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TIME TO COME HOME?-Okinawa officials on Friday filed a lawsuit against the central Japanese government in a new bid to block the slated construction of a U.S. military base in the prefecture's Henoko region.

"We will do whatever it takes to stop the new Henoko base," Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga said during a press conference Friday. "Okinawa's argument is legitimate, and I believe that it will be certainly understood."

Residents and officials charge that the Japanese government's Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism illegally intervened in Onaga's order earlier this year that halted preliminary work on the base. The prefecture said that the ministry acted unlawfully when it suspended Onaga's permit cancellation for work needed to move the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station in Futenma to its slated spot in Henoko.

The legal challenge is the latest effort to block the continued militarization of the southern Japanese island, which has long served as home base for more than half of the 50,000 American military service members in Japan, as well as over two-thirds of U.S. bases in the country. In late October, hundreds of Okinawa residents, largely elders, linked arms and physically blocked vehicles transporting building materials to the base.

"Don't the people of Okinawa have sovereignty?" one protester, 70-year-old Katsuhiro Yoshida, told Japanese paper  The Asahi Shimbun at the time. "This reminds me of the scenes of rioting against the U.S. military before Okinawa was returned to Japan (in 1972). Now we are facing off against our own government. It is so contemptible."

Residents have long expressed anger and frustration over the crime and pollution they say comes along with the presence of foreign troops.

"Democracy and local self-determination in Japan are in severe condition," Onaga, who was elected on an anti-base platform, said Friday. "We want the rest of the world to know how the Japan-U.S. security treaty is affecting us."

(Nadia Prupis writes for Common Dreams where this report was posted earlier.) Photo: AFP Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

-cw

 

  

CityWatch

Vol 13 Issue 105

Pub: Dec 29, 2015

 

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GELFAND’S WORLD--When the history of 2015 is finally on the shelf, politics will be among its central stories. In the long run, controlling global warming is more important because survival depends on it, but politics is of immediate interest because it has become a battle over freedom, health, and economic growth. The Republicans concentrate on freedom from taxation, while they demand the power to limit the religious freedom of others. Democrats are less concerned about lowering taxes, and more concerned about holding onto reproductive choice. There's definitely a clash of civilizations, and it's right here at home. 

This year has been fairly predictable on the Democratic side. There is the possible exception of the Bernie Sanders story, but I predict that Sanders will finish pretty much where he is right now, with an honorable second place finish. I could be wrong on that. Bernie's public apology to Hillary and to his own supporters over the Democratic National Committee files is indicative of somebody who feels more comfortable telling the truth than relying on comfortable white lies. There is a certain resemblance to the Obama candidacy in this. It's the sort of virtue that appeals to a lot of voters. But Sanders is carrying three decades more of life than Obama was at the same point, and I think this will be the issue that Sanders can't defeat. 

The story of 2015 will be recorded on the Republican side for how bizarre it has become. I offer my own humble interpretation of what has been going on. It's a spin on my interpretation of the 2004 election, a view that went entirely contrary to Republican crowing, and also to the Democratic crying and sobbing. But this interpretation fits the puzzle pieces together better than other interpretations I find. 

The 2004 election involved a legitimate war hero in the form of John Kerry, running against the fairly inadequate George W Bush. When the dust cleared, and Bush was the victor, Democrats figuratively wandered the desert in confusion. They bought into the explanation that Bush had won on family values and all that stuff. God, Guns, and Gays is how the left wing described the Republican approach. Democrats talked in whispers about trying to slice off a larger percent of the evangelical voters. It wasn't obvious how Democratic Party values and policies were supposed to accomplish that, but people like Marc Cooper saw through the futility of that approach. 

My view was that the American people were more than willing to engage in bloody vengeance against the entire ethnic group they saw as guilty of the September 11 attack. They just didn't want to have to look into the mirror and admit to themselves that they were willing to countenance mass killing. But deep down, they knew they could trust George W Bush to be the bad guy they needed, and they could rationalize it all by telling themselves that they were really supporting Christian values. 

No wonder the Democrats were confused. 

Now we have a situation that is not all that different. There is actually an eerie similarity to 2004. When it comes to the Republican primary battle, those Iowa saints sure do love their sinners. At least that's the interpretation you have to adopt if you want to explain the Trump story. Here's a guy who is profane and doesn't believe in that love thy neighbor stuff, particularly when the neighbors are standing alongside him on the debate stage, or are the inhabitants of an adjacent country. I don't think we've heard this level of spiteful contempt since the days of George Wallace. 

Of course there is also Ted Cruz, the senator from Texas who has taken the role of the religious obsessive. The Republican voters are split between a New York bad boy acting out the juvenile delinquent role, and the senator who plays at being the holiest of all. Holiness is running second in most of the country. 

What's running first is fear and anger. When Tea Party voters, now Trump supporters, explain that they want to take their country back, you have to ask, "From whom?" The answer, I think, has become pretty clear. They mean that they want to take it back from the people who aren't exactly like them. 

A change of subject: LA is still an NFL-free zone 

The year 2015 has been notable for the discussions about bringing either one or two professional football teams to the area. Luckily, the possibility of a stadium at the intersection of the 10 and the 110 freeways died a quiet death. This was not for lack of bowing and scraping by the city's elected officials. They were willing to turn downtown into an even worse traffic nightmare than it is now. This was in spite of the weight of evidence that shows that professional sports teams don't bring in net revenue or jobs to the areas they move into. 

As of now, NFL owners in Oakland, St Louis, and San Diego are talking about moving to Los Angeles. Predictably, the elected officials in these towns are bending over backwards to try to keep their teams. 

St Louis just voted to spend $150 million of its taxpayers' money to build a new football stadium for the once-Cleveland Rams, who then became the Los Angeles Rams, and more recently became the St Louis Rams. The real dollar total would be a lot more, since the proposal would involve state money and forgiveness of local taxes. The whole ugly story is summarized neatly by USA Today

As the story explains, "In addition to the city's $150 million and $300 million from the league, the St. Louis stadium proposal calls for $250 million from the team owner, $160 million in fan seat licenses, and the rest of the money from the state, either through tax credits or bonds." Notice that curious item about fan seat licenses. A seat license is the fee you have to pay to be allowed to pay for tickets. 

For many years, NFL owners have been using the existence of Los Angeles to extract money from cities and states in order to build stadiums. It still seems to be working, as recent events in Minnesota and now Missouri demonstrate. The question is whether the NFL has more to gain by putting a team in Los Angeles than it has to gain by retaining the status quo. 

Keeping L.A. free of professional football provides economic benefits to the majority of NFL owners. As new stadiums grow older, the local NFL owners will want to extract money from their cities to build even grander structures. The owner of a team playing in a stadium that 15 years old will be thinking about getting a new one in another 10 or 15 years. 

Don't believe it? Check out the age of the stadium that the Rams say isn't good enough, or read this paragraph from that USA Today article: "But there was plenty of opposition. Alderwoman Sharon Tyus recalled it was just 24 years ago when the same governmental body approved financing to build the now-outdated Edward Jones Dome, the Rams' current home." 

On the other hand, there could be economic incentives to moving a team or two into the basin. There are television revenues to be multiplied, or so it is said. This is a curious claim because Angelenos watch plenty of pro football on television already. It's not obvious that having a local team would bring in that many more viewers. This would be especially true if the team isn't winning. There would, however, be a whole new round of football jersey sales. 

Will the possibility of spectacular new traffic jams in the L.A. area on game days depend on the possibility of shirt sales? We'll get a better idea after the NFL owners meet in January.

 

(Bob Gelfand writes on culture and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected])  

-cw

 

CityWatch

Vol 13 Issue 104

Pub: Dec 25, 2015

POLITICS--If the 2016 U.S. presidential election were held today, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) would win by a landslide over GOP frontrunner Donald Trump, according to a new poll just released by Quinnipiac University.  

With voters favoring Sanders over Trump 51 to 38 percent, Sanders would win the general election by 13 points—more than any other candidate would get squaring off with the Republican favorite, including Sanders' chief rival for the Democratic nomination, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Indeed, while Clinton would likewise sail to victory over Trump, her lead would be approximately half as much, with voters favoring her 47 to 40 percent.

Columnist Brent Budowsky writes for The Hill:

If this margin held in a general election, Democrats would almost certainly regain control of the United States Senate and very possibly the House of Representatives.

It is high time and long overdue for television networks such as CNN to end their obsession with Trump and report the all-important fact that in most polls, both Hillary Clinton and Sanders would defeat Trump by landslide margins.

[....] It is noteworthy that in this Quinnipiac poll, Sanders runs so much stronger than Clinton against Trump.

Meanwhile, Budowsky says, "analysts would be talking about a national political realignment and new progressive era in American history if an enlightened candidate such as Sanders would defeat a retrograde race-baiting candidate such as Trump by a potentially epic and historic margin."

(Nadia Prupis writes for Common Dreams where this report was posted earlier.)

-cw

 

  

CityWatch

Vol 13 Issue 104

Pub: Dec 25, 2015

 

NO BABES IN TOYLAND-Every Christmas sees one toy emerge as the most-wanted, gotta have gift — remember Tickle Me Elmo, and Beanie Babies from years past? Well, 2015’s big hit has emerged: The Iraq-Syria LEGO Playset. (Quick note: The set retails for $3 trillion. Weapons of mass destruction not included.)

The set retails for three trillion dollars, though the price may have doubled by the time this is published. Included in the standard set are enough LEGOS to build replicas of Mosul and Fallujah, allowing a child to refight those battles over and over. Figures include Sunni militias, Islamic State fighters, Shia militias, one figure representing the actual Iraqi Army, American special forces with and without boots, Iranians, Kurds, Turks, Russians, Syrians (moderate and radical, though they cannot be told apart), British, French and Italian troops, shady Saudi financiers and Hezbollah soldiers.

The basic set also includes a starter pack of refugee figures, though most people will want to opt for the bonus pack, if only to get access to the limited edition dead children refugee figures.

Not included: any weapons of mass destruction.

While the Iraq-Syria LEGO Playset will provide any child with decades of fun, even more adventures can be played out by buying the Turkish Expansion Pack.

And parents, please note: Even after careful construction with the best of intention, the playset tends to simply fall apart.

(Peter Van Buren spent a year in Iraq as a State Department Foreign Service Officer serving as Team Leader for two Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). Now in Washington, he writes about Iraq and the Middle East at his blog, We Meant Well.  His new book is We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People

(The American Empire Project, Metropolitan Books).  Image: Screenshot/Youtube. Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

-cw

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 13 Issue 104

Pub: Dec 25, 2015

HERE’S WHAT I KNOW--When Starbucks introduced this year’s minimalist holiday cup, Arizona evangelist Josh Feuerstein charged Starbucks with “removing Christmas from the cups because they hate Jesus.” His criticisms created some buzz on social media and Donald Trump even suggested a boycott. 

Can the meaning of Christmas be found in the icons represented on Starbucks cups of the past? Since Starbucks introduced the holiday tradition, images have included cartoon carolers and skaters, reindeer-like animals, pine trees, and ornaments, none of which have a particularly religious theme. 

Religious leaders and authors have been discussing the meaning of Christmas for centuries. Charles Dickens, described by London’s Sunday Telegraph (December 18, 1988) as “The Man Who Invented Christmas” certainly had his own ideas about the holiday. 

Certainly, A Christmas Carol has become a mainstay of the holiday. At the time Dickens was writing the novella, the British were examining traditions of the past along with new traditions like Christmas cards, trees, and the newfound popularity of caroling. 

Dickens’ idea to write the holiday classic had more to do with his dismay about the effects of the Industrial Revolution on the plight of poor children than on holiday traditions, per se. When Dickens was just 12, his father had been imprisoned, forcing the young Dickens to move to nearby lodgings. He sold his books and stopped attending school so he could work in a factory. 

As a reporter, Dickens visited Cornish tin mines that were employing child labor around the same time the Parliament had prepared a report on the effects of the Industrial Revolution on impoverished children. Dickens tossed aside his idea of writing a political pamphlet in favor of penning a Christmas novella that had the potential to reach a much wider readership to address the concerns of poverty and social injustice. 

Dickens’ estimation was on target. Long past his death, he continues to touch readers with his tale of Ebenezer Scrooge visited by the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley, as well as the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come. The ghosts all point out to Scrooge that the meaning of Christmas can be found in “goodwill and cheer.” 

To Dickens, Christmas was a time for families “bound together all our home…enjoyments, affections, and hopes.” In the broader sense, he was warning about the love of money over family and people. Scrooge, through his ways, was left lonely and unhappy until he was brought into the family of Tiny Tim, his employee’s son, where he learned that helping others was a path to improve his own life. 

What is the meaning of Christmas?  Most of us, whether we celebrate in the religious sense or not, have some memories and traditions, whether that means listening to Christmas music, watching “Charlie Brown’s Christmas,” baking special cookies, or exchanging gifts with colleagues and friends. 

Yes, Christmas does celebrate the birth of Jesus for those who practice Christianity. A red cup, with or without iconic Christmas images, can be interpreted however you would like. As a Jew, I have always cherished that Christmas seems to bring out a sense of community and a chance to reflect at the year’s end. 

No matter what Christmas means to us individually, we can hopefully take a cue from Dickens to remember the true gift is of ourselves, not in scoring a Hoverboard scooter or iPhone 6S. Perhaps Christmas can bring the chance to decide how we will help others, whether in our personal lives or a more global sense.

 

-CW 

 

MY TURN--When Councilman Felipe Fuentes (District 7) evicted tenants in the North Valley City Hall, he included a police substation as well as the Sunland Tujunga Neighborhood Council in his purge.  Even though a hue and cry was raised by his constituents and this writer; we were told that he had every right to do that.  Apparently, who occupies city property is under the purview of the Councilmember in that district. 

It opened a Pandora's Box.  There are 96 Neighborhood Councils (NC's) in the City of Los Angeles.  They receive a budget of $37,500 annually.  This must cover their events, flyers and administration.  Some pay half their funds in administrative costs ... others don't have an office and parcel out administrative duties and records to their Board of Directors.  In keeping with the LA Charter, NC's are supposed to be independent of City government, even though they are a city agency.  There is no template on how they are to spend their budget allocation.  

The question was raised by the Los Angeles Alliance of Neighborhood Councils (LAANC): if the NC's were part of the City why couldn't they utilize the vacant space owned by the City and also receive a dollar a year lease as some of the other non-agency organizations were paying.  This way their budget would be better spent on their stakeholders. 

Sounds simple, no?  Board of Neighborhood Commissioners ( BONC) member Lydia Grant brought it before her Commission and it was approved to send to the City Attorney for the correct legalese.  It is supposed to have the legal approval next week.  Then the Rules, Neighborhood Committee can act on it or send it directly to the City Council. 

In doing some research on this situation I discovered that the NC Budget Advocates had been requesting a list of LA City owned real estate and vacant land for at least four years.  After all, it is considered assets and they were charged with advising on the Mayor's annual budget.  At the last Budget Advocates meeting, Matt Szabo from the Mayor's office told the assembled group that such a list did NOT exist and that it would take approximately a year to put one together. 

I found this hard to believe.  I would assume that these assets would amount to millions if not billions of dollars.  In the last couple of weeks the City Council passed a resolution ordering the Banks owning what are called nuisance vacant foreclosures to release them. The City would fix them up and take the cost out of the proceeds when they get sold. 

So if the City Council is giving the Banks these instructions ... how about knowing what real estate inventory is in the City portfolio? 

When it comes to City money I go to our financial guru Controller Ron Galperin.  Not only is he one of the most knowledgeable when it comes to City finances but also the most transparent.  Turns out he shares my frustration and bewilderment.  The Controller's office oversees money going out ... they don't have jurisdiction on the money coming in like rents, property sales etc. 

According to Controller Galperin, "The Controller's Office has been working very hard to compile a list of City-owned properties.  Unfortunately, because the lists we've been provided  by General Services Department (GSD) are inaccurate and/or outdated and/or incomplete, we've often had to go to other resources to build our database. 

For example, we have sought property records from the County Assessor's office. Unfortunately, the Assessor's information doesn't tell us the whole story.  For instance some property listed as belonging to the City might belong to the DWP. 

Nevertheless, we are determined to build this list--and to publish it on our open data site. What's more, we are determined to build a detailed list that tells us which City agency owns the property and how it is being utilized. These properties belong to the City of Los Angeles and the people who live here. All Angelenos have every right to know what properties their City owns and how they are being used. 

I went to GSD looking for some answers.  Asset Management comes under their jurisdiction, along with a bunch of other categories.  I found their website to be somewhat of a fairy tale or to be kind...wishful thinking.  The following is what they profess to do.

 

MISSION STATEMENT 

 The Real Estate Division's mission is to ensure optimal use of all Council-controlled City owned vacant and improved properties and maximize the value of each of these assets. The City relies heavily on the expertise of Real Estate Division in the following areas:  acquisitions, appraisals, sales, relocations, leasing, title research, negotiations, property management, energy conservation, and Real Estate Division is committed to providing exemplary services to its customers. 

ACCURACY: Every Real Estate Division employee will be committed to maintaining and developing accurate information on its real estate portfolio. 

TEAMWORK: Real Estate Division is committed to collaboratively working together within division and other City departments. Since all of our work is so intricately woven together, it is imperative that we are all collegial and cooperative in the performance of City work. 

It continues to describe its work 

The City of Los Angeles owns and leases real property worth billions of dollars used for diverse public purposes such as office buildings, police stations, fire stations, libraries, public parks, open space, roads and maintenance facilities. Asset Management division negotiates the purchase or lease properties for the City, and annually reviews the capitalization of owned and leased properties to identify refinancing or lease renegotiation opportunities. Also, develops and operates projects jointly with other governments and the private sector to accomplish the real estate needs of the City. 

It sure sounds good.  Terry Gomes, Budget Advocate Co-Chair and LANNC president, had issued a Public Records Act (PRA) request more than a year ago for the list touted in their Mission Statement.  These requests are supposed to be answered in 60 days.  Follow up has not produced anything! 

Mayor Eric Garcetti prides himself on his administration being at the vanguard of technology and transparency.  I sent requests for information to the two people in the Mayor's office who were aware of this situation and Deputy Mayor Barbara Romero.  I also sent a few questions to GSD General Manager Tony Royster.   Surprise ... Surprise. Not one response.  Obviously, having this exposed to our hundreds of thousands of influential readers is not important. 

WE are facing a homeless crisis.   Some of the open land owned by the City would be viable for people who live in their cars or recreational vehicles, to have a place to park aside from the street.  Some of the vacant public facilities could house many of the homeless since the allocation of monies set aside by the City Council isn't sufficient to take care of our needs. 

Not knowing, and if there is such a list not distributing it to other City agencies, is disgraceful! The Mayor just completed his annual review of his General Managers.  I'd love to see the report on GSD. 

I will close with one last quote from the GSD website 

Real Estate Division will be the City's resident expert for all real estate issues. Real Estate Division will implement the highest level of customer service and efficiency and is committed to providing detailed review and analysis of existing facilities and sites. Real Estate Division will also be the leader, in providing real estate advice to the Mayor, City Council, City departments and the general public for city owned property. Finally, Real Estate Division will continue to maximize financial and programmatic needs of all city owned properties

And … a quote from my own personal ‘department of public opinion’: Balder Dash! 

As always comments welcome …

 

(Denyse Selesnick is a CityWatch columnist. She is a former publisher/journalist/international event organizer. Denyse can be reached at: [email protected])

-cw

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 13 Issue 102

Pub: Dec 18, 2015

GELFAND’S WORLD--This being the antepenultimate column of 2015 for me, it seems appropriate to tell the story of a friend of mine who had to deal with corporate America. But this wasn't the usual corporate screw job by a credit card company or by a cell phone company. This was a combination screw job by both a credit card company and a cell phone company together, in one and the same incident. 

There are two reasons to tell this story in these, the final weeks of the year. First, it is illustrative of what our society is becoming, what with the big corporations turning us all into unpaid clerks, and customer service becoming customer disservice. The other reason is that I get to use the word antepenultimate in a published piece. You don't get to do that very often, much less twice in the same place. 

So here is Rod's story. 

He got a credit card statement a few days ago. There was a charge for $118 for his Sprint cell phone service. Only one problem -- he doesn't use Sprint. The charge was completely bogus. 

It wasn't even identity theft. He didn't have dozens of other charges for expensive luggage or diamond rings. It was just this one charge. So Rod did what any normal American would do. He called the number on the back of his credit card and explained. He told them that he doesn't have an account with Sprint. Therefore, they shouldn't be charging him for Sprint service. 

"You'll have to call Sprint" he was told. He again explained that he doesn't have an account with Sprint, but he was politely told to bug off. Apparently, this was the best that the voice on the other end of the line could do for him. So he called Sprint. 

"You need to talk to your credit card company." It seemed that Sprint did not have any record of his account, which isn't terribly surprising since he doesn't have an account with Sprint. Apparently, the Sprint clerk didn't have an icon on his computer screen labeled non-customers who don't have accounts with us but just got billed $118 anyway, and now they're mad

Rod politely explained that the credit card company had just given him the exact same advice except in reverse. This attempt was, as they say in the novellas, to no avail. 

There's a reason we call it the runaround. You end up running in a giant circle from one customer service desk to the other, and then back again, ad nauseum. The more common form of runaround is within the offices of a single corporation. You get sent from billing to customer relations to billing, and so on. But in this case, Rod was getting carommed between two separate corporations. 

I'm happy to report that in this holiday season, I have a happy ending to this story. Mind you, it took Rod another 3 hours of his life to achieve that level of happiness, but he did get there. Here's how. 

Rod is what I would call a particularly assertive sort of fellow. You may remember when books on assertiveness were all the rage. Many people bought them, but few seem to have absorbed the lessons. Rod didn't need to buy a book on assertiveness training. He seems to have been born with it. 

Rod simply gave up on the 800 number folks and found the number for the cell phone corporate headquarters. It's actually not all that hard to do. Corporate telephone numbers are not state secrets. Mind you, the clerk on the other end of the 800 number will usually refuse to give you the number of corporate. You will get some lame excuse that the poor clerk just doesn't have that number. Feel free to say that you don't believe him, but don't belabor the point. 

Just go online and look for the corporate website. Find a telephone number on it. You could try calling the public relations number, as they will always call back eventually. There's also a number called investor relations. I don't exactly know what they do, but it sounds like they would be the type to call back. Usually you can just call the corporate headquarters and ask to be connected to the office of the president. 

You won't get direct access to the CEO, but some nice person will answer, and you can explain your problem. That person will generally turf you to the person who can do you some good. So Rod got corporate, and explained that Sprint had billed his credit card number for service he doesn't have. 

Corporate figured out what was wrong. It's actually a little outrageous, if not exactly astonishing. Sprint, as in so many other companies, allows the customer to call in to pay a bill. But Sprint doesn't want to waste money paying clerks to take those payments. Instead, the computer on the other end of the line has voice recognition software. It asks you questions, and you give it answers. 

Sometimes the voice recognition software understands your reply correctly. 

In Rod's case, it did not. Somebody else called into Sprint's system, gave it a credit card number, and Sprint dutifully charged Rod for the service. Rod inferred from his conversation with Sprint that the voice recognition system had simply misunderstood somebody's speech. It happens from time to time. 

We can also imagine a different possibility, that this somebody was trying to pay a bill by using a credit card number that was not his own. But this sounds a little farfetched. Why engage in credit card fraud when you can simply avoid paying the bill? 

Whatever the glitch was, Rod had gotten billed that $118. And here is the crux of the matter. When Rod got charged that amount for something he never purchased, the burden should have been on the credit card company. Or at the very least, the dispute should have been between the credit card company and Sprint. The two giant corporations should have determined who owed what and to whom, rather than expecting Rod to fix their mistakes. 

The burden should never fall on Rod, since it was not his purchase. Yes, it is up to Rod to inform the credit card company that there has been an incorrect charge, but that should have been the end of it for him. The clerk at the credit card company should have been able to see that Rod did not have Sprint service at anytime up to this particular billing. and should have remedied Rod's problem on the spot. Then Sprint could have resolved its billing error as it saw fit, perhaps by contacting its actual customer. 

Because neither clerk could solve Rod's problem, or because they labored under rules that prevented solving Rod's problem, Rod was forced to go to the corporate offices at Sprint. 

By going to corporate, Rod got his credit card charge reversed immediately. His credit card company showed the reversal of the charge within the hour. All is right with the world, and Rod was only out the 3 hours of calling that it took him. 

Here's the take-home lesson: Give that guy on the other end of the 800 number his one chance to fix your problem, but don't accept getting the runaround. Escalate the problem sooner rather than later, and thereby get hold of somebody who has the authority to fix your problem. One reminder -- if you are connected to the 800 number and getting the usual runaround, asking for the supervisor usually isn't the effective form of escalation. Even if you get a supervisor, whatever that might be, you are still dealing with somebody who doesn't have the authority to fix your problem. 

A very short story 

Here's another example: One woman I heard from was trying to sign up for health insurance using the Covered California system. The insurance company mistakenly applied her December 2015 payment to January, 2016, and then told her that she didn't have insurance for December. A series of clerks on 2 or 3 continents promised her that the problem would be fixed in 5-7 days. Three weeks later, still no joy on the December insurance. A call to the office of the Insurance Commissioner of California sped things up remarkably. 

The overall strategy

Mind you, I am not suggesting going right to the top every time you have a corporate version of the sniffles. Some things really are just the sniffles, and not pneumonia. But when the clerks don't deliver, it's time to go to corporate. 

Notice that we, the consumers, didn't create the system where we have to be so demanding. But in this modern era, corporations save money by getting rid of the local staff, and then you are supposed to try to fix your problems by calling that 800 number. What you get are boiler room staff who are reading off of a prepared script. When I run into that, I say, "Excuse me, but could you please stop reading the script for a moment so I can explain the problem." Once in a while it works. 

One last story 

It was a while back, probably a couple of decades, but I still remember how a corporate screw job turned into a source of humor. 

One day, I got a letter in the mail from a new toll road authority down in Orange County. I was vaguely aware that Orange County had OK'd a toll road running parallel to the 5, but that was about all I knew. Nevertheless, this letter said that I had been driving on their toll road without paying, and now I was being assessed the fee and a fine. 

This was all a little strange, because I could state with certainty that I had not been anywhere near Orange County on the day of the alleged violation. I had not even been into Orange County within several weeks of that day, either before or after. 

But this toll road authority letter explained that they had a photograph of my car on their road. They had some automated system that took photos of cars that didn't use their system of payment, whatever it was at the time. 

That story about the photo was peculiar in the same way as Rod's more recent story. In each case, corporations expected us to jump through their hoops. I called the company and asked them to send me a copy of the photo. After all, if I am being charged with something, I have a right to see the evidence. The person on the other end of the line seemed a little surprised, but promised to get back to me. 

A day later, I got a return phone call. The toll road representative sheepishly explained to me that the license plate in the photo had been read incorrectly. My citation would be erased. 

I remained a little dissatisfied, because in my experience, what some clerk promises over the phone doesn't always come to fruition. Suppose some other office in the toll road authority didn't get the memo, and sent me another dunning letter? So I asked that they send me a copy of the photo for my files, so that I would be able to demonstrate by actual evidence that my car was not on their road at that time. 

You can probably guess what the answer was. They refused to send me a copy of the photo. They claimed that this would violate the privacy of the driver of the other car. That was an inadequate answer, to say the least. The photo was a necessary part of my defense if I ever needed to defend myself. You might even call the toll road's argument stupid. But I never did get that picture for my files. 

Dealing with this new digital age 

There are all sorts of issues with regard to this digital era and the control it has over us. Rod's run-in with the credit card company and the cellular phone system is illustrative. The phone company couldn't be bothered to put adequate safeguards in place to protect the integrity of its billing system. The credit card company left it to Rod to fix the mess, even though the credit card company could have done a simple charge-back to Sprint and left it to Sprint to sort things out. 

A new threat to our privacy 

The following is a bit of a change of subject, but bear with me. There's one more device that will potentially be a new threat to our privacy. It's the drone. If you haven't seen one up close, come down to the harbor, where we see them almost every day. Drones can be barely the size of your hand, or they can be a little bigger. You can buy them in a drone store (I didn't make this up) or from Best Buy. And the drones have look-down capabilities that give the creep on the next block the same sort of ability to violate your privacy that we once attributed to the NSA. 

By coincidence, drones are not only dangers to our privacy, they are dangers to civil aviation and the aircraft that fight brush fires. For this reason, the FAA is now about to adopt a rule that drones need to be registered. There will also be an age requirement for such registration. I don't think that this will solve the privacy issue, but it's a start. 

(Bob Gelfand writes on culture and politics for City Watch. He can be reached at [email protected]. Note: Rod is the pseudonym for a real person.)

-cw

 

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 13 Issue 102

Pub: Dec 18, 2015

DRUG POLITICS--Some folks are just so awful and scurrilous that jail is almost too good for them.  As with the bankers and investment companies that destroyed and burned up the life savings of many Americans since the turn of the century (a form of murder, from a financial point of view), pharmaceutical companies have allowed life-saving medicines (many that have been out for decades and are very inexpensive to make) to skyrocket in price ... 

... and one of the most scurrilous monsters of them all, one Martin Shkreli, just got arrested by federal agents in Manhattan. 

You remember this despicable individual, right?  Heck, even the name "Shkreli" denotes some troll-like connotation (it sounds like "Shrek", although that fictional character was honorable and self-sacrificing).   

Shkreli fit the bill of everything wrong with corporate and pharmaceutical America ... a boyish-looking and insensitive hedge fund manager who jacked up a life-saving medication for toxoplasmosis from $13.50 to $750 a pill. 

Apparently, Mr. Martin Shkreli illegally took stock from Retrophin, a biotechnology firm he started in 2011, and used it to pay off debts from unrelated business dealings.  He also engaged in complicated shell games and false consulting arrangements after his now-defunct hedge fund lost millions. 

While it's probably not fair to broad-brush every pharmaceutical company and player with this corrupt and spoiled brat, it is fair to state that pharmaceutical companies--in particular, generic companies--are jacking up prices of medications that should be dirt cheap because...well...they can. 

Over two years ago, I wrote the "Doxycycline Debacle" for CityWatch, and the complaints I have today are still entirely accurate: 

1) Pharmaceutical companies that make new products sometimes go astray in their pricing, but most of their profits go to the development and distribution of necessary and improved medications...yet generic companies charge brand-name prices for medications that should cost pennies.  Brand-name medications are often cheaper to get than generic medications, and their makers are by far more compassionate towards patients. 

2) Big-chain pharmacies play all sorts of games to arm-twist patients into generic medications that aren't always cost-effective, and might even have relationships with generic pharmaceutical companies than are anything but kosher.  If you want a pharmacist who is a patient advocate, then go to Costco...end of that discussion. 

Now one of the most problematic generic companies, Mylan Pharmaceuticals, which makes the excellent and decades-old doxycycline, and charges hundreds of dollars a month for patients who need it (for anything ranging from acne to resistant skin infections), has been caught up in a Department of Justice probe about its sales practices. 

No one reasonable expects these pharmaceutical companies to just give away their medications and lose money, but "profits" doesn't need to be synonymous with "plundering".   

Particularly when patients' health, and even their lives, depend on them. 

There's not a day that goes by when my patients don't complain about feeling victimized by their health care costs--and their drug costs are particularly part of the problem. 

So allow me the guilty pleasure of doing a holiday-season "happy dance" when one of the worst pharmaceutical players of all, one Mr. Martin Shkreli, gets a taste of his own medicine. 

And for anyone else trying to make profits--and I mean the obscene profits by which innocent people really get hurt--perhaps another profession than "pharmaceutical executive" is in order.

 

(Kenneth Alpern, M.D. is a dermatologist with offices and clinics serving patients from West Los Angeles to Temecula.  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 protected].   He also does regular commentary on the Mark Isler Radio Show on AM 870, and co-chairs the grassroots Friends of the Green Line at www.fogl.us. The views expressed in this article are solely those of Mr. Alpern.)

-cw

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 13 Issue 102

Pub: Dec 18, 2015

 

RECYCLING DEBATE-You have to hand it to libertarian writer John Tierney. He doesn’t give up easily. His long-winded 1996 article, “Recycling Is Garbage,” allegedly smashed the New York Times Magazine’s hate-mail record. It covered the same ground as his recent New York Times op-ed, “The Reign of Recycling,” stating: “Recycling may be the most wasteful activity in modern America: a waste of time and money, a waste of human and natural resources.” 

Is recycling really “the most wasteful activity in modern America?” That’s quite a charge. (What about all that Kardashian coverage?) But it may be true that it would be cheaper to put all our waste in a hole someplace and forget about it. Assuming, as Tierney does, that there are enough conveniently located holes. It would be even cheaper to use the medieval method of tossing it in the street. 

But that’s not the way most people think these days. The consensus is that there are limits, both on the amount of land you can dump in, and the amount of materials you can waste. 

In any case, no one seems to have listened to Tierney. 

Recycling has come a long way. Particularly in the city of Los Angeles. In his recent op-ed, Tierney pessimistically states that recycling “is stuck [at] around 34 percent’’ of America’s trash without sourcing his figure. He quotes a former Environmental Protection Agency official who says going beyond that is impractical. 

You wonder when the official said that. 

According the State of California, the City of LA has achieved a landfill diversion rate of 76.4 percent – the highest of any of the nation’s 10 largest cities, and higher than the statewide 75 percent urban goal set for 2020. And it’s not just Los Angeles City. California’s sanitation officials portray recycling as a state success story, with most of its communities recycling 50 percent of the waste that used to go into landfills — with many recycling as much as 65 percent. According to County Sanitation Districts’ official Nick Morell, an onslaught of new technologies has made it easier to recycle food and other difficult wastes. 

“We’re really mining the waste stream,” he told Capital & Main. To encourage recycling, the state is raising landfill dumping fees from around a dollar to $4 a ton. (Tierney also seems to favor an even higher “landfill tax.”) “We like the carrot and stick approach,” Morell added. Now that more manufacturers are actually making their products easier to recycle (even a new BMW is designed to be recycled after a few hundred thousand miles) and recycling techniques advance, fewer materials end up in landfills. According to Morell, this has helped L.A. County avoid a landfill shortage. 

Tierney seems to allow that only recycling paper and metal can be cost-effective, but he notes that demand for such materials is highly variable. He also accuses “politicians” of pushing the recycling of yucky materials like food wastes, which he claims are cheaper to landfill than to compost. 

But composting isn’t the last word here. After April 1, many if not most California businesses, including state agencies, will have to recycle their organic waste. Morell says in addition to composting, the county is introducing reactors that will ferment such waste to yield methane that can fuel electric generators, just as it does at some conventional landfills. Morell also cites wet food waste as a useful water source. Tierney, who writes a New York Times science column, seems ignorant of the fast-moving technology of recycling. Further, while alleging that recycling raw materials costs jobs, he ignores the tens of thousands of new jobs emerging in the recycling industry. 

Meanwhile, as Morell notes, recycling is now so well-established that even landfill operators do it themselves to make some extra money and save precious landfill space. That Tierney doesn’t believe such land is precious is something we shall deal with momentarily. 

There is obviously room for improvement and there’s no doubt that, in particular, recyclable exports have suffered as importing nations have demanded higher quality products and scrap metal prices have sagged. Yet there’s lots of evidence that recycling just keeps moving ahead, even if it has lately hit a speed bump, with California officials stating that goals of 90 percent recycling are now in reach.

Tierney could not agree less. He maintains that “to public officials, recycling is a question of morality, not cost-benefit analysis.” 

While to its enthusiasts, he claims, it’s a middle-class religion. He notes that, due to falling oil prices, recycling household waste is much less profitable. No one wants food composting next door, he also claims, citing a case in Delaware. He believes: “[C]ities have been burying garbage for thousands of years and it’s still the easiest and cheapest solution for trash.” He seems personally affronted that, as a 2013 survey found, “82 percent of Americans feel a sense of pride when they recycle.” 

Environmentalists argue that there’s a good reason for this. 

In their online rebuttal to Tierney, enviros Richard Fuller and Magdalene Sims note that if you bury all the trash, you are burying paper and metals – materials that Tierney agrees produce “more than 90 percent’’ of all the greenhouse benefits of recycling. They claim that most experts agree that $40 a barrel oil prices are certain to soar. And they add: “Today, there are many more people on the earth generating an exponentially greater amount of garbage, including a lot more toxic trash than ever before. Simply putting all that into the ground is not a forward-looking solution.” 

Tierney’s big stumbling block is his blind insistence that landfills are better than recycling. He provides no data for this, adding an unsubstantiated assertion that “[T]hey have been welcomed in rural communities that reap large economic benefits.” He also makes a rather weird generalization about landfill availability. In his 1996 article, he “found that all the trash generated by Americans for the next 1,000 years would fit on one-tenth of one percent of the land available for grazing.’’ According to Department of Agriculture figures, that boils down to about 58,000 acres. Ted Turner has ranches far larger than that. 

But this is grazing land that tends to be located hundreds, or even thousands of miles from the large waste-producing cities. So even if the city fathers of Yankton, S.D. agreed to accept urban waste from Seattle 1,500 miles away, it would not pencil out. Assuming Yankton wanted it. I would not assume that. Even counties abutting LA County are restricting LA dumping. 

They are not alone. Maybe it’s my luck, but in nearly 40 years of municipal reporting in small and large communities in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and California, I never heard of any place that “welcomed” landfills. In every community that had one, the key conversation was how to get rid of it or prevent its expansion. These landfill communities’ leaders had been told, as Tierney states, that there was enough greenery around to “buffer residents from the sights and smells.” 

The reality was usually a countryside permeated by the reek of unsorted raw garbage arriving in an unending stream of dripping, two-lane-blacktop-busting, diesel-belching, five-ton trucks. What’s more, in the 19 years since Tierney first made his case, much of the “rural” landscape located a drivable distance from refuse-exuding cities like New York and Los Angeles has become densely developed. 

So now you have to sell landfills to the affluent, property-value-obsessed burghers of places like Diamond Bar or Morristown, N.J. Or even the not-so-affluent people of Kern County, who have already filed suits against Los Angeles’ waste dumping. LA County’s landfill alternative is a tract purchased back in 2000 that is 200 miles away and which would cost twice as much to use as the facilities it would replace. 

Jackie Cornejo, who guides the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy’s Don’t Waste LA project, which has resulted in laws repurposing the city’s waste flow, explains the landfill health problems untouched by Tierney. (Disclosure: LAANE is a sponsor of Capital & Main.) 

“Pollution from landfills and diesel-powered collection vehicles harms public health, increasing hospitalization and leading to missed school and work,” she said. “[It] increases rates of cancer, heart and respiratory diseases, and contributes to premature death.’’ 

There’s an even more important issue. Landfill gases from organic wastes include methane, much of which escapes to boost global warming far more than do equivalent amounts of carbon dioxide. As Mariel Vilella, Zero Waste Europe’s associate director, recently stated: 

“For far too long the climate impact of waste management has been overlooked. Now it’s clear that waste prevention, reuse and recycling are climate change solutions that need to be fully integrated into a low carbon economy.” 

Tierney’s thesis reflects the classic right-wing credo that natural resources, whether they are the materials in plastic bottles or the land in which to dump them, are infinite. But as our current pope put it, “[T]he lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods…leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit.” 

If that’s religious thinking, so be it.

 

(Marc Haefele is a commentator on KPCC’s Off Ramp program and has written for the New York Times and Los Angeles Times. This first appeared at CapitalandMain.com.)  Photos: Britta Gustafson (top) and Ashley Felton (lower.)  Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

-cw                

  

CityWatch

Vol 13 Issue 101

Pub: Dec 15, 2015

 

PENSION REFORM-A pair of potential ballot initiatives written to overhaul California’s public pensions could face a rough road, according to a new poll. 

The results from a Capital & Main-David Binder Research poll of 500 likely voters shows that if the election were held today, the numbers of those voting for the measures and those against them appear to be dead even. Those numbers are not what pension-reduction advocates had hoped for going into the 2016 election cycle. 

Drafted by former Democratic San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed and former Republican San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio, the so-called Voter Empowerment Initiative, and its sibling, the Government Pension Cap Act, received their official summary language (though not their official titles) from the state attorney general last week. Low numbers and lack of support among DeMaio’s fellow Republicans had already forced the pair to abandon a previous effort, the Voter Empowerment Act, last August. But the new polling data don’t hold the bulletproof voter support for either proposal that Reed has said he is counting on.  

The first measure, which would move new state and local employees from traditional defined benefit pensions into 401(k)-style retirement savings plans, tested at 42 percent in support and 42 percent opposed; its sibling measure, which would cap the amount of money government employers could pay for most new hires’ retirement benefits at no more than 11 percent of wages, or a maximum of 13 percent for public safety workers, found 40 percent support and 40 percent opposed. The poll, conducted between December 10-13, has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percent. 

Last week Reed told the Sacramento Bee that one of the measures would need to test at least at 60 percent to withstand the erosion expected in a heated campaign and to attract the roughly $2 million to $3 million needed for a three-month signature collection drive. After qualifying, the effort would need another $25 million to run a statewide campaign. 

“Generally an even split at this early stage does not bode well for an initiative,” said Floyd Feeney, a professor at the University of California Davis School of Law, in an email to Capital & Main. “Initiatives as a group tend to lose support as the battle progresses. This is a tendency, however, and not an ironclad rule. Money also counts.” Feeney has written two books on ballot initiatives and served as legal advisor to the Speaker’s Commission on the California Initiative Process in 2000-01. 

Veteran Republican political consultant Mike Madrid, of the Sacramento-based Grassroots Lab, said the pension-ballot poll’s dead-heat numbers aren’t impossible to surmount but will present daunting challenges for those seeking to reduce pensions. Especially in a 2016 election cycle that already includes a presidential race, a U.S. Senate seat up for grabs, and a ballot that could have as many as 20 other initiatives. 

“What you’ve got is this mushy middle that can be moved with money and argument in either direction,” he said. “People are going to be sick of campaign ads by about early October. When there’s that many political messages coming at you, the voters just tune out. Unless it’s something like legalizing marijuana, or ending the death penalty or porn actors having to wear condoms.” 

Opponents of the proposals, chiefly within organized labor, have expressed confidence that they would be able to erode support for the measures further if a campaign were to proceed. Last April political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, when asked about Reed and DeMaio’s Voter Empowerment Act, told Capital & Main, “There is an axiom in politics: It is the group whose rights are threatened that generally comes out to vote, no matter the group. And with unions, they do it every election. And they’ve got money and they’ve got organization.”

 

(Dan Braun works with unions, social justice groups and others engaged in creative change campaigns. He lives and drums in Echo Park, Los Angeles. Bill Raden is a Los Angeles writer. This was first posted at Capital & Main. Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

 -cw

 

CityWatch

Vol 13 Issue 102

Pub: Dec 18, 2015

GUEST WORDS--10. An abject apology from Donald Trump for being a Birther; anti-immigrant; a builder of buildings that look like big Dunhill cigarette lighters; the world's most punishing source of Green Cards for women who marry him to get one; daring to rate women as no longer Tens when he himself has never been a One; going bankrupt multiple times in order to stick other people with his bad-judgment debt; pretending he ever hit a home run when actually, he was born on Third Base -- and oh, yes, setting the hair weave industry all the way back to Rogaine.

9. If Trump doesn't apologize, I wish us all the gift of remembering that Hitler was democratically elected -- in a low voter turnout.

8. I would like state legislatures to stop building prisons with money that once went to universities, thus keeping way too many people in prison and way too many people in lifetime debt. This would not happen if Americans gave ourselves the gift of knowing and caring who our state legislators are.

7. I'm glad we've begun to raise our daughters more like our sons -- but it will never work until we raise our sons more like our daughters.

6. I want people to know that the great gift of Black Lives Matter was created by 3 young black women: Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors -- and that has led to 3 great organizing guidelines:

  1. Lead with love
  2. Low ego, high impact
  3. Move at the speed of trust

Gives you faith in the future, doesn't it?

5. I want Uber to stop charging for the weather -- nobody, not even airlines, charge for the weather! -- and I want Uber to stop refusing the disabled, and now, with 30,000 unregulated Uber cars in New York City, driving wheelchair accessible taxis out of business. Don't let Uber become uber alles.

4. I would like us all to send a nice Christmas thank you to President Obama -- for surviving ultra-right-wingers who, if they had cancer, and Obama had the cure, wouldn't accept it.

3. I want any young men who buy a gun to be treated like young women who seek an abortion. Think about it: a mandatory 48-hours waiting period, written permission from a parent or a judge, a note from a doctor proving that he understands what he is about to do, time spent watching a video on individual and mass murders, traveling hundreds of miles at his own expense to the nearest gun shop, and walking through protestors holding photos of loved ones killed by guns, protestors who call him a murderer.

After all, it makes more sense to do this for young men seeking guns than for young women seeking an abortion. No young woman needing reproductive freedom has ever murdered a roomful of strangers.

(This riff is not mine, it's on the Internet -- I thank whoever gave us all this present.)

2. I want the three magical women of BETTY to have everything they need to spread the BETTY Effect around the world. They are such a gift. They organize with music and by their own irresistible examples.  

1. Finally, I want to make it to 100 -- because I don't want to leave, I love it here. You in this room are the biggest gift of all.

(Gloria Steinem is an American feminist, journalist, and social and political activist who became nationally recognized as a leader and spokeswoman for the feminist movement in the late 1960s and early 70s.)

-cw

 

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 13 Issue 102

Pub: Dec 18, 2015

 

OTHER WORDS-The holiday season is a time for nostalgia. We watch It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story, engage in time-honored traditions, and even sing songs about sleighs and sleigh bells. 

Honestly, when was the last time you rode in a sleigh?

I’ve eaten a roasted chestnut (purchased on the streets of Chicago, so I don’t know if there was an open fire involved in the roasting process), but I haven’t gone for a single sleigh ride in my whole life. 

Donald Trump’s campaign slogan — “Make America Great Again” — plays on this idea of some imagined time in the past when things were better, simpler, than they are now. But The Donald isn’t the only one who evokes this mythical past. 

On the other side of the aisle, Democrats often wax poetic about the strong middle class of the era that followed World War II, or about the social safety net President Franklin Delano Roosevelt put in place before that. 

And it’s true: America did accomplish great things in the past. But I fundamentally disagree that our better days are behind us. 

This notion of a lost Norman Rockwell America is an illusion. 

It’s easy to buy into this trope if you’re an older white man, because perhaps those really were your good old days. The post-war years in which America had a “strong middle class” were the days of a strong white middle class. 

If you’re African American, looking back to the 1950s means looking back to the days of lynching, Jim Crow, and legalized discrimination. How can that inspire nostalgia? 

In the South before the Civil Rights movement, it was open season on African Americans, with white terrorists lynching whomever they chose with impunity. And to secure the white racist vote for his New Deal programs, FDR excluded farm workers and domestic workers from basic wage and work protections. Back then, those segments of the labor force were largely black. 

There were problems in the North too. Housing discrimination against blacks was federal policy — not just a simple, organic process of “white flight.” Policies like redlining systematically denied African Americans wealth, which still harms their families and communities today. 

Nor was life peachy for women in this time.

This was the era that spurred the feminist Betty Friedan to write about “the problem that has no name.” She torpedoed the presumption that all American women ought to rejoice that their roles as cooks, house cleaners, and baby machines were now made easier with modern conveniences. 

No doubt modern women are grateful they’re no longer expected to greet their husbands with a warm meal, a cocktail, and a come-hither look when they come home from a long day of work. 

Trump’s “Make America Great Again” sloganeering — combined with his anti-Muslim, anti-black, and anti-Mexican rhetoric — makes it apparent that he and his followers don’t see the ugly parts of our nation’s past as problematic. But it’s wrong to whitewash history. 

Surely, America isn’t perfect today. We haven’t solved our problems with racism (Donald Trump is Exhibit A) and women still earn less than men. We’ve also got the specters of mass shootings, terrorism, and the climate crisis to boot. 

Yet the answer to our troubles isn’t returning to an imagined, better past. It’s finding our way to a more perfect future. As Bill Clinton said two decades ago, “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.”

 

(Jill Richardson is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It. This column was provided CityWatch by OtherWords.org.)  Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

 -cw

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 13 Issue 102

Pub: Dec 18, 2015

PERSPECTIVE-Russian premier Vladimir Putin recently lavished praise on Donald Trump.

It came as no surprise to most.  Loose cannons stick together.

There are some looser than these two, but I would be hard-pressed to name a more dangerous duo with the potential of controlling the two mightiest military powers in the world.

In a way, it does not seem logical for Putin to warm up to Trump.  Trump’s tough talk about making our rivals fear us should create tension between Russia and the US, especially when the former desires to reclaim its old glory.  Both nations would seem to be on a collision course with both of them in power.

So what is the nascent bond between them all about?

Plain and simple – hatred of President Obama.

Policies built on hate never end well.  Just look at  Germany in World War 2.

Perhaps only Bernie Sanders or Dr. Ben Carson would make an equally disturbing pairing with Vlad the Sociopath. The two of them rank near the top of the most-clueless-in-foreign-policy poll with the Donald. 

There is a difference, though.  Carson and Sanders are passive-clueless.  That is, they would tend to not take decisive action in the international arena when  necessary.  Trump is active-clueless.  He would take action when none was called for. Either way, the results would not be pretty.

However, it’s a moot point.

None of the three will earn their party’s nomination.

They will continue to make noise, though, until either the money runs out or the public tires of them.

And Vlad will still find himself isolated and without a buddy.

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

-cw

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 13 Issue 103

Pub: Dec 22, 2015

INSIDER REPORT-The distinct smell of natural gas penetrates homes for miles around the leaking Aliso Canyon natural gas “storage facility.” By storage facility we mean an abandoned oil well drilled in 1955 that So Cal Gas decided to fill with pressurized natural gas. But to describe this as a leak is akin to calling the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico a leak.

Since October, Aliso Canyon has been hemorrhaging 50,000 kgs of natural gas into the air of Porter Ranch. Think BP oil spill with natural gas in a residential neighborhood and you start to understand that this, the worst gas leak in California history is a bonafide un-natural disaster. Lest you think that is hyperbole, renowned environmental advocate Erin Brockovich recently penned an article entitled, “Porter Ranch gas leak a catastrophe not seen since BP oil spill.”

This past week, seven weeks after the leak was confirmed, and after seeing attendance plummet, teachers getting sick, and visits to the nurses office skyrocket, CastleBay Lane Charter School and Porter Ranch Community School were ordered closed by the Los Angeles School Board. The 1100 students and staff will now be relocated to schools in Winnetka and Northridge respectively. “Porter Ranch will be a ghost town soon,” said a dejected Ankana Jitsomwung La Salle, whose son Chance is among the children suffering health effects and has been relocated.

As this crisis deepens, the community and elected leaders are beginning to ask, “Where has Gov. Brown been?” His office has been conspicuously silent.

“In this chaotic crisis, one of the most disruptive environmental and community catastrophic events of our time, we need our Governor to speak up, speak out, and bring the full force of his office to help the families impacted,” said LA City Councilmember Mitchell Englander. Englander has attended several town hall meetings in the area and the Porter Ranch Neighborhood Council meeting on the issue. Each meeting brought overflow crowds to venues that could hold well over 1,000 people. 

As this crisis deepens one has to wonder when this nightmare for Porter Ranch residents will end, and when our Governor, who declared a State of Emergency in San Bernadino due to the terrorist attack, will step up and help the thousands who are waiting to evacuate the poison entering their homes from the Aliso Canyon catastrophe.

 

(Jim Alger is a long-time political activist. He is perhaps best known for spearheading the ‘pushback’ effort that culminated in the MOU Agreement between Los Angeles neighborhood councils and the Department of Water and Power. )

–cw

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 13 Issue 103

Pub: Dec 22, 2015

TRUTHDIG-Update: On Friday the Sanders campaign sued the Democratic National Committee, demanding that it restore the campaign’s access to key information on voters. Then, on Saturday, it announced that the committee agreed to do so.  The DNC denied the information to Sanders after learning that his campaign had accessed a master list without authorization.

Bernie Sanders’ strong, progressive and inspirational message is just right for a nation afflicted by poverty and a shrinking middle class. Yet he is having trouble breaking through mass-media disinterest in his candidacy and its obsession with Donald Trump.

“We just came out of the worst economic downturn in the modern history of this country, since the Great Depression,” Sanders said at a forum Sunday in Iowa, a state where Sanders, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley are competing in a Feb. 1 caucus.

According to RealClearPolitics.com, he went on to say at the Cedar Rapids event: “Millions of people lost their jobs, millions of people lost their homes, and millions of people lost their life savings. Today in America, you have a middle class which is disappearing. You have in some cases … life expectancy going down, massive despair. Is that reflected on television? Is the reality, the pain of America, reflected on television? The struggle people are making?

“Half of people 55 years of age or older have zero savings for retirement. Got that? You’re 57 years old, you got nothing in the bank. How do you think you’re feeling? You’re scared to death. See that on television? CNN? NBC? ABC? … Not so much. We are a country where millions of people are in despair. Black, white, brown. They want to see a reflection of their life, of their reality, in media, and in many respects, they are not. And then they say, ‘Who the hell is talking about me? Who knows about my life? Why should I vote? No one cares—no one even knows what’s going on in my life.’ So media becomes an important part of the reality of America, and I think we need some big changes there.”

Not even the televised debates are helping Sanders. He and O’Malley say that the Democratic National Committee’s debate schedule, by staging the events on Saturday nights, deliberately favors front-runner Clinton by reducing viewership—people usually want to go out that night rather than watch a political debate. The Democratic debate broadcast Nov. 14 on CBS was watched by 8.5 million people,  compared with the 18 million who saw Tuesday night’s Republican debate on CNN.

“When will Americans hear from our Party?” O’Malley tweeted. Sanders urged his followers to sign petitions to the committee calling for more debates, saying, “I know, and you know, that the best chance for this country is discussing the issues that matter. Republicans aren’t going to do it, so we need more Democratic debates—more than the four scheduled by the DNC before the Iowa caucuses. And I know that if Secretary Clinton wants more debates, we’ll get them.”

The next debate, the third, is scheduled for Saturday night on ABC.

The lack of television exposure for the Vermont senator makes grass-roots voter contact tremendously important. And Sanders’ effort to make that contact was damaged, at least temporarily, when the Democratic National Committee suspended his campaign’s access to its national voter database. 

The campaign was denied the data after members of its staff accessed a master list of voters, including the Clinton campaign’s, according to The Washington Post, which broke the story.

The list contains names of voters, their demographic and political backgrounds, their computer and media watching patterns and other information used by campaigns to contact and woo potential supporters.

All the Democratic campaigns have access to it, but a computer firewall is supposed to prevent campaigns from obtaining rivals’ data. The firewall apparently broke down while the company managing the master file was installing a software patch.

Without access to the database, Sanders volunteers will be handicapped in contacting voters before the Iowa and New Hampshire contests. The Sanders campaign has fired one data staffer, and the DNC has told the campaign that it will not be allowed access to the data until it provides an explanation of what happened as well as assurances that it has destroyed all the Clinton data it obtained, the Post said. At a press conference Friday, Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver denounced the DNC for what he called a “heavy-handed attempt to undermine our campaign.”

Despite his infrequent television appearances, Sanders is still very much in the race, polls at this early stage indicate. In New Hampshire, the RealClearPolitics average of polls has him ahead of Clinton 48 percent to 43 percent, with O’Malley receiving 4 percent. The latest Iowa Poll by the Des Moines Register shows Clinton leading Sanders 48 percent to 39 percent. As the paper put it, “Clinton is building her lead among Iowa Democrats, but rival Bernie Sanders hasn’t faded.” Clinton leads with 64 percent of older Iowans surveyed, and Sanders is supported by 58 percent of those 45 and younger.

Keep in mind that these polls are too early to be definitive. The furious campaigning after Christmas and New Year’s could change the numbers, just as happened in 2008, when Clinton finished third in the Iowa caucus and then beat the Iowa winner, Barack Obama, in the New Hampshire primary before eventually losing the nomination.

The Iowa survey shows the importance of young voters to the Sanders campaign. I’ve contacted several, using the roster of College Students for Bernie, which has organizations on campuses around the country.

One of the thoughtful email replies I received came from Ben Packer, 20, a computer science major at Dartmouth.

“In general we’ve seen an explosion of self-organized groups for Bernie for every constituency group imaginable, and College Students for Bernie is one of those—part of a general process where people wake up, look around, and connect with others who are doing the same,” he said.

“What makes College Students for Bernie unique is that chapters are developing at the various schools—our job has been to connect the chapters to each other and to the campaign, so that as the campaign develops and moves through each state they are greeted by an already organized small army of volunteers.

“Many chapters are also building coalitions and co-hosting events with other activist and politically oriented groups on campus as well as local non-collegiate groups (unions, etc)—a process we generally encourage. This is the part that excites me the most because of its role in the longevity of the movement, cross issue solidarity, and a broad political education.”

He said students are working on phone banks and doing other chores to identify potential Sanders supporters. “I’m told the college network is collectively making some 8,000 weekly calls,” he said. In New Hampshire, students will contact likely voters and register people at venues such as farmers’ markets.

“As for the issues that resonate with college students, it’s obviously hard for me to generalize—the easy answer is generational economics: we’re in the midst of a student debt crisis, and current students anticipate that burden and fear how it will force them to modify their desired career path—youth underemployment is high, and the overall economic outlook for how we will integrate into the workforce is not positive,” Packer said.

“For many students, and for me, it’s less tangible—Bernie is sort of our last hope for a political system that … we’re jaded and disaffected with, combined with a strong sense of urgency around climate inaction, increasingly visible police brutality and escalating poverty.

“Many of us were taught in middle and high school that America had [an] admirable … functioning, democratic system, and some of us believed it too. Most of us have never really seen it though—with gridlock, legalized corruption, layers of manufactured fakeness and propaganda—the call for a political revolution is the only thing that could keep us from slipping into total political apathy.”

Justen Teguh, public relations director of Tritons for Bernie at the University of California, San Diego, told me of phone-banking and doing other voter contacting work, as well as traveling to Nevada to campaign for Sanders for the Feb. 20 caucus there.

“In regards to our feelings about Bernie, we’re still just as excited for him as we were before,” Teguh said. “Some of us may be even more excited, if that’s at all possible. Many of us have been and are still fed up with the status quo, and Bernie has only gotten better in challenging perceptions that Americans haven’t had challenged in the past. We’re ready to push for a Bernie win in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, the Democratic nomination, and eventually, the presidency.”

I talked by phone with Burt Cohen, a former New Hampshire state Senate Democratic leader who now hosts the twice-weekly podcast “Keeping Democracy Alive.” 

“He has young people,” Cohen, a veteran of New Hampshire Democratic politics, said of Sanders.

“I’ve never seen young people [so] turned on.” Cohen also noted that New Hampshire’s largest union, the 11,000 member New Hampshire branch of the Service Employees International Union, has endorsed Sanders, who is talking of victory in the general election. “If we can win in Iowa, and if we can win in New Hampshire, we have a real path toward victory, to pulling off one of the major political upsets in the history of our country,” Sanders said recently at a forum in New Hampshire, NationalJournal.com reported.

If Sanders accomplishes that, it truly will be an upset for a man written off by the high priests of media and subjected to what amounts to a television blackout. He’ll be entitled to a hearty last laugh.

 

(Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for Truthdig, the Jewish Journal, and LA Observed. This piece was posted first at Truthdig.com) Photo: AP. Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

-cw

  

CityWatch

Vol 13 Issue 103

Pub: Dec 22, 2015

DEAR FATHER CHRISTMAS-So my friend has asked me to write to you and I have to confess it's been hard to know what to say. Mainly because like most adults I feel preposterous asking anything of you since our time with you is surely done.

Now we get our own presents, control our own fates, take responsibility for our own actions, and live in the world we have created...so it's not for us to turn around and plead for your help with the environment, the migrant crisis, the NHS, education, food banks, human rights, fundamentalism and wars. Though God knows we need all the help we can get with these man-made problems and more.

And it's not that you aren't compassionate and full of joy. You're great. In spite of you being changed into different colors for corporations and being bastardized to represent materialism gone mad - despite probably originating in some season based pagan druid ritual a million thought miles from requests for spontaneously combusting hoverboards... Kidadults cynically pointing this out after having their moment of belief in you are wasting everyone's precious time. Because you are not for them. You are for the children. Children who need some magic in a world where the borders between innocence and responsibility, playful imagination and cold, adult obstacles are continually shrinking.

This is what I'd like to ask you to help with. A little more time for children to be children. Stretch the moment of magic and playfulness. Distract them from the realities of a world gone mad so that they can laugh with their breath rather than sob with their tears. Especially those caring for family members, or suffering illness, hunger or poverty. Especially those hiding in buildings as bombs rain down, or being handed shaking with fear or cold into a boat to escape environmental disaster or war. Please help to light up their worlds with a moment of joy and hope.

When I think about it, you've got it tough this year. And when I really think about it, I'm not sure that asking you for a lightsaber and getting one (not that I ever did by the way) is equitable with controlling the space time continuum and making the good of childhood last a little longer.

But you do inspire wonder and awe amongst those that write you letters and go to sleep hoping there might be a new object in their possession come dawn. You inspire good behaviour and, at least in my memory, some desperate last minute attempts to redeem bad behaviour so as not to be overlooked.

Spare a thought too for those millions who want to write to you but through illiteracy can't. Hear their words and help to give them the time and chance to learn how to read and write so they can better their lives and escape their impoverished beginnings.

I feel a little sorry for you. And I guess I've done exactly what I said I wouldn't: asked you to help with adult problems and solve some of the greatest worries we have for our children. I promise to leave some extra port and mince pies for you!

Lots of love

Benedict x

P.S. Please could I have that lightsaber now?

 

(Benedict Cumberbatch is an actor who writes occasionally for the Huffington Post UK, where is piece was originally posted.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

–cw

 

 

 

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 13 Issue 103

Pub: Dec 22, 2015

ALPERN ON CHRISTMAS--Merry Christmas, everybody!  Not sure which Christmas you want to celebrate--the home-for-the-holidays Christmas, the let's-take-some-time-off Christmas, the let's-get-some-presents-and-more-stuff Christmas, or the ain't-Santa-cute Christmas, but Merry Christmas!  And that "Christ" fellow ... well, I'm not sure where he figures into Christmas in our enlightened and open-minded age, but perhaps He really should figure in somewhere ... because isn't that where the name "Christmas" comes from?

And I don't mean "Ho, Ho, Ho!" as in Santa, I mean "He, He, He" as in the Trinity.  Because THAT is what Christmas is celebrating:  we don't know when Jesus of Nazareth was born, and there are certainly pagan and other reasons why the winter solstice was chosen as the time to celebrate Christmas (the shortest day, the longest night, but yet that is when we cherish the fact that God is with us).  

Yet, the fact remains, that there WAS a Jesus of Nazareth, and born at a rather critical time in our world history.  Furthermore, with God having lived and died as a human being, we never had to wonder if we were alone, or if God had forgotten us and our often-miserable existence.

Yes, I am a Jew, and I've always loved the lights and spiritual warmth of Christmas, as my "lonsman" Ben Stein so eloquently and repeatedly likes to state every year.  I had my beliefs in Judaism, and my opinions of the Christian religion, cemented in college, when after years of my own studies I had some excellent Humanities courses that confirmed and supported my long-held religious views.

And I'll keep those private beliefs private, but I will without hesitation state that ours is a Christian nation--no matter what creepy individual wants to deny that.  Or at least it's a nation that believes in God (with democratic ideals placed in the Constitution as a moral imperative from God), but with Christian overtones.

Even President Lincoln, who wasn't into formal religion, promoted Thanksgiving as a statement of humanity towards God--and when he did good, he felt good, and when he did bad, he felt bad (which he believed came from God).  Feel free to look up this informally but undeniably religious figure in our nation's history.

And feel free to look up just how wonderful and "tolerant" and livable those nations are who have diminished and "gotten past" their Christian roots in the West, and how well-treated Christians, Jews and other religions are in either secular or other Eastern nations.

Yet now we recognize Jesus less than ever in our "modern, tolerant society" and are much more likely to decry and diminish those who still are "primitive" enough to worship Christ as the Son of God.  

Maybe we should even consider getting rid of the Christmas holiday if it means so little to so many.

But praising and singing about Santa?  Well, of course!  Perhaps it's Santa who we can cherish on our days off, instead of Jesus.

I mean, Santa Claus is coming to town--and isn't Santa the one that Christmas is all about?  

Certainly, business offices and public venues have so sanitized their songs of any mention of God, Christ or anything else that a stranger would conclude that the divine Trinity is Santa, Rudolph, and Frosty...and not the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

Good-bye "Silent Night" and "The Little Drummer Boy", and hello "It's Cold Outside" and "Santa, Baby".

Good-bye, Three Wise Men and hello Master Card, Visa, and American Express with respect to gift-giving that really matters.

And the "echo" of those proclaiming "what would Jesus do?"... while decrying "those Christians"?

And the "echo" of those proclaiming love and tolerance and an escape from religion...while themselves having grown up with religion (including "A Christmas Carol" that blended the supernatural with the moral imperative of being kind and charitable)?

And finally, the "echo" of believing in Saint Nick with believing in a higher Power who watches over us, and who ultimately rewards us (perhaps not with gifts that are tangible, or purchasable, but with gifts, nevertheless)?

One cannot help but wonder what will happen when those echoes subside, and what our society will look like when we've moved past God and Christ, and how Jews, Buddhists, and other tolerant religions will be treated once we have sufficiently diminished the Christian cultural background that once made us the kindest and most giving nation on the planet.

Until then, however, as a tolerant American and a tolerant Jew, let me stick in one more old-fashioned MERRY CHRISTMAS, and may God shine over us all during this Holiday Season.

 

(Kenneth Alpern, M.D. is a dermatologist with offices and clinics serving patients from West Los Angeles to Temecula.  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 protected].   He also does regular commentary on the Mark Isler Radio Show on AM 870, and co-chairs the grassroots Friends of the Green Line at www.fogl.us. The views expressed in this article are solely those of Mr. Alpern.)

-cw

 


 

CityWatch

Vol 13 Issue 103

Pub: Dec 22, 2015

THE UNITED STATES OF NOW--Which political party loves America? Not the United States that once existed, but the flesh-and-blood nation that we all live in now.

The debates we have witnessed - too few and far between for the Democrats, frequent enough for the Republicans to constitute a new reality TV show - have provided an incontestable answer to that question.

The Democrats embrace the United States of Now in all of its raucous diversity.

Democrats are not free of nostalgia. They long for the more economically equal America of decades ago and celebrate liberalism’s heydays during the New Deal and civil rights years.

But Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley all stand up for the rights of a younger America - today’s country - that is less white, more Latino and Asian (and, yes, more Muslim) than was the U.S. of the past. The cultural changes that have reshaped us are welcomed as part of our historical trajectory toward justice and inclusion.

The Republicans, particularly Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, don’t like our country right now. They yearn for the United States of Then. The current version is cast as a fallen nation.

True, the party shut out of the White House always assails the incumbent. But a deeper unease and even rage characterize the response of many in the GOP ranks to what the country has become. This can cross into a loathing that Trump exploits by promising to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants and block Muslims from entering the country while dismissing dissent from his program of demographic reconstruction as nothing more than “political correctness.”

I am certain that in their hearts, every candidate in both parties still likes to see us as “a shining city on a hill” and “the last best hope of earth.” Within the GOP, Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush have been especially careful not to abandon the virtue of hope and any confidence in the present. But this makes them stronger as general-election candidates than within their own party.

The stark cross-party contrast complicates any assessment of Saturday’s Democratic debate. As Clinton, Sanders and O’Malley all made clear, each believes their own disputes are minor in light of the chasm that has opened between themselves and the Republicans.

“On our worst day, I think we have a lot more to offer the American people than the right-wing extremists,” Sanders declared at the debate’s end. O’Malley concluded similarly: “When you listened to the Republican debate the other night, you heard a lot of anger and a lot of fear. Well, they can have their anger and they can have their fear, but anger and fear never built America.”

Democratic solidarity was Clinton’s friend. She emerged stronger simply because neither of her foes made a clear case for upending the campaign’s existing order. Her own solid performance will reinforce those who already support her.

But two big quarrels between Clinton and Sanders are important to the Democrats’ future. By pledging to avoid any hike in taxes on those earning less than $250,000 a year, Clinton strengthened herself for her likely fall encounter with the other side. But Sanders deserves credit for speaking a truth progressives will need to face up to (and that social democrats in other countries have already confronted): that the programs liberals support are, in the long run, likely to require more broadly based tax increases.

On foreign policy, Clinton continued to be the more openly interventionist candidate. Here again, Clinton likely positioned herself well for the long run. But Sanders may yet capitalize on his comparative dovishness with the generally peace-minded Democratic caucus electorate in Iowa.

Each also offered revealing one-liners as to whether “corporate America” would love them. Clinton nicely deflected the question by saying, “Everybody should.” But Sanders was unequivocal. “No, they won’t,” he replied with starchy conviction.

Above all, this debate should embarrass the Democratic National Committee for scheduling so few of them, and for shoving some into absurdly inconvenient time slots that confined their audiences to political hobbyists.

Debates are a form of propaganda in the neutral sense of the word: They are occasions for parties to make their respective arguments. Given that the divide between the parties this year is so fundamental, it’s shameful that Democrats did not try to make their case to as many Americans as possible.

If you have faith in your response to anger and fear, you should be ready to bear witness before the largest congregation you can assemble.

(E.J. Dionne’s is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. This article was posted most recently at truthdig.com … an online progressive news and opinion journal edited by Robert Scheer.)

 

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 13 Issue 103

Pub: Dec 22, 2015

 

 

 

NO SUBSTITUTE FOR WALKABLE STREETS--At the center of UCLA’s campus, there’s a banner advertising some of the university’s newest groundbreaking research. It features the outline of a small vehicle and reads, “The 405 is a joyride … in a driverless car.”

The 405 is the main freeway serving the west side of Los Angeles County, and along with earthquakes, humidity and natural aging, it’s the stuff of Angelenos’ nightmares. The federal government has cited the highway, with its average daily traffic of 374,000 vehicles, as the nation’s single busiest roadway. LA sunk five years and more than $1 billion into a project to widen its right-of-way through a congested mountain pass. (Officials called the temporary closure of the roadway “Carmageddon.”) The city has spent several times that amount expanding its mass transit system, with the promise that light rail and bus-only lanes would alleviate some of the region’s famous traffic jams. If anything, the traffic has gotten worse.

As for driverless cars, they’re likely to be a fixture of our roads by the end of this decade. Aided by a scanning technology called “lidar,” Google started testing vehicles in the San Francisco Bay Area this year, Tesla’s Autopilot program is now in beta and conventional carmakers such as Nissan and Ford aren’t far behind. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers estimates that by 2040, up to 75 percent of cars on the road will be autonomous. Could this be the solution to LA’s notorious traffic?

Probably not. Since I moved here three months ago to study urban planning, I’ve been engaged in the ultimate class project: living in LA without a car. Public transit junkies often imagine that with the right combination of incentives and policies, any city can be made into Manhattan. All around the LA area, heroic efforts are being made to reduce auto dependence and improve people’s ability to get around by foot, bike and public transit. But the wide streets, ample parking and huge tracts of single-family houses don’t lie: LA’s urban form is almost entirely built to move automobile traffic as quickly as possible.

The urban planner Fred Kent famously says, “If you plan cities for cars and traffic, you get cars and traffic. If you plan for people and places, you get people and places.” Driverless cars are an exciting development, but they are still cars. They’re very much in their infancy, and much of the reporting on them has centered on technology and design. In a recent article in The New York Times Magazine, “The Dream Life of Driverless Cars,” two passengers gaze upon London from the computer’s-eye view of a Honda CR-V, watching as “workers setting out for a lunchtime stroll become spectral silhouettes” and “glass towers unravel into the sky like smoke.” These are suggestive images, full of intrigue and possibility. Still, driverless cars aren’t just a technological marvel; they raise serious urban planning questions.

In terms of safety and parking, they are likely to be a force for good. Perhaps we’ve become numb to the damage because it happens so often, but it’s worth remembering that cars are deadly weapons that we entrust to almost everybody, whatever their competence or emotional stability. Starting this Halloween in New York City, 13 pedestrians were killed by drivers in as many days — including young Bronx trick-or-treaters standing on the sidewalk. In 2013, drivers in Mexico City killed 491 pedestrians. Everyone has had a close brush with a driver who is texting, eating, applying mascara or falling asleep at the wheel. By contrast, autonomous vehicles are so cautious that they often have trouble crossing intersections, and recently one got pulled over by police for driving too slowly.

More than half a century ago, we gave for-profit car companies the opportunity to remake American cityscapes to their liking. It was a disaster.

As for parking: The average car is in active use for 5 percent of the day. The massive space required to store thousands of idle vehicles for the remaining 95 percent has been a disaster for urban land use. In the post-World War II period, U.S. cities including LA tore out the hearts of their downtowns — places that by their nature benefit from high density — and have given away immensely valuable urban land, effectively as a gift to suburban drivers, ever since. On top of that, drivers “cruising” for parking (circling city blocks looking for a cheap spot) can increase congestion by as much as 30 percent. Most American cities have parking minimums built into law, significantly increasing the cost of housing construction. Autonomous cars won’t simply vanish into thin air when we’re done using them, but unlike cars today, they will be able to relocate themselves away from the most valuable plots of urban land, freeing up space for new housing, businesses and parks.

All this portends a brighter future for LA and similar cities. But even today, the truth is that my car-free lifestyle is very doable — sometimes even convenient. LA has a robust bus system that I use to commute to UCLA, and so far I’ve found it to be reliable (LA’s bus and train networks combine for about 1.5 million weekday boardings, third in the nation after New York and Chicago). My home in the Palms neighborhood is a 15-minute walk from a light rail stop that takes me to Downtown LA, which has recently come into its own as a cultural and culinary hotspot. Almost everything I need is within biking distance of my apartment, and when I have to, I can rely on the generosity of friends with cars.

However, my commute is easy only because the daily itinerary of a childless graduate student is fairly simple, and because I can afford to live in a neighborhood that’s on a direct bus line to campus. I can use my phone to track bus arrivals in real time, or call a Lyft if I’m in a rush — but these apps that have surely saved me hours of wasted time are unavailable to those who can’t afford a smartphone. Socially, I’m surrounded by fellow planning students who love walking, biking and transit — but when I leave school, I’m reminded very quickly that the stigma against public transit and its users remains strong in L.A.

Driverless cars, promising as they are, cannot change a simple spatial reality: Single-occupancy private vehicles are not an efficient way to move people around an urban area that, despite its reputation, is by some measures the country’s densest. Nor should any of us be rushing to cede control of urban transportation systems to billion-dollar profit-driven companies. Take Uber: The “car-sharing” company provides a popular and often valuable service, but its poor labor record and transparent desire to replace public transit should give pause to anyone who values the “public” part of that phrase.  

More than half a century ago, we gave for-profit car companies the opportunity to remake American cityscapes to their liking. It was a disaster. When the time comes, I’ll be excited to explore Los Angeles in an autonomous vehicle. But I’m more excited for the day I can traverse the whole of the city by bus, train or bike without having to set foot in a car at all.

(Jordan Fraade is pursuing a master’s degree in urban planning at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. His writing on urban policy issues has been featured by Next City, Gothamist, The Baffler and CityLab. This piece was posted first at Aljazeera .

-cw

 

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 13 Issue 101

Pub: Dec 15, 2015

CALIFORNIA WATCH--As Governor Jerry Brown touted California’s environmental initiatives and prodded world leaders in Paris to embrace tougher environmental policies during the United Nations summit on climate change, it was instructive to look back at how one of Brown’s top environmental priorities suffered a major defeat in the California Legislature this year.

That priority was to establish a 50 percent reduction in petroleum usage in cars and trucks by 2030. Brown’s failure to win its passage in an overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature clearly illustrates not only the influence of the fossil fuel lobby, but also the continued rise of a new breed of Democrats who are exceedingly attentive to big business, while tone-deaf toward their party’s traditional progressive base.

Petroleum reduction was a key part of a proposed law, introduced as Senate Bill 350, which also called for steps to increase energy efficiency in existing buildings and require that 50 percent of California’s energy come from renewable sources, such as solar and wind. By any definition SB 350 was a landmark piece of legislation. It had the rock-solid support of environmentalists, numerous health and physicians groups, and two Nobel Prize winners.

In hindsight, however, it probably didn’t stand a chance, thanks to an intense, summer-long lobbying campaign and media blitz by Big Oil and others. State filings show that oil companies and their trade organizations opposed to the petroleum reduction measure spent $10.7 million in the third quarter of 2015 to lobby lawmakers and conduct a negative media assault.

Of that, the Western States Petroleum Association, an influential industry trade group, spent $6.7 million, more than twice as much as it had spent in the previous two quarters. Individual oil companies, such as ExxonMobil and Valero, also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in the third quarter, a significant increase over the amounts they spent on lobbying earlier this year.

In contrast, among the bill’s supporters, NextGen Climate, an environmental group founded and headed by philanthropist Tom Steyer, spent nearly $1.2 million on lobbying in the third quarter.

By late summer, the industry’s lobbying campaign and media blitz attacking SB 350 had had a big impact. Faced with defections by a group of nearly 20 so-called moderate Democrats, led by Fresno Assemblyman Henry Perea, SB 350 backers reluctantly removed the petroleum reduction measure. The move followed two critical meetings between supporters of the bill and the group of about 20 moderate Democrats concerned about the petroleum reduction measure. At the first meeting, on August 24, the moderate Democrats, led by Perea, met with then-Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins (D-San Diego). At the second meeting, on August 31, the same group met with officials at the governor’s office. (Perea announced this month that he is leaving the Legislature a year before his current term expires.)

Many of the corporate-friendly Democrats who attended those meetings with Atkins and Brown have received substantial campaign contributions from Big Oil over the years. Perea, for example, has received almost $100,000 in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry, while Merced Assemblyman Adam Gray has received about $80,000 and Rudy Salas, an Assemblyman from Bakersfield, has received about $65,000, according to a story in the Los Angeles Times citing the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

On September 9, with only two days left in the legislative session, Brown, Atkins and Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles), announced they were dropping the petroleum usage provision from the bill. The California Chamber of Commerce, another powerful opponent of the measure, then removed its influential “job killer” tag from the bill, sending a clear signal to corporate-friendly Democrats that it was now permissible to support SB 350.

A watered-down bill soon passed, with all of the formerly recalcitrant Democratic lawmakers except Gray voting for it. Brown signed it into law in a ceremony in October at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles.

“The main takeaway regarding the loss of the petroleum reduction piece of SB 350 is that it allowed us to shine a bright light on unprecedented oil industry spending [intended] to protect their bottom line – along with the lengths some lawmakers will go to ignore what voters truly want, which is less dependence on petroleum,” Susan Frank, director of the California Business Alliance for a Clean Economy, tells Capital & Main

The alliance, a network of 1,300 mostly small and mainstream companies in California that support a clean energy economy, was an important backer of the bill. Frank adds that it wasn’t a total loss, citing the stronger renewable energy and building efficiency standards that survived.

 Les Clark, executive vice president of the Independent Oil Producers Agency, an industry trade group based in Bakersfield, says he was adamantly opposed to the petroleum reduction provisions of SB 350 because they would have significantly hurt anyone who produces oil, particularly the mom-and-pop operators he represents.

“We were opposed to it,” Clark tells Capital & Main. “If you produce oil, you are producing it to make money. Of course we’d be concerned about that.”

Clark claims the measure could have driven some smalltime oil producers out of business. “It’s not good for my neighbors to have to pack up and go back East to find a job,” he says.

In speaking against the petroleum reduction measure, the bill’s opponents warned that it could result in gas rationing and prohibitions on sport utility vehicles. Opponents, including some Democratic lawmakers, also claimed that cutting petroleum use would be disproportionally harmful to residents of the Central Valley, whose long commutes and dearth of public transportation make dependence on automobiles – and fuel – a certainty.

“In the Valley – more than anywhere else in California – that means reducing jobs, businesses and opportunities,” Assemblyman Adam Gray wrote in an opinion piece published in the Merced Sun-Star. “The Valley’s No. 1 industry, agriculture, is dependent on transportation by both trucks (produce) and cars (labor). We have some of the highest levels of poverty and unemployment in the nation. Yet SB 350 puts these disadvantaged communities first in line to pay more and offers nothing in return.”

Sarah Rose, chief executive of the California League of Conservation Voters, disagreed, and in an interview confirms that the opposition of several key Democratic lawmakers to the petroleum reduction measure appears to have been motivated more than anything by a desire to please Big Oil.

“Clearly, there’s a problem when you have legislators not voting in the best interests of their constituents,” says Rose, whose organization supported SB 350.

“Oil has won a skirmish,” Brown conceded at the September 9 press conference, while de León added that the measure’s proponents were unable to compete with Big Oil’s “bottomless war chest.”

Now, three months later, after the governor promoted California’s accomplishments in a weeklong series of events at the Paris climate change conference, Brown can only look back and regret what was clearly a lost opportunity in Sacramento.

(An investigative reporter for more than three decades, Gary Cohn won the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting in 1998 for his series The Shipbreakers. This piece originated at Capital and Main

-cw

 

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 13 Issue 101

Pub: Dec 15, 2015

AFFIRMATIVE ACTION REBOOT-Su­preme Court Justice Ant­on­in Scalia’s (photo) seem­ing sug­ges­tion this week that stu­dents of col­or would be bet­ter off at “a slower-track school where they do well” is not only of­fens­ive, it’s wrong. 

Black and Latino stu­dents who at­tend se­lect­ive schools are more likely to gradu­ate than those who at­tend open-en­roll­ment schools, re­gard­less of how aca­dem­ic­ally pre­pared they are when they enter.  

Ac­cord­ing to the Geor­getown Uni­versity Cen­ter on Edu­ca­tion and the Work­force, gradu­ation rates for black and Latino stu­dents double when they move to se­lect­ive schools from open-ac­cess col­leges. 

“Justice Scalia is mak­ing the tired ar­gu­ment that ad­mit­ting Afric­an-Amer­ic­an stu­dents in­to white schools is akin to put­ting ponies in a horse race,” said Nicole Smith, the Geor­getown Cen­ter’s chief eco­nom­ist, in a state­ment. “Like so many, Justice Scalia mis­takes Afric­an Amer­ic­an as a proxy for low read­i­ness, when in fact minor­ity stu­dents in more se­lect­ive col­leges and uni­versit­ies not only gradu­ate at re­l­at­ively high­er rates, but also se­cure high-pay­ing jobs there­after.” 

Scalia’s com­ments came as the Su­preme Court heard ar­gu­ments in an af­firm­at­ive-ac­tion case that could have wide-ran­ging im­plic­a­tions. The Uni­versity of Texas, the de­fend­ant in the case, says its use of race has helped en­sure di­versity. The school also uses a “10 per­cent plan,” in which any stu­dent who gradu­ates in the top 10 per­cent of a pub­lic high school in Texas is gran­ted ad­mis­sion to the Uni­versity of Texas. Since many of the state’s high schools are largely se­greg­ated, the policy in­creased the num­ber of stu­dents of col­or at the uni­versity. 

Ac­cord­ing to the Geor­getown Cen­ter, even though the plan meant some de­gree of lower pre­pared­ness among Uni­versity of Texas stu­dents, gradu­ation rates in­creased.  

“If Scalia’s the­ory were true, equally pre­pared stu­dents of all races would do worse at more se­lect­ive col­leges,” said An­thony Carne­vale, the Geor­getown Cen­ter’s dir­ect­or, in a state­ment. “In fact, we find the op­pos­ite is true.” 

Af­firm­at­ive ac­tion, the data sug­gests, not only be­ne­fits schools by help­ing them in­crease the num­ber of stu­dents of col­or, it of­fers those stu­dents a bet­ter chance at a col­lege de­gree. 

 

(Emily DeRuy writes for Next America, an editorial venture by National Journal.   She previously reported on politics and education for “Fusion,” the ABC News-Univision joint venture. This piece originally appeared in the National Journal.)  Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

-cw

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 13 Issue 101

Pub: Dec 15, 2015

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