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LA Ballot Battle: The Voice of the People Will be Heard

DEEGAN ON LA-Are the politicos too cozy with developers, making backroom deals that help them and harm communities? Are good construction jobs and affordable housing out of reach for those most in need? Is it time for a DWP overhaul?

These are the core questions contained in three prospective ballot measures that may come before the voters on November 8 -- if each of them can gather the 60,000 required signatures by April 26 to qualify for the ballot. 

Sponsors include the Coalition to Preserve Los Angeles (CPLA) that is backing the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, designed to make the backrooms at City Hall smoke and odor free by changing the existing business model that allows developers and politicos to make opaque deals out of public sight. 

Next, the Build Better LA Coalition, that describes itself as a coalition of business, labor and community leaders, claims to be working to ensure access to affordable housing and quality construction jobs using local hires. 

The third measure includes two possible attempts at DWP reform: one encouraged by the Mayor and the other by a clique of LA City Councilmembers. 

All three groups will have the next ten weeks to gather enough signatures to qualify for the November 8 ballot. And the pressure is on. 

Of the three prospective measures, the CPLA’s Neighborhood Integrity Initiative is the only one, so far, that has been cleared by the City Attorney and the City Clerk. It is now actively collecting signatures. 

The Coalition to Preserve LA’s Neighborhood Integrity Initiative is driven by Campaign Director Jill Stewart and underwritten by Michael Weinstein and the AIDS Healthcare Foundation.  It’s a simple three point proposal attacking the current system with these key objectives: (1) it stops developers from hiring consultants to do their own EIRs (Environmental Impact Report). The city would hire the consultants, but developers would continue to pay for them; (2) it prevents developers from making huge slashes in the parking requirements for their projects; and (3) it calls for a two-year “time out” on all developments that do not conform to the city’s zoning.

Stewart has been specific and emphatic in repeating the mantra that, “This (the ballot measure) will not stop development; there is a tremendous amount of zoning that is legal, and those developments will not be affected.” 

Big labor is weighing in on this. Sensing extra pressure on developers, the shrinkage of available land for development, and a mismatch of zoning regulations in the city that may enable a large number of projects to qualify for variances, the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, and others, have formed the Build Better LA Coalition.  

It’s an admirable attempt to provide good construction jobs and affordable housing. If labor’s ballot is approved by the City Attorney and the City Clerk for circulation, and with the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative has already having passed both tests, as well as having supporters already gathering signatures, then the voters will have a chance to decide how they want councilmembers to be the arbiters of land use decisions. 

The NII takes the political elite out of the business of granting variances. The labor measure may provide for the continued use of variances – still dictated by the politicos. 

The NII supports reducing the voice of politicos in land use matters, while labor seems to want to allow them to keep their voice. Politicians may end up being squeezed by these competing initiatives – and by the voters. But first, labor’s initiative must become official. They insist that their measure is not in opposition to the NII; they are calling it a “jobs and housing program.” But once they start campaigning for signatures, it may become clear that they are using their ballot initiative to derail the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative. The signature gathering deadline is ten weeks away, so the pressure is on to get organized. Since the Build Better Los Angeles coalition will be able to count on labor to deliver the ballot signatures, it will make this campaign worth watching. 

Another interesting and potentially conflicting choice revolves around efforts to reform the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the city-owned utility that acts like a stand-alone entity beyond the reach of supervision. In the end, it’s just one of forty-three city departments in a list that runs, alphabetically, from the Department of Aging to the Zoo. The only thing that makes it special is its arrogant attitude, thinking it is above and beyond reproach. Shrinking its self-perception down to size would be a gift to the city’s ratepayers that have been burdened for far too long with this out-of-control utility.

The DWP has been fiercely criticized for the disconnect that exists between the giant utility and its ratepayers, and between it and our city’s government. Both the Mayor and a clique of councilmembers have indicated their support for different versions of a ballot measure that would reorganize DWP’s governance structure. 

While an overhaul of the DWP is recognized as a practical and a political necessity, how to achieve this goal has resulted in a split between two camps: the reforms favored by Mayor Eric Garcetti and the changes that are preferred by the city councilmember clique of Felipe Fuentes, Herb Wesson and Mitch O’Farrell. 

Under the Garcetti plan, a full-time professional board would oversee the department instead of the current part-time commission of political appointees. The Mayor contends that this will prevent “political meddling” in the utility’s operations. As the chief executive of the city, the Mayor wants to retain the power to hire and fire board members, as well as the department’s general manager. This is a corporate business model that provides a chain of command accountability. It makes perfect sense. 

The Fuentes-Wesson-O’Farrell clique calls the Mayor’s model “more of the same.” They offer instead a rewrite of the City Charter, giving the DWP greater independence. This could be a crazy idea – giving an already out-of-control entity even more independence. They support no oversight by the Mayor or the City Council and are unsure if the Board should be elected or appointed. 

As City Watch was going to press, the LA Times’ Emily Alpert Reyes tweeted that Council President Wesson wanted to hold “regional hearings on the idea of overhauling DWP governance.” This is not a good sign – and could be a time-wasting stalling tactic that the DWP might have initiated. Maybe they did…and maybe Wesson is just articulating it for them. 

Real progress in land use and reform of the DWP is not too much to hope for – we need to get away from the backroom deals and move everyone into the sunshine of transparent decision making and accountability. The opposite has been going on for way too long. 

The roadblocks are well known: they center on the problem that politicos have for too long been running their own agendas instead of running the city on behalf of the people who elect but do not finance them. The will of the people can enact meaningful change by going to the ballot box in November, ready and willing to weigh in on any or all of these three issues. On November 8, the people will speak. No wonder the politicos are nervous.

 

(Tim Deegan is a long-time resident and community leader in the Miracle Mile, who has served as board chair at the Mid City West Community Council and on the board of the Miracle Mile Civic Coalition. Tim can be reached at timdeegan2015@gmail.com.)   Edited for City Watch by Linda Abrams.