solicitation document required the following:

 

“Please provide a description of legal proceedings (including grand jury proceedings) brought against the firm, any of its business entities, or persons or entities providing services to, or on behalf of the firm or any of its business entities as part of the proposal...”

 

C’mon folks. This process was embarrassing -- just read back to how an actual honest to golly neutral hiring process should work. And then note how staff slid this mess over on the Board without much push back -- except for JJ Jelincic, one of the two system wide Board Members, who stood out by pushing back against this travesty of a hiring process. Kudos to him.

 

Jelincic’s reward was to be marginalized. If history is a guide, the “go along to get along” faction of the Board, as well as staff, will be looking to try and get rid of him for actually doing his job as a Board member. 

 

On that note, I was personally surprised at the tepid questioning of this process by Richard Costigan, the designated representative of the California State Personnel Board. If SPB staff tried to run an examination or hiring process as inherently fixed as this one was, they would be hammered and rightly so.

 

Just in case you think I’m being an alarmist, one of Mr. Klausner’s first acts was to suggest that the Board meets too often -- that they should consider quarterly meetings. You betcha. While it is true that some things work best in the dark, this is a startling position for someone who purports to be the brand new fiduciary counsel of the new “open and transparent” CalPERS. 

 

If you are a beneficiary of CalPERS, or part of the 1.7 million folks who are a part of the CalPERS family, you should be worried. These are our pensions, and we -- and ultimately the taxpayers of the State of California -- are on the hook for these monies. If the Board and staff are going to ignore their fiduciary responsibilities as they have in the past, we are potentially in a world of hurt. Consider sending an email, picking up a phone, or (gasp) even writing a letter to the Board and/or your elected State officials.

 

(Tony Butka is an Eastside community activist, who has served on a neighborhood council, has a background in government and is a contributor to CityWatch.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

-cw

 

CityWatch

Vol 13 Issue 98

Pub: Dec 4, 2015

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