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HERE’S WHAT I KNOW-An initiative to raise the state minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2021 has qualified for the November election, adding to an already jam-packed ballot. Should the Fair Wage Act of 2016 pass, California would become the largest state to improve the standard of living for the 3.3 million low-wage earners in the state, including 600,000 in Los Angeles County alone, perhaps setting the stage for a higher minimum wage across the U.S.  San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf are co-chairs of the initiative campaign. 

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NEIGHBORHOOD NIGHTMARES-From the Hills of Hollywood to the Malibu coast and even the Valley, pricey real estate has provided the backdrop for countless reality shows and some out-control parties, as well as a nice income stream for investors, including developer Danny Fitzgerald who owns a cluster of glass manses in the Hollywood Dell. 

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BICYCLE REVOLUTION--The bicycle is proving itself as an instrument of gentle revolution, helping to change not just how cities are used, but how they are shaped. Bike lanes do more than facilitate low-impact travel; they enrichen businesses and create community where before there was only stress, noise, and smog. More and more people saddle up for city travel every day, often counting on smartphone apps to help them make sense of this new old way of moving. The revolution proceeds apace, and everyone, it seems, is joining in.

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JUST THE FACTS-This week we witnessed another horrifying terrorist attack on innocent people, this time at the Brussels airport and at a subway station in that city. The current victim count is 31 innocent people dead with 300 plus wounded. This brings to mind the previous terrorist attacks that have taken place in America and other parts of the world in recent years. Some are closer to home while others are across the sea in faraway places. 

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INSIDER VIEW--After Target tried to construct a patently illegal store at the corner of Sunset and Western in Hollywood, the courts ordered Target to stop construction. 

Upset that it could not build a 75 foot store in a zone which limited the height to 35 feet, Target decided to continue the legal fight while changing the law so that its illegal building would be legal. 

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REVITALIZATION POLITICS--In the early 13th century, a wealthy merchant’s son knelt before a crucifix in a small, crumbling chapel near Assisi, a village in Italy, and received a message from the Lord: “Go, Francis, and repair my house, which as you see is falling into ruin.”

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ANIMALWATCH-Cockfighting and dog fighting convictions would be upgraded to include felony-level penalties for repeat offenders and significantly increased fines for attending or participating in an animal fight under a Bill just passed by the West Virginia Senate (31-2). 

Other important provisions of this measure are that it prohibits gambling on any animal fight, possessing or training an animal for fighting, or bringing a minor to such an event. HB 4201 is now headed to the WV Governor’s desk, the Humane Society of the U.S. announced on March 14.

This long-sought increase in penalties for this abhorrent crime that pits animals against each other in a fight for their lives follows the February 24 announcement that the Ohio House of Representatives passed H.B. 215 to toughen that state’s law on cockfighting and enact felony level penalties for participation in this gruesome blood sport. 

The Ohio bill also includes the prohibition on gambling, the use of substances or devices to enhance fighting ability and forbids permitting or causing a minor to be present at such an event. 

“The Ohio House has moved to make cockfighting a felony and we call on the Senate to act soon. Ohio is the only Great Lakes state that fails to punish cockfighting as a felony. As a result, cockfighters from neighboring states are coming into Ohio to take advantage of their weak penalties for this crime,” explained John Goodwin of HSUS. “Ohioans don’t want a 'cockfighters welcome mat’ laid out at the state line and hopefully their Senators will agree.” 

Animal fighting in California is also pervasive. According to San Diego attorney Harold Holmes, who also has a long career background in law enforcement, “Cockfighting frequently comes to light in the Southern California region when people try to cross the international border with their birds. Often they are being hidden in very inhumane ways, that lead to suffering and even death of the birds just from being transported….These instances -- as with any case related to the fighting of animals or its related activities -- can lead to a variety of charges, separate from the bird’s involvement in combat.” 

Holmes continues, “Possession of a gamecock with the intent that it be fought and actually fighting the birds are both misdemeanors for first-time offenses in California. But anyone considering taking this risk needs to be aware that nothing precludes the prosecutor from charging felony animal cruelty when deliberate animal suffering can be shown.” 

Additionally, Holmes warns, “animal fighting involves other related activities including gambling, drugs, weapons, and conspiracy. Conspiracy to commit a misdemeanor offense is a felony in California. And then there is the international smuggling aspect when the border is crossed. That can move the case to federal court. This is also true in transporting the animals across state lines for the purpose of fighting.” 

“Investigators should always look at the big picture and consider all of the illegal activities that are associated with this violent, blood-lust crime,” attorney Holmes concludes. 

Cockfighting is often dismissed as a “tradition” conducted in areas with large immigrant populations. However, “blood sports” are pervasive throughout the world and in every ethnicity. In fact, national experts estimate that within two miles of everyone living in any metropolitan area of the U.S. is someone who is actively involved in illegal animal fighting -- either owning, breeding or training the animals themselves or attending or betting on bloody bouts where animals are forced to fight to death.  

Animal fighting is a lucrative, criminal gambling activity that is difficult for law enforcement to effectively address unless police arrive during an event. Neighbors are afraid to report known or suspected cockfighters because of the violent nature of the sport and its aficionados. 

It is a disturbing, perverse, public display of brutality. Participation for generations does not make this intentional cruelty acceptable or excusable. Participants and spectators attend for one main purpose -- to watch animals die. 

These events commonly include the use and sale of drugs and guns. They can also involve prostitution and human trafficking, including the forced presence of underage children for labor and sex.

Complaints of noise and suspected cockfighting in Southern California have brought law- enforcement officers to urban and rural locations where residents harbor from a few to thousands of roosters groomed for battle. 

Over 1,000 birds were seized in a cockfighting bust in Ontario, CA, in 2014. The

Huffington Post reported that, “Some of the participants were even high-level employees of Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties.” 

A January 23, 2016, bust in Midland County, TX that sent 41 people to jail was linked to a major national cocaine distributer. The investigation was assisted by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), Department of Public Safety (DPS), United States Marshal’s Office and Homeland Security. In addition to $32,000 in cash and hundreds of fighting implements, the Saturday morning raid netted syringes, steroids and testosterone, a pistol with ammunition and cars worth up to $80,000. 

The advent of technology has entered the world of animal fighting and will bring increasing challenges to law-enforcement and animal-protection agencies. In fact, graphic Instagram videos showing roosters fighting to death led to the bust of a cockfighting ring in Fontana, CA, reported on February 17, 2016. 

Police officers went to a home in the 17300 block of Randall, where they found dozens of roosters, many injured and sick, along with more than a dozen short knives and sparring muffs used as implements. 

Fontana police officials said it appeared the account was being used to promote breeding, training, selling and fighting of roosters,” according to CBS Local News.  (Recent busts in Fillmore and Perris, CA, are also described at the CBS link.) 

Cockfighting is not a "sport" in which the match ends when one rooster proves its superiority. The long, sharp blades attached to the feet assure that the cutting and stabbing will be lethal or produce serious injury to at least one of the fighters. The death or inability of a bird to continue brings cheers from bloodthirsty spectators as numerous bouts continue. 

When these events are held in backyards, the worst members of society converge upon neighborhoods where children and innocent adults also become victims of noise, violence and exposure to criminals who would not otherwise be in the community. 

Absentee owners of rental property being used to raise and train fighting animals or conduct fights may have unexpected liability. 

Animal-fighting operations anywhere diminish property values in the surrounding area. 

The reason prohibition against bringing minors to cockfights is important in California law and is an important part of the pending laws in West Virginia and Ohio goes beyond humaneness to animals. Young children are often brought to watch these barbaric displays by parents or other relatives, creating a generation of youths who believe maiming and killing is the mark of a man. 

Nothing desensitizes a young person to pain and death more than illegal animal fighting. It is often a step in the passage into gang activity and can be a precursor to taking human lives. Participating in the barbaric torture and death of an animal can ease the transition to killing a rival gang member -- or anyone else.

 

(Animal activist Phyllis M. Daugherty writes for CityWatch and is a contributing writer to opposingviews.com. She lives in Los Angeles.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

PERSPECTIVE--There is much to chew on concerning the MTA’s proposed ballot measure to add a half-cent sales tax and extend the current Measure R tax. 

I’ll focus on the Valley.

Tunneling through the Sepulveda Pass to allow a rail line is apparently one of the top priority tasks, but it would not be complete until mid-century.

The Orange Line would eventually be converted into light-rail, but that is even further down the timeline. However, in the interim, a reduction in at-grade crossings will allow faster transit times. A light rail route down Van Nuys Blvd to connect the Northeast and Southeast Valley neighborhoods to the Orange Line is another piece of the plan.

As we all know too well, commuting through the pass is a nightmare during drive time (no one says rush hour anymore). But is there an effective alternative to the tunnel? A great opportunity was lost when the car pool lanes were added. They could have been busways. Perhaps they still can, with stations at both ends. No doubt a far less expensive option, but buses can’t carry the volume rail can.

The interim plan for the Orange Line might be the most cost-effective strategy on the menu. Light rail might cause over-crowding at the NoHo Red Line station. It is already a busy place; I can only imagine the mob scene on the platform as light rail discharges throngs of commuters. Ever been on an over-crowded subway platform? I have twice … and it’s pretty scary as people get antsy waiting for a train to arrive. Several years ago, MTA acted on a recommendation of mine, when circumstances dictated, to stage people at the upper levels until the train-level crowd could be absorbed. That strategy may not be as effective with light-rail feeding the station.

A busway down Van Nuys Blvd would offer most of the benefits of rail without the heavy costs.

Could we trade cost savings from alternatives to expand or improve other transportation modes in the Valley?

All of us need to seriously consider the options and express our opinions to the MTA.

Even if the measure passes, there will still be time to reconsider the plan’s components and insist on the best value for the money.

We don’t want to suffer the fate of poor old Charlie

HERE’S WHAT I KNOW-The rest of 2016 will be consumed with a nail-biting Presidential competition, the possibility of a brokered convention, the first Tuesday in November, and let’s not forget, the race to fill Boxer’s Senate seat. Those of us for whom politics is a favorite spectator sport are watching the brackets fill in for the 2018 Governor’s race to replace Gov. Jerry Brown. 

Numerous media reports point to Villaraigosa as a potential addition to the crowded field of prospects. In February, the former LA mayor ditched a possible Senate run. If Villaraigosa rises to the ranks of governor, he’d be the first Hispanic governor since Romualdo Pacecho held that post. To put things in perspective, Pachecho spent some time mining during the Gold Rush and was likely the only California governor who lassoed a grizzly bear. 

Villaraigosa could face some stiff competition in the cash department. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newson has been filling his campaign chest for over a year. A poll of six hundred Californians considered “likely to vote” in the 2018 election that was conducted for Newsom’s campaign by David Binder Research in late January, placed Newsom -- the only candidate to formally declare -- ahead of the competition by 30 percent. Villaraigosa trailed third at 8 percent, behind Republican San Diego Mayor Kevin Falconer at 20 percent. GOP Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin clocked in at 6 percent; former hedge fund manager/environmental activist Tom Stever, a Democrat, had 3 percent; state Treasurer John Chiang and former eBay executive/venture capitalist/former state Controller Steve Westley, both Dems, came in at 2 percent each. Nine percent were undecided. The margin of error was 4 percent. 

The gubernatorial race comes at a time when the state’s economic conditions have been generally on the upswing but the state continues to face many challenges. Millions of Californians are at the poverty level or are holding lower-wage jobs, the state’s infrastructure is crumbling, commuters face congested roads and freeways and the drought is still an issue. Local and state governments continue to be hit with escalating pension and employee healthcare costs. 

California’s gubernatorial race is what’s called a “jungle primary” – only the top two vote-getters make it to the playoffs. The primary is open and voters aren’t bound to select a candidate along party lines, so the independent vote is up for grabs. Getting in early can mean more time to garner support throughout the state. Newsom has a strong base in the Bay Area, but Villaraigosa could potentially lock up the Southland. In order to go the whole way, any candidate needs to extend his or her reach throughout the state. 

So what about Villaraigosa’s record? The former mayor had a number of successes. He beefed up the police department, seeded a mass transit boom, but is sometimes criticized for trying to bite off more than he could chew, such as a failed plan to take over LAUSD.  Despite a stint at UTLA early in his career, he has, at best, a lukewarm relationship with unions. In 2014, the former mayor penned a Wall Street Journal opinion piece questioning the teachers’ unions. Challenges emanating from the 2008 financial crisis sometimes pitted him against municipal unions. And under his watch, the 10,000 member LAPD didn’t get a raise for three years. 

Villaraigosa’s term in office was marred by scandal.  Toward the end of his tenure, his affair with a Telemundo reporter was uncovered, ending his marriage. He later told a crowd at Loyola University that his handling of the breakup with his former wife was his “biggest regret as mayor.” However, this personal scandal is unlikely to be an issue in the upcoming campaign for Governor because Newsom also faced a similar scandal during his San Francisco mayoral term. 

Since leaving office in 2013, Villaraigosa has been focused on private business and consulting, leaving him open to some criticism, especially for his role as an advisor to Herbalife. The supplement and weight-loss company has been under federal scrutiny for an alleged multi-level marketing pyramid scheme. The former mayor has also helped Hillary Clinton raise money and was a co-chair for her 2008 run for President. 

All things aside, the widening number of contenders in the gubernatorial race could be positive for the state of California. And Villaraigosa just might be ready to step up to the competition. 

California’s free-for-all style gubernatorial primary, in which Democrats can vote for Republicans and vice-versa, means candidates must reach out beyond their traditional constituencies. 

It’s important to note that Villaragosa is the only Southern Californian in the mix -- and the only Latino. Should he become governor, he would become the first Latino governor in nearly 150 years. Similarly, Chiang, the son of Taiwanese immigrants, could become the state’s first Asian governor.

 

(Beth Cone Kramer is a successful Los Angeles writer and a columnist for CityWatch.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

LA COUNTY POLITICS-Opponents of Mitchell Englander (photo above) in the upcoming Fifth District County Supervisor race might want to consider what happened to the last field of candidates who ran against him in 2011. To date, twenty-five percent of those challengers have been prosecuted -- and collectively fined $55,000 -- in Ethics Commission actions presided over by an Englander campaign donor -- namely, Nathan J. Hochman, current member and one time President of the Commission. 

Hochman pitched in $500 to Mr. Englander’s campaign committee in October 2015, during the brief 15-month interval between signing the action against one-time Englander challenger Navral Singh on December 16, 2014 and serving as the hearing officer in the trial against the equally unfortunate Englander challenger Kelley M. Lord -- whose case had the double misfortune of also having Englander-appointee Serena Oberstein on the Commission 

The headline charges against Mr. Singh, according to the Ethics Commission press release, were failing to submit copies of campaign communications and failing to include proper disclaimer language on campaign communications. Mr. Lord’s chief “crime” was accepting a campaign contribution in excess of the $500 per-person limit -- a preposterous charge given that the work was done without Mr. Lord’s permission, by a guy who basically stole money from the Neighborhood Council on which Mr. Lord served, and continues to serve, as an elected member.  

Both enforcement actions ought to be reversed and Mr. Hochman should offer a written explanation of his actions. The conflict of interest policy for members of the Ethics Commission should be explained to include clear directives regarding the need for recusal from enforcement actions. 

 

(Eric Preven is a CityWatch contributor and a Studio City based writer-producer and public advocate for better transparency in local government. He was a candidate in the 2015 election for Los Angeles City Council, 2nd District. Joshua Preven is a teacher who lives in Los Angeles. Views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of CityWatch.) Photo: LA Daily News. Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

FIRST PERSON--I have been working at the Wilshire Grand Center construction project for a year and a half as a filmmaker trying to capture the daily effort and skill that goes into building our city’s tallest structure. I have approached this three-year project with respect – like one who surfs big waves or climbs our highest mountains – aware of the dangers and humbled by the power and vastness of the environment. I’ve seen many construction workers make the sign of the cross as they arrive in the morning – a gesture of faith and an appeal for safety and guidance. At safety meetings every morning, they are reminded that the main goal is to go home to their families and friends at the end of the day. 

Yesterday, one of those workers – an electrician – fell to his death from the 53rd floor. The state’s occupational safety agency, Cal/OSHA, has yet to determine the incident’s cause. Having walked on that floor – and every other floor up to the top of the 73-story building – I know that every effort is made to keep workers safe. A strict rule stipulates that anyone who is working near the “leading edge” of the building must be tied off with a safety harness that will prevent any fall. I’ve been reminded many times by the ubiquitous safety inspectors to stay away from the edge of the building, orders that I gladly follow. 

When I heard about the young electrician’s death, I was at the hall of the union he belonged to. Members and officials there were stunned, thinking about who he was – trying to find out what happened – and expressing concern for his family. 

I thought of the many workers who I have interviewed at the Wilshire Grand – from every craft, from every part of town, from amazingly diverse backgrounds. I have often visited their homes to fill out their stories, to put together a deeper narrative of how and why they came to their craft – how life and personal choices moved them in a particular direction. 

I called a number of Wilshire Grand workers that I have become friends with to ask what happened – to share concern. They are individuals who have consistently talked about the difficulties of their work and the solidarity they feel for their “brothers and sisters” who work beside them every day. They know that in this dangerous workplace, their lives are dependent upon the good judgment, the watchfulness and the actual love of their workmates. 

Sefi Edery, an ironworker, has described himself and his fellow union members as “warriors,” set apart and elite in their own way. How many of us, after all, could get up at 5 a.m. to work hundreds of feet in the air carrying iron bars all day, smoothing cement or pulling wire through ridged conduits? Sefi added that if somebody falls, there is always someone there to help them up. 

What the dozens of Wilshire Grand workers I have talked to ultimately understand is that all of them – all of us – are vulnerable and dependent beings. As such, we need moral vocabularies and behaviors that acknowledge and sustain that insight. 

The Wilshire Grand site is now temporarily closed out of respect for the man who died. Proud of the excellent safety record that had been achieved there thus far, these deeply saddened workers are now reflecting on the atmosphere that awaits them when they return to their jobs. They will complete this project – as they always do. And they will continue to watch out for each other – looking for the obstacle that their partner doesn’t see, picking up a load that their “brother” or “sister” can’t carry – and knowing that those they have helped will in turn watch out for them.

 

(Kelly Candaele is a Los Angeles writer whose essays have appeared in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. He is directing and producing a documentary film on the building of the Wilshire Grand complex. This piece originally appeared at Capital and Main.)  Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

TRANSIT TALK-What do Fig Jam, (event photo above) the so-called Neighborhood Integrity Initiative and Janette Sadik Khan’s new book Streetfight have to do with one another? More than you might imagine. 

Los Angeles is of course a city of competing ideals. And perhaps we’re better for it. How dull life here would be if there was no tension, no civil civic dialogue about urban life in this massive caldron of cultures and lifestyles. 

For all its laid back southern California vibe, Los Angeles is also the home of sharply competing visions of the Promised Land. 

Those differing ideals were very much on display Friday at a panel discussion on the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative at the Westside Urban Forum (WUF).  

Sure, it’s hard to listen without going apoplectic as someone who supports the no-growth Neighborhood Integrity Initiative makes a case for this misguided ballot measure by citing an unsupportable anecdote that his friends are the only residents of the high-end condo at Western and Wilshire who ride the Purple Line subway. Yes, that’s what the panelist, an adjunct instructor at the USC Price School of Public Policy no less, actually said to the dumbfounded crowd. 

Fortunately, there were more intellectually honest experts on the panel including Mark Vallianatos of the Urban and Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College, Alan Bell, a former Deputy Director of the LA Planning Department and moderator Con Howe of Cityview Los Angeles Fund. For years the Westside Urban Forum has provided a much needed service by bringing important land use topics like the NII to the fore. 

What does Janette Sadik-Khan’s book (written with co-author Seth Solomonow) have to do with all of this? Based on Sadik-Khan’s critical work focusing on making cities more pedestrian and bike friendly, the book is very much a playbook for the future of growing cities like Los Angeles. Take the chapter entitled, Density is Destiny, in which the authors explain how “cities’ geographic compactness, population density, and orientation toward walking and public transportation make them the most efficient places to live in the world.” As LA and other cities grow and become more urban, the work of Sadik-Khan and like-minded urbanists are helping ensure that our growth is sensible – featuring amenities like public plazas, protected bike lanes, bus rapid transit and streets that are safer for pedestrians and drivers alike. 

And Fig Jam, the street happening on North Figueroa in Highland Park? The free one day event featured a temporary bike lane and a parklet designed to improve the street by drawing attention to the area’s rich past, demonstrating what will be when the bike lane and parklet are made permanent. 

Delicious. But also an illustration of Sadik-Khan’s and a growing chorus of smart local urban planners’ and advocates’ vision in action. Fig Jam was the work of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT), L.A. Great Streets LA, the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition (LACBC)Los Angeles Walks and other local partners.

Street by street, we are building a city whose thoroughfares are safer, greener and more pleasant for the growing numbers who choose to live here. Think Vision Zero, LA’s road safety policy that promotes smart behaviors and roadway design that anticipates mistakes so that collisions do not result in severe injury or death. Other U.S. cities that have adopted this eminently sensible goal include New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Chicago, San Jose and San Diego. 

It’s a movement. And it’s why LA has embraced smart density with public plazas, pedestrian and bike amenities along transit and put the single driver car, the freeway and sprawl in the rear view mirror. Or, as Hilary Norton of Fixing Angelenos Stuck in Traffic (FAST) put it in her question to the panel at WUF, the timing of the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative seems particularly poor -- coming at a time when we are enhancing our ability to build sensible transit-oriented communities with the construction of new rail lines that can efficiently move lots of people. 

Respect. Sensible urban growth built with public plazas, pedestrian and bike amenities along transit corridors is something we should all unite behind. 

What else? Please go to the polls and vote against the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative next March. And let’s make safe streets and transit-oriented density our destiny.

 

(Joel Epstein is a senior advisor to companies, law firms, foundations and public initiatives on communications strategy, corporate social responsibility (CSR), recruiting and outreach. He is a contributor to CityWatch and can be contacted at [email protected].)  Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

‘CITY OF GOLD’: THE WAY I SAW IT--Jonathan Gold makes the short list of raconteurs of the City of Angels. So many novelists, reporters, and screenwriters have painted a portrait of our city, from Raymond Chandler to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Joan Didion to Dominick Dunne and Bret Easton Ellis. But, none perhaps has been painting a landscape of our city’s magnificent diversity better than Jonathan Gold. 

A new documentary, City of Gold, brings us along as the famed food critic (and oh, so much more) explores neighborhoods from Koreatown to Alhambra. Gold has an encyclopedic knowledge of strip mall ethnic spots we might refer to as a “hole in the wall.” At one point the film, culinary master tasker Evan Kleiman describes her first Gold-approved experience, “You drive into a mini-mall, OK, really?” 

City of Gold features cameos from a number of foodie luminaries, including Nancy Silverton and Roy Choi, as well as immigrants whom Gold refers to as entry level entrepreneurs who are grateful for the role Gold has played in their success, extending their reach beyond the neighborhood to the rest of us. 

For Gold, food is culture and culture is food, the thread that holds all of our precious neighborhoods together in such a breathtaking way. Though a Gold appearance elicits stage fright from Ludo Lefevbre, the master chef who helms Trois Mec, yes, the same strip mall mecca where a ticket might be as hard to come by as front row seats to U2, his typical domain is the countless ethnic eateries and food trucks throughout the city. 

Gold introduced us to street food before Anthony Bourdain and Guy De Fieri were doing it. He says he honed his love of L.A.’s neighborhood food scene during a proofreading job fresh out of college. Bored, he decided to sample as many restaurants as he could along the long stretch of Pico. 

By 1986, he began penning his Counter Intelligence column for LA Weekly, which he moved to the LA Times from 1990-1996 before heading to New York as the restaurant critic for Gourmet. Gold headed back home in 2001 where he continued to write for Gourmet while reviving his Counter Intelligence Column at LA Weekly. He returned to the Times in 2012. Jonathan Gold’s 101 Best Restaurants in the Times Magazine section is the dog-eared bible of just about every LA foodie. 

Reading a Gold article is luscious, his words carefully crafted to tell the story of each restaurant and those who share their love with food. It’s no surprise, really, that he is the first food critic to have won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 and was a finalist again in 2011. 

He is meticulous in his reviews, sometimes returning to a restaurant a dozen or more times to make sure he gets it right. Roy Choi credits Gold’s writing for “helping me figure out what we wanted to do.” His well-honed palate can tear apart a dish to its elements. Jitlada’s Jazz Singsanong says, “No one in the whole wide world knows what I put in my (Thai) coffee, not even my family, but he knows.” 

The magic Gold spins does much more than introduce us to restaurants that might be out of our comfort zone, although that alone would make him a master. He’s like a culinary Midas, helping turn intimate ethnocentric eateries into financial successes. Bricia Lopez of Guelguetza shares, “One day my dad walked in and says, ‘Where did all these white people come from?’” She and her siblings now run the restaurant, which hit the LA foodie map after Gold introduced the restaurant and raised the profile of Oaxaca cuisine. The pride Lopez expresses that Oaxaca cuisine is now appreciated by others outside the region is palpable. 

The film also tells the story of Genet Agonafer of Little Ethiopia’s Meals by Genet who embodies the American Dream. She raised her son by putting in long hours as a waitress. When her son finished medical school, he opened the restaurant for her. Post 9/11, she claims Gold’s review saved her restaurant from a slump that would have shuttered her business. 

As Angelenos, we are so fortunate to have Gold as our urban treasure. He captures the soul of our sprawling metropolis, from Koreatown through the Westside, from Little Ethiopia and Tehrangeles to Alhambra and just about every strip mall and taco truck in between. 

City of Gold is currently playing at the ArcLight Hollywood and Laemmle Town Center 5, Encino. 

 

(Beth Cone Kramer is a successful Los Angeles writer and a columnist for CityWatch.)

-cw

HEALTH POLITICS--It is the stuff of comic book battles: A billionaire’s massive bets against sunny LA’s nutritional supplement powerhouse Herbalife and on frigid Canada’s booming Valeant Pharmaceuticals. 

It has been a rough few years for the LA Live-based Herbalife. There were investigations by the Federal Trade Commission, Securities and Exchange Commission and Department of Justice. 

Listening devices, according to Fox Business Network, were found in its headquarters. It was sued by distributors. And activist hedge fund billionaire Bill Ackman bankrolled a documentary attempting to prove Herbalife was a Ponzi scheme. He wagered a billion dollars as well as his reputation to “short” it, (i.e. bet against its stock price, which dipped below $30 per share in January 2015) predicting that it would soon become worthless. 

Funny, odd really, how things can change in a year. 

Other fund investors, including Carl Icahn and George Soros, bet the other way for a while or longer. While investigations uncovered some accounting irregularities, Herbalife was cleared of Ackman’s primary accusation. The distributor lawsuit was dismissed by U.S. District Judge Dale Fischer. As of last Friday, its stock hit a 52-week high of $62, with each upward tick costing Ackman and his clients millions of dollars.

That alone would constitute a great victory for Herbalife, slaying its bullying nemesis. But the story gets much better (or worse) from there, depending on your perspective. 

Ackman’s concentrated approach to investing, to oversimplify things, is contrary to diversification. The Harvard MBA makes enormous high-risk/reward investments in just a few companies and industries. In recent years, his New York-based Pershing Square Capital, delivered bountiful returns for his clients that were so gaudy, other hedgies mirrored many of his investments.

As they say in infomercials, “but wait, there’s more!” 

Ackman accumulated a gigantic stake in Wall Street darling Valeant Pharmaceuticals which, instead of focusing on research and development, grew by acquiring competitors (although it failed in its bid to buy Allergan), jacking up prices, slashing expenses, and saving on taxes by relocating to Canada.

As recently as last August, Valeant sold for nearly $264 per share, with Ackman holding 17 million shares, soon to own much more, but due more to avarice than competence.

In September, Valeant’s price dropped to $170 due in part to Congressional inquiries about price gouging in the Big Pharma world. It was also due to its relationship with a dubious drug distributor named Philidor Rx Services, which, according to influential short-seller Citron Research, helped Valeant inflate its earnings claims with a shell-game-like network of companies.

Valeant plunged to below the $100 range by the end October when Citron doubled-down and referred to Valeant as a “pharmaceutical Enron” and Tweeted  “$VRX has a better chance of going to 0 than $HLF EVER will. Citron to update full story on Monday. Dirtier than anyone has reported!!” But Ackman laughed, proclaiming Valeant was significantly underpriced, investing even further with derivatives and equity that brought his total to 19 million shares, becoming its second largest shareholder. 

Ackman stated on an early November conference call that Valeant was “largely a victim of fear and panic,” explaining that he didn’t sell at its August high because while the price may reflect the value of drugs that it owned, it didn’t reflect the value of those it would continue to acquire. “The biggest regret I have is that we’re not in a position to buy more.” 

Famous last words. 

By December, Valeant jumped on the news that Walgreens would replace Philidor as its distributor, a short-term financial hit that would soon lead (one would presume) to greater transparency.  

Less than a month later, Valeant’s CEO Michael Pearson went on medical leave with what was described as severe pneumonia. Ackman trimmed some of his Valeant holdings for year-end tax purposes, but remained its second-largest owner. 

In January, the largest shareholder, Sequoia Holdings, Ltd, was sued by its shareholders over its oversized investment in Valeant, and for deviating from sound investment principles. Viking Global Equities, another hedge giant, was also dragged down because it kept buying Valeant, as Ackman did, as its price continually sunk. 

As they would all soon experience, mimicking one another’s investments could cause an avalanche and further erode value if panic sets in. 

Just a month ago, Valeant’s interim CEO Howard Schiller acknowledged a $58 million accounting error that would be corrected and result in a more favorable forecast, saying, “We have made mistakes in the past…Our focus today is on executing our business plan and rebuilding trust.” 

But ultimately, the corporate world is one of show and tell. Last week, when Valeant management, including the recently returned Pearson (who insisted there “are no further shoes left to drop”) talked of a delayed earnings report and that its preliminary findings and forecast were (far) worse than previously anticipated, panic indeed set in. 

When the stock market closed last Monday, Valeant was at $69.04 per share but immediately fell off the cliff on Tuesday, closing at $33.51, a loss of more than 50% of its remaining value in a single day. Ackman and his clients, who are now its largest hedge owner with 30.71 million shares, lost more than $1 billion on Tuesday alone, now approaching a total $3 billion loss. 

Valeant, $30 billion in acquisition debt and at risk of default, ended the week at $26.98. Ackman dumped other holdings because Pershing’s liquidity was now in question. Standard & Poor’s warned of a downgrade because Pershing Square lost money on 11 of 12 investments since Oct. 27, and its own stock price dropped to $12.55 from a 52-week high of $30.44. 

Yesterday, Herbalife continued upward having doubled in value since its January 2015 low. Valeant swung wildly on the news that Pearson was out, Schiller refused to leave and Ackman joined its Board, priced at just 10% of what it was worth last August. $80 billion of shareholder value, a huge chunk of which previously belonged to Ackman and his clients, evaporated. 

If a company can experience schadenfreude, Herbalife laughs mightily today.

 

(Daniel Guss, MBA, is a writer who lives in Los Angeles and blogs on humane issues.)  Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

EDUCATION POLITICS-In the recent February 29 decision of the Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) in favor of substitute teachers rights, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) has finally been held accountable for its leadership's longstanding incestuous relationship with the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD.) 

The opinion in this case shows that there has been a brazen violation of the contractual rights of substitute teachers under the LAUSD-UTLA Collective Bargaining Agreement. This open collusion between LAUSD and UTLA was accomplished by non-public "side letters" entered into by UTLA presidents and others at UTLA with their counterparts at LAUSD – agreements that were in complete contradiction of rights guaranteed by the LAUSD-UTLA Collective Bargaining Agreement. 

Reading this decision shows how the UTLA leadership sold out substitutes, preventing them from working the 100 days that would qualify them for health benefits. One wonders if these same practices have been used in LAUSD's concerted attack and removal of thousands of teachers over the last seven years – teachers whose only "crime" was being at the top of the salary scale with expensive benefits that were putting LAUSD in the red. 

This decision describes in excruciating detail how UTLA leadership has historically used these “side letters” to negotiate with LAUSD leadership, changing the vested in-force collective bargaining contractual rights of teachers. All this was done without the ratification by appropriate entities such as Boards of Directors, Committees, House of Representatives, or the rank-and-file. 

The 113-page PERB decision shows that the UTLA administration had much more loyalty to the LAUSD administration (and their own careers) than they ever had to the teachers they were supposed to represent. Administrators of both LAUSD and UTLA are cut from the same cloth…escapees from what has become the untenable LAUSD classrooms filled with predictable disruption caused by socially promoted students. No wonder they are so hostile toward those who still attempt to be teachers. 

When Past President A.J. Duffy described the "relationship of trust he had developed with LAUSD's human resources staff, above all, [Chief Human Resources Officer Vivian] Ekchian," I couldn't help but remember that Ekchian's name is on all dismissal letters received by thousands of teachers over the last few years as a result of a process presuming them guilty of fabricated charges. Both Duffy and Ekchian seem to have been unfettered by the well-being of teachers involved. Both must know that these teachers have done nothing to justify being targeted and removed from their jobs. 

According to the evidence in this case, LAUSD used displaced teachers with and without tenure as substitutes in lieu of regular substitutes. This enabled them to kill two birds with one stone: save on healthcare costs for substitutes and stop regular teachers from reaching tenure -- or, if they already had tenure and had been displaced, to keep them from obtaining a fixed position within three years. 

"Compensation for such substitute assignments shall be at the base rate or extended rate (as eligible) as set forth in Article XIX of the collective bargaining agreement." So LAUSD not only was able to stop substitutes from attaining health benefits for a 100 days of service, it was also able to pay displaced teachers far less than what it would have had to pay them in a regular teaching position. According to the case, "the District also began tracking substitutes' hours with respect to their health benefits eligibility." 

Add to this a warning to school principals not to hire these displaced substitute teachers even if a regular position opened at their school. This provides a fairly clear picture of what has been going on.

The bottom line here is: "UTLA violated its own policies and its duty of fair representation under the Educational Employment Relations Act (EERA) by secretly negotiating with the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD or District) for a side letter agreement (July Side Letter) to alter the collectively-bargained seniority rights used for assigning substitute teaching work. UTLA breached its duty of fair representation in violation of EERA sections 3543.1, subdivision (a), 3543.6, subdivision (b ), and 3544.9 by negotiating a side letter to UTLA's collective bargaining agreement with LAUSD in secret without consultation or input from Charging Parties, and in violation of UTLA' s internal rules and that the July Side Letter had a substantial negative impact on Charging Parties' employment relationship."

 

(Leonard Isenberg is a Los Angeles observer and a contributor to CityWatch. He was a second generation teacher at LAUSD and blogs at perdaily.com. Leonard can be reached at [email protected]) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

HITS FROM HETZ--An e-mail notice from Los Angeles Councilman Mike Bonin arrived a little over one day before Sepulveda Boulevard in Westchester would have lanes closed for construction. I use Sepulveda Boulevard to ride the Culver City Bus No. 6. The day before the construction, the bus stop I use had no notice that it would be closed due to construction, so I thought I would use this stop like usual. I just knew I should try to catch an earlier bus at that stop to compensate for the upcoming road project. 

The next day, as I walked earlier than usual towards Sepulveda Boulevard I could see the traffic was not moving. When I got to Sepulveda I looked down the block and saw the two traffic lanes in front of my bus stop were closed. This meant my bus stop was closed. I had the choice of walking north to the next stop, almost a mile, or to the bus stop about one-quarter mile south. I quickly walked south in the bike lane on Sepulveda to the next bus stop. I would not use the sidewalk which is a jumble of broken, jagged and titled concrete slabs.  

This was a fortuitous choice. The next two bus stops to the north were also closed due to the construction. My bus came, I boarded, it merged into the single open lane, down from the usual three lanes, to begin an agonizingly slow craw north on Sepulveda Blvd.  

In my seat, slowly crawling in the gridlock, I became more furious by the minute. I could see the numerous heavy equipment trucks starting the construction of ripping up and then repaving this section of Sepulveda Blvd. There was also a large number pickup trucks. A number of workers were on the boulevard already working. Obviously this was a major construction job, and one which had to have some preplanning and foresight on how to quickly repave over a weekend the six lane highway of Sepulveda Boulevard.  

As I sat in the bus watching this large scale construction project, once again, as a bus rider I felt that disregard and disrespect from the City of Los Angeles and the Bureau of Street Maintenance when for road repairs bus stops are closed without warning. The day before I was at the same bus stop I should have used, and there was no notice, no warning, nothing.  

As a bus rider, a closed bus stop is a serious issue. I then have to walk to the nearest bus stop. If I’m using a certain bus at a certain time which I’ve been used for years to get to work, and then I find without notice that my stop is closed, and I have to walk to the next stop, I will be late for work or appointment or event.  

For non-bus riders, a closed bus stop is not like a closed road. When driving, it is much easier to just drive around to find the detour or new route. When walking to a bus stop, this becomes a major issue, close to a crisis. This is not the first time bus stops have been closed without notice by street work in the City of Los Angeles. And I have raised this issue before with city officials. And nothing gets done to give us advance notice. 

Who is responsible for this? Why does this keep repeating? Why does the Bureau of Street Services, in charge of street repair, constantly ignore the closing bus stops due to their projects? Bus stops are important parts of any street, and vitally necessary daily to hundreds of thousands of bus riders. 

Why did the Bureau not notify Culver City Bus that its construction project would close their bus stops? But their ineptness does not stop there. This should not be to the surprise of anyone working for the City of Los Angeles involved with streets and transportation: Sepulveda Boulevard is a major entry and exit for LAX. Here again, it appears the Bureau of Street Maintenance couldn’t figure out that closing Sepulveda Boulevard would severely and negatively impact LAX traffic. Did they not send memos to other city departments which may be impacted?  

And sure enough, as the bus slowly inched towards Howard Hughes Parkway, which is a freeway on and off ramp for the 405, it was gridlock. The parkway is the major connector between the 405 and Sepulveda Boulevard for LAX traffic. I could not see the end of the lines of vehicles going down the hill on the parkway, waiting to turn on to Sepulveda to get to LAX.  

I could, however, imagine how many of those vehicles were filled with anxious people hoping that this Bureau of Street Services induced gridlock would not make them late for their flights at LAX. Does the Bureau of Street Services find it difficult to anticipate that closing six lanes of traffic into two on a major boulevard feeding LAX would cause problems? Does the Bureau not know that their construction jobs close bus stops? Do they care? From my experiences I would say they do not. And this is wrong.    

Did the Bureau not send any notice to anyone else in Los Angeles in a timely manner that they were about to undertake a hugely disruptive road repair project? If they did send memos, it would strongly appear they were not timely as Councilman Bonin sent his notice within a day before the construction. Councilman Bonin, to my perspective, is proactive and works for his district, and would have posted notices earlier if he had received them in a timely manner. 

Did the Bureau not notify the City Transportation Department? Gauging from the agonized comments of other bus riders along with the agony in the faces of the drivers in the gridlock which I saw, I would say either no, or it was sent far too late. There was not one Traffic Cop at one intersection to move traffic along this very important boulevard.  

Is this callousness towards bus riders on the closing of bus stops without notice, and the lack of basic foresight that they were severely impacting a major traffic artery for LAX just the doings of the Bureau of Street Services, or are these symptomatic of a hugely dysfunctional city government? Is Los Angeles a city government which does not communicate between departments and bureaus? Is Los Angeles a city government which could not figure out that one bureau closing lanes on Sepulveda Boulevard in Westchester would greatly and negatively affect one of the financial driving engines of the city: LAX?  

As I returned home on another Culver City Bus, Sepulveda was still in gridlock, the construction was still taking place, the bus stops were still closed, and there was not one traffic cop. My questions were answered. The City of Los Angeles is dysfunctional, callous towards bus riders, and there is a very serious lack of communication within the city and its department and bureau. This is not good, at all, but very, very bad. 

 

(Matthew Hetz is a Los Angeles native. He is a transit rider and advocate, a composer, music instructor, and member and president and executive director of the Culver City Symphony Orchestra)

-cw

 

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