Charter Reform: Changing LA Planning from a Politburo to a Law-Abiding Agency

ALPERN AT LARGE - Much of the reason that corruption and power politics rule in the City of the Angels is that the pro-democracy spirit of the last Charter Reform (which created Neighborhood Councils, as true a triumph for democracy in LA as any) is only as strong as our current Mayor and City Council will allow.

 

It is now evident that Mayor Villaraigosa has never given Neighborhood Councils much credence, and is following down the same sad path Governor Schwarzeneggar took during his last few lame duck days:  paying back his donor friends, and hurting the general public. 

Meanwhile, as evidenced by City Council Redistricting and Measure A, City Council President Herb Wesson is choosing not to act like the friendly, bridge-building, compromising Past Council President Eric Garcetti but like a Boss Wesson.  Herb's the Boss, and don't you damn well forget it! 

It's to be noted that the rising number of political appointees who now fill positions once assigned only to tested, licensed and impartial civil servants (including my own father, a respected civil engineer who rose up the ranks to be a leading manager in the LA City Department of Sanitation and Refuse and, frankly, one of my role models) have made the decision-making process more of an insider power-play than a left-brained, compromising approach to what is best for the citizenry of our City. 

Furthermore, it's to be noted (and this is critical) that the LA City Planning Commission, as with other Commissions and Department Heads, all are appointed with the Mayor but with a presigned and undated resignation letter that the mayor may sign at his will should any commissioner make a decision contrary to that of the Mayor's personal fiat.  In other words, our Commissioners aren't the village elders with respected opinions  that we all need (including our electeds) to hear. 

The LA City Planning Commission is, in fact, a rubber stamp of whatever the Mayor orders. 

As was pointed out to me by Friends4Expo Co-Chair, former Santa Monica City Planning Commissioner and prominent Sierra Club leader Darrell Clarke after we saw all sorts of nebulous promises and plans made for a "Casden-stein" project adjacent to the Exposition/Sepulveda future rail station (entirely unknown to everyone, and entirely without any assurances of benefits to the community or to any transit users), Santa Monica Planners have the ability to say "NO" to bad ideas from the City Council of Santa Monica. 

So when the City Planning Commission heard from the Mayor's representative that he supported the Casden project (towers 16 stories tall in a 2-3 story tall region, uncertain residences within 500 feet of the freeway, no clue what it will end up looking like), those Commissioners were in effect ordered to pass this project (even when the Commission's legal counsel recommended continuing the decision, and was prominently silenced by Commission Chair William Roschen).   

If they didn't pass it, they knew their collective necks would be on the chopping block.  It didn't matter that transit advocates, the Sierra Club, all Neighborhood Councils and both Westside Councilmembers were screaming to stop the project--it was going to happen because the Mayor (in what is supposed to be a democratic city) ordered it to happen...legal implications and threats be damned. 

Similarly, when the City Planning Commission ignored transit advocates, the Westside, Councilmember Bill Rosendahl and the NASA study that supported LAX Modernization Alternative 2 (not extending LAX 260 feet north and virtually shutting down Sepulveda and Lincoln Blvds.), and which the EIR supported as the Environmentally Preferred Alternative, it was clearly by orders of the mayor. 

Fortunately, mayoral candidate Eric Garcetti has officially opposed the LAX Alternative 1 (which the City Planning Commission chose, and which would cause the unnecessary and environmentally-impactful extension of LAX into the commercial district and traffic infrastructure of Westchester and the neighboring Westside), while Greuel has remained ominously "neutral"). 

Which is why, perhaps, despite concerns about Garcetti's own record, both former mayoral candidates Jan Perry and Kevin James have supported Eric Garcetti because they fear Greuel and her union/business lobby backings and the risk of her simply being another Mayor "owned" by special interests who don't care about hurting the City so long as they can enrich themselves with their political influence. 

In other words, Greuel has the very strong, if not certain risk, of being another Mayor Villaraigosa in skirts and high heels, and just another political climber, while Garcetti wants compromise and popular support of the citizenry in all major decisions. 

Which is also why Garcetti, who has a long history of his own developer relationships, took the dramatic stance of opposing the City Planning Commission's approval of the potentially-beneficial but drastically-oversized Millennium project in Hollywood.   

One might cynically view Garcetti's stance of favoring LAX Alternative 2 over Alternative 1, and his opposition to the oversized Millennium project, as merely political optics prior to the upcoming mayoral election, but in fairness this is consistent with an Eric Garcetti who desires affable relationships and compromise as all sides weigh in...as compared to the City Planning Commission, all Villaraigosa appointees (dare we describe them as puppets for the purposes of accuracy, despite how unpleasant that sounds?) who ignored the will of the people. 

The will of the people really will be the name of the game here, both during and after this election, because the same people that overwhelming voted in Measure R, and to tax themselves on numerous occasions, are not all just stupid, self-absorbed NIMBY's who refuse compromise.   

It's easy to paint Westchester and Hollywood and Westside residents and Neighborhood Councils as backwards and NIMBY, but that's an accusation that is both unfair and untrue, no matter how politically convenient it is for the Mayor or his fawning LA Times editorial staff to say it. 

Much of the problem with Villaraigosa and Wesson is that they were both State Assembly leaders who are used to ruling by fiat...and who probably view Neighborhood Councils and this whole "democracy" thing as an obstacle rather than an opportunity to find consensus. 

The next Mayor of our City is one that will need to really consider what some City Councilmembers have discovered (such as Garcetti):  democracy and public input, combined with sincerity and the desire to remain friendly and bridge-building, enhances both compromise, consensus, and lawsuit/acrimony-free implementation of the major public works projects that Garcetti wants, and we all want...and not the travesty and debacle that we saw with the rammed-through digital signage legal ruling that will cause much legal and fiscal pain. 

It is clear that Eric Garcetti is the best person to lead our City into the future, but it's important that we have a City Planning Commission (and other civil service and public positions) that respect the will of the people, and to allow the City to move forward together, rather than as a tempestuous and unpleasant power play with a few winners and a majority of victimized and oppressed citizenry losers. 

And a fundamental part of changing a Planning Department that behaves more like a Politburo than a law-abiding Agency, as well as creating a more responsive and responsible City civil service, will be achieved only through a new wave of pro-democracy Charter Reform.

 

(Ken Alpern is a Westside Village Zone Director and Boardmember 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 CD11 Transportation Advisory Committee and chairs the nonprofit Transit Coalition, and can be reached at Alpern@MarVista.org This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.   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 Mr. Alpern.)

-cw

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 11 Issue 28

Pub: Apr 5, 2013