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Wed, Oct

Memo to LA’s City Council: Hard to Provide Vision with Heads Buried in the Sand

LA WATCHDOG-It has been almost three months since Mickey Kantor’s LA 2020 Commission released its report, “A Time for Action,” which recommended, among other things, the creation of an Office of Transparency and Accountability.

This Office is designed to be an independent, nonpartisan, apolitical entity with an experienced staff that has the capability to analyze the City’s budget and finances, to measure the efficiency and effectiveness of the City’s operations, and to review and critique the impact of any legislation and labor agreements on the City’s economy, its ability to create jobs, and its budget.  

Unfortunately, the highest paid City Council in the country has not even considered this excellent recommendation despite the fact that our City’s finances are a mess, contrary to what we hear from City Hall. 

For example, City Hall’s balanced budget is the result of raiding the City’s Reserve Fund for $129 million even though the City is experiencing record revenues as a result of the recovering economy.  This fiscally irresponsible transfer of funds is bad policy that is contrary to just plain old common sense that says you salt money away in good times. 

The City is also not addressing over $30 billion in liabilities that will be dumped on the Millennial generation that is already burdened with dismal job prospects and massive school debts.  These obligations include $15 to $20 billion of unfunded pension liabilities; over $10 billion in deferred maintenance on our streets, sidewalks, and the rest of our deteriorating infrastructure; and $6 billion in long term debt. 

Now is the time for action.  

The Herb Wesson-led City Council and Budget and Finance Committee chaired by Paul Krekorian need to step up to the plate and address the City’s “chronic budget shortfalls” and its over $30 billion of liabilities. At the same time, the City Council and Mayor Eric Garcetti must determine how to restore such core services such as Street Services, Transportation, Planning, and Building & Safety. 

The first step to begin earning the trust, confidence, and respect of the voters is to create the Office of Transparency and Accountability (see below) where the politically appointed Oversight Board and its professional staff have the necessary expertise and experience to review and analyze the City’s budget, finances, and long term financial prospects.  This will allow the voters and the media to have a better understanding of the City’s shaky finances and what are the next steps that are required to have the City live within its means.    

The City Council can continue to bury its head in the sand.  But this do nothing strategy will not earn the trust, confidence, and respect of the voters.  And without the voters on its side, the City Council can kiss goodbye to any tax increase.  

This certainly was the case when Mayor Garcetti was unwilling to endorse the half cent increase in our sales tax because he and his political advisors knew that the voters would overwhelmingly reject this ill-conceived, one off tax increase that was not accompanied by a Live Within Its Means charter amendment.

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Recommendation: Create an independent “Office of Transparency and Accountability.” 

This body will provide taxpayers, voters, and the media with information and analysis of the City’s budget, services, and related operations. This nonpartisan, apolitical entity will be charged with preparing critical analyses of what goes on in City Hall and how effectively the City is using taxpayer money to provide services. 

There are a number of examples of similar, independent efforts at the national, state and local level, including the Congressional Budget Office, California’s State Legislative Analyst, and the City of New York’s Independent Budget Office. 

What would the Office of Transparency and Accountability look like? 

A Board comprised of five members: two appointed by the Mayor, two by City Council, and one by the City Controller, each serving four-year, staggered terms. A Board-appointed Executive Director would hire a professional and independent staff of approximately 10 people, with expertise ranging from the economy and public policy to information technology. 

What are the responsibilities of the Office of Transparency and Accountability? 

Analyze and report on the City’s budget. 

Analyze any new piece of legislation that has a potential impact on jobs or City revenues. 

Take a proactive role in examining existing issues and service standards in city government. Examples could include police and fire response times, effective use of technology, and engagement with neighborhood organizations. 

Measure outcomes. City Hall announces many programs but little, if any, effort is made to clearly identify to the public what actually gets done. Measuring outcomes would bring a level of accountability to the City’s operations and improve decision making by giving policy makers and taxpayers a better understanding of what has and hasn’t worked. 

Some of these functions, in theory, should already be provided by City Hall. The current system, however, has consistently failed to provide this objective information. Part of the problem is that the overseers of the current system are all elected officials and are, by nature, inherently political. Where does an ordinary citizen go to get unbiased facts? 

Establishing an Office of Transparency and Accountability is intended to open the lines of communication between the electorate and their elected officials. It is not intended to add another layer to an already bloated bureaucracy. As a truth-telling body, it will help to even the playing field between those inside and outside City Hall, equipping taxpayers – and the media – with the facts and knowledge needed to more fully engage with policy makers.

 

(Jack Humphreville writes LA Watchdog for CityWatch. He is the President of the DWP Advocacy Committee,  The Ratepayer Advocate for the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council, and a Neighborhood Council Budget Advocate. Humphreville is the publisher of the Recycler Classifieds -- www.recycler.com. He can be reached at:  [email protected]. Hear Jack every Tuesday morning at 6:20 on McIntyre in the Morning, KABC Radio 790.) 
-cw

 

 

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 12 Issue 51

Pub: June 24, 2014