CAN THEY CO-EXIST?--California is now the capital of liberal America. Along with its neighbors Oregon and Washington, it will be a nation within the nation starting in January when the federal government goes dark. In sharp contrast to much of the rest of the nation, Californians preferred Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump by a 2-to-1 margin. They also voted to extend a state tax surcharge on the wealthy, and adopt local housing and transportation measures along with a slew of local tax increases and bond proposals.
In other words, California is the opposite of Trumpland.
The differences go even deeper. For years, conservatives have been saying that a healthy economy depends on low taxes, few regulations and low wages.
Are conservatives right? At the one end of the scale are Kansas and Texas, with among the nation’s lowest taxes, least regulations and lowest wages.
At the other end is California, with among the nation’s highest taxes, especially on the wealthy; toughest regulations, particularly when it comes to the environment; most ambitious healthcare system, that insures more than 12 million poor Californians, in partnership with Medicaid; and high wages.
So according to conservative doctrine, Kansas and Texas ought to be booming, and California ought to be in the pits.
Actually, it’s just the opposite.
For several years, Kansas’s rate of economic growth has been the worst in the nation. Last year its economy actually shrank.
Texas hasn’t been doing all that much better. Its rate of job growth has been below the national average. Retail sales are way down. The value of Texas exports has been dropping.
But what about so-called over-taxed, over-regulated, high-wage California?
California leads the nation in the rate of economic growth -- more than twice the national average. If it were a separate nation it would now be the sixth largest economy in the world. Its population has surged to 39 million (up 5 percent since 2010).
California is home to the nation’s fastest-growing and most innovative industries – entertainment and high tech. It incubates more startups than anywhere else in the world.
In other words, conservatives have it exactly backwards.
Why are Kansas and Texas doing so badly, and California so well?
For one thing, taxes enable states to invest in their people. The University of California is the best system of public higher education in America. Add in the state’s network of community colleges, state colleges, research institutions, and you have an unparalleled source of research, and a powerful engine of upward mobility.
Kansas and Texas haven’t been investing nearly to the same extent.
California also provides services to a diverse population, including a large percentage of immigrants. Donald Trump to the contrary, such diversity is a huge plus. Both Hollywood and Silicon Valley have thrived on the ideas and energies of new immigrants.
Meanwhile, California’s regulations protect the public health and the state’s natural beauty, which also draws people to the state – including talented people who could settle anywhere.
Wages are high in California because the economy is growing so fast employers have to pay more for workers. That’s not a bad thing. After all, the goal isn’t just growth. It’s a high standard of living.
In fairness, Texas’s problems are also linked to the oil bust. But that’s really no excuse because Texas has failed to diversify its economy. Here again, it hasn’t made adequate investments.
California is far from perfect. A housing shortage has driven rents and home prices into the stratosphere. Roads are clogged. Its public schools used to be the best in the nation but are now among the worst – largely because of a proposition approved by voters in 1978 that’s strangled local school financing. Much more needs to be done.
But overall, the contrast is clear. Economic success depends on tax revenues that go into public investments, and regulations that protect the environment and public health. And true economic success results in high wages.
I’m not sure how Trumpland and California will coexist in coming years. I’m already hearing murmurs of secession by Golden Staters, and of federal intrusions by the incipient Trump administration.
But so far, California gives lie to the conservative dictum that low taxes, few regulations, and low wages are the keys economic success. Trumpland should take note.
(Robert Reich is Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy, University of California at Berkeley and the author of Aftershock: The Next Economy and America's Future, now in bookstores. This post originally appeared at RobertReich.org.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.
GELFAND’S WORLD--Here is a curious story that follows on the Seabreeze scandal. You may recall that the Seabreeze developers put a little more than half a million dollars into the accounts of local politicians. They got their way on the development, in spite of local protests. The LA Times story mentioned that Council District 15's councilman Joe Buscaino (photo above) was the recipient of $90,000 of that money. Buscaino is quoted in a news story (and telling a radio interviewer) that the way the money was allegedly collected, if true, is illegal. That's the word he used.
So the next time we had a local neighborhood council meeting, I asked the councilman's representative about that money. I asked, "Has he made any decision about giving it back?"
It seems like an obvious question. It also seems like a question that the councilman would love to answer if he is really on the up and up. So what answer did I get?
Like I said, the story is curious because the answer was curious. I was told that I would have to ask the campaign, because this is a campaign matter.
I can sympathize with the councilman's representative, because he was in the position that Tom Wolfe referred to as a "flak catcher." The rep is there to take flak for an elected official who isn't going to come to the meeting. There's no easy way out for a question like this. If he says that the money will be donated to charity, that is something of an admission that the councilman accepted a bad campaign contribution. If he doesn't say so, then the public is left to think that the councilman is holding onto $90,000 worth of tainted money. Still, there is every reason for the politician to answer the question immediately because otherwise, it will keep coming up and thereby do much more political damage than if it were answered promptly.
But instead we got this gobbledygook of a non-answer.
Sorry, but the question goes well beyond campaign finance by itself. It is relevant because it bears on the performance of the office and on the public's evaluation of the job being carried out by the councilman. Crooked or straight? Straightforward or evasive?
It's a stretch to try to convince people that the staffers are avoiding answering the question out of ethical considerations. Yes, it's important to keep the staffers from taking on electoral jobs while they are being paid by the city for city work. But this question wasn't inviting the staffer to hand out campaign literature or sing the official campaign song. It was an invitation to inform the public that the office is not compromised by dirty money. The evasion by councilman Buscaino's representative seemed fishy.
Having $90,000 of illegal money in your bank account ought to be embarrassing. It's hard to imagine the councilman not having a prepared answer. Its equally hard to imagine the councilman's staff not being coached in how to give that answer.
But no. As of now, the people of San Pedro represented by the neighborhood council haven't had their question answered. The question goes right to the issue of ethics in campaigning.
Thanks to Tony and Dan for taking up the stakeholder definition argument
I have been singularly honored this year by having my City Watch column on neighborhood council stakeholder status be answered by two (count 'em) columns which call me by name and disagree with my views. Tony Butka and Dr Dan Wiseman have added to a debate which began before there were neighborhood councils, continued with the Neighborhood Council Review Commission, and survives to the present day. I'd like to offer a couple of recent thoughts on the matter. But first, I'd like to mention a definitive piece on the origins, political and philosophical, of the system.
I would love to be able to say that I wrote that piece, but the honor goes to Robert Greene's article "Not in my neighborhood council," published in the August 26, 2004 edition of LA Weekly. It's been 12 years since that article came out, and a lot has changed, but the overview of how the councils were formed out of a mass of confusion and self-contradictory rules was true back then and continues to define us even now. Here's just one example. The legal requirement was that each neighborhood council be diverse, but the law didn't explain how to reconcile that rule with the reality of voters who select non-diverse governing boards. In practice, the city government has figured out that allowing the voters to select their own representatives, no matter how non-diverse they may be, is the way to go.
An issue that Greene pointed out was the tension between competing ideals: the neighborhood council as the people's lobbyist vs. the neighborhood council as just another of the city's governmental go-alongs. (As an example of this tension, imagine how a council operating as the people's lobbyist would have handled the Seabreeze scandal. The question should at least have appeared on the agenda!)
I suspect that it is these built in contradictions that continue to drive the discussion of what a neighborhood council should be, and in particular, how we should define who gets to vote in a neighborhood council's election. I've presented an argument that limiting voting rights to residents of the neighborhood council district makes a lot of sense for a number of reasons. Still, I would be the first to admit that my proposal limits the scope of participation at the electoral level.
My argument was that limiting electoral participation strengthened the effectiveness of each council by defining it as the true spokesman for a particular group of residents. Specifically, your City Council representative understands that you represent his constituency when he hears from you. To the extent that he sees you as a statistical sample of his entire voting constituency, he will take your views seriously.
The alternative -- wider participation by geographic outsiders -- certainly broadens the scope of who can play in any one council. Whether it ultimately improves city government or lessens the effectiveness of the councils by making them look less representative to the members of the City Council is one key question. The other key question is whether the current definition is so broad that it seriously harms our ability to do business. I think Dr Wiseman has sketched out his vision of a broader system for stakeholder status quite nicely. I suspect that ultimately, our disagreement on this point is a value judgment. I can't prove that he is wrong because his argument is logical. My argument is equally logical, but based on a different vision of what the councils are for.
One thought that keeps occurring to me is that our neighborhood councils are way too large, particularly when you think about a neighborhood unit that is designed to prepare for a large disaster. A population much larger than about 4000 is getting to be too big. A group of 4-5000 people is optimum for citizen participation; at least some studies have suggested this. Instead, we have neighborhood councils that range from about 20,000 up to four and five times this number. Lots of smaller councils with proportionately smaller budgets would be better for disaster preparedness and, I suspect, for citizen participation. How such a system would work with regard to City Council relationships is a harder question, to be left for another day.
The idea here is not to pound on theoretical niceties, but to consider the practicalities. If our city had a thousand small groups instead of about a hundred large groups, the smaller groups would be getting lots more done in the aggregate. Yes, we would have to develop better regional and citywide alliances, but at least we would have a chance to do great things. It doesn't take a lot of thought to realize that smaller councils would be more likely to represent the immediate concerns of residents rather than trying to be all things to all people.
One other thought. I notice that a lot of neighborhood councils, including those in my own region, take a lot of time and resources to communicate to their stakeholders. Unfortunately, they seem to be spending the most effort just in communicating their own existence. It's not a bad idea to use your communications resources to build up the number of participants, but this is just the first part of what should be the goal. The next part is to become the go-to organization for your constituents to voice their concerns. But you're still not done. The real goal is to turn the information you've received from your constituents into political power being used on behalf of their views.
Communications is not the game. It's just one tool. Political power used on behalf of your constituents is the goal.
(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
AN ALTERNATIVE TO WALLED-OFF US--On Tuesday Nov. 8, Californians voted in record numbers to reaffirm our commitment to freedom, openness and really just basic human decency. This fundamental difference in values offers an alternative future for America and indeed the world.
Civilizations succeed when they open themselves to new ideas and new people from new places. There is nothing great in closing off a country from the world. Simply compare the backwardness of inward-looking medieval Europe – filled with castle walls – to the flourishing in the open minded Renaissance.
As an alternative to a walled off America, California builds bridges to every corner of the globe. Every iconic Apple product says “designed in California,” and Hollywood movies inspire millions. That open and imaginative attitude is exactly what the world needs to build a bright future.
Today, Californians work to automate driving, pioneer personalized medicine and colonize Mars. Under Gov. Jerry Brown’s leadership, California’s economy has growth to the sixth largest economy in the world, and our once-troubled state finances have stabilized.
Yes, California still has its share of problems. Housing costs prohibit all but the creative elite from affording life in too much of coastal California. Too many of our roads are chock full of potholes. The quality of too many of our kids’ schools is too often a function of the zip code they live in. And a lingering drought challenges us to do more to prepare for an uncertain water future.
Yet fundamentally, there is nothing wrong with California that cannot be addressed by what is right with California. Gov. Brown’s call for common sense reforms could lower housing costs. New sensors can map potholes radically more affordably and comprehensively.
The web can connect students with opportunities unimaginable a generation ago and help us move beyond our one-size-fits-all public education system. And new data technologies enable new ways to measure and thus better manage California’s precious water resources.
Today there is a global crisis of confidence in our basic public institutions. Meanwhile, ultimately none of those promising pilots linked above are certain. Ultimately, they simply highlight a new frontier for public problem solving. Of course, the pioneers’ journey by land and sea to California was far from certain as well.
Today’s challenges offer a golden opportunity for Californians to bring that pioneering spirit to bear on our pressing public problems. America – and indeed the world – needs nothing less from California today.
(Patrick Atwater is an author, entrepreneur and frequent Calbuzz commentator. He currently runs a big water data project to prepare California to adapt to our historic drought and whatever the future holds. This perspective was posted first at Cal Buzz.)
TRUMP’S MOST IMPORTANT PICK-As the Trump Transition careens along, proposing that free speech be sanctioned by depriving Americans their U.S. citizenship, we come to the most important appointment – California’s Steven Mnuchin as Secretary of Treasury.
As explained previously in a CityWatch article, Little Timmy Giethner turned Obama’s Administration into an American tragedy, setting the stage for the rise of Trumpism. Rather than risk being turned into a pillar of salt like Lot’s wife for looking back upon destruction, let’s affix our gaze to the future.
What are the primary duties of the Secretary of the Treasury?
(1) Protect the Price System (aka Price Structure.)
(2) Institute policies to ameliorate the swings of the business cycle. Since we are in a mild upswing, the focus is to protect the economy from the down phase, i.e. recession.
The Price System.
Neither businessmen nor family members can make wise economic decisions without knowing the actual value of everything. If a homeowner is deceived into believing that the true value of healthcare insurance is $1,500 per month when it is only $800 per month, he is losing $700 per month. That is $8,400 per year which simply disappears from his wealth and he gets nothing in return.
On the other hand, if the homeowner is deceived into believing that a healthcare plan will insure his family for only $300 per month, but when a catastrophic illness befalls the family, he discovers that it pays only 45% of the medical bills, bankruptcy follows the illness.
The law of supply and demand is often invoked along with some quasi-religious belief that if everyone is allowed to lie their heads off about the value of everything, the law of supply and demand will magically arrive at the correct price for everything. Troglodytes who adhere to this theory oppose regulations which would keep false data out of the Price System. Wall Street is filled with thieves who want no regulations on their power to lie, cheat, manipulate and thereby financially devastate the American people.
We saw a fine example of the destruction of the Price System during the Subprime Mortgage frauds where Wall Street firms forced the rating agencies like Standard and Poor to rate junk securities as top grade. This practice was widespread when Henry Merritt "Hank" Paulson, Jr., the last Secretary of the Treasury, who was a scion of Goldman Sachs, reigned supreme in the Bush Administration. As a result of Hank’s treachery, America lost $22 trillion in wealth, but we hasten to add that Little Timmy Geithner gets more than honorable mention in guaranteeing that we’d never have a real recovery.
The first step to protect the Price System is for Secretary Mnuchin to propose a stronger Glass-Steagall law to replace the laughable Dodd-Frank Act. Investment firms need to be restricted to their vital role of raising capital from sophisticated investors for needed projects. They need to be restricted not only as a means to stop trillions of dollars in fraud, but also to make certain that the capitalist system has a functioning institution for raising capital. That can only happen when investment houses have no access to commercial banking funds.
Needless to say, many volumes can be written about protecting the Price System, especially for a society which has just elected a predatory real estate developer to be President. Even prior to the arrival of Trumpism, however, the fraud which has become pandemic in our financial institutions was rotting our economic system: ninety percent of all productivity increases since the Crash of 2008 have gone to the top One Percent.
Secretary Mnuchin’s Duty is to Tame the Business Cycle.
The upswing in the economy is a dangerous return to the Business Cycle with its Booms and Busts. Due to the reactionary economic policies of little Timmy Geithner, the Obama Administration failed to institutionalize additional safeguards to modulate the next Bust Phase. For some reason, people habitually believe that the Boom Phase will last forever. Let’s be blunt about who warned the world that the Boom Phase of any economy has a short life span. GOD told us and GOD told us what to do. People are usually surprised to discover that GOD is the true father of Keynesian Economics.
Way back then, Pharaoh’s dream alerted him to the short life span of the good times. When he did not understand the significance of his dream where the seven lean cows ate the seven fat cows and remained lean, Joseph instructed Pharaoh in the first principle of Keynesian Economics. The wise Pharaoh saves during the fat years so that he can release grain from the storehouses during the lean years and avoid famine. Secretary Mnuchin’s Torah portion seems to have been Parashat Vayaeshev (Genesis 37.1 - 40.23) which stops just before the section where Joseph explains the basics of Keynesian economics to Pharaoh. Shall we mystically wonder whether Secretary Mnuchin is standing on the threshold of perfidy or greatness? Did he peak ahead to Genesis 41 et seq.?
What Economic Policies Should Mnuchin Institute for the Trump Administration?
While the Trump is obsessed with the idea that the boom phase of the business cycle will not only be infinite but should be 6% growth per year, Secretary Mnuchin’s real duty is to institute programs to prepare for the famine years.
The income level on which Social Security contributions are based, for example, needs to be raised immediately. Currently, it stops at an income of $118,500 per year. Social Security payments protect businesses when the economy hits a down turn, but unless the government has saved more funds during the fat years by raising the income level for contributions, the fund will not have accumulated enough money to increase Social Security payments. This measure should have been undertaken in January 2010, but it could not be done due to Little Timmy Geithner’s reactionary policies.
Because private pensions have all but evaporated for the average citizen, Social Security payments need to increase by 5% to 10% per year each over and above the annual increase of the CPI. The problem is that first we needed the seven fat years of increased contributions before we can responsibly increase payments. We do not have that accumulation of cash.
Secretary Mnuchin faces a crisis. The recession will arrive before he has enough time to collect sufficiently more Social Security contributions to have instituted these increased payments. Thus, Secretary Mnuchin needs to maximize contributions as fast as possible so that the increased payments can begin as the recession starts. Ideally, the legislation which increases the contributions will also set an objective benchmark for when to start the increased Social Security payments. Keynesian mechanisms function best when they are automatic, as the politicians are mostly economic ignoramuses who think spending should be cut when a recession starts.
How to Interface Mercantilism with Modern Economics
From what one can tell, Trump’s plan to make America Great Again is a reversion to the Mercantilism of the 1500s to 1600s. That places Trumpism in direct conflict Secretary Mnuchin’s duty to modulate the severity of the Boom and Bust Phases of the Business Cycle.
Will Mnuchin side with the goniff impulsive of Trumpism or will he be a mensch who promotes the general welfare of human beings?
(Richard Lee Abrams is a Los Angeles attorney. He can be reached at: Rickleeabrams@Gmail.com. Abrams views are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of CityWatch.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.
LA WATCHDOG--Earlier this week, Miguel Santana, our highly regarded City Administrative Officer, shocked the City when he announced that he will become the next Chief Executive Officer of the Los Angeles County Fair Association, the controversial nonprofit organization that runs the Fairplex on County owned land in Pomona.
But in July of 2009, everybody thought Miguel had lost his marbles when he agreed to be the City Administrative Officer for the City of Los Angeles. After all, the City was projecting a $2 billion river of red ink over the next two years.
Why would he want to work for the City and report to the 15 bickering nincompoops on the City Council and fiscally irresponsible Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who, along with City Council President Eric Garcetti, approved an overly generous, unsustainable five year, 25% raise for the City’s civilian workers just as the economy was tanking in 2007.
And then Santana, the new kid on the block, picked a fight with the campaign funding leadership of the City’s powerful civilian unions by questioning the economics of the Early Retirement Incentive Program that would have cost the civilian pension plan (and therefore the City and its taxpayers) $600 million over the next 15 years.
But this was just the opportunity that Santana envisioned after he received a Master in Public Administration from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in 2005.
Over the next several years, it was rough sledding as the City was unable to eliminate its Structural Deficit, where personnel expenditures grew faster than revenues. But there was meaningful progress, year after year, despite the constant interference by our Elected Elite.
The civilian unions and the City split the cost on the Early Retirement Incentive Program.
The City was able to spread out the five year, 25% wage increase over seven years, although there was considerable squawking from the unions about all their “sacrifices.”
There was modest pension reform that slowed the rate of growth in the unfunded pension liability.
There were tough decisions as the City was forced to cut projected expenditures year after year to balance the budget. There was even some cooking of the books to balance the budget when the City “banked” police overtime and deferred the maintenance of our streets.
The Structural Deficit became more manageable as the annual anticipated budget gap dropped year after year, from over $300 million in 2011-12 to under $100 million for the upcoming fiscal year beginning July 1, 2017.
Santana helped kill some boneheaded plans, including Villaraigosa’s scheme to sell the City’s parking garages to pay for every day operating expenditures.
Santana, the City’s equivalent of a Chief Financial Officer, also earned the trust of the investment community (who purchased the City’s bonds) and the credit rating agencies by being open and transparent about the City’s finances and its challenges and building a respectable Reserve Fund for emergencies and contingencies.
There were also situations where he put the City interests before those of the citizens. For example, he negotiated the settlement of the $1 billion class action lawsuit involving the Telephone Users’ Tax for a nickel on the dollar. But in his defense, we would have paid the bill, one way or the other. But it represented an opportunity to require the City to place on the ballot a “Live Within Its Means” charter amendment to entice us to approve a new tax to cover this shortfall.
He is also negotiating the settlement of class action litigation involving the illegal 8% Transfer Fee from DWP’s Power System to the City’s General Fund, capping the annual transfer at less than $250 million and waiving past liabilities that are north of $1.5 billion. But the question remains whether the proposed transfer needs to be approved by the voters pursuant to Proposition 26.
Miguel also earns kudos as a manager of his department. He has developed a team of highly qualified, trust worthy individuals who have served as a significant resource for the City Council, the Mayor, and the managers of the City’s departments.
The City still faces significant financial hurdles: a Structural Deficit of close to $100 million next year; an unfunded pension liability of $15 billion that has the possibility of doubling over the next ten years; deferred maintenance north of $10 billion to repair our streets, sidewalks, parks, and the rest of our deteriorating infrastructure; aggressive unions seeking raises exceeding the rate of inflation; and spending pressures from the Mayor and City Council who are unwilling to reform the City’s broken finances.
Of all the people at City Hall, there was nobody who I trusted more than Miguel. I will miss him, his intellect, his rigorous analysis, his directness, his openness, his hard work, his modesty, and his integrity. If not for Miguel, I hate to think of the mess we would be facing.
Thank you, Miguel.
(Jack Humphreville writes LA Watchdog for CityWatch. He is the President of the DWP Advocacy Committee and is the Budget and DWP representative for the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council. He is a Neighborhood Council Budget Advocate. Jack is affiliated with Recycler Classifieds -- www.recycler.com. He can be reached at: email@example.com.)
ALPERN AT LARGE--With all due respect to those who live in a housing project, I think it's safe to say that most of us want to live in a home, and not in a beehive. And with all due respect to those who live in Manhattan or in Downtown LA, I think it's safe to say that most of us would move to those places if we wanted to truly live there.
Similarly, when we ask for a drink of water, we don't want to be firehosed and swept off our feet.
We're in a war of words, a war of paradigms, and a war of math, in the City of the Angels.
Example #1: Mass transit always leads to overdevelopment and traffic, and/or fighting mass transit prevents overdevelopment and traffic.
As time and experience allows us to learn the difference between our fears and our realities, we've seen mass transit and freeways through bad neighborhoods not spruce up the housing and traffic, and we've seen mass transit and freeways through good neighborhoods jack up overdevelopment and traffic.
Which is why our mayor deserves kudos for being a transportation advocate, but also deserves scathing criticism for overdevelopment. Hollywood needs its Red Line, and a north-south link to the developing Purple Line Subway and Crenshaw/LAX light rail line, but then-Councilmember Eric Garcetti of Hollywood pushed through OVERdevelopment.
In other words, despite the good that Garcetti has done for Hollywood, he's also done some bad ... and it's OK for us to both praise and scorn him for his good and bad efforts, respectively (and respectfully).
Similarly, with respect to traffic, those who fought the Expo Line tooth and nail (make it go underground from Overland to Sepulveda, even if it costs $300 million and the LADOT doesn't support it!) also fought the rail bridges. The LADOT worked with electeds to get the Sepulveda rail bridge (which is beautiful and works well), but now we've got a traffic problem on Overland.
Good job, anti-Expo NIMBY's, because the Expo Line Authority DID have a plan to elevate the Expo Line at Overland, and the LADOT recommended a rail bridge there, but by insisting that everything be underground, we now have a street level Expo Line crossing at Overland that is the problem everyone knew it would be.
So let's get over the "mass transit always leads to this, or fighting mass transit leads to that", because common sense comes from all over, and stupidity, greed, and narcissism also comes from all over.
Example #2: Addressing Affordable Housing always leads to megadevelopment, and we've got to get used to big monster projects.
Nonsense. Poppycock. Garbage. We've created stupid megadevelopment before mass transit, and we're doing it during mass transit, and if we'd voted down Measure M and voted to end all new mass transit tomorrow, our city leaders and its crony-capitalism developer clique would still advocate for overdevelopment.
No one but NO ONE has a realistic chance of fighting a big development downtown, or on the Wilshire corridor, or wherever a "downtown" atmosphere/planning zone is SUPPOSED to be, but there's always a fight to avoid making the City into a series of Downtowns and create a new traffic jam all over again.
And I suppose that uberdeveloper Pamela Day, an acolyte of the "Alan Casden school of overdevelopment" deserves a big "thank you" for her honesty when she spoke her true feelings at a Planning town hall regarding an 80+ foot-tall project in a 30-40-foot-tall corridor about how she thought Mar Vista was a lousy place to live, and insulted Mar Vistans as a whole.
Fortunately, we've got Councilmember Mike Bonin and his team to remind Ms. Day and her team that 80+ foot-tall projects is still too damned high in the suburbs, and that her financial betterment isn't the driving force as to whether her project should be approved, and that infuriating the neighbors while threatening traffic, parking, and blocking out the sun is probably a bad, bad, BAD idea.
Similar to signage, there's proper compromise, and then there's urban blight. And if the public sees a bad idea, then the public's elected leaders should represent them.
People want HOMES and NOT PROJECTS. Housing, not beehives. We could create 2-4 story-tall projects throughout the city (and both north AND south of the I-10 freeway!) to create sustainable, delightful, and happy apartments, condos, and townhomes to address the needs of those who want a place to call "home".
And when we create tall megadevelopments, they should be located where they make sense, and require lots of mitigation to acknowledge the impacts these megadevelopments have on their taxpaying neighbors (who still, believe it or not, have rights, too).
Example #3: The sidewalks are too expensive to be fixed, and too challenging a project to fix in 5-7 years.
One of the main reasons that Angelenos had some misgivings about Measure M was that it didn't fix the sidewalks quick enough, and provide enough rapid funding to address this horrible problem. But Measure M was one of the best ways to get some funding, and to get the ball rolling for private-public and other funding initiatives, to address our sidewalks. So it was passed.
But today, after the bruising and drama-laden election cycle that ended in November 2016, we've got new battles to fight.
Any and ALL mitigation for new light rail lines and rapid bus lines should involve and include a prioritization of fixing the major commercial corridors adjacent to all major rail and bus stops--and with a timeframe of 3-5 years.
Street Services, Public Works, the LADOT, Metro, and Neighborhood Councils should derive lists of the most major sidewalk fixes (and ADA-compliant sidewalk carveouts for the handicapped and for bicycles to reach their destinations) with a 3-5 year goal of fixing those problems first.
And NO development, particularly one with variances, should be allowed to escape or avoid the sidewalk repair mitigation funding requirements needed to resolve a "War on Sidewalk Safety".
Commercial/business zones, family-friendly neighborhoods, areas fighting urban blight, and mass transit all have something in common: keep the sidewalks safe, clean, and user-friendly.
And with spring 2017, with all of its City Council races, and the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative on the ballot, the time is NOW to demand that the right balance of common sense be applied to ensure we build (but don't overbuild) the right Los Angeles for the 21st Century.
(Kenneth S. Alpern, M.D. is a dermatologist who has served in clinics in Los Angeles, Orange, and Riverside Counties. He is also a Westside Village Zone Director and Board member of the Mar Vista Community Council (MVCC), previously co-chaired its Planning and Outreach Committees, and currently is Co-Chair of its MVCC Transportation/Infrastructure Committee. He is co-chair of the CD11Transportation Advisory Committee and chairs the nonprofit Transit Coalition, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He also co-chairs the grassroots Friends of the Green Line at www.fogl.us. The views expressed in this article are solely those of Dr. Alpern.)
EASTSIDER-Is homelessness a real problem in LA? You betchy. Should we do something about it? Of course. Can the LA City Council handle the problem? So far, indications aren’t good.
In the run up to passing a $1.2 billion dollar bond measure on November 8, the LA City Council was all over the problem of homelessness. I mean, we had committees, plans, pontification and platitudes galore. Political fodder of the highest order, but what was underneath the rhetoric?
Speaking as a recovering bureaucrat, I have noticed that public agencies handle their documents in two very different ways. When they are serious and want to do something odious, the documents are usually a black and white memo, full of technical jargon and indecipherable gobbledygook. On the other hand, when they want to sell snow in the wintertime to the public, it’s an entirely different deal. In this case, they write huge full color documents, with pretty color charts and graphs and tons of headings and subheadings which prove that they know what they are doing and so you should trust them. The City’s Comprehensive Homeless Strategy is a shining example, and you can find it here.
Be forewarned, it will take a while to even load the document in your browser, since it is a 300 page piece of dazzling you know what. The glitz starts on page 7 and goes on and on. I found a particularly pretty color flow chart on page 18 that shows all the public and private agencies that work together on this knotty problem.
For a shorter and even flashier version, check out the Mayor’s summary version of how the Mayor is single handedly transforming LA into the vanguard of homelessness solutions.
If you look at the fine print, the City of Los Angeles has already pledged allocating $100 million in the budget towards the problem, which they recognized was a drop in the bucket. The Committee working on this was led by no other than Jose Huizar, whose PLUM Committee has created plenty of homelessness by blessing every developer’s dream over the last few years.
A key part of the City’s Plan has been to use City owned property to provide quick housing. Indeed, City Controller Ron Galperin has developed a very cool database to map the approximately 9000 city properties which may be underutilized. For a good read on how this came to happen and how it works, check out this article at The Planning Report.
After all this, the first public report on the homeless strategy progress was released by the Homeless Strategy Committee on November 7. It’s a good example of a “serious” memo, black and white, full of technical jargon.
The reason for the report’s awkward language is pretty clear -- the core first steps relating to “crisis response” efforts aren’t going that well. As the LA Times put it, “Proposals for storage lockers and toilets for street dwellers are stalled, new shelter capacity is being added at a trickle, and the city bureaucracy moving more slowly than some council members expected.”
Buried in the report is the fact that it was community opposition that derailed storage facilities in Venice and San Pedro, and CD 9’s La Opinion site turned out to be no good “due to the rehabilitation cost.”
Also, the 9th District Court of Appeals torpedoed the Council’s hot flash vision of a Citywide Safe Parking Program. So back to the drawing board on that one.
You have to wonder how much use Ron Galperin’s database of city owned properties is going to be in the face of all of this pushback. Using city owned properties was a key element in providing supportive housing for the homeless.
Speaking of Quick Homeless Housing.
Part of phase one of the City’s ambitious 300 page Comprehensive Homeless Strategy was to provide quick, permanent supportive homeless housing on some 12 city-owned parcels. A big part of this plan was to establish a list of prequalified developers who could quickly build on those parcels. This list ultimately included 39 developers and recommendations for the disposition of the twelve parcels.
Well, that didn’t last long. In a mid-November move, the recommendations had suddenly winnowed down to four developers, and the types of housing now magically include “Permanent Supportive Housing, Affordable Multifamily Housing, Mixed-Income Housing, Affordable Homeownership,” and my favorite, “Innovative Methods of Housing.”
Also, the 12 parcels are now down to 10, with the staff recommendation that the other two parcels be sold off on the grounds that “there are no recommended proposals for these sites.” The money, of course, will go to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund.
So what we are left with in the initial phases of LA City’s master plan for homelessness are 4 developers who are authorized to build affordable housing or anything “innovative.” Great.
What Can We Expect for Our $1.2 Billion Bond?
In a heartwarming, if naive expression of faith, over 76% of the voters approved Measure HHH on November 8, authorizing the sale of $1.2 billion in bonds to pay for about 10,000 units of affordable permanent-supportive housing in the next 10 years. It is the major long-term component of the City’s Comprehensive Homeless Strategy.
Take a look at KPPC’s article on 10 things you need to know about measure HHH to see what the promises were in hyping the bond measure, as well as the fears.
If you contrast the bond measure rhetoric with what the City has actually done so far, the disconnect looms like the Grand Canyon. Affordable housing is not permanent-supportive housing; it’s simply another opportunity for real estate developers to make money building more housing. And if the 12 parcels already identified have shrunk to 10 already, where are all of these 10,000 units going to be built? Furthermore, if you believe the cost per unit for this housing, then I invite you to my lottery for the 6th Street Bridge.
Don’t misunderstand. Homelessness is really important, but so far, the efforts of the Council don’t seem to be remotely on track to provide the 500 units of supportive housing and key “crisis response” that was promised. As the City stated in the Executive Summary of their very own Comprehensive Homeless Strategy document:
“In the short-term, the City must enhance its existing homeless shelter system and transform shelter beds into bridge housing by including homeless case management and integrating supportive health and social services from the County at appropriate levels of caseload via the CES.”
Since the ability to sell bonds is not a requirement to sell the bonds, I urge all Angelenos to closely monitor the Mayor/City Council machine as they continue to try and implement their grand design. If they can’t get it right on what they have already promised to do without the bond money, maybe they should not sell bonds at all until and unless they get their act together.
This should be about our surging homeless population, not politics as usual.
One can dream...
(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.) Photo: Elizabeth Daniels/LA Curbed.
Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.
GUEST COMMENTARY--Think of a typical college town: bars and dispensaries galore, miles of bike lanes and stores that appeal to students. Now think of Westwood: two bars, virtually no bike lanes and full of niche stores like Sur La Table and Paper Source with almost no use for students.
The blame falls on the Westwood Neighborhood Council, which has favored high-end retailers instead of ones serving student interests. The council has a distinct lack of student representation, a problem made worse by the fact that it extended its member term length from two to four years.
Supply and demand principles should govern Westwood stores instead of the outlandish desire to see expensive, Beverly Hills-type retailers in a part of Los Angeles dominated by university students.
And the problem isn’t just with business. Last year, the neighborhood council opposed creating a bike lane on Westwood Boulevard. A bike lane would benefit students commuting from south of Wilshire Boulevard as well as people traveling to Westwood. Instead, the council somehow devised the logic that a bike lane would actually make the road more dangerous for cyclists. This is like saying, “Let’s not build lanes for cars; it’ll make the road more dangerous for them.” When pressed for explanation, Councilwoman Lisa Chapman did not respond for comment. Contact Chapman or Councilman Paul Koretz if you agree with this logic and give them a hearty congratulations for concocting something so bizarre.
Despite the recent statewide legalization of recreational marijuana, Westwood Neighborhood Council Vice President Sandy Brown opposes the opening of marijuana dispensaries in Westwood. She fears they would harm its retail scene. When pressed on the issue, Brown became defensive and said, “(Students) can’t own the town. The town needs to represent the people who pay the taxes.”
Except students are far from owning the town. If Brown doesn’t want to address students’ desires, she would be more fit to preside over the neighboring Century City where the median age is 46, not the vibrant, young Westwood with a median age of 27. Brown, along with the rest of the neighborhood council, needs to acknowledge Westwood’s plurality of students, better represent them and in turn, attract more students and their money to Westwood.
The neighborhood council should support a recreational marijuana dispensary in Westwood and stop foolishly dismissing an opportunity to raise money for the city, the county and the state, especially considering most marijuana users fall within Westwood’s college-dominated age range. Yet Brown believes she knows best for Westwood, all while disregarding the thousands of students who indirectly pay property taxes through apartment rent, sales tax on purchases and income tax on revenues.
The neighborhood council isn’t the only association trying to keep Westwood from becoming the college town it’s meant to be. Steve Sann, chairman of the Westwood Community Council constantly reminds the community of the two organizations’ differences, but neither of the two councils seem to have students’ interests at heart.
Sann thinks that retail environments thrive with complementary uses to each other and thus, that a marijuana dispensary would offset expensive stores like Sur La Table. He consistently mentions The Grove while providing examples of how Westwood’s retail scene should operate. Once again, a council member neglects Westwood’s college-age demographics and their needs in contrast to those of high-class shoppers.
Westwood has the potential to be a unique place in the west side of LA. In a region full of expensive boutique shops and irritated drivers displeased with bikers and pedestrians, Westwood could have expansive bike lanes and stores and bars that attract students. Westwood could be an alluring college town nestled in a hectic city, but only with the support of the Westwood Neighborhood and Community Councils.
(This Jonathan Friedland perspective was posted originally at The Daily Bruin.)
Graphic credit: Gwen Hollingsworth/Daily Bruin.
THE REAL DEAL SPECIAL REPORT-In the first installation of TRD’s series on the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, we explain the underlying problems with LA’s planning process. We take a look at the issues that gave NII fertile ground to build a movement. Stay tuned this week as we explore the implications of the March ballot measure in depth.
It took 18 months, four public hearings, and at least $100,000 for developer CityView to get a 160-unit student housing complex entitled in University Park, just a mile northeast of the dorm-starved USC.
And this was a lucky one, according to Con Howe, (photo above: right) managing director of the firm’s Los Angeles fund and a former Planning Director. The project had no opponents, he said. If there were protests, the process would’ve dragged on, despite the fact that the site was already zoned for commercial uses.
As NIMBYs square off against developers over the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative — a measure that would put the brakes on most development in the city for two full years — they can at least all agree on one thing: LA’s zoning is a profound mess.
But fixing LA’s arduous entitlement process, outdated community plans and antiquated zoning code will not happen overnight. And certainly not through a two-year suspension on developments, opponents of the ballot measure say.
“There’s just no quick way to do it,” said Christian Redfearn, a professor of real estate and urban policy at USC. In order to “rework the land use process,” he explained, communities need to not only modernize their plans but also put in place guidelines for more by-right opportunities that minimize so-called “spot-zoning,” the process by which the city approves, piecemeal, developers’ requests for exemptions to the zoning code. The subjective nature of the spot-zoning process is one of the NII’s main rallying cries.
Reworking the system is not easy, considering LA has 35 individual community plans, weighed down by countless specific plans, overlays and other conditions. The county’s zoning code itself has not been updated since 1946.
“It’s just a dysfunctional process,” said Gail Goldberg, (photo above: left) the executive director of the Urban Land Institute, who was an LA Planning Director between 2006 and 2010. “I don’t know when or where it went wrong.”
Plans, Overlays, Qs, oh my.
Under the state-mandated General Plan, there are 35 community plans that lay out the vision for LA’s land use infrastructure. Ideally, these plans should be updated every five years to address changing demographics, according to Howe, who served as the city’s Planning Director for 13 years, from 1992 to 2005.
Under his tenure, 33 of the 35 community plans were updated. By the time Goldberg took office in 2006, they were due for another round of modernization. At first, she was granted all the resources to start the process. Then, the recession hit.
“The minute the economy wasn’t great, the first place they cut was planning,” she said. “If they’re going to update the plan now, [the Council] must commit to funding not only this year, but next year and the year after that. It’s a difficult thing to guarantee.”
According to Goldberg, 29 of LA’s 35 plans are currently more than 15 years old.
Beyond money, updating the plan would entail heavy input from the community and approval from City Council. This brings up the costliest factor: time. Goldberg worked on 10 plans during her time in the department. By the time she left, only two were adopted.
Community plans, according to city planner Deborah Kahen, were originally intended to be updated in accordance with the zoning code; the two would go hand-in-hand. A community plan would lay out the vision for a certain region, and the zoning code would record the nitty-gritty logistics.
But when it was first written after World War II, the very sparse code was oriented toward cars and suburban development, said Kahen, who works for the re: code LA program, which was created by the Comprehensive Zoning Code Revision Ordinance to rewrite the code.
These old zones, she said, can’t accommodate modern needs such as sidewalks or signage, so areas instead lobby City Hall or the Planning Department to create specific plans and overlay zones.
In other words, instead of amending the code, city planners have added hundreds of pages of site-specific conditions. Two-thirds of the city is now covered in more than just the zoning code.
“For example, there could be a place that’s zoned R4 -- high-density multifamily. But it could have something called a ‘Q condition,’ which is not easy to find in the books. It’ll say ‘for this region, R4 must have retail,’” Kahen said. “And it’s kind of mind blowing because it’s obviously zoned for multifamily.”
It’s re: code’s job, therefore, to reduce the need for such conditions — sometimes referred to as the phantom city code — so that zones alone could keep up with modern community plans.
Fearing the “D”
In LA, density is a political matter.
Up until 1960, LA had a residential capacity of 10 million people, planning expert Greg Morrow said in Slate. But as real estate politics shifted toward the stronghold of homeowners associations, capacity diminished. Between the 60s and the early 2000s, LA was effectively “downzoned” by 60 percent, his findings show.
Satisfying the dominant single-family interests of the time, height restrictions were enacted and commercial zones were made less flexible. The heaviest blow, however, came in 1986. Proposition U, which failed in the City Council but passed on the ballot, reduced the floor-area ratio of 85 percent of L.A.’s commercial zones by half.
Los Angeles has yet to rebound from its downzoning in the latter half of the 20th century. Findings from a recent study by C. J. Gabbe, a recent PhD graduate of the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, show that between 2002 and 2014, only about 1.1 percent of LA’s total land area had been upzoned.
“The upzoning that occurred since 2002 to present day was a relative blip compared to the massive downzoning in the decades prior to that,” he told TRD.
Experts project that modern-day zoning in LA can house up to 4.2 million people -- this means that LA is already at 95 percent capacity, considering its current population of more than 4 million, according to a January report published by the city.
The NII’s Coalition to Preserve LA, which did not respond to requests to comment for this article, believe a two-year moratorium on all developments seeking a zone change will light a fire under the Council.
But some of NII’s biggest players have been instrumental in stalling planning progress in the past, detractors say. NII’s benefactor, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, hired the attorney who single-handedly defeated the Hollywood Plan update to spearhead its latest litigation against Crescent Heights, the Miami-based developer behind the Palladium Towers (photo, left) project on Sunset Boulevard. The attorney, Robert Silverstein, is known, unofficially, as LA’s most formidable NIMBY crusader.
Sources said the AHF’s Michael Weinstein was also involved in some capacity in the fight against the Hollywood community plan update, but this could not be confirmed, and AHF and the Coalition to Preserve LA did not respond to requests for comment.
In any case, the neighborhood associations that sued with Silverstein against the Hollywood plan were successful. In late 2013, LA County Superior Court Judge Allan Goodman ruled that city leaders did not comply with the California Environmental Quality Act when they approved the plan, which addressed the area’s projected population growth and aimed to increase density in transit zones, such as the intersection of Sunset and Vine.
Now, Hollywood is back to using its 1988 community plan, after the city spent more than a dozen years trying to revamp it, according to Goldberg.
“It’s just disingenuous,” said Howe, the former Planning Director. “The [planning] department spent years on the update. There were over 60 public workshops and hearings and meetings and it was approved through a legal process, and then City Council, and then these people sued.”
In addition to curbing “luxury mega-projects that cause traffic gridlock,” the controversial March ballot measure would “make the City Council do its job, by creating a rational citywide plan for Los Angeles,” the Coalition to Preserve LA’s reads.
The reality is that the city has already taken steps toward a gradual overhaul of the current system. It just may not be happening as fast as the NII — or as developers — would like it to.
There’s the Comprehensive Zoning Code Revision Ordinance, signed by the Council in 2012. The policy assures funding for five years of Planning Department activity to update the 70-year-old zoning code. Then there’s the updates to the he city’s 35 community plans, as well as the broader General Plan, for which Mayor Eric Garcetti will hire 28 new planners. The new staff members will cost the city about $4.2 million a year.
Still, critics say these changes fall short of immediately addressing the city’s dire affordable housing shortage.
Looking out for the little guy
While developers may be gung-ho for higher building capacities, density alone will not heal LA It takes community discussions, which are easier when the rules are clear. The real need, planners say, is just a little bit of certainty, from which both community members — yes, even NIMBYs — and builders can benefit.
“We’re not saying every project should be by-right,” Howe said. “No one should be able to drop an application on the desk of the planning department and say, ‘Here it is.’ You’re supposed to talk about it.”
Right now, only the developers with the resources and money to hire the most clever land use consultants can get their projects through. The dubious Sea Breeze development is a prime example of this flaw. In pursuing approval for the 352-unit development, developer Samuel Leung funneled $600,000 in campaign contributions to local politicians through his employees, friends and relatives, according to an October investigation by the LA Times. If the rules are clearer, Goldberg said, smaller builders will also be able to present their visions for the city.
“It’s hard to build trust,” Goldberg said. “But I believe you can build consensus around the plan if you bring all the right people to the table.”
Updating community plans does not mean resident input will be deemed obsolete. It is embedded in not only the zoning process but also the very ethos of the city, she said.
“There’s never going to be a situation where some can just open up their plans and say ‘alright, I’m gonna set up shop and build right here’ — despite what development opponents may fear.”
(Cathaleen Chen is a national web reporter for The Real Deal, where this piece was first posted.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.
PLATKIN ON PLANNING-By now we have all read news articles that President-elect Donald Trump is a climate change denier, and that his administration will turn back the meager progress made by the Obama Administration’s on climate issues. Meager. This story from the National Geographic is typical:
Trump has long questioned whether climate change is real, and he has dismissed claims that it poses a major threat. In public statements and in his campaign platform, the New York real estate developer and reality TV star has extolled a resurgent U.S. fossil fuel industry, at the expense of existing policies combating climate change. He has also said that he will cut U.S. payments to United Nations climate change programs. The President-elect’s stance on climate change runs counter to physical evidence, near-universal scientific consensus, and analyses by military experts and the U.S. Department of Defense. What’s more, Trump has hinted that he might cut the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, as well as roll back the Obama administration’s Climate Action Plan and associated policies, including participation in the Paris Agreement.
My point, though, is not to repeat this news, but to emphasize that much of the heavy lifting to mitigate and adapt to climate change – including in Los Angeles -- is the responsibility of local officials. Since the Federal Government has done so little on this issue and will do even less under Donald Trump, we must now turn to the vast array of local climate-related programs that can be pursued by households, non-profits, and most importantly by City Hall.
Households: While changes in personal behavior amount to a small amount of the climate picture, we need to ramp them up to spur political change in local government. These personal actions include, but are hardly limited to planting drought tolerant gardens and trees in lie of grass, installing rooftop solar, insulating attics, operating fans instead of 24/7 air conditioning, walking and bicycling, joining a community garden, adopting a no or low meat diet, turning down thermostats, using clothes lines, unplugging appliances, getting rid of old fridges, and even taking shorter showers.
Non-Profits: Because well-intentioned life style changes have minimal cumulative impacts in reducing Green House Gases, the next arena of political action is local non-profit organizations engaged in collective actions to mitigate climate change. Having taught a class on this topic, these are my top ten, but there are dozens of similar groups eager for your help:
- Heal the Bay
- LA Walks
- Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition ]
- Los Angeles Guerilla Gardening
- Neighborhood Council Sustainability Alliance
- Move LA
- Northeast Trees
- Transit Coalition
- Tree People
City Hall: While the contributions of individuals and non-profit organizations are always welcome, they cannot replace local governments’ responses to climate change. The good news is that local governments across the entire planet are stepping up to these tasks. The other good news is that we know, in exact deal, what local governments can do. More specifically, when LA’s current mayor, Eric Garcetti, was elected, UCLA’s Institute for the Environment and Sustainability issued an 82-page report, Vision 2021: A Model Environmental Sustainability Agenda for Los Angeles’s Next Mayor and City Council. This report precisely identified exactly what LA’s Mayor and City Council should undertake to mitigate and adapt to climate change in Los Angeles.
The bad news is that in Los Angeles, despite devastating information about local climate change impacts in the 21st Century, City Hall is only taking baby steps. To counteract this foot-dragging and expected hostile actions from the Trump administration, they must decisively and dramatically change. While I encourage everyone, including our officials, to carefully study the UCLA reports, these are a few of my take-aways from t11 broad policy and program categories.
- Planning: Local government needs to systematically plan for climate change. At present, the Garcetti administration prepared its own Climate Action “pLAn” to unknowingly replace a similar shelf Climate Action “Plan” from the Villaraigosa Administration. But these are only executive documents, not plans in any formal sense because they have not been subject to public hearings, staff reports, debates, and legal adoption. They are not connected to the General Plan and have no connection to its policies, programs, and monitoring for land use, housing, transportation, open space, conservation, public safety, infrastructure, public services, and air quality. These are all General Plan elements, and City Planning intends to update them all. Furthermore, if/when Los Angeles voters adopt the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative in March 2017, the city’s laws, not just professional planning practice, will mandate the total update of the General Plan.
- Priorities: Local government needs to get its priorities straight, and they should not include major public investments that promote automobile driving, whether through freeway expansion or the City Council’s discretionary approvals for auto-centric buildings. Perhaps the most striking example of poor priorities is CalTrans and Metro’s $1.6 billion investment to widen the I-405 Freeway between I-10 and the 101. Despite the additional lanes, just as critics predicted, this highway is still gridlocked. Furthermore, just think of what else could have been done with that enormous pile of money. It costs approximately $5 million per mile to re-pave streets, repair and widen sidewalks, plant trees, upgrade street lights, construct ADA curb cuts, install bicycle infrastructure, and build bus pads and lanes. These 300 plus miles of enhanced corridors could have fixed all LA’s major east-west corridors, such as Sherman Way, Burbank, Melrose, Olympic, Washington, and Slauson. If this had happened, the reductions in the generation of Green House Gases would have vastly exceeded the increased driving resulting from the over-priced 405 widening boondoggle.
- CEQA: The California Environmental Quality Act should be strictly followed since it forecasts increased Green House Gases levels to City officials. The Mayor and the City Council should not ignore these findings by consistently and unanimously approving the most environmentally damaging alternatives with their unverified claims of increased transit use.
- Building Permits: The same environmental approach should apply to projects that the Department of Building and Safety ministerially approves. McMansions, for example, are massive energy hogs that should be stopped in their tracks. Nevertheless, on Tuesday of this week, the City Council’s Planning and Land Use Committee (PLUM) reinserted toxic loopholes into amendments that were supposed to finally cleanup the useless Baseline and Hillside Mansionization ordinances.
- Urban Forest: Of all the infrastructure improvements that City government can make, the urban forest should be at the top of the list. Trees are nature’s own antidotes to high Green House Gas levels, and they also allow rain to percolate into the soil, while creating a tree canopy that shades pedestrian activity.
The question facing Los Angeles’ elected and appointed officials is quite simple. Will they stick to business as usual, which means a few more climate baby steps, largely changes at the Department of Water and Power over electricity generation. Or will they quickly and dramatically move on the 11 climate categories recommended in the UCLA report? Putting in bluntly, will they finally kick their addiction to real estate speculation and devote themselves to the city’s, the region’s, and planet’s future?
(Dick Platkin is a former LA City Planner who reports on local planning issues for CityWatch. He also has taught classes on sustainable city planning at USC’s Price School of Social Policy. He welcomes questions and comments at email@example.com.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.
WHO’S IN CHARGE HERE?--On November 17, the Planning Department announced its latest proposal to change the City’s second dwelling unit (SDU) ordinance. Ostensibly proposing revisions merely to comply with recent state law mandates, the Department has failed to tell City decision-makers and the public that its proposed changes go far beyond what is needed to meet those mandates. The Department’s proposal would fundamentally alter Los Angeles’ existing ordinance, defying the City Council’s recent directive that the Department not propose further changes without first following a “comprehensive, open, transparent process.”
The Department’s November 17 proposal once again reflects its drive to encourage more SDU development – and its insubordinate approach to the City Council. Apparently fixated on allowing oversized and poorly located second units (so-called “granny flats” or accessory dwelling units) in single family residentially zoned neighborhoods throughout the City, the Department again seeks to impose its policy objectives in defiance of a unanimous City Council.
The Planning Department’s First Attempt: An Administrative Decree Rejected by the Superior Court.
This short recap puts this latest Planning Department effort in perspective: In 2010, the Planning Department issued an administrative decree that the State’s “default” standards would apply citywide, rather than the City’s SDU ordinance. The State standards permitted large, family-sized (up to 1,200 square feet) units on virtually any residential lot in the city. By contrast, the City’s SDU ordinance established standards to protect neighborhoods from the negative impacts of inappropriate second unit development. These standards include a 640 square foot maximum for detached SDUs, prohibitions on SDUs in Hillside areas, on substandard streets and in equine-keeping districts, and a minimum lot size requirement to prevent overcrowding.
In February of this year, the Superior Court ruled that the Department’s 2010 decree unlawfully ignored the City’s adopted SDU ordinance.
During the five-year period before the Court’s ruling, nearly half of all issued SDU permits unlawfully exceeded the City’s 640 square foot maximum dimension allowed for “granny flats,” instead often reaching 1,200 square feet, the size of many primary residences.
The Planning Department’s Second Attempt: The Repeal of the City’s SDU Ordinance Thwarted by the City Council.
Following the Superior Court decision, the Department proposed in May that the City Council should fully repeal its protective second unit ordinance so the State’s lenient “default” standards would automatically apply. Notwithstanding that the Department clearly had other options available, the Department vigorously advocated repeal as the “only feasible” alternative and as legally necessary, and it placed the proposed repeal on a “fast track” allowing little public input.
Fortunately, Neighborhood Councils and community groups learned about and strongly opposed the Planning Department’s ill-advised repeal proposal and showed that the repeal was not legally necessary. Most importantly, they showed that the influx of large second units would severely detract from the quality and character of many single-family neighborhoods.
On August 31, 2016, after a long closed session, the City Council unanimously rejected the Department’s repeal proposal. Instead, it adopted a motion – known as Motion 19A – proposed by Councilmembers Ryu, Koretz, Martinez, Blumenfield and Krekorian and seconded by Council President Wesson and PLUM Chair Huizar. It ordered the Planning Department to initiate proposed revisions to the current SDU standards only after “conducting a comprehensive, open, transparent review.” The Council also directed the Department to provide decision-makers with customized options that “tak[e] into account the unique characteristics of each geographic area of the city.”
The adoption of Motion 19A was a victory for the hundreds of Neighborhood Council members and community groups who stood up to oppose the Planning Department’s irresponsible attempt to repeal our SDU regulations and default to the State’s permissive standards. The opponents of the repeal effort breathed a great sigh of relief that Motion 19A clearly expressed the Council’s unanimous direction to the Planning Department to retain the existing SDU protections and to recommend any changes only after the Planning Department conducted “a comprehensive, open, transparent” process.
Sadly, the activists’ sense of satisfaction with the adoption of Motion 19A did not last long. A month later, the Planning Department was presented with another opportunity to propose amendments to the City’s SDU ordinance. Rather than follow the Council’s clear direction to keep the existing standards in place, the Department could not resist the chance to amend the City’s ordinance to encourage more and bigger SDUs.
The Planning Department’s Third Attempt: AB 2299 Opens the Door and the Department Pounces.
On September 27, the Governor signed AB 2299, which has two main features. First, the bill requires any City whose SDU ordinance includes discretionary permit approval procedures (e.g., Los Angeles) to amend its ordinance to delete those provisions. Second, to further encourage SDUs, AB 2299 requires that all local SDU ordinances include certain mandatory provisions to remove barriers to SDU development involving requirements for second unit parking, setbacks and passageways. To ensure that these requirements are not ignored, AB 2299 penalizes cities that do not act diligently. If the ordinance is not amended by December 31, the city’s second unit ordinance will temporarily become “null and void” and the State’s “default” standards will apply until the city adopts a complying ordinance. The Legislature intended for cities to have sufficient time to make these straightforward changes by December 31 in order to avoid “null and void” status.
Now, in light of the City Council’s unanimous rejection of the Department’s repeal proposal and its explicit directions in Motion 19A, you might expect the Department to do as instructed and respond with a simple amendment following AB 2299’s straightforward requirements. But the Department’s drive to promote more and bigger SDUs in our neighborhoods simply will not allow it to follow the City Council’s direction.
To make matters worse, the Department waited until November 17 to unveil its profound changes, and it then scheduled a December 15 hearing for the Planning Commission to consider them. This schedule, of course, makes it effectively impossible for the Council to consider and act on the proposed ordinance by year end, thereby ensuring that the Department’s much favored “default” standards will again apply citywide until the City Council acts.
The Department’s last minute draft ordinance does not simply include the minimal revisions mandated by AB 2299 revisions: it proposes major non-mandated changes in Los Angeles’ second unit standards with no transparency, no public outreach and involvement, no explanation or discussion of the rationale for the proposed changes, and no alternatives customized for the City’s diverse neighborhoods and Council Districts. As it did in May, the Department supports its latest proposed changes with highly misleading explanations.
The Department’s Proposal Greatly Reduces the Protected “Hillside Area.”
For example, the Department published a Background/FAQ with its proposed ordinance (available on its website) that asserts that the proposed ordinance would still continue LA’s current adopted standard that second unit construction will “not be allowed in Hillside areas.” Actually, the Department’s proposal would dramatically change the definition of “Hillside area” from the broad area designated by LAMC section 91.7003 in the existing ordinance to the far smaller area defined by the Baseline Hillside Ordinance (BHO), LAMC section 12.03. About one-third of the presently protected Hillside areas – over 50,000 lots – would now be made available for SDU development by the Department’s proposal.
The Background/FAQ not only fails to disclose the dramatically smaller “Hillside area” in which the prohibition on second units would apply, it provides no rationale for doing so. Researching the BHO shows that the Council chose to apply is comprehensive development restrictions only to Hillside lots with “strong” to “extreme” slopes. But why should the very different neighborhood protections against the negative impacts of second unit development currently in effect in Hillside areas like Cheviot Hills be removed simply because that neighborhood’s slopes are somewhat less that “strong” to “extreme.”
The Department’s Proposal Allows SDUs on Narrow Substandard Streets despite Limited On-Street Parking.
From the time the City’s SDU standards were first adopted, they have precluded second unit development on lots fronting narrow substandard public streets – “where the width of the adjacent street is below current standards.” But again, without any discussion or explanation in the Report, the Department would eliminate this protection entirely.
Eliminating the prohibition on substandard streets is even more egregious given the new AB 2299 mandate that off-street parking can no longer be required if a second unit would be located within half a mile of public transportation (e.g., a mere bus stop). Eliminating the substandard street prohibition becomes obviously much more important: parking for new second units near public transit must now be accommodated entirely on the adjacent public streets – including, under the Department’s unexplained new proposal, extremely narrow substandard streets.
The Department’s Proposal Allows SDUs in Equine-keeping Districts.
SDUs have also been prohibited in districts zoned to promote horse-keeping. Communities in the west San Fernando Valley and in Sun Valley have fought passionately for decades to protect their right to keep horses and to prevent overdevelopment that conflicts with their rural lifestyle.
Inexplicably, the Department’s proposed ordinance eliminates the prohibition on SDUs in these specially zoned districts – thereby creating new opportunities for developers to replace stables with SDUs and threaten the ongoing viability of these horse-keeping communities.
The Department’s Proposal Opens up SDU Development on Small Lots.
Presently, the City’s adopted standards limit SDUs to lots that are at least 50% larger in area than the minimum required by the applicable zone, thereby precluding SDU development on lots less than 7,500 square feet. The Department’s proposed ordinance would now allow second units on lots as small as 5,000 square feet, enabling the small lots to be redeveloped effectively as duplexes with minimal parking.
The Department’s Proposal Encourages Large SDUs.
When the Department in May unsuccessfully proposed that the Council entirely repeal the existing second unit standards, one of the most controversial changes related to the difference in the maximum size of detached second units allowed by the very lenient “default” standards (1,200 SF) versus the much smaller size permitted by Los Angeles’ existing ordinance (640 SF). The difference, of course, is that the State’s 1,200 square foot standard encourages SDUs as large as many primary residences, while the City’s 640 square foot standard is intended to allow a studio-sized unit for a family member (i.e., the “granny flat” is for granny).
Although not as radical as its repeal proposal, the Department again does away with the 640 SF maximum SDU size, now proposing that second units could be up to 50% of the area of the primary residence with at least 640 SF and at most 1,200 SF. The Department’s Background/FAQ report provides no data about how many primary residences of different sizes would now qualify for additional square footage in their second units. However, it is easy to see the potential for developers to add on to the primary house if necessary in order to allow for a 1,200 SF second unit.
This type push for larger SDUs will also lead to more two-story SDUs, particularly on smaller lots. The Baseline Mansionization Ordinance would not stop a 1,000 SF second unit with a 2,000 SF primary residence if the lot were at least 6,000 square feet.
The Department’s Proposal Permits Mobile Homes for SDUs.
The Department’s proposal even goes so far to specify that “manufactured housing” (i.e., a mobile home) is included in the new definition of an SDU. Not only does the proposed ordinance create the opportunity for duplexes in single-family zoned neighborhoods, but the second dwelling can be a mobile home!
The Department’s Proposal Encourages Renting SDUs.
The Department’s proposal for the first time would guarantee that a lot owner can rent out a second unit. This, of course, makes explicit the potential for a developer to rent the primary residence and the second unit. It also fails to consider imposing important rental restrictions that many cities require -- such as not allowing second units to be rented at all unless the primary residence is occupied by the owner. The proposal also ignores the potential short-term rental impacts, even though homeowners can utilize second units much more conveniently for STRs than they can use space within their primary residence.
The Planning Department Has Thrown Down the Gauntlet.
The Planning Department’s November 17 proposal utterly disregards the Council’s clear direction that the Planning Department must “conduct a comprehensive, open, transparent review and process . . . while taking into account the unique characteristics of each geographic area of the city” before proposing any substantive changes to the City’s SDU standards.
Far from the demanded “open, transparent review,” the Department has developed its latest proposed major changes without any public outreach or participation, without any meaningful explanation of the new policies and without putting up for discussion any customized alternatives for the City’s diverse neighborhoods and Council Districts.
In so doing, the Planning Department has exploited AB 2299’s December 31 nullification provision in an attempt to force the City Council to accept its proposed ordinance with only limited public discussion or debate. By waiting until the last possible moment and making it extremely difficult for the City Council to act before its December 16 recess, the Planning Department would limit the City Council’s options –this time in direct contravention of the City Council’s directions in Motion 19A.
In effect, the Planning Department is telling the City Council, “You have two choices: Either adopt our proposed ordinance with the many unnecessary substantive changes that we favor or the City’s SDU ordinance will be “null and void” and the State’s permissive default standards (e.g., 1,200 SF SDUs throughout the City) will control until we pass another ordinance.”
Aside from the policy ramifications, the Planning Department’s maneuvering presents an institutional challenge to the Council members: Will they allow the Planning Department to dictate their options? Are they willing to let the Planning Department circumscribe how the Council will legislate on an issue of great importance to the quality of life in the City’s residential neighborhoods? Or will they once again reject the Department’s efforts and protect their role as legislators?
Of course, the Planning Department’s actions are not only a direct challenge to the legislative authority of the City Council -- the elected body charged by the Charter to set policy and enact ordinances -- but as an affront to the seven Council members who proposed Motion 19A, Council President Wesson and Council members Huizar, Ryu, Martinez, Koretz, Krekorian and Blumenfield, as well as the other Council members who unanimously approved it.
Of course, the Council members need not accept the Department’s proposed ordinance. They can easily keep the existing second unit standards in place, while making the minimal changes required by AB 2299. With some careful scheduling, the Council could adopt the proper ordinance at its last session on December 16 or, if necessary, on its first day back in session in January. The Department can then pursue -- in accordance with the Council’s Motion 19A -- the “comprehensive, open and transparent review” for any further changes it may propose.
Next Stop: The City Planning Commission Hearing.
The Planning Department’s proposed ordinance will be heard by the Planning Commission on December 15, 2016 at 8:30 am in the Council Chamber in Van Nuys City Hall, 14410 Sylvan Street. Written public comments may be submitted electronically to firstname.lastname@example.org no later than 48 hours before the Commission meeting. Written comments submitted at the Commission hearing must not exceed 2 pages and 20 hard copies must be filed.
(Carlyle Hall is an environmental and land use lawyer in Los Angeles who founded the Center for Law in the Public Interest and litigated the well-known AB 283 litigation, in which the Superior Court ordered the City to rezone about one third of the properties within its territorial boundaries (an area the size of Chicago) to bring them into consistency with its 35 community plans. He also co-founded LA Neighbors in Action, which has recently been litigating with the City over its second dwelling unit policies and practices.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.
STREETSBLOG LA-On November 30, 2016, the Los Angeles City Council approved the final touches to get its $1.4 billion sidewalk repair program going. This unprecedented LA city investment in sidewalk repair is due to the class action lawsuit Willits v. City of Los Angeles, concerning making the public right-of-way accessible to people with disabilities. The $1.4 billion will be spent over ten years beginning this current fiscal year.
The city program is essentially the fix-and-release model, outlined in 2015 and approved by joint committees last March. Under fix-and-release, the city will do extensive repair of broken sidewalks, then turn over sidewalk maintenance responsibility to property owners. LA’s fix-and-release program has drawbacks --including concerns over equity and street tree health -- but today’s approval nonetheless gets needed sidewalk repair construction underway.
Wednesday’s council action included approving several interlocked items (more detailed summaries are available on the meeting agenda
- Adopt ordinance to return sidewalk repair to property owners, and related programs (council file 14-0163-S10)
- Set up Sidewalk Repair Incentive and Cost-Sharing Rebate Program (council file 14-0163-S3)
- Designate specific departments to be responsible for various aspects of sidewalk repair (council file 14-0163-S11)
- Direct Bureau of Street Services Urban Forestry Division to report on tree removal and replacement (council file 15-0467-S6)
- Direct Bureau of Street Services to report on hiring additional tree pruning crews (council file 15-0467-S3)
The city sidewalk repair program will go by the name Safe Sidewalks LA. The city has set up a new sidewalk program website, available starting tomorrow. Anyone can use the website to report LA sidewalks that need repairs. Anyone with a mobility disability can request free sidewalk repairs or new curb ramps. Property owners can also take part in a rebate program to incentivize early sidewalk repairs. Under the rebate program, owners can receive $2,000 for repairs at a residential lot or $4,000 at a commercial lot.
(Joe Linton is the editor of StreetsblogLA ... where this perspective was first posted. 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.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.
RANTZ & RAVES--That special time between Thanksgiving and Christmas and the New Year brings families together from around the country and the world in celebration of our annual holidays. I can remember when I was a youngster and my Mom and Dad would gather me and my brother together with our aunts and uncles and cousins for great feasts and family holiday fun times. (Photo above: Holiday decorations at the May Company on Miracle Mile in 1940’s.)
There was Uncle Eddie and Aunt Mary and Uncle Joe and Aunt Tina and Aunt Olga and Uncles Bill and Mitchell and so many others that impressed me during those early years of my life in Los Angeles. My cousins Sharon and Joe and Eddie and Annie and Mary and Beth and Kenny and so many others. Sadly many have passed and others have grown old with time. Old like I am feeling this time of the year.
Those Good Old Days are blazed deep in my memory and come to the surface as our annual year-end celebrations approach. During those years, Los Angeles was a place where you called your adult neighbors Mr. and Mrs. There was no calling them by their first name. It was called respect for the adults in the neighborhood.
It was a time when Mom would yell from the front porch of the Hollywood apartment at dusk … ‘Dennis and Vincent come home for dinner.’ When the sun went down, it was a time when all moms and dads gathered for dinner with the family. We would all enjoy mom’s cooking. Could Mom cook!
All sorts of delicious food made fresh. There was no microwave cooking just fresh food cooked by Mom in her special tasty way. Cooking with love for her family. That was long ago and a much better time in Los Angeles and the world.
There was Black and White TV, no cell phones or Internet. It was a time when people appreciated each other and gathered in friendship on a regular schedule. It was a time with great Love and Happiness. Shopping with the Sear’s catalog and J.C. Penny, May Company, Bullocks, Orbachs and Robinsons and the Broadway on Wilshire Blvd that was called the Miracle Mile. A time when Blue Chip and S&H Green Stamps were given out at gas stations where you would receive service including water, oil and tire pressure checks. Fedmart and Zody’s department stores were discount places to purchase a variety of items. A great time in the City of the Angels.
Traffic would flow smoothly and you could travel from the San Fernando Valley to Downtown Los Angeles on the 101 Freeway without traffic gridlock most of the day and evening. What happened to all that goodness and happiness and neighborly respect for each other?
A time when hubcaps were stolen and not cars. A time without vicious gangs and deranged individuals that would shoot and kill police officers just because they wanted to.
A time when a national election would take place and the will of the people would be respected and not generate into protests including the blocking of freeways.
It is a long time past and a memory that many readers can relate to. Readers like the sweet couple I recently met at Costco … one of my favorite stores … that mentioned to me that they enjoyed reading my RantZ and RaveZ column.
I wish each or you a Safe, Merry and Happy Holiday season.
While I get very sentimental this time of the year, I can assure you that my RantZ will continue following the holidays.
I welcome your comments, observations and concerns at Zman8910@aol.com.
(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, a 12-year member of the Los Angeles City Council and a current LAPD Reserve Officer who serves as a member of the Fugitive Warrant Detail assigned out of Gang and Narcotics Division. Disclosure: Zine was a candidate for City Controller last city election. He writes RantZ & RaveZ for CityWatch. You can contact him at Zman8910@aol.com. Mr. Zine’s views are his own and do not reflect the views of CityWatch.)
MY TURN-In this Rollercoaster world where we live, and each day brings a new revelation, it seems like an oxymoron to celebrate Thanksgiving let alone Tuesday, November 29 as the "International Day of Giving." But life goes on!
Many Los Angeles organizations prepared Thanksgiving Dinner for those less fortunate. Some were sponsored, like the Midnight Mission servicing the Downtown location. One that particularly intrigued me was the annual Westside Community Dinner.
They have over three decades of tradition serving the community a wonderful, free sit-down Thanksgiving dinner. They also provide free haircuts, blankets, clothing, hygiene kits, medical, optical, dental services, vaccination, a resource fair and a children's carnival.
The Celebration was open to everyone -- no reservations necessary. They fed over 3000 people, both visitors and volunteers. Five hundred turkeys were cooked! It was an eclectic collection of groups and individuals -- students, singles, low-income families, seniors and homeless -- brought together to celebrate Thanksgiving. No one asked who they supported for President and although there may have been political discussions, nothing got out of hand.
Each year the dinner has received more support. It was held on the grounds of the Westside Veterans Center, whose service personnel gave the attending Veterans information and referrals. The Mayor’s office also provided personnel to pass out information on services provided by the City.
No videos or press are allowed and no one organization blows its own horn. Publicity for the dinner was handled by all of the Westside organizations and businesses. Everything was donated, mostly products and food, with some cash donations to purchase needed items. It truly is a community affair.
Los Angeles Neighborhood Council Coalition (LANCC) President Terrence Gomes has been volunteering at this event since he was a young student. He remarked that one of his teachers turned him on to the importance of volunteering. "Chief Chef and civic activist Jay Handel was pleased that so many chefs from throughout the City donated their time and talent to help cook.
This is the America I know and love. I have no desire to secede from the United States. Those who are talking about the West Coast doing a "Westexit" are frankly not to be taken seriously.
It is comforting to be able to write about Americans doing good things together for causes they believe in.
Aside from Black Friday and Cyber Monday having strong sales, we will also be celebrating on the Tuesday following Thanksgiving (in the U.S.) International Day of Giving. #GivingTuesday kicks off the charitable season when many focus on their holiday and end-of-year giving. Since its inaugural year in 2012, #GivingTuesday has become a movement that celebrates and supports giving and philanthropy with events throughout the year and a growing catalog of resources.
#GivingTuesday was founded by New York’s 92nd Street Y, in partnership with the United Nations Foundation. Together, with a team of influencers and founding partners, they launched a global movement that has engaged over 30,000 organizations worldwide.
It was created by the team at the recently renamed Belfer Center for Innovation and Social Impact at the 92 Y -- a cultural center in New York City since 1894 that has brought people together around the values of service and giving back. #GivingTuesday connects diverse groups of individuals, communities and organizations around the world for one common purpose: to celebrate and encourage giving. A team of influencers and founding partners joined forces, collaborating across sectors, offering expertise and working tirelessly to launch #GivingTuesday and have continued to shape, grow and strengthen the movement.
92Y is a world-class cultural and community center where people from all over the world connect through culture, arts, entertainment and conversation. For over 140 years, it has harnessed the power of arts and ideas to enrich, enlighten and change lives, and the power of community to repair the world.
As a proudly Jewish organization, 92Y enthusiastically welcomes and reaches out to people of all ages, races, faiths and backgrounds while embracing Jewish values like learning and self-improvement, the importance of family, the joy of life, and giving back to our wonderfully diverse and growing community, both locally and around the world.
These "giving" examples are from both coasts but I know, without a doubt, that similar types of activities are taking place in every other State. This is what makes me optimistic that as Americans we will do the right thing. There will always be people who need to feel superior; there will always be those who have the victim mentality and need someone to blame for their mistakes; there will always be people who think their God is the only one and their beliefs are the only true dictates of human behavior. Fortunately, they are a small minority!
Do we have problems in this country? Certainly! Can we solve them? Of course! The very characteristic that fringe elements want to eradicate is what makes us great: our diversity, productivity and creativity. Each of us brings something to the table.
Not everyone can donate money to a favorite cause, but each one of us can give something of ourselves to make the world a better place. So maybe "pay it forward" is a good idea for this Tuesday. As always, comments are welcome.
(Denyse Selesnick is a CityWatch columnist. She is a former publisher/journalist/international event organizer. Denyse can be reached at: Denyse@CityWatchLA.com) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.
THE ABRAMS REPORT-The nation is in a transitional muddle. Green Party Candidate Jill Stein believes that it is appropriate to count the votes. Putative President-elect Trump tweets that, “The people have spoken,” but apparently he is too impatient to take the time to find out what the people actually said. One drawback of tweeting in haste is that, “Yes, the People have spoken and by two million votes, they said that Hillary should be President.” Had Trump been more judicious, he might have issued a statement saying that the “Electoral College has spoken” -- but then, that too is not true since the time for them to cast their votes has not come.
Assuming putative President-elect Trump ends up being the President, we are still in a muddle. In contrast to his campaign rhetoric, Trump’s policies, since he’s been briefed, appear to be in a quandary. We are no longer going to throw out 11 or 12 million illegals. The sanctuary cities object creating ethnic hostilities, having their economies destroyed and hamstringing their police departments by making them check everyone’s passport or green card. And the Wall? What Wall? Hillary thrown in prison? Oh, she’s too nice a lady. Who will be Secretary of the Treasury? Trump’s secret to defeat ISIS appears to be to ask the Generals who, a few weeks ago, “knew nothing.”
While the “answers” are in disarray, we Americans are clueless about the government’s role in the one thing that upsets us more than anything else: the economy.
The economy is particularly vital to people who are starting a family. As long as one is single, renting a loft or sharing an overly expensive apartment can be exciting. But when one wants to settle down, priorities change. Does the government bear any responsibility to plan for the future and for an economy that can support family life?
Rather than answer that philosophical question, let’s look at the practical situation in which a city government ignores the desires of its new middle class and instead allows its policies to be dictated by an ever smaller clique of billionaires.
Government at all levels impacts the economy. This has been true since the dawn of civilization. In 1776, Adam Smith wrote Wealth of Nations for this very purpose; and in 1936, John Maynard Keynes wrote his The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money [General Theory] for the same purpose. Both addressed the role of the government in setting the parameters of the economy so as to benefit the nation and its citizens. Yet the average voter never holds the feet of politicians to the fire when the government’s policies devastate the economy.
On a local level, Los Angeles’ feudal city council which has divided the city into 15 fiefdoms ruled by overlords with absolute power, has turned LA from a destination city into an exodus city from which Family Millennials are fleeing.
A major force driving Family Millennials away from Los Angeles has been the City’s anti-home ownership policy which has made owning a home in Los Angeles prohibitively expensive.
On November 26, 2016, Wendell Cox wrote in NewGeography.com, “Progressive politicians, dominant in California, talk incessantly about housing affordability, but blindly pursue policies that will make things even worse. It should not be surprising that the housing-cost adjusted poverty rate in California is the worst in union, underperforming even Mississippi. It should also not be surprising that Californians of every age group, including Millennials, are leaving state in larger numbers than they are being attracted.”
Under both former Mayor Villaraigosa and current Mayor Garcetti, over 21,000 rent-controlled units have been demolished, something that not only increases the number of homeless but increases the cost of the average apartment. The increased demand for housing in the category of “just above the rent-control level” from those who do not become homeless ends up increasing the housing prices. Also, increasing the minimum wage, while generally a good idea, can cause inflation when there is a shortage of a major commodity such as rental units.
Particularly harmful to Los Angeles are the increasing number of mixed-use projects in what we call TODs (Transit Oriented Districts). TODs are areas near subways, light rail and bus lines where developers are allowed to aggrandize population density on the patently false belief that people who live in TODs do not need to own cars.
A host of ills follow in the wake of TODs:
(1) TODs make land values higher which increases the costs of units built there;
(2) TODs’ construction costs are significantly higher as building standards are stricter as buildings are taller;
(3) The City allows developers not to construct off-street parking;
(4) Residents in TODs then overflow into surrounding neighborhoods seeking places to park;
(5) Because few people who live in TODs use the mass transit, traffic congestion near the TODs becomes much worse;
(6) As the city adds more offices to DTLA, Hollywood and elsewhere in The Basin, the commute times from the Valley are becoming unacceptable;
(7) While population density in TODs increases, the occupancy rate is often too low to make developers happy, so the city gives them infusions of cash;
(8) The billions of tax dollars which have gone to the developers since 2001 starved all the other infrastructure needs so that LA’s infrastructure has crumbled;
Garcetti’s mania to pursue “Smart Growth,” despite proof that it is driving away Los Angeles’ new middle class, shows no let-up. Billions more dollars are flowing into TODs, augmented by the $1.2 billion from Measure HHH.
The feudal nature of Los Angeles’ government deprives the citizens of any forum for challenging the City’s demise. Councilmembers who represent the Valley may not object to the excessive concentration of office towers in the Basin even though the added traffic congestion “over the hill” will make life much worse for their constituents.
As detached single family homes become rarer, they become much more expensive. The threat from Granny Flats deters potential home buyers everywhere. No one wants to make the largest investment of their entire lives in a family home when in five to ten years, the R-1 streets will possibly be transformed into rental alleys. Granny Flats potentially turn every R-1 neighborhood into areas where each lot can have two houses with no backyard – just rental units.
The potential for a developer to buy an R-1 home and then construct a second house on the lot in order to rent out both the houses forces up the sale price of the home beyond what a family can afford. The commercial value of lots where Granny Flats can be built is much greater than the value of a living space with a back yard, fruit trees and gardens.
No one has pointed to any social, economic, or political force which will reverse the exodus of Family Millennials from Los Angeles. As the cost of housing escalates due to the Garcetti Administration’s catering to the pocketbooks of the developers, more employers will leave Los Angeles. Employers know that they ultimately bear the costs that the Garcetti Administration is forcing upon the average citizen. Employers foresee that their employees will not pay three times the price for a home in a deteriorating Los Angeles over what it would cost them a home in Austin, Texas, where all the measures of the good life are far better.
People forget that it was not only the great weather that attracted people to Los Angeles starting in the 1890's, but it was also the vast expanse of single family homes. The war on the detached home mandated by “Smart Planning” has killed the American Dream for LA. A more descriptive word than “killed” would be “murdered.” The American Dream of owning a single family home with a yard in a decent school district has been deliberately murdered in cold blood – and the slaughter continues.
Government policy affects people’s lives. In a feudal society where the serfs have been locked out of governance and have no power to influence policy, a mass exodus is the wisest choice. The same forces that existed in all the lands from which our forefathers fled are now operating in Los Angeles.
When a tiny cadre of the ultra-wealthy seize control of the government, people look for a better life elsewhere.
(Richard Lee Abrams is a Los Angeles attorney. He can be reached at: Rickleeabrams@Gmail.com. Abrams views are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of CityWatch.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.
PERSPECTIVE-The outcome of the presidential election was a surprise to me as much as it was to anyone. What is not a surprise is the reaction to it.
There have been some extreme events and outbursts, including rioting by some Clinton supporters and some nasty displays of neo-Nazism by the loosely organized Alt-right group. Fortunately, these reactions are not acceptable to the population as a whole. Most of us are moving forward and dealing with change in a rational manner. The checks and balances embedded in the Constitution will prevent significant, or even sudden, permanent changes to our government.
However, one proposed remedy to Trump’s victory resurrects an issue this nation has faced before…secession from the United States.
As a practical matter, according to an opinion piece in the Washington Post, it is virtually impossible, short of an apocalyptic disaster which throws our nation into dysfunctional chaos. Although there are many who believe we have been dysfunctional for a long time, I have news for you – the national government has not only survived, it has expanded its influence.
The Post article states: “Article IV, Section 3 of the Constitution specifies how a state can gain admission to the United States. There is no stipulation, though, for the reverse. Even if Obama wanted to let Texas go — a thought that probably appealed to him for at least a second — there’s no mechanism for him to do so. There’s no mechanism for Congress to simply say, ‘Sure, off you go.’ Once you’re in, you’re in. The United States was born an expansionist enterprise, and the idea of contraction, it seems, never really came up.”
To those proposing a Cal-exit, don’t waste your time, or those of the state’s voters, with a referendum to seek secession.
Having said that, the topic is worthy of an interesting hypothetical discussion.
Did the Civil War really resolve whether secession is constitutional? I touched on this subject in an article I wrote for Citywatch in connection with the Civil War Sesquicentennial.
As I pointed out, the seven states that seceded prior to Lincoln’s inauguration could have gotten away with it had Fort Sumter had not been fired upon by Confederate batteries. Absent the catalyst the attack provided, the nation had no stomach for war, much less a civil war. Had Lincoln raised troops to forcibly end secession, it is likely the entire Upper South would have joined the Lower South, including the critical border states of Kentucky and Maryland. Washington would have been isolated; Lincoln’s administration would have been dead on arrival.
A southern-leaning Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Roger Taney, a slaveholder himself, may have ruled in favor of the break.
What the Civil War did make certain was the illegality of forceful secession.
Does that mean peaceful or passive secession is permissible?
As mentioned earlier, there is no process for separation via legislation. There is nothing in the Constitution to guide Congress; nothing even stipulating a voting margin for such an action. Any request by a state to secede would simply die.
But let’s just say it did occur.
Just like divorce, there would be a property settlement...and would that be costly to California! Do you think the rest of the states would transfer control of Yosemite and other national parks for a song? How about military installations and other federal government real estate?
The financial obligations California would incur for buying out its share of the unfunded liability of Social Security and Medicare of its citizens would be worse.
California claims to receive less monies from the federal government than it sends. That is so much BS. The benefits to the state from physical protection and security provided by the federal government is incalculable. In terms of economic trade, California’s primary trading partners are part of the Pacific Rim. Without the leverage of the federal government behind us, we would be at a disadvantage in negotiations with China and Japan, whose economies dwarf those of the Golden State.
Then there are details of establishing a monetary unit and a central bank.
How about supporting embassies throughout the world?
The nation of California would be bankrupt from the get-go.
One other thing. There are regions within California which will not go along with the plan. Much of California’s agriculture and water is attributable to the Central Valley and Sierra Nevada, respectively. Those regions would balk at the plan. They would form their own state, or possibly request to join Nevada. Sacramento would find itself isolated from the rest of its subjects. California would be totally dependent on a foreign government for food, water and energy.
The secession movement is laughable until you realize its proponents really believe it is plausible. For their sake, I sure hope they do not receive Nigerian e-mail solicitations.
But just the talk of secession further alienates California from the rest of the nation.
One of our top attractions is Wine Country. We do not want to be labeled Whine Country.
(Paul Hatfield is a CPA and serves as President of the Valley Village Homeowners Association. He blogs at Village to Village and contributes to CityWatch. The views presented are those of Mr. Hatfield and his alone and do not represent the opinions of Valley Village Homeowners Association or CityWatch. He can be reached at: email@example.com.) Graphic: Jeff Durham/Bay Area News Group. Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.
LATINO PERSPECTIVE-Most Latinos in California were shocked earlier this month with the election of Donald Trump as President. But here in Southern California there is cause for celebration because diversity in the political arena is alive and kicking with the election to the United States Congress of three Latinos.
These three Democrats, Lou Correa, Nanette Barragán, and Salud Carbajal were elected to represent parts of Orange County, Los Angeles, and Santa Barbara. This is very important coming from the most diverse state in the country. We now have the largest Congressional Hispanic Caucus in history with 31 members.
Correa will replace Latina Rep. Loretta Sanchez who is a Democrat from Orange County in the 46th Congressional District after defeating another Democrat, the mayor of Garden Grove, Bao Nguyen. Sanchez lost her bid to be the next U.S. Senator from California. But what I think is important to notice is that Carbajal and Barragán are replacing white members of Congress.
Lou Correa has been serving Orange Country since 1998. Over his 16 year career, Lou has represented the 69th Assembly District in the California State Assembly, served as Supervisor in Orange County’s 1st Supervisor District, and represented the 34th Senate District in the California State Senate.
Lou Correa introduced himself to voters as the only homegrown candidate. As the son of working class parents, Lou saw first hand what it took to escape poverty and have a shot at the middle class. He ran for office in 1998 to fight for the same working families he grew up with, and ensure their children would have the same opportunity to succeed that he had. Lou has a track record of getting the job done and has developed a reputation with countless public officials as a dedicated civil servant interested in solving real problems, not playing partisan games.
Nanette Barragán, the youngest of eleven children raised by immigrants from Mexico, Nanette Diaz Barragán beat the odds and put herself through UCLA undergrad and USC Law School. She knows what families need and the power of a good education. In Congress, she will fight to get more funds for our schools and better paying jobs for our communities. As a councilwoman, Barragán balanced fiscal common sense with the right priorities. She balanced budgets, fixed streets, helped expand afterschool programs and hired new police officers without raising taxes.
Salud Carbaja, a Santa Barbara County Supervisor, won an expensive race against Republican Justin Fareed to replace longtime Democratic Rep. Lois Capps in the Central Coast’s 24th Congressional District, which also includes San Luis Obispo County. Salud earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of California at Santa Barbara and his master’s degree in Organizational Management from the Fielding University. He served eight years in the United States Marine Corps Reserve, including active duty service during the 1991 Gulf War.
In 2004, Salud was elected to the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors. During his tenure, he has demonstrated a commitment to protecting our environment, promoting sustainability, strengthening our schools, and enhancing the health and safety of our community.
Drawing upon his own childhood experiences growing up in an economically disadvantaged neighborhood, Salud shares a passion for improving the lives of at-risk youth. He found innovative ways to strengthen our schools by creating a job skills and mentorship program for at-risk youth and providing summer programming for our kids. Salud is married to his wife, Gina, and has two children, Natasha and Michael.
Salud Carbajal and Lou Correa also have links in Spanish on their websites.
After the election, CHC Chairwoman Rep. Linda T. Sánchez, Democrat from Whittier, said that the caucus would request a meeting with Trump in the coming weeks to “make sure he better understands the challenges our community faces and does not act on his extreme rhetoric.”
The Latino caucus will work hard to protect our Latino communities, you can be sure of that.
(Fred Mariscal came to Los Angeles from Mexico City in 1992 to study at the University of Southern California and has been in LA ever since. He is a community leader and was a candidate for Los Angeles City Council in District 4. Fred writes Latino Perspective for CityWatch and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.
PARK LABREA NEWS REPORT--As the Miracle Mile Residential Association (MMRA) approached the finish line in a years-long effort to establish stricter protections from the invasion of McMansions, a different group of residents mobilized to try to hit the brakes.
Box-shaped homes like the one on the left dwarf existing structures in the Miracle Mile. Residents in the neighborhood agree that McMansion development needs to stop, but they don’t agree on the right tool to get it done.
The Los Angeles Planning Commission on Dec. 8 will consider the proposed historic preservation overlay zone (HPOZ) that will protect the Miracle Mile from developers who want to replace existing residences that were built between 1921-1953 with larger, box-shaped homes. “Mansionization” – the influx of the larger homes – started years ago, and the MMRA said it will destroy the character of their neighborhood if it continues. In September, the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission (CHC) concluded that the Miracle Mile neighborhood maintains its cultural significance to the city of Los Angeles. But other property owners have joined together to oppose the restrictions that come with an HPOZ.
“I first heard about the ‘No on HPOZ’ people literally five minutes before it was going to be decided on,” said Councilman David Ryu, 4th District, at an MMRA meeting earlier this month where dozens of residents waved red “No on HPOZ” signs.
“Even though you came in the last minute, I wanted to make sure [you were] heard.”
Opponents to the HPOZ argued that the preservation plan – which includes guidelines and review procedures for 1,350 properties – is too strict, and will stall the neighborhood’s growth and ability to attract new families. At the meeting, attendees waving red signs said they were worried that the proposed HPOZ will require residents to get approval from the HPOZ board or the city’s planning department to change any exterior component of their homes, and that it can be costly and time-consuming to obtain the permits.
The “No on HPOZ” group said they are in favor of stopping “McMansions,” but suggested the Miracle Mile instead rely on the city’s baseline mansionization ordinance (BMO), which they hope will be adopted in January. Jay Schoenfeldt, one of the leaders of “No on HPOZ” group, said they are against the preservation plan in its current form and asked Ryu to consider other options “aside from taking away property owner rights that can prevent mansionization.”
Ryu explained that the HPOZ measure was not created or intended to be “used as a tool to prevent mansionization,” and it has become an unintended cure for the phenomenon. But the process for the BMO is often delayed, and preservationists worry it could be too “watered down” to prevent mansionization by the time it is adopted. Further, the existing interim control ordinance that protects the Miracle Mile now expires in March.
Jim O’Sullivan, president of the MMRA, said the conflict arose from misinformation and misconceptions about the proposed HPOZ. Ryu blamed misconceptions on the language in the proposed preservation plan, and said the city’s planning department “really created a mess.”
“I have to admit, the planning department really screwed up with the report,” Ryu said. “They should have done a much better job because a lot of the things they told us, they didn’t really turn out that way. So we’re fixing it.”
Ryu’s office met with MMRA leaders and the “No on HPOZ” group after the annual meeting to clarify language that the MMRA agreed was “somewhat obtuse.” The MMRA explained that the intent of the HPOZ was to devise a plan that was unrestrictive and flexible.
“Both sides agreed that the language in the preservation plan, as written, was too ambiguous and could be interpreted to be more restrictive than desired,” the MMRA reported in its newsletter. “This resulted in a collegial and successful discussion of how to simplify and revise language in the plan to accurately reflect the will of the community.”
In addition, the groups clarified specific details. For example, the preservation plan will not regulate paint color. The exteriors of all properties in their present condition will be “grandfathered” once the HPOZ is adopted, and there will be no regulations on any property’s interior, or any planned additions that cannot be seen from the street. There also will not be landscaping regulations “as long as at least 60 percent of the front yard is planted with some sort of greenery.” Second story additions will also be allowed with certain setbacks.
On Wednesday, O’Sullivan said they were waiting for final clarification from the planning department. He said he is hopeful but cautious after the meetings with Ryu’s staff and the “No on HPOZ” group. The MMRA’s newsletter last week declared that the group does not expect any further obstacles in adopting the revised HPOZ Preservation Plan.
But Schoenfeldt said “that’s not exactly accurate.” On Wednesday, he said they did clarify a lot of the issues during their meeting, but that other issues were disregarded, such as boundaries of the HPOZ that fall outside of the MMRA’s jurisdiction. He said that’s a major concern because those homeowners might not have been informed or consulted. At the MMRA meeting, residents from Council District 10 asked that their homes be taken out of the Miracle Mile HPOZ. Schoenfeldt described the preservation plan as “overwhelmingly restrictive” with 255 design guidelines, of which they said 40 percent need further review.
“We felt this really needed a second meeting,” Schoenfeld said, adding that agreements made to revise the HPOZ language were not approved by planning staff, and the scale of the rewrite will be “daunting.”
The Miracle Mile HPOZ covers approximately 1,347 properties bordered by Wilshire Boulevard to the north, San Vicente Boulevard to the south, La Brea Avenue to the east and Fairfax Avenue to the west. The CHC found that most properties reflect styles associated with the designated period of architecture.
The Planning Commission will consider the HPOZ on Dec. 8 at Los Angeles City Hall, 200 N. Spring Street, in Room 340. The meeting time has not yet been determined.
(Gregory Cornfield is managing editor at the La Brea News where this report was first posted.)
REPRESENTATION RE-BOOT-I have said this before and Tony Butka has said it again recently, but I will now try it again: today’s Neighborhood Councils are “leaders” who are leading the NCs in the wrong direction.
Neighborhood Councils have lost sight of who they really are. Each NC is supposed to consider the local and city-wide concerns of everyone in that community.
I usually agree with Bob Gelfand but this time his suggestion requires an opposing response. Bob knows that the original idea of NC representation was to include all the “stakeholders” concerned with each NC. The words "live, work or owns property" were put into the Charter to make each NC represent all the people in their communities. To “live, work or own property” means to allow non-residents (those who work or own property in an NC) to participate in all of the NCs they choose. I would even extend that privilege to non-residents who just find a given NC worth their interest. That is about as far as the concept of "inclusivity" can be extended.
Personally, I have served on the boards of two NCs where I did not live, in addition to my “home” NC. I was interested in and worked on the local and the city-wide issues of all three councils. I tried to be the "poster-child" for the non-resident NC Stakeholder.
NCs are not home owner associations -- although they often act like them.
In most Neighborhood Councils, homeowners make up the majority of active stakeholders and board members. Their challenge is to invite and engage the interest and participation of renters, local (non-resident) property owners and local business owners and employees. Our 100 NCs have never been active or successful at "outreach" to these non-homeowners. All "outreach" attempts have failed to produce any meaningful "reach back."
Bob Gelfand proposed and others have argued that the NCs’ stakeholders should be limited to the voters in their neighborhoods so as to have a closer relationship with their respective City Council members. That would require a Charter change in which NC participation would be restricted to residents only. That would not create better relations between the NCs and their respective City Council members.
An alternative way to make the NC neighborhoods align with their City Council members is to change the boundaries of the City Council Districts to match the boundaries of the NCs.
However, the 2012 Redistricting Process showed that the City Council (led by Herb Wesson) did not want NCs to be geographically contained within specific City Council Districts. The Redistricting Commission was presented, and presumably considered, a proposal that would have rearranged the Council Districts in such a way that only a few NCs shared more than one City Council member.
The Winnetka NC wanted to be in both CD3 and CD12. The Redistricting Commission (headed by Herb Wesson’s senior staff member, Andrew Matthews) ended up setting City Council boundaries that denied the suggestions of most NCs, putting over 40 of them in two, three and, even, four different City Council Districts. The most flagrant examples of that are: Koreatown which, in spite of its strong request to be in one City Council District, ended up having to deal with four City Council Members.
Also, Tom LaBonge’s CD4 was gerrymandered to include the Larchmont Area, enough of the Los Feliz area to include Tom’s beloved Griffith Park and the Toluca Lake Area (which, coincidentally, is Andrew Matthews “home” NC.) West Hills NC which traditionally, emotionally and demographically was in Council District 3 (the Southwest San Fernando Valley) ended up in the dramatically different Council District 12 (the Northwest San Fernando Valley.)
When the NCs address and act on these concerns, they will begin to realize the original vision of the 1998 Charter Reform. Most importantly, they will begin to truly represent all the people who are interested in their communities.
(Daniel Wiseman, M.D., is a long-time Neighborhood activist and an occasional contributor to CityWatch.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.
GUEST WORDS-High above, somewhere behind the black glass façade, President-elect Donald J. Trump was huddled with his inner circle, plotting just how they would “drain the swamp” and remake Washington, perhaps the world. On the street far below, inside a warren of metal fencing surrounded by hefty concrete barriers with “NYPD” emblazoned on them, two middle-aged women were engaged in a signage skirmish. One held aloft a battered poster that read “Love Trumps Hate”; just a few feet away, the other brandished a smaller slice of cardboard that said “Get Over It.” (Photo above: Security agents in front of Trump Tower, New York.)
I was somewhere in between ... and the Secret Service seemed a little unnerved.
Trump Tower is many things -- the crown jewel skyscraper in Donald Trump’s real-estate empire, the site of the Trump Organization’s corporate offices, a long-time setting for his reality television show, The Apprentice, and now, as the New York Times describes it, “a 58-story White House in Midtown Manhattan.” It is also, as noted above its front entrance: “OPEN TO THE PUBLIC 8 AM to 10 PM.”
When planning for the tower began in the late 1970s, Trump -- like other developers of the era -- struck a deal with the city of New York. In order to add extra floors to the building, he agreed to provide amenities for the public, including access to restrooms, an atrium, and two upper-level gardens.
When I arrived at Trump Tower, less than a week after Election Day, the fourth floor garden was roped off, so I proceeded up the glass escalator, made a right, and headed through a door into an outdoor pocket park on the fifth floor terrace. Just as I entered, a group of Japanese tourists was leaving and, suddenly, I was alone, a solitary figure in a secluded urban oasis.
But not for long.
Taking a seat on a silver aluminum chair at a matching table, I listened closely. It had been a zoo down on Fifth Avenue just minutes before: demonstrators chanting “love trumps hate,” Trump supporters shouting back, traffic noise echoing in the urban canyon, the “whooooop” of police sirens, and a bikini-clad woman in body paint singing in front of the main entrance. And yet in this rectangular roof garden, so near to America’s new White House-in-waiting, all was placid and peaceful. There was no hint of the tourist-powered tumult below or of the potentially world-altering political machinations above, just the unrelenting white noise-hum of the HVAC system.
On His Majesty’s Secret Service
The Stars and Stripes flies above the actual White House in Washington, D.C. Inside the Oval Office, it’s joined by another flag -- the seal of the president of the United States emblazoned on a dark blue field. Here, however, Old Glory flies side by side with slightly tattered black-and-silver Nike swoosh flags waving lazily above the tony storefronts -- Louis Vuitton and Saint Laurent, Burberry and Chanel -- of Manhattan’s 57th Street, and, of course, Trump Tower-tenant Niketown.
That I was standing beneath those flags gazing down at luxe retailers evidently proved too much to bear for those who had been not-so-subtly surveilling me. Soon a fit, heavily armed man clad in black tactical gear -- what looked to my eye like a Kevlar assault suit and ballistic vest -- joined me in the garden. “How’s it going?” I asked, but he only nodded, muttered something incomprehensible, and proceeded to eyeball me hard for several minutes as I sat down at a table and scrawled away in my black Moleskine notepad.
My new paramilitary pal fit in perfectly with the armed-camp aesthetic that’s blossomed around Trump Tower. The addition of fences and concrete barriers to already clogged holiday season sidewalks has brought all the joys of the airport security line to Fifth Avenue. The scores of police officers now stationed around the skyscraper give it the air of a military outpost in a hostile land. (All at a bargain basement price of $1 million-plus per day for the city of New York.) Police Commissioner James O’Neill recently reeled off the forces which -- in addition to traffic cops, beat cops, and bomb-sniffing dogs -- now occupy this posh portion of the city: “specialized units, the critical response command, and the strategic response group, as well as plainclothes officers and counter-surveillance teams working hand-in-hand with our intelligence bureau and our partners in the federal government, specifically the Secret Service.” The armed man in tactical gear who had joined me belonged to the latter agency.
“You one of the reporters from downstairs?” he finally asked.
“Yeah, I’m a reporter,” I replied and then filled the silence that followed by saying, “This has got to be a new one, huh, having a second White House to contend with?”
“Yeah, pretty much,” he answered, and then assured me that most visitors seemed disappointed by this park. “I think everyone comes up thinking there’ll be a little more, but it’s like ‘yeah, okay.’”
Small talk, however, wasn't the agent’s forte, nor did he seem particularly skilled at intimidation, though it was clear enough that he wasn’t thrilled to have this member of the public in this public space. Luckily for me (and the lost art of conversation), we were soon joined by “Joe.” An aging bald man of not insignificant girth, Joe appeared to have made it onto the Secret Service’s managerial track. He didn’t do commando-chic. He wasn’t decked out in ridiculous SWAT-style regalia, nor did he have myriad accessories affixed to his clothing or a submachine gun strapped to his body. He wore a nondescript blue suit with a silver and blue pin on his left lapel.
I introduced myself as he took a seat across from me and, in response, though working for a federal agency, he promptly began a very NYPD-style interrogation with a very NYPD-style accent.
“What’s going on, Nick?” he inquired.
“Not too much.”
“What are you doing? You’re all by yourself here…”
“Yeah, I’m all by my lonesome.”
“Kinda strange,” he replied in a voice vaguely reminiscent of Robert De Niro eating a salami sandwich.
“I don’t know. What are you doing? Taking notes?” he asked.
I had reflexively flipped my notepad to a fresh page as I laid it between us on the table and Joe was doing his best to get a glimpse of what I’d written.
I explained that I was a reporter. Joe wanted to know for whom I worked, so I reeled off a list of outlets where I’d been published. He followed up by asking where I was from. I told him and asked him the same. Joe said he was from Queens.
“What do you do for a living?” I asked.
“I was just saying to your friend here that it must be a real experience having a second White House to contend with.”
“Yeah, you could call it that,” he replied, sounding vaguely annoyed. Joe brushed aside my further attempts at small talk in favor of his own ideas about where our conversation should go.
“You got some ID on you?” he asked.
“I do,” I replied, offering nothing more than a long silence.
“Can I see it?”
“Do you need to?”
“If you don’t mind,” he said politely. Since I didn’t, I handed him my driver’s license and a business card. Looking at the former, with a photo of a younger man with a much thicker head of hair, Joe asked his most important question yet: “What did you do to your hair?”
“Ah yes,” I replied with a sigh, rubbing my hand over my thinned-out locks. “It’s actually what my hair did to me.”
He gestured to his own follically challenged head and said, “I remember those days.”
Trump Tower’s Public Private Parts
Joe asked if there was anything he could do for me, so I wasn’t bashful. I told him that I wanted to know what his job was like -- what it takes to protect President-elect Donald Trump and his soon-to-be second White House. “You do different things. Long hours. Nothing out of the ordinary. Probably the same as you,” he said. I told him I really doubted that and kept up my reverse interrogation. “Other than talking to me, what did you do today?” I asked.
“I dunno,” he responded. “Look around. Security. We’re Secret Service.” It was, he assured me, a boring job.
“Come on,” I said. “There’s got to be a lot of challenges to securing a place like this. You’ve got open public spaces just like this one.”
There are, in fact, more than 500 privately owned public spaces, or POPS, similar to this landscaped terrace, all over the city. By adding the gardens, atrium, and other amenities way back when, Trump was able to add about 20 extra floors to this building, a deal worth at least $500 million today, according to the New York Times. And in the post-election era, Trump Tower now boasts a new, one-of-a-kind amenity. The skies above it have been declared “national defense airspace” by the Federal Aviation Administration. “The United States government may use deadly force against the airborne aircraft, if it is determined that the aircraft poses an imminent security threat,” the agency warned in a recent notice to pilots.
Back on the fifth floor, a metal plaque mounted on an exterior wall lays out the stipulations of the POPs agreement, namely that this “public garden” is to have nine large trees, four small trees, 148 seats, including 84 moveable chairs, and 21 tables. None of the trees looked particularly large. By my count the terrace was also missing three tables -- a type available online starting at $42.99 -- and about 20 chairs, though some were stacked out of view and, of course, just two were needed at the moment since Mr. Tactical Gear remained standing, a short distance away, the whole time.
This tiny secluded park seemed a world away from the circus below, the snarl of barricades outside the building, the tourists taking selfies with the big brassy “Trump Tower” sign in the background, and the heavily armed counterterror cops standing guard near the revolving door entrance.
I remarked on this massive NYPD presence on the streets. “It’s their city,” Joe replied and quickly changed topics, asking, “So business is good?”
“No, business is not too good. I should have picked a different profession,” I responded and asked if the Secret Service was hiring. Joe told me they were and explained what they looked for in an agent: a clean record, college degree, “law experience.” It made me reflect upon the not-so-clean record of that agency in the Obama years, a period during which its agents were repeatedly cited for gaffes, as when a fence-jumper made it all the way to the East Room of the White House, and outrageous behavior, including a prostitution scandal involving agents preparing the way for a presidential visit to Colombia.
“What did you do before the Secret Service?” I inquired. Joe told me that he’d been a cop. At that point, he gave his black-clad compatriot the high sign and the younger man left the garden.
“See, I’m no threat,” I assured him. Joe nodded and said he now understood the allure of the tiny park. Sensing that he was eager to end the interrogation I had turned on its head, I began peppering him with another round of questions.
Instead of answering, he said, “Yeah, so anyway, Nick, I’ll leave you here,” and then offered me a piece of parting advice -- perhaps one that no Secret Service agent protecting a past president-elect has ever had occasion to utter, perhaps one that suggests he’s on the same wavelength as the incoming commander-in-chief, a man with a penchant for ogling women (to say nothing of bragging about sexually assaulting them). “You should come downstairs,” Joe advised, his eyes widening, a large grin spreading across his face as his voice grew animated for the first time. “There was a lady in a bikini with a painted body!”
Joe walked off and, just like that, I was alone again, listening to the dull hum of the HVAC, seated in the dying light of the late afternoon. A short time later, on my way out of the park, I passed the Secret Service agent in tactical gear. “I think you’re the one that found the most entertainment out here all day,” he said, clearly trying to make sense of why anyone would spend his time sitting in an empty park, scribbling in a notebook. I mentioned something about sketching out the scene, but more than that, I was attempting to soak in the atmosphere, capture a feeling, grapple with the uncertain future taking shape on the chaotic avenue below and high above our heads in Manhattan’s very own gilt White House. I was seeking a preview, you might say, of Donald Trump’s America.
Descending the switchback escalators, I found myself gazing at the lobby where a scrum of reporters stood waiting for golden elevator doors to open, potentially disgorging a Trump family member or some other person hoping to serve at the pleasure of the next president. Behind me water cascaded several stories down a pink marble wall, an overblown monument to a bygone age of excess. Ahead of me, glass cases filled with Trump/Pence 2016 T-shirts, colognes with the monikers “Empire” and “Success,” the iconic red “Make America Great Again” one-size-fits-all baseball cap, stuffed animals, and other tchotchkes stood next to an overflowing gilded garbage can. Heading for the door, I thought about all of this and Joe and his commando-chic colleague and Trump’s deserted private-public park, and the army of cops, the metal barricades, and the circus that awaited me on the street. I felt I’d truly been given some hint of the future, a whisper of what awaits. I also felt certain I’d be returning to Trump Tower -- and soon.
(Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch, … where this piece was first posted … a fellow at the Nation Institute, and a contributing writer for the Intercept. His book Tomorrow's Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa recently received an American Book Award. His latest book is Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead: War and Survival in South Sudan. His website is NickTurse.com.)
STANDING ROCK STAND-OFF-(Editor’s Note: This is a update on Jennifer Caldwell’s earlier CityWatch article, “Thanksgiving 2016: The Worst in Seven Generation”.)In a remote, windswept corner of North Dakota, a seven-month standoff continues without an end in sight. Thirty miles south of Bismarck, where eroded buttes rise from grassland and corn fields, the Oceti Sakowin camp appears along the winding girth of the Missouri River. Here, a story of protection, protest and cultural conflict unfolds against the desolate prairie.
At issue is the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL); an “energy transfer” project that would pipe approximately 470,000 barrels of oil per day from the Bakken Oil Fields through South Dakota and Iowa, to refining facilities in Illinois. The pipeline is a 1,172 mile, 30-inch artery that is touted by its progenitor, Energy Transfer Partners, as necessary to transport light sweet crude in a “more direct, cost-effective, safer and responsible manner.”
At the juncture of the Missouri River and Fort Yates, along the northeastern edge of the Lakota Sioux Standing Rock Reservation, the project slowly churns its way toward a hotly disputed patch of land. Several hundred yards north of the camp, a lone bridge has come to define the front line of this conflict. On one side, the West Dakota SWAT Team stands watch over the DAPL’s border. On the other, two young Lakota men are charged with maintaining order among the camp’s curious and defiant. In between rest the carcasses of burned-out trucks, which several tribal “water protectors” torched in response to the past few days of skirmishes that had culminated in a volley of tear gas and rubber-bullets. A concrete barrier topped with barbed wire and decorated with vulgar graffiti exemplifies the air of tension.
The stand-off has given way to violence and threats of violence, here and well beyond the borders of the Standing Rock Reservation. While law enforcement and the water protectors engage in a guarded choreography, fear strikes in the vulnerable hamlets that dot the plains. Across the prairie, the pipeline dispute has resurrected age-old enmity between the native peoples and those they perceive to have permanently occupied the territory of native birthright.
Normally, by mid-November the ground here would be frozen with knee-deep drifts of Midwest snow. Today, however, the temperature will rise into the mid-60s with almost balmy comfort.
“This is what I call the upside of global warming,” jokes Ken Many Wounds. “Or, perhaps Great Spirit is looking out for us.” A member of the Standing Rock Lakota Sioux, Ken is an organizer and the camp’s communications director. His authority is confirmed by the company he keeps with the core leaders of the action. Ken is an imposing figure. He has rugged features and strides with a cowboy’s gait as his long wiry ponytail flows from beneath a baseball cap. Ken bristles at the term “protesters” and admonishes that those opposing the DAPL are “water protectors.”
Versed in the complex history of Sioux land disputes, Ken explains the intricacies of treaties, land grabs and the exceptions within exceptions that have chipped away at the territory of the Sioux Nation for over 150 years. “Where we stand is Sioux land, according to the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851,” he says, adding that the subsequent Sioux Treaty of 1868, which the Sioux allege to have never been properly ratified, illegally redefined the borders of Sioux territory. At best, the state of ownership and land rights is nothing short of confused.
Indians and non-Indians mill around nearby, executing various tasks in the maintenance of the protest camp’s daily life. The aroma of wood fires and beef stewing in cast iron kettles fills the air. The setting sun casts a shadowy skyline of tents, tepees and converted buses, all gathered to push back at the slow, oncoming creep of the pipeline. The camp ebbs and flows in population, retaining about 6,000 inhabitants, and pushing hundreds of yards to the swampy tributaries flowing into the Missouri.
In the distance, a drilling pad pushes closer to the river with the ultimate goal of tunneling beneath it. In the process, the excavation will cut through burial grounds. Distrust of the project has intensified over allegations that non-Indian archaeologists from the North Dakota State Historic Preservation Office have been exclusively charged with identifying native graves. Equally, there is concern as to what will occur should the pipeline breach below the Missouri’s pristine waters.
On these two issues, there is an odd chorus of consensus bridging what is otherwise a de facto apartheid in this small corner of the world. On and off the reservation, the welfare of the Missouri River provokes ready conversation.
“We don’t want that pipeline coming through here,” explains a woman named Terrie in Mandan, a town of roughly 20,000 inhabitants just west of Bismarck and 30 miles north of the standing Rock Reservation. Her youthful face softens as her distrust of me thaws. “If that pipeline ruptures, it will be the end of the Missouri. That’s going to affect millions of people down-river.”
But, just as quickly as Terrie is to condemn the pipeline, her teenage daughter shows me photos of vandalism in the nearby veteran’s graveyard. The agitated teen exclaims, “Look! Look at this. These pipeline protesters went and put a Tonka truck in the veteran’s graveyard with a sign that says ‘Let’s start drilling here’!”
Terrie is angry. “Leave our veterans alone,” she says. “Why would you desecrate their graves? They have nothing to do with this.”
It’s hard not to be taken in by the women’s congenial earthiness. On the other hand, the irony of their sensitivity to a distasteful prank, and the simultaneous indifference to the impact on Native American burial grounds, is inescapable. Here, the contempt for Native Americans is palpable and ubiquitous. “They get handouts and they are taken care of by the government,” Terrie adds. “They don’t have to work for any of it.”
As much as there is division between races, there is also dissent within. Earlier in the day, a group from Standing Rock led a march to Mandan’s municipal offices. Working on a theme of forgiveness, love and peace, the group prayed for a cleansing of what they claim are the hatred and offenses of both sides of the conflict that occurred in the preceding weeks. Those actions led to the arrest and detention of Lakota Sioux who continued to languish in the Morton County Correctional Center in Mandan.
The march was in stark contrast to the more extreme “direct action” principles undertaken by elements within the camp. In silence, the demonstrators encircled the jail and courthouse and pleaded for the release of their brethren. It was a display of the diverse beliefs and tactics emerging from the reservation; the hawks and the doves form a division so easily overlooked on the erroneous assumption of a monolithic Lakota Sioux culture and a unified stance in the face of adversity.
On my way back to Standing Rock, I stop at Rusty’s Saloon in St. Anthony, a village half way between Mandan and the reservation. It is a clean and orderly establishment constructed as a lodge, and decorated with “taxidermied” wildlife. The place is awash in camos and blaze orange as hunters gather for lunch. I take a seat alongside a regular who eyes me with suspicion. Lori, the barmaid, senses my apprehension and relaxes the atmosphere with some easy talk. I oblige and the conversation soon deepens.
Before long, she voices concern about threats to local farmers, the killing of livestock and a plethora of fires and vandalism alleged to have been perpetrated by Indians. According to Lori, the acts are the product of a native reawakening of land rights and a history of intrusion. “Our children had to have an armed escort to school because of the threats over this pipeline,” Lori adds. “People here are just plain scared.”
These and other conversations reveal that, while there is agreement as to issues between those on and off the reservation, opinions are very much in cadence with peer allegiances and along the cultural divide.
The dialogue of race is different here. In contrast to the low rumble of urban settings, race-based hatred in rural North Dakota is immediately explosive. The conversations with non-Indians are rife with animus toward Indians and outsiders. Likewise, the indigenous population, on and off the reservation, offers little more warmth. There is a noticeable lack of eye contact with non-Indians and the almost obligatory dirty looks cast at the “was’ichu,” (the somewhat derogatory Lakota word for “white” and non-Indian). The culture is understandably steeped in historic distrust.
Back at the camp, three young people bide their time waiting for a march to the front lines. Today, the Standing Rock Youth Council will take an offering to those manning the SWAT vehicles. The Youth Council is a contingent of the reservation’s younger generation that is guided by the mantra of “removing the invisible barriers that prevent our native youth from succeeding.” They are steadfast in support of the water protection action. Today, they will push to the front lines in peaceful offering to the men bearing arms and armor just beyond the barbed wire.
I am confronted by the stoicism of two visiting tribal members from Michigan, and of Maria, a young woman affiliated with several North Dakota tribes. “This is not a conflict zone,” Maria explains. “It’s not a war zone. We don’t want it to be seen that way.”
Maria is correct. While tear gas and rubber bullets have been unleashed in the course of the DAPL conflict, the people of Standing Rock show no interest in having their actions seen as being at war with the outside world. This erroneous characterization, spawned by the mainstream media, has drawn an array of characters to Standing Rock — Indian and non-Indian, each seeking to make the action their own. I find myself having to fight my way through throngs of posers and protesters to get to the core Native American water protectors who are truly sincere in their actions.
Likewise, within the Indian community, as in any community, I discover a great variance of identity and adherence to the mores of Indian culture. Maria points to her companion, “Me Shet Nagle,” a visiting member of the Blackfeet Nation, and chides, “He doesn’t even know what his name means! For all he knows, he could be named after a sock!”
Me Shet Nagle meets Maria’s playful contempt with a sheepish grin. I jokingly assure that they will be portrayed in the most stereotypical manner possible. They get the humor. We all get it; the revelation of the Native American as a diverse culture with all of the beauty, humor, internal conflict and struggle for identity as any other.
Tension builds as the time to march draws near. Dozens of water protectors assemble across the bridge from the barricade. Members of the SWAT team can be seen readying themselves in the distance. The bridge is disputed territory. Leaders from the Youth Council cradle a sacred pipe and carry an offering of the life-giving water that is threatened by the DAPL. In silence, dozens march on toward the front line.
Within yards of the barricade, the council motions for all marchers to be seated. People pray. Some look woefully onward, expecting plumes of tear gas. Cameras click away over the crowd. Among this throng, a young woman carries an infant wrapped in a thick wool blanket. The group is completely vulnerable. I glance over the edge of the bridge and quickly calculate a two-story drop to the freezing water of unknown depth. If things went as they have before, pandemonium could break out with any incoming projectiles.
The leaders of the Youth Council disappear behind the burned-out trucks. A number of heavily armored police and military appear from behind the barricade to take stock of the crowd. They peer from behind dark goggles beneath Kevlar helmets, adorned in heavy flak vests, with weapons slung at the ready.
The moments linger.
Finally, the Youth Council members emerge. They slowly walk to the crowd and command that everyone rise and move forward. In unified mass movement, the marchers close another 10 yards toward the barricade and the tension heightens. The council leaders sternly motion directions and, again, everyone is seated. The marchers are entirely under the Youth Council’s control.
“We offered them water,” one leader reports as he raise a mason jar. “They would not drink from it!” A murmur spreads across the crowd. “However,” the leader continues, “they prayed with us.” His words are slow and punctuated with the tension of the moment. “We prayed together and, while they would not drink the water, the men did accept our water and rubbed it about their uniforms in a showing of respect and solidarity.”
After a long pause, a Lakota woman seated before me raises a rattle in the air and shakes it with a cry of approval. One by one, hands rise and a cheer of praise breaks the quiet. The armed troops’ act of personal solidarity and sensitivity was all they asked for. In modest triumph, the marchers make their way back across the bridge in humble silence and with a renewed hope.
In the distance, the machines churn on.
Recently, North Dakota law enforcement authorities, reacting to what they labeled a riot, turned a water cannon on hundreds of protesters and Indian “water protectors” opposed to the construction of the Dakota Access oil pipeline (DAPL). Tony Zinnanti’s story describes life on and around the Standing Rock Reservation in the days leading up to the assault on the protest encampment.
(Tony Zinnanti is a lawyer, freelance journalist and photographer from Los Angeles. His legal work has included defense of activists John Quigley and Ted Hayes, and representation of members of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club. This piece first appeared in Capital and Main. Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.
GUEST WORDS--I came out as bisexual to more than 43,300 people last year in a Daily Bruin column. But my parents weren’t among them.
It may be 2016, but it can still be risky for someone to publicly identify as LGBTQ, undocumented or as part of any other marginalized group. And the holidays may be especially difficult for closeted individuals. Even someone who is out to her siblings, but not her parents or the other adults in her life, like me, can struggle.
My internal monologue is always running at family gatherings. I am constantly eyeing everyone in suspicion and worrying that someone might expose my identity. And it doesn’t help that the holidays are painted as a time when families lovingly gather in peace and harmony.
Despite coming out to the UCLA community and receiving support on campus, it is difficult to translate that same support at home. UCLA is a progressive bubble. It is not reflective of the rest of the world, and certainly not reflective of my family.
But it’s precisely this difference in thought we students have to embrace and face. Simply dismissing the other side inflames tensions. And what better time to reach out than the holidays? This is the one time of the year when you are with family and everyone is taking a break from the daily responsibilities of school and work.
This month’s events have brought to the forefront issues of racism, sexism and homophobia that have been quietly simmering. They inflame the hurt of being rejected or only partly tolerated rather than fully accepted by my family. But while we are able to create our own online echo chambers free of triggering ideas from the other side, unfriending your racist and homophobic uncle on Facebook is not likely to keep him away from the Thanksgiving dinner table back home.
Since the first time my tongue slipped and called UCLA “home,” I realized the stark contrast between the definition of the word and the place it represents. Home is a feeling of comfort and acceptance, whereas being home may not elicit those same emotions.
I, like many first-generation students of color, grew up in a pivotal position for an immigrant family. My parents grew up on small ranches in Mexico. They raised cattle and chickens and grew corn to make bread and tortillas. Their life was simplified to homemaking and cleaning for the women, and yard and paid labor work for the men until they each met a partner to have their own children with. This lifestyle they grew up with did not leave much room for experimenting alternative lifestyles, let alone deviating from the patriarchal and heteronormative culture.
My parents never studied past sixth grade. They never went to a university to learn about the things they do not know and they did not have the opportunity to socialize with the diverse set of individuals that colleges bring together. But with the growing visibility of the LGBTQ community, they engage the only way they can: making homophobic jokes – sometimes in front of me.
But this difference in viewpoints is natural. I have met many diverse people, heard from a wide array of speakers and read books that my parents have not. I, like every other Bruin, have been exposed to these differences in thought and have had the had the chance to analyze both sides of the ideological spectrum in a classroom setting. But my parents – and many other students’ – aren’t currently participating in these kinds of discussions, so it’s expected we diverge in opinion.
UCLA is a world all its own, but very few will call it home forever. As students of the country’s most applied-to university, we are put on a pedestal as examples of progressive citizens. And despite how diverse a picture UCLA paints on its brochures, the real test begins the moment you leave campus. The college bubble will eventually give way to the real world full of differing opinions – good and bad – and we need to confront and accept these differences if we are to pay homage to our education.
Whether you’re liberal or conservative, you’ll meet other people with different opinions from yours. And when you graduate, you will continue to be tested on what you have learned at one of the top public universities in the world.
For me, not confronting ideological disagreement with family members would cause them to reject me and my identity. And it’s no surprise that in return, I would reject them, despite my familial ties and everything I learned at UCLA about being a leader. You cannot reject your family during the holidays because of different viewpoints because your family ties and environment are likely to bring you together.
Confrontation does not burn bridges, avoiding it does.
Moral and social progress is not linear or inevitable. It is difficult and daunting. You cannot, and should not, reject those with whom you disagree.
So open up, listen and agree to disagree. ‘Tis the season for family and love, after all.
(Jasmine Aquino posts at The Daily Bruin … where this perspective was first published.)
ALPERN AT LARGE--If ever there was a justification for the mortality of a man, it would be the frightening example of Fidel Castro. Two other examples would be Josef Stalin and Mao Tze-Tung.
(Photo above: President Kennedy silhouetted in his office during the Cuban Missile Crisis.)
There are those who would lionize Fidel, his revolutionary export of Che Guevara and the bloodletting Guevara caused and their fight for the "people", and their revolutionary zeal against the excesses of capitalism...but while they lived most of their lives in luxury, millions suffered, were tortured, were starved, were unfairly imprisoned and were slain as a result of their "enlightened" cause.
So with the understanding that Millennials, much to the horror of their parents, often graduate high school (and college) with an understanding of U.S. History that stops at the American Civil War, I have and will continue to throw out occasional quizzes of the 20th Century and of history/civics-related issues. Because the 20th Century ... and all of its painful lessons ... DID happen.
THE ALPERN 20TH CENTURY QUIZ—HOW MUCH DO YOU KNOW/REMEMBER?
(Correct answers at bottom of this column)
1) Fidel Castro allowed which nation to place nuclear missiles on its territory, and the Cuban Missile Crisis was responded to by which President in what was arguably the closest thing to World War III that ever occurred during the Cold War:
- a) North Korea/Ronald Reagan
- b) China/Richard Nixon
- c) The Soviet Union/John F. Kennedy
- d) The Soviet Union/Dwight Eisenhower
2) Fidel Castro vigorously opposed what he referred to as American Imperialism, and sent Cuban soldiers to unsuccessfully fight wars or to establish Marxist governments that were subsequently either overthrown or defeated by his opponents EXCEPT:
- a) Israel (during the Yom Kippur War)
- b) Nicaragua (during the Nicaraguan Civil War)
- c) Venezuela (during the Venezuelan Civil War)
- d) Granada (subsequently overthrown by U.S. Forces)
3) Fidel Castro, after almost succumbing to a gastrointestinal ailment (possibly diverticulitis with bleeding) in 2008, handed over the reigns of power in Cuba to:
- a) Hugo Chavez
- b) Che Guevara
- c) Raul Castro
- d) Evo Morales
4) The unsuccessful U.S.-backed attempt to militarily overthrow Fidel Castro in 1961 was called, and was supported by which U.S. President:
- a) The Bay of Pigs/John F. Kennedy
- b) The Crimson Tide/Richard Nixon
- c) The Freedom Flotila/Jimmy Carter
- d) The War of Liberation/Harry Truman
5) Prison work camps known as "Military Units to Aid Production" were created by Fidel Castro's younger brother Raul, and those sent there without trial for torture and threatened execution included:
- a) Businessmen and those believed to be U.S. spies
- b) Individuals believed to be connected to former-elected Cuban President and later dictator Batista
- c) Counter-revolutionaries and criminals
- d) Homosexuals, men believed to be homosexuals or effeminate, and Jehovah's Witnesses
6) The late communist dictator Mao Tse-Tung is credited with the deaths of approximately how many Chinese through execution, war, forced or war-associated starvation, or imprisonment?
- a) 10,000
- b) 10 million
- c) 35 million
- d) 65 million
7) Which of the following socialist/communist nations allowed/allows freedom of religion?
- a) The former Soviet Union
- b) Maoist China
- c) Cuba
- d) North Korea
- e) None of the Above
8) The late communist dictator Josef Stalin is credited with the deaths of approximately how many Russians and other Soviets through execution, war, forced or war-associated starvation, or imprisonment?
- a) 100,000
- b) 10-20 million
- c) 35-45 million
- d) 55-65 million
9) The English translation of the former Nazi Party of Germany before and during World War II is:
- a) Nationalistic Zionist Party
- b) National Zeig Hail Party
- c) National Socialist Party
- d) Non-Associated Socialist Party
10) Che Guevara, who is believed to have personally or indirectly killed thousands of men, women and children both in Cuba and in nations throughout Latin America and Africa, was executed in which nation?
- a) The United States
- b) Cuba
- c) Bolivia
- d) Grenada
It's likely that many, like Florida Senator Marco Rubio (Republican, of Cuban descent) are noting that Fidel Castro is finally meeting his maker, and are wondering if his soul now suffers the same fate as his soon-to-be-cremated body (after the week or more of "mandatory mourning" of course).
It's also likely that New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez (Democrat, of Cuban descent) isn't the only one wondering if Raul Castro will be any better than his older brother, now that he is control, with respect to human rights, civil liberties, and democracy in Cuba.
But one thing is truly likely: if anyone wants to throw around the idea, or wear a Che or Fidel t-shirt, espousing the wonderful "revolution" of Cuban socialism in front of a person of Cuban descent whose family fled Cuba, and braved death and overcame persecution in order to do it, then that person should expect a verbal rebuke of the harshest sort, or maybe even a punch in the nose.
And that person will have richly deserved and earned that rebuke or punch in the nose.
Because the Twentieth Century, and all of its horrific disasters (most especially Socialism) DID happen.
(Kenneth S. Alpern, M.D. is a dermatologist who has served in clinics in Los Angeles, Orange, and Riverside Counties. He is also a Westside Village Zone Director and Board member of the Mar Vista Community Council (MVCC), previously co-chaired its Planning and Outreach Committees, and currently is Co-Chair of its MVCC Transportation/Infrastructure Committee. He is co-chair of the CD11Transportation Advisory Committee and chairs the nonprofit Transit Coalition, and can be reached at email@example.com. He also co-chairs the grassroots Friends of the Green Line at www.fogl.us. The views expressed in this article are solely those of Dr. Alpern.)
MEDIA WATCH--On Monday, some of the biggest names in TV news trooped into Trump Tower for an off-the-record meeting with the president-elect.
It was an all-star cast. Not just on-air stars like Lester Holt, Wolf Blitzer and George Stephanopoulos, but their bosses were also summoned before the Potentate of Fifth Avenue.
The meeting was a huge success — for Donald Trump.
SKID ROW-After the recent election of Donald Trump as the next President of the United States, a tremendous “display of pride” has been seen all across America by Trump supporters, who mostly identify with White America.
It’s 2016 now and I can’t help but wonder, where was all this bravado and widespread arrogance from White America in 2008 when the United States of America almost completely collapsed financially?
For Trump and his supporters to stick their collective chest out now is laughable seeing how the country has already been stabilized by outgoing President Barack Obama. Sure, anybody can take the reins as Commander-in-Chief...now that all the heavy-lifting has been done!
Remember 2008, just before the election, when war and foreclosures were the two biggest concerns in all of America? Remember all the debates about a stimulus package and who should receive portions of it? Remember all the jokes about “W” possibly being the all-time stupidest President in the history of America?
Right. I do, too.
In Skid Row during that time, we had to differentiate between the “traditional homeless residents” and the sudden increase of “non-traditional homeless residents” who flocked into our community, already known as “The Homeless Capital of America.”
At the same time, countless homes on seemingly every block in every neighborhood across America had “for sale” signs in their front yards. Then we all learned what a sub-prime loan was. People were genuinely frightened. They stood in long lines for hours to pull all their money out of the banks -- to the point where “W” had to give a presidential speech urging Americans to leave their cash in the banks and trust the leadership of the Federal Government.
This was the moment in time for White America to step forward and collectively elect its most trustworthy choice for President: someone (male or female) who would, first, stabilize the country from total financial meltdown and second, rebuild America literally from the ground up: financially, by fixing the banks, and economically, by creating new jobs and industries, putting restrictions on previous de-regulation, and re-purposing the funding that goes toward multiple wars in multiple countries. This would have been that perfect moment in time for a Presidential campaign slogan of “Make America Great Again.”
To use that eight years later, after America has already been stabilized is so asinine. The Dow Jones consistently hovering above 18,000 points means only one thing: the Great Recession is completely over.
Jobs are constantly being created in a multitude of industries, unemployment numbers are at their lowest in decades and the real estate and home-buying markets have stabilized as well.
So, in order to “Make America Great Again,” after we’ve completely come out of the Great Recession, seems highly redundant, virtually impossible and arguably improbable.
All that should be done now is to continue building on the stabilization of America. In other words, there’s really nothing newsworthy to be shouting about at the top of one’s lungs!
Yet White America is getting its collective gloat on as if something has been accomplished. Please keep in mind that after eight years of an African-American President, the pendulum was bound to swing back to White. In fact, both Republican and Democratic presidential candidates were White.
So if White America has been in control of this country since its inception, and for eight years out of well over 500 years, a Black man helped America stabilize itself, exactly who is White America taking this country back from? Unfortunately, all the worthless and empty rhetoric is at the expense of other races and types of people who have all helped contribute to the current stabilization of America.
This “we gotta take our country back” mindset is troubling to me. As someone who has voluntarily chosen to live in Skid Row for the last 10 years and who sees homelessness and extreme mental illness on a daily basis from a firsthand perspective, I am allowed to make realistic comparisons to the “loud and obnoxious” people within White America who have sparked KKK parades, racially-based protests, fistfights and so much more.
I can’t help but see similarities between this behavior and the variety of mental illnesses, lack of common sense and/or use of basic logic that I see every day in Skid Row. It’s almost like saying we should “Make Skid Row Great Again.” Both these slogans equally defy common sense and logic.
And to those who pause at this analogy, I ask, “When was America great to begin with?” During the cowboys’ battles with Native Americans? During slavery? During World Wars I or II, the Vietnam War or the Korean War? The Iraq or Afghanistan wars? Civil Rights or Women’s Rights eras? When, did you say? Exactly.
Whatever moment in time one chooses to identify America as “great” would coincide with a moment in time when White America was either racist or discriminated against others. I single out White America because that is the group which claims to “run this country.”
If making America “great again” includes any of the above notions, while tens of thousands of men, women and children have already taken to the streets in protest marches, then I struggle not to laugh at the simplicity of White America’s “rank and file.” At the same time, I am in awe of the true number of racists there are within White America. I seems that countless numbers wish bodily harm, incarceration and even death to people who look just like me, a Black man, even though they don’t even know me and apparently don’t even care to.
That’s also funny because I look like the American President who brought America back from the brink of total collapse in 2008. President Obama is a smart, handsome and classy Black man who never disrespected women, Mexicans, Muslims, disabled people or anyone else for that matter. Currently, Obama’s approval numbers are well above 50% and this includes the approval of countless White Americans.
So which is it, White America? Recent history says you hate me, but you need me; you know this, but you don’t want to admit any of this, all at the same time -- symptoms of collective mental illness.
My suggestion to White America is to look in the mirror and decide among yourselves -- can White America truly “make America great again” without any Black or Brown people?
If the answer is no, then why are you making a mockery of yourselves in front of the rest of the world?
Surely, the rest of the world doesn’t see this as anything “great,” either.
(General Jeff is a homelessness activist and leader in Downtown Los Angeles. Jeff’s views are his own.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.
LA WATCHDOG--Our Enlightened Elite who occupy Los Angeles City Hall tell us that pension reform is not necessary. After all, the recent actuarial report for the Fire and Police Pension Plan indicated that its $19 billion retirement plan was 94% funded as of June 30, 2016.
But as we all know, figures never lie, but liars figure, especially when it involves the finances of the City of Los Angeles.
The City will say that a pension plan that has assets equal to 80% of its future pension obligations is in good shape. Baloney! Pension plans should aim to be 100% funded, especially in down markets. And in today’s bull market, where the Dow Jones Industrial Average is hitting record highs, the pension plan should be 120% funded so that it can withstand another bear market.
Even at the 94% funded ratio, the unfunded pension liability for the retirement plan is pushing $1.2 billion, not exactly chump change when compared to the projected payroll of $1.4 billion for the 12,800 active cops and firefighters.
But there is more bad news that is buried in the opaque actuarial reports that, when pieced together and analyzed, reveals that the overall Fire and Police Pension Plan is over $6 billion in the red and that only 75% of its future obligations are funded.
The Fire and Police Pension Plans are also responsible for Other Postemployment Benefits (“OPEB”) which covers medical benefits for retirees. But the $3 billion of OPEB obligations are less than 50% funded, resulting in an additional $1.6 billion in unfunded liabilities.
The City is also cooking the books by “smoothing” the actual gains and losses in its investment portfolio over a seven year period. This little trick is covering up a $600 million hit to its investment portfolio.
Finally, if the newly calculated liability (that includes adjustments for OPEB and smoothing) of $3.4 billion (85% funded) is adjusted to reflect the more realistic investment rate assumption of 6.5% (as recommended by Warren Buffett), the unfunded pension liability soars to $6.25 billion and the funded ratio plummets to 75%.
When combined with the $9 billion liability of the Los Angeles Employees’ Retirement System, the City’s total unfunded pension liability exceeds $15 billion. And this liability is expected to double over the next ten years based on realistic rates of return that are in the range of 6% to 6.5%.
But what are Mayor Eric Garcetti, City Council President Herb Wesson, Budget and Finance Chair Paul Krekorian, and Personnel Chair Paul Koretz doing to address the single most important financial issue facing the City?
Nothing! Absolutely nothing other than put their heads in a potato sack and hope that a robust stock market will make the $15 billion problem go away.
They have ignored the recommendations of the LA 2020 Commission to form a Committee on Retirement Security to review and analyze the City’s two pension plans and develop proposals to “achieve equilibrium on retirement costs by 2020.”
Krekorian and Koretz made the bone headed suggestion to raise the investment rate assumption to 8% so that the City would be able to lower its annual required pension contributions to the underfunded pension plans, allowing more money for union raises.
Wesson has not even created a Council File for the pension and budget recommendations of the LA 2020 Commission.
But the real culprit is Garcetti who has refused to address the pension mess that will eventually become a crisis. He has not asked his political appointees on the two pension boards to initiate a study of the pension plans and the City’s ever increasing contributions that now devour 20% of the City’s General Fund budget. He has refused to contest the State’s Supreme Court “California Rule” which does not allow the City to reform the pension plans by lowering future, yet to be earned benefits.
Rather than look out for the best interests of the City and all Angelenos, he continues to kiss the rings of the campaign funding union leaders who are vital to his political ambitions.
The City’s lack of openness and transparency and its unwillingness to address its ever growing, unsustainable $15 billion pension liability can only be categorized as a major league cover up that should be front and center in the upcoming March election.
(Jack Humphreville writes LA Watchdog for CityWatch. He is the President of the DWP Advocacy Committee and is the Budget and DWP representative for the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council. He is a Neighborhood Council Budget Advocate. Jack is affiliated with Recycler Classifieds -- www.recycler.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.)
LA WATCHDOG--The County of Los Angeles has prided itself on being better managed than the City of Los Angeles.
In 2007, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the Eric Garcetti led City Council approved a five year labor contract that granted the City’s civilian employees a 25% raise. While this contract was based on wishful thinking from the beginning, it turned into an unmitigated mess when the recession smacked the City’s unrealistic revenue projections, resulting in huge budget deficits. To balance its budget, the City reduced services, furloughed workers, dumped over 1,600 employees (and their unfunded pension liabilities) on our Department of Water and Power, laid off almost 500 employees, and implemented the $600 million Early Retirement Incentive Program for 2,400 senior employees.
The County, on the other hand, did not grant any meaningful raises during this period, and, as a result, did not have to cut services or furlough or layoff its employees in order to balance its budget.
The Supervisors also believe that the County’s pension plan, the Los Angeles County Employees Retirement Association, is in better shape than the City’s two pension plans, the Los Angeles City Employees Retirement System and the Los Angeles Fire and Police Pension Plans.
On the surface, this appears to be the case.
As of June 30, 2016, preliminary estimates (using the overly optimistic investment rate assumption of 7.5%) indicate that the County’s $58 billion plan is 83% funded with a shortfall of $10 billion. On the other hand, the City’s $43 billion of future obligations are only 77% funded, resulting in an unfunded liability of $10 billion.
At the same time, the County pension plan has 94,000 active members, 2½ times the 37,000 active members under the City’s much more generous plans.
However, when the County’s $31 billion of unfunded liability for Other Post-Employment Benefits (primarily retiree medical benefits) (“OPEB”) are considered, the County’s unfunded liability soars to over $40 billion, resulting in a funded ratio of a very unhealthy 55%. This is significantly lower than the City’s 77% funded ratio which includes its OPEB obligations.
Over the years, the County has failed to set aside any real money to fund its OPEB obligations, resulting in a funded ratio of less than 2%. On the other hand, the City, to its credit, has been making its annual required contributions since the late 1980’s, resulting in unfunded OPEB liability of “only” $2.1 billion and a funded ratio north of 60%.
[Note: Few governments have funded any of their Other Post-Employment Benefits, including the State of California which has an unfunded OPEB liability of a whopping $71 billion.]
If the Supervisors were to properly fund its Other Post-Employment Benefits, the annual required contribution will be in excess of $2.1 billion. But by ignoring this very real, snowballing obligation, the Supervisors are using these false “savings” to fund the County’s bloated bureaucracy, increases in salaries and employee benefits, additional social services, and to meet the demands of the campaign funding leaders of the County’s public unions.
When the unfunded pension liability is adjusted to reflect a more realistic investment rate assumption, the County has a $50 billion liability that has the potential to crowd out essential services.
But will the Supervisors address this $50 billion mess where the facts, issues, and recommendations for financial sustainability are discussed in an open and transparent manner? Or will they follow the example of Mayor Eric Garcetti and the Herb Wesson led City Council who have ignored the excellent recommendations of the LA 2020 Commission and who continue to kick the $16 billion can down our lunar cratered streets?
[Note: For each of the 4 million Angelenos, the total pension liability is $9,000, $5,000 for the County and $4,000 for the City. This does not include LAUSD or the State.]
(Jack Humphreville writes LA Watchdog for CityWatch. He is the President of the DWP Advocacy Committee and is the Budget and DWP representative for the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council. He is a Neighborhood Council Budget Advocate. Jack is affiliated with Recycler Classifieds -- www.recycler.com. He can be reached at: email@example.com.)
LA WATCHDOG--According to the opaque actuarial report for the Los Angeles City Employees’ Retirement System (“LACERS”), 2016 was a good year. The return on its investment portfolio was 7%, the unfunded pension liability of $5.5 billion was $200 million lower than the previous year, the funded ratio “improved” to 72.6% from 70.7%, and the City’s 2017-18 Annual Required Contribution (“ARC”) to LACERS may be lower than this year’s payment.
But a more realistic analysis reveals that the City is “cooking the books,” relying on a set of false assumptions and policies that cover up the severity of the pension crisis.
In the real world, the return on investment was breakeven, the unfunded pension liability increased to almost $9 billion, the funded ratio decreased to a unhealthy 61%, and the ARC is understated by at least $300 million.
There are two policies adopted by the City that allows it to pull the wool over our eyes: “smoothing” where gains and losses compared to the targeted rate of return of 7.5% are amortized over a seven year period and two, the reliance on an overly optimistic investment rate assumption of 7.5%.
Smoothing was designed to even out the City’s pension contributions so they would not bounce around in an unpredictable manner based on the ups and downs of the stock market. But this has resulted in an understatement of the unfunded pension liability of $750 million as the cooked up actuarial value of its assets exceeds their market value by the same $750 million.
Smoothing also resulted in LACERS showing a 7% return on its investments. But in the real world, the ROI was breakeven (+0.05%) for the year, which, when compared to the targeted rate of return of 7.5%, resulted in an increase in the unfunded liability of almost $800 million, not a $200 million decrease as advertised by the actuaries.
The major culprit is the reliance on an overly optimistic investment rate assumption of 7.5%. Professional investors such as Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway state that 6.5% is a more realistic rate of return, and even that rate may be optimistic.
If the investment rate assumption of 6.5% is used, LACERS’ unfunded liability based on market values will soar to almost $9 billion and the funding ratio will plummet to 61%. This is a far cry from the advertised $5.5 billion shortfall and a funded ratio of 72.6%.
The use of the more realistic investment rate assumption of 6.5% will also cause the Annual Required Contribution to increase by over $300 million, putting an even bigger dent in the City’s budget.
And this does not include the higher Annual Required Contribution for the Los Angeles Fire and Police Pension Plans that cover 26,000 active and retired firefighters and cops.
Together, the combined unfunded pension liability will soar to over $15 billion.
Despite this looming crisis, Mayor Eric Garcetti is unwilling to address real pension reform for fear of antagonizing the campaign financing leadership of the City’s public unions. Rather, he continues to support this shell game, this Ponzi scheme, burying his head in the sand, pretending there is no crisis, hoping beyond hope that the stock market will bail the City out, even though it will dump tens of billions of unfunded pension liabilities on the next two generations of Angelenos.
Rather than continuing down this path that will result in massive increases in our taxes, Mayor Garcetti needs to stop “waffling.” He should implement the recommendations of the LA 2020 Commission and the Neighborhood Council Budget Advocates to establish a “Commission for Retirement Security” to review the City's retirement obligations in order to promote an accurate understanding of the facts (transparency) and to develop concrete recommendations on how to achieve an equilibrium by 2020.
Without real pension reform, the next two generations of Angelenos will be short changed as escalating pension contributions will crowd out basic services while, at the same time, they will be paying more taxes to fund the past financial follies of the overly ambitious Eric Garcetti.
LA WATCHDOG--Pay-to-play is alive and well in Los Angeles as our Elected Elite continue to sell us out for cash campaign contributions, the ultimate aphrodisiac for Mayor Eric Garcetti and the members of the City Council.
In an excellent piece of investigative reporting, David Zahniser and Emily Alpert Reyes detailed how a sleazy real estate speculator / developer illegally funneled more than $600,000 through a network of questionable donors to selected members of the City Council and Mayor Garcetti. These contributions were part of a full court press to override the findings and recommendations of the City Planning Department and the City Planning Commission in the spring of 2014 that denied zoning changes and variances for Sea Breeze, a $72 million development of a 352 unit apartment building on land intended for industrial use in the Harbor Gateway area of the City.
[See A $72-million apartment project. Top politicians. Unlikely donors. Who wrote the checks to elected officials weighing approval? ]
But the $600,000 in campaign contributions was an excellent investment as the Planning and Land Use Management Committee of the City Council (“PLUM”), the City Council, and Mayor Garcetti approved the controversial zoning changes in early 2015, resulting in an estimated windfall profit well in excess of $10 million for the ethically challenged speculator.
Assisting with these zoning changes and variances benefited former Council Member Janice Hahn to the tune of $203,500 in campaign contributions. After she departed for Congress in late 2011, Joe Buscaino, the new Council Member for Harbor Gateway, “earned” $94,700 by ushering the developer’s appeal through the Planning and Land Use Management Committee. And as we all know, professional courtesy dictates that the local Council Member rules supreme in his district, no matter how bad the rotten Harbor fish stink.
The developer was not taking any chances as he also greased the palms of Jose Huizar, the Chair of PLUM, and the two other committee members, Mitch Englander and Gil Cedillo, with over $100,000 in contributions from a number of suspicious donors.
And that was topped off by multiple contributions totaling $60,000 to an independent campaign committee that supported Garcetti.
But this is well documented deal is not an isolated event as the pay-to-play game is taking place all over the City.
There is the NoHo West development in North Hollywood; the development the Martin Cadillac site on the congested Westside; the 27 story residential skyscraper in low rise Koreatown; the Cumulus monstrosity at the F rated intersection at La Cienega and Jefferson in South LA, the 1.6 million square foot Reef development in South Central, just south of DTLA; the Rocketdyne development in Warner Center section of Woodland Hills; and the Caruso luxury high rise apartment building near the already clogged intersections surrounding the Beverly Center.
And no doubt, other congestion causing monstrosities will be sprouting up all around town, especially in those parts of our City that are undergoing rapid gentrification like Boyle Heights, Echo Park, and Highland Park.
The corruption associated with the Sea Breeze development must be investigated by the City’s deliberately underfunded Ethics Department and Jackie Lacey, the County’s District Attorney, focusing not only on the sleazy developer and his partners in crime, but on all the beneficiaries of these illegal contributions.
At the same time, the City Council needs to adopt a rule that requires the real time disclosure of all campaign contributions (and behests) by any party affiliated with a council related action, including lobbyists and lawyers. This policy would also require our elected officials to sign off on these disclosures, with the requirement that they “know” their donors. This new rule has been labeled the “Political Donation Impact Review” by a neighbor to a mega-project that will cause ungodly amounts of congestion on surface streets and the adjoining freeway.
We also have the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative that has qualified for the March ballot. This reform measure calls for the City to plan for the City’s future, a task that has been neglected because it interferes with the fund raising activities of the City Council. The Initiative will require the City to update its General Plan and its 37 Community Plans. It will eliminate “spot zoning” where the City Council, under the leadership of the local Councilmember, will be able to create massive value for the developer by “up zoning” a specific property. It will also require the City to control the Environmental Impact Reviews, taking that responsibility away from the self-serving developers.
As an enforcement mechanism, the Initiative places a 24 month moratorium on “up zoned” projects. But contrary to the propaganda put out by its developer funded opponents, the Initiative does not place any restrictions on projects that are consistent with existing zoning regulations.
Reform of the City’s planning process has been made more complicated by the approval by the voters of JJJ, the Affordable Housing and Labor Standards Act, that requires inclusionary zoning and the equivalent of a project labor agreement on residential projects seeking zoning changes for projects of more than 10 units. However, with all the financial constraints imposed by JJJ and its numerous loopholes, the new law will lead to even greater corruption as it gives the City Council more power over residential developments.
In the next four months prior to the March election, we will have a raucous debate involving City Planning, the General Plan, the Community Plans, congestion, increased density, the allocation of the necessary resources to the Planning Department, and the absolute requirement for greater transparency into the impact of development on our local communities.
This process will also provide us with insight to the rigged system where real estate developers and the City Council are in cahoots with each other in ways that work against our best interests and those of our residential communities.
Sea Breeze is not an isolated deal. It is just the tip of the iceberg.
LA WATCHDOG--We have 24 ballot measures to contend with on Tuesday, four of which involve the City; one each for Metro, the County, and the Los Angeles Community College District; and 17 for the State of California.
When deciding how to vote on the following seven local ballot measures and six state measures that involve our wallets, we need to consider whether we trust our politicians with our hard earned money and whether our Elected Elite are working in our best interests or those of their campaign funding cronies, real estate developers, and union leaders.
The City of Los Angeles is corrupt enterprise where pay-to-play is standard operating procedure. On Sunday, the Los Angeles Times ran a front page expose detailing how $600,000 in illegal campaign contributions paved the way for the City Council and Mayor Garcetti to approve the $72 million Sea Breeze development in Harbor City despite being rejected by the City Planning Commission and the local Neighborhood Council.
The City is fiscally irresponsible. Over the last four years, revenues have increased by $1 billion and yet the City is projecting a budget deficit next year of $100 million.
Despite rivers of red ink and $15 billion of unfunded pension liabilities, Garcetti and the Herb Wesson led City Council have refused to consider the excellent budget recommendations of the LA 2020 Commission.
The City continues to use our Department of Water and Power as an ATM. In October, the politically appointed Board of Commissioners (with one dissenting vote) approved an incestuous $41 million, 10 year lease for 4 floors of Figueroa Plaza, a poorly maintained, out of the way complex owned by the City. Ratepayers are being taken for over $20 million.
Taxpayers are under attack. If all the State and local ballot measures are approved, Angelenos proportionate share is $1.6 billion. This equates to $400 a person or $1,600 for a family of four. $1.6 billion will increase our sales tax to 11.7% or require a 32% bump in our property taxes. There is another $2 billion in the pipeline. And this does not include funding for the hundreds of billions of unfunded pension liabilities.
Ask yourself, do you trust Mayor Garcetti, the Herb Wesson led City Council, or the reconstituted Board of Supervisors to act in the best interests of its hard working residents?
City Ballot Measures
Measure HHH – NO - $1.2 Billion Homeless Bond
This is a reward for bad behavior. Mayor Garcetti and the City Council tell us that homelessness is a priority, but it is not a budget priority despite a $1 billion increase in General Fund revenues over the last four years. Revenues are projected to increase another $600 million over the next four years. The alternative to this measure is a general obligation bond paid for by the General Fund, not through an increase in our property taxes.
Measure JJJ – HELL NO / Affordable Housing and Labor Standards
This ballot measure was cooked up by the County Federation of Labor. It calls for inclusionary housing, prevailing wages (a 100% premium to market wages), and the equivalent of a project labor agreement. But the numbers do not work. Affordable housing becomes more unaffordable as money is diverted to well-paid construction workers and their unions.
RRR – YES – DWP Reform
This is a step in the right direction. Additional ordinances will be needed for DWP to establish its own Human Resources Department, free from the City’s Personnel Department and its overly restrictive work rules. Management and the Board will have more flexibility provided they abide by the newly mandated strategic plan. The only power grab is by the City’s civilian unions.
SSS – NO – Airport Police Eligible for Fire and Police Pension Plans
We need to have increased transparency and pension reform before there are any changes to the existing pension plans. This proposal is more expensive than the existing arrangement with LACERS (Los Angeles City Employees Retirement System).
Metropolitan Transportation Authority
Measure M – NO - Metro / Los Angeles County Traffic Improvement Plan
A 9½% sales tax is regressive. It is one of the highest rates in the country. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has a record of cost overruns (billions) and multiyear delays. The inefficient MTA is unable to manage its current infusion of $2.6 billion in taxpayer money. It does not deserve a 33% raise to $3.4 billion or another $75 billion over the next 40 years. It is a “forever” tax with no independent oversight. A $10 million campaign war chest supporting this new tax is being funded by crony capitalists looking to feast on our tax dollars. Do you trust the 13 politicians on the MTA Board?
County of Los Angeles
Measure A – NO – Parks Parcel Tax
This is another “forever” tax where the money is directed to pet projects. There is no plan to address deferred maintenance of $21 billion. Oversight by political appointees is inadequate: reactive as opposed to proactive. Come back with a 25 year, well thought out plan that includes deferred maintenance and real independent oversight.
Los Angeles Community College District
Measure CC – NO - $3.3 Billion Facilities Bond
CC was placed on the ballot without limited community input. This poorly run district is overreaching. $3.3 billion is too damn much for this enterprise with a record of squandering billions from previous bonds. Cut the amount in half, develop controls to manage the District, create an independent oversight body with real power, conduct community outreach, and then place a measure on the ballot.
State of California
Proposition 51 – NO - $9 Billion School Facilities Bond
An initiative cooked up by home builders, construction companies, realtors, unions, and their cronies. Keep Sacramento out of the local school systems. Governor Jerry Brown opposes Prop 51.
Proposition 53 – YES – No Blank Checks
No Blank Checks requires voter approval of State revenue bonds of more than $2 billion. It increases transparency and accountability. It may impact Jerry Brown’s two pet projects, the not so High Speed Railroad ($68 billion) and the controversial Twin Tunnels ($15 billion). A no brainer.
Proposition 54 – YES – Voters First, Not Special Interests
The State Legislature cannot pass any bill unless it has been in print and published on the internet for at least 72 hours before the vote. Prop 54 is a no brainer unless you are a backroom politician.
Proposition 55 – NO – Soak the Rich Income Tax Surcharge
Prop 55 extends the temporary income tax surcharge on higher incomes for another 12 years. Yet State revenues are up $50 billion (over 40%) since the surcharge was approved by the voters in 2012. The surcharge increases the reliance on the volatile stock market and the income tax, increasing the prospect of huge budget deficits when the market tanks. This is compounded by Sacramento’s spending spree. There are unintended consequences of having the highest income tax rate in the country. The unions and other special interests funding this initiative to the tune of $57 million have produced many misleading, scare tactic ads.
Proposition 56 – YES - Cigarette Tax
An additional $2 a pack tax will deter smoking, save lives, and lower healthcare costs. The tobacco industry has spent over $70 million opposing this proposition.
Proposition 61 – YES – Prescription Drug Pricing
This proposition is the result of the Legislature’s failure to address the escalating cost of prescription drugs. Big Pharma is spending over $100 million to defeat this measure.
Ballot measures HHH (the $1.2 billion homeless bond), Measure M (the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s “forever” permanent half cent increase in our already regressive sales tax), and Measure A (the County’s “forever” parcel tax for parks) were placed on the ballot by our elected politicians.
By voting NO on these three measures, we can send a message to Mayor Garcetti, the Herb Wesson-led City Council, and the reconstituted County Board of Supervisors that we demand increased transparency and accountability, long range planning and multiyear budgeting, pension transparency and reform, and that the City, as well as the County, “Live Within Its Means.”
And most importantly, they need to understand that we are not their ATM.
LA WATCHDOG--Crony capitalism and pay to play are alive and well in Los Angeles.
In a well-researched front page story, Los Angeles Times reporters David Zahniser and Emily Alpert Reyes detailed how a sleazy real estate developer illegally funneled more than $600,000 to City politicians. As a result of this play to pay scheme, Mayor Eric Garcetti and the City Council “up zoned” Sea Breeze, his $72 million residential apartment building on industrially zoned land in the Harbor Gateway neighborhood that had been turned down by the Garcetti appointed City Planning Commission and the local neighborhood council.
Of course, the offending politicians (including Janice Hahn, a candidate for County Supervisor, who received over $200,000) are quick to deny that their favorable vote was influenced by campaign contributions. But we all know that our smooth talking Elected Elite never met a campaign contribution they did not like, the same as it is with tax increases, DWP rate hikes, and budget busting labor contracts.
But this is chump change compared to the $10 million campaign led by Mayor Garcetti to brow beat us into approving Measure M, a permanent half cent increase in our sales tax to a staggering 9½%, one of the highest rates in the country. This tax is designed to raise an additional $850 million a year for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, increasing its annual haul from the County’s taxpayers by 33% to an astronomical $3.4 billion.
But who is financing this $10 million campaign that is equivalent on a per capita basis to the tobacco industry’s efforts to defeat Proposition 56, the state ballot measure to increase the tax on cigarettes by $2.00 a pack. And more importantly, what do they want in return?
The underwriters of Yes on Measure M Committee (a Coalition of Mayor Eric Garcetti, concerned citizens, labor organizations, businesses, and non-profits) include a large cast of cronies who want to feast at our expense on MTA contracts.
These vampires include unions (the Operating Engineers, the ILWU, IBEW Local 11, and the Carpenters & Joiners) who want high wages and numerous jobs; construction and engineering firms (Skanska, AECOM, and Parsons) who want big fat contracts; real estate developers (Westfield) and corporations (Fox, Disney, and NBCUniversal) who want special treatment from Garcetti, the City Council, and the County Board of Supervisors; and concerned citizens (Eli Broad, Jerry Perenchio, and Haim Saban) who have their own special agendas.
We are going to be pounded with slick ads promoting Measure M, the Los Angeles County Traffic Improvement Plan, promising improved mobility, less time in traffic, great middle class jobs, and the repair of our local streets. But outlandish campaign promises are a dime a dozen, especially when it comes to politicians eyeing our hard earned cash.
The MTA does not deserve a 33% increase in funding from the taxpayers. It is an inefficient organization whose projects are billions over budget and years behind schedule. Its operations are experiencing lower ridership. And it does not have the management, the engineering staff, the project managers, or the systems to be able handle its existing funding ($2.6 billion) and projects, to say nothing of the pipedreams envisioned by Mayor Garcetti.
The MTA is also a rogue organization that lacks adequate oversight as it Board of Directors consists of 13 politicians, including nine from the City and County, who have no clue how to manage or oversee a sprawling enterprise with 9,000 employees and an operating loss of $1 billion a year.
The City also does not deserve an increase in Local Return funds that would accompany this new tax. It already receives $200 million a year in Local Return funds from the three previously approved sales tax levies, but has failed to develop a plan to repair our streets, some of the worst in the nation. Which leads to the question: where the hell has all this Local Return money gone?
Our City has also failed to reform its finances, refusing to even consider the excellent budget recommendations of the LA 2020 Commission. As a result, the fiscally irresponsible Garcetti now faces a $100 million deficit next year despite an increase in revenues of $1 billion over the last four years.
Finally, if all of the tax increases on the November ballot were approved by the voters, Angelenos proportionate share will be $1.6 billion, or $400 for every resident. Lumped together into a single tax, this increase will increase our sales tax to 11.7% or require a 30% bump in our property taxes.
We cannot afford an increase in our sales tax to a breathtaking 9½% to say nothing about the other ballot measures for the City, County, Community College, and State.
Measure M is just another example of Crony Capitalism, but this time on steroids as we are being asked to approve a forever tax that will raise $75 billion over the next 40 years. It is time to tell Eric Garcetti and his cronies that we are not their ATM.
Vote NO on Measure M. After all, it is your money.
(Jack Humphreville writes LA Watchdog for CityWatch. He is the President of the DWP Advocacy Committee and is the Budget and DWP representative for the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council. He is a Neighborhood Council Budget Advocate. Jack is affiliated with Recycler Classifieds -- www.recycler.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.)-cw