Death Penalty Agnosticism and the Very Definition of Chutzpah

GELFAND’S WORLD--News sources tell us that Nikolas Cruz … admitted Parkland shooter … is willing to plead guilty to his seventeen murders, provided that the DA takes the death penalty off the table. This is pretty close to that classic definition of chutzpah -- the guy who kills both of his parents and then pleads for mercy on the grounds that he is an orphan. I mean, what business does Cruz have in bargaining for preserving his own life after taking so many others? Is he suggesting somehow that his life is worth more than those of the people he killed? 

I am, in general, not in favor of the death penalty. At the same time, I contend that it is possible and reasonable for people to be agnostic on the issue, and I continue to maintain that either side of the debate is logically and morally acceptable. If you are willing to consider exceptional circumstances in making the determination of the proper sentence, what Cruz did certainly falls into that description. As one attorney stated during the penalty phase of a murder trial, "We reserve the death penalty for the worst of the worst." 

The Florida shootings certainly fit that bill, but a quick resolution also has its merits. 

Perhaps one advantage to giving Cruz a life sentence is that we won't have to hear about his troubled childhood and depressive episodes. This is not to say that he did or didn't have them, just that the rest of us will be spared the equivalent of the Oklahoma City trial. 

Still, if the prosecutor wishes to push for the death penalty, I doubt there will be much resistance. It's hard to imagine the defendant claiming that the police arrested the wrong man. And there was plenty of premeditation in this crime. Likewise, an insanity plea doesn't seem to have much of a future. If the prosecutors and/or the community are screaming for a death sentence, then that's probably what he will get. 


Here's the latest in the endless conflict between the bureaucratic insiders in city government and neighborhood council participants. The context was a meeting of the Harbor Alliance of Neighborhood Councils

We heard  from a member of the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners about the latest iteration in calls for board member training. The BONC (as it is called) is the group that oversees the neighborhood council system and is responsible for setting policy. 

The commish explained (and, I believe, with total sincerity) that lots of people new to the system feel the need for some sort of training. Evidently they feel quite at sea when it comes to walking into a board meeting, taking a seat, and trying to figure out what's going on. 

The discussion was enlightening. One veteran council president pointed out that a lot of newcomers bring what (little) experience they have from the non-governmental sector. As he pointed out, the neighborhood council board is not the Lions' Club or the Rotary. There are specific rules that you must follow. Apparently a lot of newcomers don't know the ropes when they start out, and there isn't a really good citywide system to bring them up to speed. 

I pointed out that if there is to be training -- particularly for the brand new participants -- then the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE) is not the group to do it. We're better off having somebody else, preferably non-governmental, to do the training. 

There is a strong underlying reason. 

See, what we have here is a standard conflict of roles. The original function of the neighborhood council was (and is) to fight city hall when it becomes necessary. For example, we should be complaining about City Council members taking huge donations from developers and then (conveniently) voting to upzone their property. It is not only our right under the city Charter, it is our duty to fight. 

Now consider the position of DONE. The department works for the city, which means that it works directly for the mayor and indirectly for the City Council. DONE is not in a position to encourage neighborhood council boards to fight the City Council. 

You might say that when it comes to political reform, DONE is not part of the solution. It is part of the problem. 

From DONE's standpoint, this is not a failing. It is a necessary condition of working for the elected officials. That's why DONE reps speak to us sweetly about sending in our Community Impact Statements and then drown us in financial rules. 

From my standpoint, here is the training those new neighborhood council board members need: 

They need to understand that they are part of a democratic body in which everyone has an equal vote. They need to understand that there is a system (called Roberts Rules) that provides the level playing field for their democracy to function. They need to know that they have to learn the rules at least well enough to know when democracy is being subverted by the Chair or by others. Finally, they need to know how to make things right when democracy is subverted. 

By the way, a few board members who are ignorant of rules and procedure can bog you down and waste everyone's time by making comments that are off point and by making motions that are useless or frankly out of order. You can get bogged down for an hour unwinding the messes they start. 

The remedy for this is not to abandon Roberts Rules -- the alternative being essentially a soft-spoken anarchy or a frank dictatorship -- the remedy is that the Chair and at least two-thirds of the board members learn and use the rules. When board members who can't be bothered to learn the rules waste your time, the Chair simply says, "Out of order." After a while, they get the point and learn the rules or they quit. 

I can teach the basics in an hour and a half. I've done so on many occasions. The one group that can't seem to do so is DONE itself. Apparently it is staffed by people who have never been required to lead a group that is knowledgeable in procedure. 


Speaking of training, the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners is going to have a retreat sometime in May and they are going to discuss neighborhood council training. We are entitled to dust off the old quote (attributed variously to Gideon J. Tucker or Mark Twain) that "No man's life, liberty, or property are safe while the legislature is in session." 

That goes ditto for neighborhood council rights when the BONC is trying to help us, particularly when it involves training. As long-time council activist Doug Epperhart pointed out, BONC can offer training, but it should not be prefaced by the word "mandatory." We've heard enough of that one over the years. 


The City of Los Angels has an Economic Workforce Development Department. Three of its staff attended the Harbor Alliance of Neighborhood Councils on Wednesday evening. We were presented with this department's "Draft Strategy Outline for Discussion." The outline points at different regions of the city and suggests specific kinds of industrial development for each. For example, the proposal mentions a biotechnology hub in Boyle Heights and a cultural hub in South Los Angeles. 

These are not automatically bad ideas, although I can think more positively of biotech centers near CalTech and UCLA, or of the biotech center already being built on the grounds of Harbor UCLA Medical Center. I am a little skeptical of the city pushing these specific industries in those specific areas. I am also skeptical that the city, through one of its departments, can direct such growth. It is true that appropriate government action (particularly when it comes to large expenditures in defense) can make possible the development of robust industrial growth. But whether that possibility works out and whether such growth occurs in a particular area is up to chance and unforeseen developments. 

During WWII, a structure known as Building 20 at MIT was the center of high tech innovation, particularly in radar. The concentration of engineering talent at MIT led to widespread postwar business development, with new computer companies and defense companies expanding along the ring road known as Route 128.  This happened in the Boston area due to that concentration of talent and innovation, plus the economic conditions that supported the new information processing industry. 

Something similar happened in the area next to Stanford. Meanwhile, the slightly later biotech industry developed in La Jolla due to the development of UCSD, the Salk Institute, and the fact that some remarkable people chose to spend their mature years in southern California instead of Europe. 

But such growth is not automatic, as much as a city might wish to make it so. If Los Angeles is to develop into a high tech wonder, then it is likely to be associated with the faculty and innovation at UCLA. Basically, these high tech hubs come about because an institution of higher learning draws highly creative people. Such people can choose to work in places that are not only intellectually exciting but environmentally enticing. That explains the success of the Bay Area and La Jolla. 

If we had to guess, we might imagine that any such high tech corridor will develop between UCLA and Santa Monica, and perhaps meandering down the coast past Northrup Grumman. 

And as people are drawn to these centers, they stay for a while and then spin off their research into new companies. That's how centers of innovation grow. 


By the way, something like that is what caused southern California to be the air and space capital of the world for many years. It helped that flying conditions for testing aircraft were pretty good year-round. It helped that a group of pioneer aviators gathered here for the Dominguez Air Meet in 1910. It helped that there was plenty of empty land for fields and factories. It helped that skilled workers and ancillary industries grew up around the original pioneers. 


The city departments hoping to inspire new and innovative industries might consider that there is a life cycle to biotech just as there was a life cycle to oil production and passenger aircraft here in southern California. As one newcomer to the Harbor Alliance suggested, perhaps there ought to be an interest in developing light industry. This makes sense, not only because it allows for the development of lots of possible industries, some of which will succeed. It is also promising because each small factory requires less initial investment. This suggestion, by the way, was made by a new DONE employee. Perhaps there is hope for them after all.


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