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EDUCATION POLIITICS-LAUSD is a business that for generations has been more concerned with the well-being of its exclusive "agreed vendors" of goods and services than it has been for the successful formation of its students. The uncontested reason for the very existence of this behemoth as the second largest school district in the United States is what is called the “economics of scale.” This is where, in theory, a larger entity like LAUSD, with its enormous buying power, should be able to get the best price for goods and services at the lowest wholesale market price. 

However, the opposite reality has been the case for generations. For years, you could go into any retail store and buy almost anything for less than LAUSD pays for it. You could even get the newer more up to date model or version with better warranties. 

So why is it that LAUSD remains such a dysfunctional entity, rife with incessant scandals such as the building of Belmont High School on an irremediable toxic waste dump or the way-over-budget Ambassador Hotel high school being built with talking benches or the still unaddressed $1.3 billion iPad debacle? Why is this happening generation after generation to the detriment of the vast majority of its primarily poor and minority students? 

The reason? Power corrupts. And unnecessarily centralized power corrupts absolutely. While the idea of “economics of scale” might be reluctantly tolerated, what is never addressed is that the consolidation of power brings the danger of endemic corruption -- especially when highly centralized administrative business decisions are made by inexperienced ex-teacher administrators who are ill-equipped to stand up to the sophisticated vendors who’ve been bilking the district for years. 

Into this fray comes new LAUSD Superintendent Michelle King, who has moved up the ranks in this purposefully flawed de facto segregated, academically underachieving culture over the past thirty years. She has done this by not by making waves and by going along to get along. When you examine who the LAUSD chooses for its superintendent (or any administrative position), it seems that the most important qualification is the assurance that person will do nothing to change its vendor-friendly, student-toxic culture. 

Whether it is Michelle King or her most recent predecessors Ramon Cortines and John Deasy, the hallmark of this type of “reform” leadership is that it only addresses the effects of a long-failed LAUSD public education but never the underlying causes. King’s first suggestion upon entering the superintendent's job was to have exclusively all boy and all girl campuses. This notion is supported by competent academic authorities, yet it doesn’t address the damage of socially promoting students who arrive in kindergarten already way behind. 

Instead of championing an early intervention program addressing each student's academic level, irrespective of age, it seems that under Michelle King, LAUSD will continue to socially promote ill-prepared students…who are then assured to fail whether they are in a mixed gender or single gender school. 

The same is true for her second goal: "making sure every student graduates." Again this cannot be done without addressing the deficits underlying each student’s prior grade level achievements in a timely, age-sensitive manner. Up until now, this is something that has remained conspicuously absent in the plans of prior LAUSD superintendents. Why do they never question of failure of social promotion and the assured subsequent academic failure? 

It’s human nature to not change unless there are known negative consequences. But one cannot blame LAUSD administrators alone, especially since no local, state, or federal oversight has done anything to hold LAUSD accountable for its failure. Socially promoted students lacking the skills they should have with a high school diploma arrive at junior college unprepared. Unfortunately, 75% continue to fail, some taking remedial classes, and a disproportionate number of them dropping out; and there is no governmental agency legally charged with intervening, asking questions like, "What's going on here and who's fixing the grades and the CAHSEE exams that these students have supposedly passed?" 

It is not lost on me that new LAUSD Superintendent Michelle King is an African American and a woman. One can only hope that she will comport herself in a manner befitting the needs of what remains a nearly 90% de facto segregated school system. And this is 62 years after Brown v. Board of Education said, "Separate but equal...is inherently unequal." Yes, and I still believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.

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

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CityWatch

Vol 14 Issue 6

Pub: Jan 19, 2016

PERSPECTIVE--Benedict Arnold betrayed our nation, but at least he accomplished significant good before he strayed down the dark path of treachery. He saved the Continental Army from certain defeat during the retreat from the failed invasion of Canada, skillfully parrying British efforts to destroy it. His leadership at Saratoga led to the most important strategic victory for the colonists and was a major factor in drawing France into the conflict. French assistance was vital in George Washington’s overwhelming victory over the British at Yorktown. 

Ratepayer Advocate Fred Pickel (photo) sold the ratepayers and stakeholders of the DWP up the Yazoo without so much as contributing to the public’s awareness of just why rates must be increased. 

His statement declaring DWP’s proposed series of rate increases as “fair and reasonable” has provided the DWP and its GM, Marcie Edwards, with a public relations windfall. 

The following press release was issued by the DWP on January 15: 

We are pleased that the Ratepayer Advocate has found that the power rate request to be “just and reasonable,” as it will invest in replacing aging infrastructure, which is critical to providing reliable electric service to our customers. If the Board of Water and Power Commissioners and the City Council approve the rate request, it  will allow us to continue the transformation of our power system to a clean energy future that protects the environment, while complying with regulatory mandates.

We have included key performance metrics and regular public reporting of our progress in the proposed power rate ordinance as recommended by the Ratepayer Advocate, and we are pleased that his report recognized that this will increase transparency and accountability by linking rates to the progress and performance of key programs. We are also grateful that the Ratepayer Advocate recognized that the Department has been instrumental in supporting the design and inclusion of the reporting mechanisms in the rate ordinances, referring to LADWP’s support and actions as, “unprecedented and a reflection of a more mature and sustainable management practices.”

Dr. Pickel’s independent review of the rate request is valuable, and we are reviewing his additional recommendations. We look forward to consideration of the power rate action by the Board of Water & Power Commissioners next Tuesday (January 19) and consideration of both water and power rates proposals by the City Council and Mayor thereafter.

Fred Pickel has never bothered to reach out to the media and the public about the need for reform at the utility. The hundreds of millions of dollars siphoned to the city’s poorly managed general fund at the expense of ignoring much needed capital improvements and maintenance to our water and power system should have been at the top of his agenda.

He should have been battling the City Council over the continuation of this backdoor tax and publicly disclosed how much it has diverted from the primary task of maintaining infrastructure.

He should have raised a giant red flag about the conflict of interest evident in DWP labor negotiations.  As long as the IBEW and its members can contribute to city election campaigns, the ratepayers will never have fair representation.

He should have emphasized the steady increases DWP employees received during the recession when the residents were taking pay cuts. 

He can analyze the numbers all he wants – and that is a job that must be performed – but the results lack meaning when taken out of context of the bigger issue of reform. In his report issued January 15th, the same date as the DWP press release, he attempted to couch his characterization of the increases as “fair and reasonable” in officialdom-speak:

Reasonableness is an opinion held by rate-setting public officials performing a specialized duty to the public interest. The essence of this opinion is whether the rates charged are equitable to the many competing interests facing a monopoly utility.”

Nice to know how public officials interpret the meaning, but how about the public’s perspective?

Edwards wasted no time in using Pickel words to promote the city’s objectives. She should have paid him. Endorsements like that are worth money.

Pickel can redeem himself if he counters the DWP’s press release with a very public and unambiguous statement criticizing Marcie Edwards and her masters for leveraging his ill-conceived, and apparently nuanced, “fair and reasonable” characterization of the rate increases.

If not, it is time for the Neighborhood Councils to issue a statement of “no confidence” in Doctor Pickel’s ability to represent the public.

(Paul Hatfield is a CPA and serves as President of the Valley Village Homeowners Association. He blogs at Village to Village and contributes to CityWatch. The views presented are those of Mr. Hatfield and his alone and do not represent the opinions of Village to Village or CityWatch. He can be reached at: [email protected].)

-cw

 

DEEGAN ON LA --“Harry Potter Swoops into Controversy with an Epic David Versus Two Goliath's Struggle on Eve of Theme Park’s Grand Opening” is not the Variety headline you’d expect as one of the world’s most famous and successful movie and book franchises makes its debut at Universal Studios Hollywood. It’s a brand new iteration: "Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey”, a novel new ride -- in 3-D no less! 

The grand opening at the theme park has been announced for April 7. But will the Wizard be met by picketers protesting the closure of the southbound Hollywood 101 freeway’s Barham off ramp that was eliminated in order to build a grand driveway into the park, linked to the freeway? 

There is a fourth “D” in this scenario: it’s the “David” (aka Keep the Barham Ramp association) that is suing the two Goliath’s, Comcast-NBC Universal and Caltrans (State Department of Transportation.) The suit is over what Hollywood Hills resident John Strozdas, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, says was a violation by Caltrans of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) by not providing substantial proof it had studied alternatives to the closure, and also not sufficiently backing up its findings regarding the closure's effects. 

"It is the experience of many persons who ... use the Barham (southbound) off ramp that police and fire services regularly use the ... off ramp to provide public services to that area and that without it, they will have to exit approximately one mile north ... increasing response time," states the lawsuit. 

Caltrans has addressed this allegation in fifteen succinct words, stating that this closure ”will have a less than significant impact on public services, including fire and police services.” 

Fifteen words buried in a 39,000 page Environmental Impact Report. Blink and you’ve missed it. 

This denial can be found on page 8, section K of an addendum to the EIR, the environmental impact report mandated by CEQUA. But no substantiating documentation supports this claim -- no independent traffic studies from LADOT and no on-the-record findings from LAFD and LAPD. Nor were there any attached documents showing Q+A from the community, many of whom say they were caught off-guard by the ramp’s closure since it had been labeled “Bennett Drive” and not what it actually is, Barham Boulevard. This looks like a wizardry that Harry himself might approve of, if, in fact, trickery was the objective. 

There were no justifying declarations from Caltrans or Comcast NBC-Universal that could reassure the community that they would have a happy Hollywood ending if they ever needed first responders in an emergency.  

The lawsuit alleges that Caltrans did not prove that public safety would not be impacted. Many residents believe there is reason to be fearful; they are concerned that fire and police responders will be the victims of this freeway ramp closure. And they may have a point. 

Has Comcast-NBC Universal, a monolithic entertainment giant capable of being a good neighbor and corporate citizen, cast a dark shadow over the people and places in its orbit? Did they know what they were doing to the surrounding community by closing off an important route for emergency responders?  

It seems that the southbound Barham off ramp just got in the way of the Harry Potter theme park visitor traffic plans. So it was “offed” and public safety has taken a hit. 

The new Grand Entry to the park is designed to speed visitors directly from the 101 Hollywood Freeway to Universal Studios Hollywood's first outdoor roller coaster, the "Flight of the Hippogriff,” a new restaurant called Three Broomsticks, a pub called Hog's Head, twenty-nine stores and restaurants at the City Walk promenade, and finally, the nineteen movie theaters -- all at the top of the hill. There’s a reason the sprawling complex is called Universal City. 

Freeway traffic will now flow smoothly in and out of this goldmine, possibly keeping local streets less congested with theme park traffic. That claim has yet to be proven, but will be settled once Harry Potter opens for several weeks of visitors during the spring and summer. 

While many Comcast corporate stockholders may be happy with the increased profits Harry Potter will generate, some community stakeholders are not so pleased. This community falls into three camps: the insiders, the outsiders, and the non-aware.  

Residents in the Cahuenga Pass, Lake Hollywood and the Hollywood Hills are fearful that this freeway ramp elimination will add precious minutes to emergency responders that had previously been “freeway close” via the Barham off ramp.  

As any cop or firefighter will tell you, when it comes to an emergency, it can come down to a matter of minutes. The faster the response, the better the result. An extra few minutes delay in reaching a heart attack or stroke victim can mean the difference between stabilization and eventual recovery, or a state of permanent vegetation, or worse. 

As a result of the Hollywood Freeway Barham off ramp closure and the new traffic management plan for emergency responders, those minutes will mount up quickly. 

NBC Universal has told CityWatchLA that “the Caltrans study concluded that the new 101 southbound on-ramp will help improve traffic along Cahuenga Boulevard, which means better access to local roadways for all drivers, including emergency vehicles. Caltrans also determined that the freeway improvements, including the off-ramp closure, will not impact public services.” All this remains to be seen, once Harry Potter opens and increased numbers of visitors swarm the Cahuenga Pass. 

Comcast-NBC Universal, the world’s largest media company (according to Forbes Magazine) with corporate annual net profits of $8 billion, and Caltrans, the mammoth state transportation agency with an annual budget of $11 billion. 

Comcast-NBC Universal and Caltrans maintain that public safety is not at risk with the closure of the Barham off ramp. But this is their opinion and not fact backed up by documentation and studies. And if tragedy occurs and the two Goliaths are wrong, more lawsuits could follow, especially if someone dies because an emergency responder is unable to get there fast enough. 

The community suspects that Comcast-NBC Universal paid Caltrans $30 million to facilitate the closure of the southbound Barham off ramp, stating that there remain two other ramps in the same proximity. Comcast-NBC Universal denies the existence of these funds, stating that such money was earmarked for unrelated traffic studies of the 134-170 freeway interchange and for Hollywood and Highland. Carrie Bowen, Director of the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) District 7 (Los Angeles and Ventura counties), would neither confirm nor deny this when her office was contacted by CityWatch. We will discover the truth of these allegations if the pending litigation reaches a judge and jury.  

One payment by Comcast-NBC Universal that has been acknowledged is the $50,000 paid to the Outpost Homeowners Association in negotiating for their support or tamping down their opposition, depending on which side you take. These funds were earmarked for traffic mitigation for neighborhood improvements, stated John Campbell, a board member of the HOA at the time of the transaction. “The fact is, they ‘bought our HOA’, and even though the money went to the city, under the stewardship of former CD4 Councilmember Tom LaBonge, it was just a cute way of the HOA accepting those funds and be able to say we’re clean.” He added, “We couldn’t even get $250 from the HOA for the cause (the lawsuit), because they had already been bought.”  

This chilling effect on an HOA’s prospective support of a lawsuit shows how funds by developers are used to freeze opposition. Several other HOA’s surrounding the Harry Potter project may have had their own “deals” with Comcast-NBC Universal. This makes them “insiders,” and an example of how the shoe can sometimes be on the other foot -- with the HOA “green-mailing” the developer, withholding support until funds are provided. This is often described as “traffic mitigations.”  

The proposed Neighborhood Integrity Initiative ballot measure may supercharge needed reform and cast sunlight on developers, mandating that this “cash for blessings” paradigm be forced out of the shadows, creating transparency instead of suspicions and secrecy.  

Developers and HOA’s alike must be required to publicly disclose what cash and other transactions take place as part of the land use agreement process. 

This puts a spotlight on the “insiders:” the several neighborhood homeowner associations that Comcast-NBC Universal has been cultivating ever since it was mandated by LA County to do community outreach during the 2013 approval process for the Comcast-NBC Universal Evolution Plan, the 25-year blueprint for the property. 

The six favored homeowner organizations (HOA’s) are Cahuenga Pass Neighborhood Association, Cahuenga Pass Property Owners Association, Hollywood Knolls Community Club, Studio City Residents Association, Toluca Estates Drive Homeowners Association, and Toluca Lake Homeowners Association.  

The following rules of public engagement were set by Comcast-NBC Universal’s management for the quarterly meetings with these groups:  You must be specifically invited, one of two authorized representatives of one of the six approved HOAs; you must RSVP and be authenticated before being given the location of the meeting; and you may send your questions in advance for review by Comcast-NBC Universal before the meeting even starts. The meetings are not open to others in the community, or the media. Some have called this strict control mechanism “elitist,” or “preaching to the choir” or “non-inclusive.”  

The next meeting is Tuesday, January 19, the day following the celebration of MLK’s birthday: the man who challenged us all to “let freedom ring” in his historic 1963 “I Have A Dream” speech before tens of thousands at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. But freedom to engage with Comcast-NBC Universal is apparently not universal, unless you are a favored and vetted insider in the group of six. Once a year, they let all members of the approved HOA’s in the front door for what Comcast NBC-Universal callas an “annual meeting”. 

How some parts of a community get included in the conversation may stem from the rigid corporate culture governing Comcast-NBC Universal, whose corporate parent, Comcast Corporation, is legendary for hiring dozens of ex-Members of Congress, and anyone else with influence in Washington DC, to lobby Congressional and state legislatures for the cable company’s agenda. Forbes Magazine ranked Comcast the number one media company worldwide last year. They are big and they are powerful. They have a very good record of setting the meeting agenda and getting what they want. They are a Goliath. As is Caltrans, a Goliath.  

The “David” in the piece is a small, outsider community group -- the Keep the Barham Ramp association -- fighting huge odds through a pair of lawsuits against the two Goliath’s. However, the Biblical story of David versus Goliath reminds us that one well-placed rock, lobbed by sling shot into the eye of a giant leveled the playing field. 

Negative opinions are being directed at public relations sensitive, image-conscious Comcast-NBC Universal. In this climate, it will reveal how it plans to treat a community that they do not really “own.” This could end up being the rock that is thrown at them.

(Tim Deegan is a long-time resident and community leader in the Miracle Mile, who has served as board chair at the MidCity West Community Council, and on the board of the Miracle Mile Civic Coalition. Tim can be reached at [email protected].) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

-cw

  

CityWatch

Vol 14 Issue 6

Pub: Jan 19, 2016

EDUCATION POLITICS-The LA Times has written another diatribe peddling Eli Broad’s privatization plan for Los Angeles public schools (Eli is certainly getting his money’s worth in underwriting the LA Times education coverage). 

“What the LA School Board's resolution opposing the Broad plan might accomplish is to continue making this a politically divisive issue. Potential donors might then decline to join the effort, but would that really be helpful to students?”  

Really? Is it the democratically elected representatives’ vote to support public schools against a hostile private takeover that is the problem here? Is it LAUSD’s fault for discouraging otherwise willing donors to pay for the weaponry that would destroy its schools?

The LA Times goes on: “A better move would be to call on Great Public Schools Now [Broad's group] to provide a place at the table for the district’s new superintendent, Michelle King, to participate in the planning process. If the new nonprofit organization hopes to overcome resistance in the community, it needs to be more open about its planning and it needs to open the process to public discussion…”

Hello!

In its ongoing effort to convince the city that a huge public entity should be handed over to a private group of titans, the LA Times now suggests inviting the public official to the table to give the effort some credibility. This is the superintendent, who was appointed by the democratically elected board, to lead the public entity the titans seek to control.

As Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis has said, “You can’t have a seat at the table when you’re on the menu.”

The LA Times even suggests the plan should include funding for outside auditors.  I guess that’s to head off the mob that will cry foul at circumventing public process.

It seems the LA Times needs a civics lesson.

The things they think would make this process go better are the very things that define democratic process—the things inherent in a public school system: Public hearings. Involvement of experts. Inclusion of all stakeholders. Service to all not some.

If this group of do-gooders has such a bright idea, why don’t they come to a school board meeting, present it, and participate in the discussion that any of us does? Let’s hear a discussion about the educational value, the impact on desegregation goals, the research-based evidence, the cost, etc.

They won’t do that because they’re titans. They think they should run things without the inconvenience of public interference.

The LA Times has backed itself into a corner in advocating for the private takeover of the public school system. Now calling for a *public* process into a private takeover does not fix that.

The LA Times’ conflict of interest in promoting Eli Broad’s plan remains a problem. Just as every LA Times article about education now comes with an asterisk (*), so does this version of a public process.

 

(Karen Wolfe is a public school parent, the Executive Director of PS Connect and an occasional contributor to CityWatch.)

-cw

  

CityWatch

Vol 14 Issue 6

Pub Jan 19, 2016

 

 

THE TRUTH ABOUT ROAD DIETS-Everyone in NELA who’s been awake for the last few years know about the reactionary cabal that has been struggling to keep Highland Park a preserve for “leadfoot drivers.” You know, the sort that has been maiming and killing residents on Figueroa Street for years – the sort that, lately, has been accelerating the pace of the bloodshed. And now the car addicts have started a petition on change.org asking CD14 Councilmember José Huizar to remove the bike lanes from York Boulevard. 

Sign the counter-petition here.  

These people employ what you might call discredited arguments, but really, they are just plain lies. They state that bike lanes have caused a loss of business, but the empty storefronts that existed before bike lanes are now largely occupied, and older businesses such as Huarache Azteca have invested in sprucing up their façades. They claim that bike lanes slow down emergency response -- they don’t. They say bike lanes cause traffic backups. 

What they don’t mention is that collisions of all sorts dropped dramatically thanks to the street’s road diet, which later added bike lanes without reducing mixed traffic lanes further. As for the other intuitive assertions, this UCLA study on the York road diet itself should set your mind at rest. Its conclusions were based on actual data gathered on the actual York Boulevard -- not on “gut feelings.” 

What causes traffic backups is too many cars which are drawn to a street when it has too much lane space. Cars cause congestion; building more lanes makes more room for more cars to cause more congestion. Don’t take my word for it: listen to CalTrans, which now admits that More Roads Mean More Traffic.  

In fact, it should be obvious even to the Neanderthals that we’ve been building more roads and more lanes for eighty years -- and traffic has gotten steadily worse. 

So I offer a compromise: for the next eighty years, let’s build nothing but bike lanes and transit lines, and see what happens. 

Who knows? We might end up like Denmark, which currently holds the Number 1 spot on Forbes Magazine’s list of best places to do business,  as well as being home to the happiest population on this poor beleaguered planet. 

All those bike lanes help….

(Richard Risemberg is a writer. His current professional activities are centered on sustainable development and lifestyle. This column was posted first at Flying PigeonEdited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams. 

-cw

 

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 14 Issue 6

Pub: Jan 19, 2016

HERE’S WHAT I KNOW-It’s been over 86 days since the Southern California Gas Company first reported the Aliso Canyon gas leak in the Porter Ranch community of the valley. The gas well, not expected to be contained until late February or early March at the earliest, has disrupted lives for many families in this suburban neighborhood. Over 2,200 residents have been temporarily displaced, housed in hotels and apartment buildings as far away as Warner Center and Westlake Village.

When students at Porter Ranch Community School and Castlebay Lane Charter School returned to classes after the winter break, they were no longer housed in their home schools. Back in December, the LAUSD board declared an emergency for these schools, both located within two miles of the gas leak. About 1,100 K through 8th grade students at Porter Ranch Community School are now housed on the Northridge Middle School campus; and 770 kindergarten through 5th grade students from Castlebay are housed at Sunny Brae Elementary School in Winnetka. In the months after the gas leak was first reported, absenteeism and visits to the schools’ health offices had increased; families had begun to choose independent study for their children. 

Could anything have been done to prevent the gas leak? Attorneys representing Porter Ranch families report that Southern California Gas Co. knew five years ago about the leaking wells in Aliso Canyon and had received a ratepayer increase to fund upgrades in 2013 -- but never replaced safety valves on its gas injection wells. 

LA County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich is asking fellow board members to join him in possibly curbing residential development in parts of the northern San Fernando Valley until, as Antonovich said in a statement released last week, “a thorough investigation can take place as to what caused the leak and what safeguards will be put in place to avoid a failure of this magnitude again.” 

One of the caveats involves halting development in Deerlake Ranch, a 314-home tract approved sixteen years ago. And Newport Beach-based Foremost Companies is in the process of pulling building permits for the 230-acre development north of the 118 Freeway at Topanga Canyon Boulevard, just 10 miles west of the entrance to the storage facility. Antonovich has asked county agencies to re-designate the area as permanent open space. 

Way back in 1989, before the area was developed, locals opposed overdevelopment, fearing traffic, depletion of water, and a strain on sewage lines and landfills. Environmental reports that outlined plans for the just under 3,400 homes that would be known as Porter Ranch contained no obvious references to the massive natural gas storage facility about a mile away. Despite the concerns of locals, the 1,300 acre development was approved by City Council in 1990 and became one of the largest residential and commercial projects in LA history. 

Twenty-five years later, families are squeezed into hotel rooms, surviving on takeout or restaurant meals. Kids must adapt to new schools and do their homework in tight quarters, unable to play with friends after school, play soccer or take karate in the neighborhood studio. Residents have suffered from various health issues caused by the methane gas exposure. 

Mothers and fathers, residents and business owners, activists and attorneys continue to mobilize to fight for what was lost and for the future. We must look at what has happened in Porter Ranch as a cautionary tale -- a tragedy that should not be repeated. Until the gas company can stop the leak and ensure the area is safe, any further development there should be curtailed.

(Beth Cone Kramer is a Los Angeles-based writer and CityWatch contributor.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

-cw

  

CityWatch

Vol 14 Issue 6

Pub: Jan 19, 2016

TRANSIT TALK-It's said that no good deed goes unpunished, but the Westside will soon have to grapple with the benefits and challenges of a major mass transit line running through Culver City through West LA and ending up in Santa Monica. And make no bones about it -- there are both solid benefits and thorny challenges to be confronted. 

On Friday, January 15, 2016, roughly 15 years after it was approved by Metro in 2001, the Expo Line Construction Authority handed control of the Exposition Light Rail Line to Metro to begin pre-revenue service (testing, troubleshooting, analysis but no actual commuters yet.) 

The Expo Line was and is a very special moment in both county and grassroots politics. Its main support came not from the top down but from the non-profit, volunteer organization Friends4Expo Transit  which was founded, led, and co-chaired by Santa Monica resident Darrell Clarke and several others at a time when the Internet, modern grassroots advocacy, and neighborhood councils were all in their earliest stages of development.  

The Friends4Expo Transit was itself championed by both those in power and ordinary residents who -- as the memory of the LA riots faded and an awareness developed that gridlock was destroying our quality of life -- realized that Los Angeles needed new paradigms in both mobility and development. Initial outreach from Metro came in the form of two special engineers -- David Mieger and Tony Loui -- who provided guidance, updates, and education. 

LA and other Westside, Mid-City and Downtown residents needed their cars because buses alone cost most commuters more time and patience than they could tolerate, and because greater access to a reviving Downtown was imperative to reestablishing an urban core necessary for Los Angeles County to become a major national and worldwide economic power. 

Friends4Expo Transit intentionally had co-chairs and an inner circle made up of both men and women, and of individuals of both black and white ethnicities, and were both Westside and Mid-City residents. Outreach to grassroots and political entities was foremost and was performed with virtually no budget whatsoever. 

The grassroots and political powerhouses of the City and County of Los Angeles really didn't know what to make of Friends4Expo Transit, whose members paid out countless of their own dollars and devoted years to the work of overcoming the political and economic obstacles necessary to make the Expo Line a reality. 

There were more local and political obstacles to overcome than could possibly be described here, and the struggle to create a proper, well-built, and environmentally-friendly Expo Line was a tedious, prolonged fight which still goes on today. Even the formation of the Expo Line Construction Authority did not end the struggle – and arguably that Authority's leadership may have created a few problems. 

Only when the Authority did true outreach to community leaders and Friends4Expo supporters did things begin to happen; but issues such as native plants, station design and allowing the existence of the accompanying Expo Bikeway was and are still ongoing points of contention. 

This is particularly true for the Expo Bikeway that still remains a hotbed of contention in the Cheviot Hills region that had been the focal point of opposition to the Expo Light Rail Line. 

It is certainly not the fault of either Metro or Friends4Expo Transit that the City of LA has problematic and potentially illegal tendencies to overdevelop, thwarting both its own City Charter and CEQA law, the question of whether a "Pandora's Box" has been opened weighs heavy on the minds and hearts of those who fought for the Expo Line. 

People who gave it their all fighting for the Expo Line were and are also being strong-armed by City of LA and Santa Monica leaders and planners whenever issues of common-sense zoning, congestion, and environmental law arise. 

Following the approval and initial construction of the Expo Line between Downtown and Culver City, momentum for mass transit throughout the county helped pass a half-cent sales tax (Measure R).  A decade ago, the empowerment of county residents and political leaders, influenced by the passage of the Expo Line, helped Measure R pass by an overwhelming majority of county voters. 

Yet the modern-day debates over Planning and Mobility in both Santa Monica and Los Angeles threaten whether a "Measure R-2" will achieve the 2/3 voter threshold this November that is needed for voters to approve more local funding to jumpstart transportation and mass transit. 

But it began with Westside and Mid-City grassroots voters and organizations willing to take a big chance on mass transit and who were optimistic yet concerned about what the Expo Line will bring. 

And, depending on how much local governments respond or fail to establish a successful Expo Line, will see whether the same grassroots that got the City/County powers-that-be to create the Expo Line will change course to halt more mass transit because of overdevelopment this November. 

Let's just hope and remember that -- in an era where ordinary citizens feel less empowered than ever -- that the Expo Line is a symbol of what ordinary individuals could do if they put their collective hearts and minds into a singular project: a rail line, the Expo Line, which is hoped and meant to connect us and bring us together.

 

(Ken Alpern is 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 14 Issue 6

Pub: Jan 19, 2016

HERE’S WHAT I KNOW--The Neighborhood Integrity Initiative targeted for the November ballot picked up an endorsement from former mayor and top philanthropist Richard Riordan on Thursday. The initiative would place a citywide two-year moratorium on projects that attempt to circumvent existing land zoning in Los Angeles. 

Riordan has expressed disapproval with Mayor Garcetti’s policies. “If a person moved to the city now and heard Eric Garcetti talk, they’d assume he’s a member of the Tea Party,” the former mayor shared. “He isn’t doing anything for the poor but helping the rich get richer – through these zoning deals on land development.” 

The Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, sponsored by the Coalition to Preserve LA (CPLA) would prevent spot zoning by individual city council members that paves the way for developers to bypass existing zoning laws to build taller, denser buildings across the city on land zoned for less dense development. 

Should the initiative make the November ballot, stakes would be high. In attempt to address rising rents in Los Angeles, Garcetti has promised to add 100,000 housing units by 2021. A second piece of Garcetti’s plan is to place housing within proximity of rail and bus lines to encourage mass transit. 

On the other side, supporters of CPLA and the Neighborhood Integrity Commission argue that mega-development adds to street traffic and has a negative impact on both neighborhood character and livability with developers cutting deals to build larger structures than the city’s infrastructure can handle. 

Riordan cautions against placing too much zoning control in the hands of single council members. “That person is being lobbied by the developers and getting campaign money or campaign promises and this just has to end,” he warns. (Photo right: So-called Palladium Project that prompted the ballot measure.) 

The former mayor also questions the impact of positioning developments near bus, rail, and subway lines, noting that traffic congestion surrounding “elegant developments” near mass transit has worsened rather than improved. “You’re going to have more and more traffic around these over-developments,” he adds. “You cannot put in expensive condos and rental units and hope to attract people who will use public transportation. You will have two cars in each family.” 

The issue of affordable housing is crucial as LA moves forward. Tying development to encourage residents to use mass transit is an ambitious plan but spot zoning is unlikely to be the panacea. As Riordan predicts, the working class and poor will continue to be driven out, a historically prevalent outcome of gentrification. “Los Angeles is not a fast-growing city and it won’t grow all that much in the future but it’s going to switch to wealthier people under current policies,” Riordan observes. “It’s like San Francisco – a lot of wealthier people and a lot fewer minorities.” 

Riordan reflects on his own record as mayor. “When I was mayor, we prevented people from taking industrial land and turning it into high-rises because we still needed factories and manufacturing – for the good jobs it provides to the working class in LA.” 

He believes the moratorium to end land flipping and spot-rezoning is necessary to stop the net loss of existing, older affordable housing units in LA and he challenges Garcetti to define affordable housing. 

“It has zero to do with housing the homeless. It has to do with creating solidly middle and upper-middle class condos that area $4,000 a month,” he concludes. “Garcetti’s affordable housing will probably go for close to $3,000. So I want him to define it because the working poor in L.A., without question, can’t afford City Hall’s ‘affordable housing.’” 

Changing the landscape of affordable housing in Los Angeles, as in cities across the country, is complicated. Developers are more likely to build multi-unit projects that will capture rents that the market will bear. If we don’t curtail the power of individual city council members to assist developers in bypassing zoning restrictions, we aren’t likely to see that landscape change. We need to address the affordable housing issue in Los Angeles. Paving the way for developers to work around existing restrictions is not the way to do it.

 

(Beth Cone Kramer is a Los Angeles-based writer and CityWatch contributor.)

-cw

 

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 14 Issue 6

Pub: Jan 29, 2016

METHANE MAYHEM-It’s early December, and I’m sitting in a mega-church packed with more than 500 people. They’re here to listen to an update on the efforts to contain an enormous natural gas blowout that occurred more than a month before. Gas from the leak is being blown by prevailing winds right into their community of Porter Ranch, in Los Angeles County, CA. 

People are mad. 

Hundreds of families have left their homes to get away from the rotten-egg smell of the gas, and moved into temporary homes elsewhere. Children are attending other schools further from the leak, which is spewing some 110,000 pounds of methane per hour from a broken well less than a mile from the neighborhood.  

Trust between the gas company, regulators, and community members seems absent. 

People question what else is in the gas that might have long-term health impacts. They want to know why many are suddenly reporting headaches and bloody noses.

I’m sitting in this church because my colleague Hilary Lewis and I were invited to Porter Ranch with our infrared gas-finding camera to see what this high profile disaster actually looks like. Before we arrived, the public had no access to images or video of the gas itself, as it’s invisible to the naked eye. 

We meet a local organizer in a supermarket parking lot, exit the vehicle, and even my horrible sense of smell instantly reacts to the scent of the gas more than two miles from where we stand. It’s coming from a well at the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility, an 8,000-foot deep sandstone formation — a depleted oil field — that SoCalGas uses to hold vast quantities of gas. In fact, it’s one of the largest gas storage fields in the nation, comprising some 115 extraction and injection wells, some of which operate at pressures above 2,000 pounds per square inch — a hefty load for well casings over 60 years old. 

We hike the hills and document the gas blowing sideways and downhill into town. Later that night, we see a plume of gas at least a mile long spanning Aliso Canyon. Of all the sites I’ve shot as a certified infrared thermographer nationwide, this is, hands down, the largest volume of spewing methane gas I’ve ever seen — and I’ve visited nearly a hundred sites around the country, including the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota. Each day, the leak is releasing the same amount of greenhouse gases as the average daily emissions of more than 7 million cars.

This video footage — aired nationally on NBC’s The Rachel Maddow’s Show and many other media outlets — has helped to draw widespread attention to the leak, and has assisted local residents in their efforts to get justice and to hold industry, regulators, and policymakers accountable.  

Just ten days later, I return to Aliso Canyon to shoot additional infrared footage for the Environmental Defense Fund from a small chartered aircraft. We fly as close as is safe, seeing a plume nearly 1,000 feet high under calmer wind conditions. The pilot can’t help but note the pungent smell not long after gaining altitude. 

We get a view of the well pad itself — a mangled looking mess coated in mud. This mud was used to try to “drown” the well during the first several attempts to plug the leak. Nothing worked. There are huge craters around the well, and no one wants to get too close with machines for fear of a spark turning the entire scene into an enormous fireball.


The footage I shot for EDF makes an even bigger mark on the national consciousness. Soon thereafter, California Governor Jerry Brown declares a state of emergency regarding the leak, and the Los Angeles Times editorializes against fossil fuels, referencing the Aliso Canyon leak. 

Right now, as the leak enters its tenth week, the underground pressure has been reduced by half of its original rate, due to the gas escaping from the leak and other actions taken by SoCalGas — the company operating the facility — to withdraw gas in a controlled manner.  

It will be months before the leak is repaired. SoCalGas is currently drilling two relief wells to divert the gas below the leak source, much like what was done during the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. But by the time the wells are drilled, most of the gas will be gone anyway. 

Methane, the primary component of natural gas, is 87 times more harmful to the climate than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. So far, an estimated 79,000 metric tons of methane have escaped from this one facility — so much that California’s goals to reduce climate pollution have been seriously compromised. It’s estimated that, at its height, the leak increased the state’s daily methane emissions by 25 percent.

What has this disaster taught us? For one thing, it’s yet another affirmation that fossil fuels are not safe or clean, and that things often go horribly wrong when it’s least expected. But more specifically, it highlights the woeful state of regulatory oversight on underground gas storage facilities such as Aliso Canyon. For example, the well casing at the site of the blowout failed hundreds of feet below the surface, likely due to the predictable corrosion of 60 year old well casings. To add insult to injury, the safety shut-off device for this well was removed long ago and never replaced.

So there you have it — a well operating at the upper limit of its pressure tolerance, with a safety valve deliberately removed long before, and a well casing that failed with no safeguards in place to prepare for when that time might come. Aliso Canyon has 114 other wells that could fail at any time unless adequate safeguards are in place.

Thankfully, Governor Brown’s declaration of a state of emergency will force a number of much-needed steps — both immediate and medium-term — that will address the situation. His declaration was much needed because, for example, the California Air Resources Board is considering new regulations that would address leak detection and repair for natural gas infrastructure, but these wouldn’t have applied to underground facilities like Aliso Canyon. Yes, you read that correctly. Now, due to Brown’s declaration, California regulatory bodies, including the Air Resources Board, will be required to assess the long-term viability of natural gas storage facilities in California.

It’s long past time to regulate these facilities properly, or take them offline entirely. Hundreds of underground natural gas storage facilities exist throughout the nation, and many of them could also experience catastrophic failures, in addition to other problems already occurring, such as groundwater contamination. 

To prevent more disasters like Aliso Canyon in California and around the country (there are 326 similar facilities nationwide) we need an emergency statewide effort to shut down facilities that lack basic safety equipment, including Aliso Canyon. Gas storage wells that lack shut off valves should be taken offline before other Porter Ranches happen. We also need increased oversight and management of these facilities, not to mention support for residents affected by pollution, including health care and financial compensation.

Moving forward, we also need a rapid transition away from gas. The Solutions Project, an organization working to accelerate the transition to renewable energy, has mapped out a plan for California to achieve 100 percent fossil fuel-free energy by 2050. This transition would protect communities from underground storage risks, gas line leakage, and explosions like the one in San Bruno.

Because nearby communities — and the global climate — cannot afford any more disasters, Earthworks, a nonprofit that works to protect communities from the adverse impacts of energy development, is working hand-in-hand with community groups to push for significant regulatory changes and enforcement. Learn more about Earthworks’ work here.

 

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License

 

(Pete Dronkers is the Southwest Circuit Rider for Earthworks. He is an ITC-certified thermographer. This piece was posted earlier at the excellent Common Dreams.)  Photo:   EarthWorks. The first (and to date only) direct overhead photos of the leaking Aliso Canyon well pad polluting Porter Ranch community; taken on December 17, 2015. Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

-cw

 

CityWatch

Vol 14 Issue 6

Pub: Jan 19, 2016

LATINO PERSPECTIVE-Trishna Patel, Media Director and Travel Writer @RomanceTravelConcierge, sat down with George Sifuentes in the summer of 2015 to discuss the challenges of approaching strangers, the pressures that come with social media notoriety, and why he attributes his focus on LA’s Latino community to time spent with his grandmother. (Photo: A Sifuentes’ photograph) 

Patel asked him to describe his favorite things about shooting in Los Angeles -- what are his favorite areas and why? 

He responded by saying that the best thing about shooting in LA is the variety of people and neighborhoods that are so close to one another. Hands down his favorite place to shoot is Downtown on Broadway, running through the historic core where the city’s oldest souls and newest inhabitants walk side by side. His second favorite spot is Boyle Heights/East LA. To Sifuentes, Mexican culture is so visually strong in these areas that it's highly unlikely he’d leave without finding anything good. His third favorite spot is Venice Beach. He argues, if you look beyond the tourist trail you’ll find some of LA's truest characters that are influenced by art, music and gang culture. 

Another good question asked by Patel was, what exactly is it about people that Sifuentes wants to capture and portray? 

He answered by saying that he wants to portray truth and originality in his subjects – and for his audience to look at his portraits and understand without a doubt that his subject is the true and beautiful character he or she is. 

The Latino community has been Sifuentes’ home and Patel asked him about his particular interest in LA’s Latino community. Since he grew up with young parents, he spent a lot of time with his grandparents. For him, photographing streets in LA is a nostalgic act – he used to walk on Cesar Chavez Avenue and Grand Central Market with his grandmother. (Photo left: George Sifuentes) 

Being Latino here means so many different things, adds Sifuentes. “We are [one of] the few communities in Los Angeles that can point to five or more generations that were born and raised in this city. Documenting both the older and younger generations as well as observing the varying degrees of mainstream influence is very interesting to me.” 

Finally, he argues thatspeaking Spanish is everything when it comes to photographing the Latino community. It establishes a common bond which leads to trust; plus Latinos, mostly the older ones, want to know why the hell you want a picture of them in the first place. The elderly have no understanding as to why Sifuentes would want to photograph them. They could care less about his photographic passion and most of the time they are not even aware of their own beauty. 

I think Trishna Patel did a great service to the Latino residents of Los Angeles by conducting this interview with Sifuentes; he raises a very important awareness of what Los Angeles really is. He shows us a view of this city that is hard to document by any other means. 

I just hope that residents and visitors alike learn to appreciate the importance of our city’s great diversity; how it has and continues to contribute to the greatness of the State of California and to our country as a whole. 

After all, Los Angeles is one of the largest and most diverse cities in the world, and the second largest in the United States. It would be hard to imagine Los Angeles without its Latino community. 

Thank you George Sifuentes for your contribution to our city.

 

(Fred Mariscal came to Los Angeles from Mexico City in 1992 to study at the University of Southern California and has been in LA ever since. He is a community leader who serves as Vice Chair of the Los Angeles Neighborhood Council Coalition and sits on the board of the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council representing Larchmont Village. He was a candidate for Los Angeles City Council in District 4. Fred writes Latino Perspective for CityWatch and can be reached at: [email protected]) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

-cw

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 14 Issue 5

Pub: Jan 19, 2016 

MY TURN-I received a lot of questions asking me how I felt about Councilmember Felipe Fuentes (District 7) announcing that he would not run for election in 2017. I have been critical of him and his rather cavalier attitude toward most of his constituents. In fact, much of the central and northeast parts of the San Fernando Valley have not been well served by their elected city officials. 

Fuentes is well known for not answering questions. And so is his staff. I have asked them all to state their points-of-view on issues I have covered in my articles. All have neglected to answer any queries, either negatively or positively. I don't take this personally because many of his constituents have also been ignored, and I’m not even a constituent. However, as my dear departed Mother would say, that is just plain rude! 

The Los Angeles Times ran an interview with Fuentes in which he spoke about his sixteen years of public service. He gave the impression that he was burned out, that he could no longer give his constituents the service they deserved if he opted for a second term. I was rather taken back since I had yet to discover what services he had actually devoted to them in his first term. 

His comments sounded rather noble, but what the interview did not disclose were the other factors involved -- including angry constituents. In September, Fuentes announced that the space occupied by the Sunland Tujunga Neighborhood Council (STNC) for the last eleven years would have to be vacated in November. He also gave an eviction notice to the Substation of LAPD housed in the same city-owned building. 

He had decided to rent the space (for $1.00 a year) to two non-profit organizations involved in helping the homeless. A great hue and cry was raised both in CityWatch and by other Valley news outlets and social media. All the protest came to naught; the STNC and the LAPD had to find new homes. 

Apparently, the City Council doesn't interfere with decisions made by individual Councilmembers, even when the Councilmember is not truthful in the file on which he is asking them to vote. 

Fuentes claimed that the change would free up space for groups that address homelessness and other community issues. “I'm not going to be apologetic for bringing more services into the district,” he said.  

Adding to the intrigue was an aide to US Rep. Tony Cardenas, who also represents part of the Valley.  She disclosed last year that she had received a subpoena to appear before a Federal grand jury. Months later, the LA Times reported that several aides to another Valley officeholder, CM Nury Martinez, had also received subpoenas. 

Fuentes' district director, Yolanda Fuentes Miranda, went before the grand jury in December. The councilman declined to comment on Miranda, who happens to be his aunt, but said her appearance had nothing to do with his decision to leave after one term. 

Last September, when I began my research into District 7, I found that none of the NCs and non-profit groups were ready to go on record with their opinions of Fuentes – even though he is not running for re-election. Such reticence would indicate that they were afraid of retribution. 

Northeast Valley politics has existed as a kind of political stronghold for a long time. Some stakeholders refer to groups in power as "the cartel" or "the machine." I don't think they mean they are literally relatives of the Mexican cartels or have anything to do with the drug trade, but they have pretty much picked the winners of the various electoral races in their area for several years. 

One big exception, and what I think precipitated a grassroots push back, was the election of Assembly Member Patty Lopez who upset and defeated Raul Bocanegra. Incumbent Bocanegra was supposed to become speaker of the State Assembly…but Patty Lopez threw a nice monkey wrench into that plan. 

It is rumored that there are grand jury ethics questions related to that election. Staff members from three different political offices were supposedly sent as “supervisors” and “watchdogs” for the recount of the Lopez/Bocanegra votes – all while working for other politicians. 

I had a business office in Mexico for more than 20 years. Some of the political nepotism I see here is reminiscent of how political jobs were handed out down there during those times. 

There are quite a number of staff positions occupied by people with the names “Fuentes” and “Padilla.” Some of them must be related to the elected office holders and their titular boss, Alex Padilla. 

District 7 is really a microcosm of Los Angeles. There are ranchers seeking to retain the rural flavor of the area and they fight against most development. There are pockets of extreme poverty and a huge homeless population, attracting drug dealers, thieves and other ne'er-do-wells. There are also middle class sub-divisions and gated communities. The terrain is both hilly and urban inner city. There is a large Latino population and a conservative white group. The region runs the gamut on the economic scale. 

The Bullet train is causing a great deal of stress to many residents. Plans now call for it to run through the middle of some of these Northeast communities. And El Nino will probably flood the Tujunga Wash where developers want to build 250 upscale homes. 

But despite all these real and potential difficulties, residents of the Northeast Valley have seen that grassroots efforts can make a difference. A new group, initiated by Sunland Tujunga community leaders late last year, now has over 2500 Facebook members on its page called, "An Open Letter to CD7." It has spread to neighboring communities and they are working the social media and raising awareness. 

Here is an edited look at their purpose: 

OUR MISSION: CD7 Open Letter has been created to recruit members of the ST community to become signers to the open letter that the administrator will author in an effort to bring about positive change to CD7 in general and Sunland Tujunga in particular. 

When the letter is complete, members will have the opportunity to decide if they support it. If they do support it, their name will be included as a signer. 

The group is for people who support the following goals: 

1. Cleaning out the homeless camps all over CD7.

2. Strict enforcement of vagrancy, loitering and trespassing laws.

3. Cleaning up the parks.

4. Initiation of patrols of the Wash, forest and sensitive wildlife areas to ensure that camps are not reestablished.

5. Proactive working with property owners who have been impacted by the influx of transients and trespassers caused by public policy failures…people who have no means to effectively deal with it on their own.

6. Enforcement of the homeless ordinances recently passed by the LA City Council but largely abrogated by the mayor.

Members agree that a solution should start with law enforcement. The city should work to make our streets livable and safe again and not give them over to transients and drug dealers. We believe it’s about being able to take our kids to the park or on a safe walk along the creek in Big Tujunga. It's about not being attacked in our cars by crazy people. It's about seeing new stores open because Foothill no longer looks like a mini Skid Row. 

Members of this group truly want to help the homeless. We are all compassionate people, many of whom devote time and treasure to help. But unless the authorities make it more difficult to live on the streets or in the Wash and on the hillsides, no one is going to have the motivation to get help. The camps will continue to grow. 

Transients who steal and the hard core drug dealers who have threatened us need to be dealt with by the authorities or, at the very least, they have to be made so uncomfortable that they relocate to other areas. 

IF YOU'D LIKE TO PARTICIPATE, PLEASE VISIT HERE. 

Just in the last couple of weeks, community leaders from different neighborhoods have met to talk honestly about the kind of person they would want to represent them on the LA City Council. The groups have included Republicans and Democrats, Libertarians and Independents but unfortunately (for me) no press. This is a non-partisan office. These leaders see an opening for neighbors to actually have a voice in who they elect, instead of being given just a few choices. 

It is rumored that potential candidates will receive a “report card” from representatives of the entire area; their grades on the most important issues will be disseminated in the community. 

Several people have indicated their desire to run. The big question is... who will be anointed by the old guard? Raul Bocanegra has already had several fund raising events; it’s rumored he wants a re-match with Patty Lopez. 

I question why Fuentes decided to give so much notice in announcing his “retirement” from politics. During the next year and half he can continue to follow the same shoddy path or he can create a legacy of inclusion, putting his constituents before his personal agenda. If he would resign now the cost of a special election would be burdensome.  

We will be watching his actions closely. 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]) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

-cw

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 14 Issue 6

Pub: Jan 19, 2016

GUEST WORDS--By the time Tom LaBonge [photo] termed out of the City Council in June 2015 his City Hall office was a mess. Shades of the fall of Saigon, file cabinets were emptied and records were shredded or just vanished. Not a single piece of paper was left for the incoming David Ryu administration. Council District Four residents who had been asking for assistance with problems or filing complaints were out of luck because there were no records for Ryu’s staff to respond to.

To make matters even worse, LaBonge had gone on a last minute spending spree. He promised to hand out over $600,000 in discretionary funds to various groups with no documentation to show how these expenditures had been earmarked or why.

When those of us who closely follow City Hall found out that LaBonge had emptied the CD 4 bank account we were stunned because the use of discretionary funds had been a major issue in the runoff election between Carolyn Ramsey, LaBonge’s former Chief of Staff, and David Ryu. For many voters LaBonge passing out money like Halloween candy was the straw that pushed them into Ryu’s camp. Ryu won the election hands down. (We can only speculate if those funds and files would have been left intact if Ramsey had been elected.)

In order to bring some sanity to the situation, on his first day in office Councilman Ryu filed motions to have LaBonge’s spending spree rolled back. On July 28, 2015 the City Council voted 15-0 to do just that. They cancelled LaBonge commitments and declared that these funds were unencumbered. Ryu then appointed a committee of stakeholders to advise him in this effort to review LaBonge’s pledges, but with no paperwork to go on the effort has been extremely daunting. The committee has been diligently trying to help the Councilman examine the requests and appropriately reallocate funds. But the task is complicated. Did the groups listed by LaBonge as needing public funds actually apply for them or was this LaBonge’s peevish attempt to empty the coffers before he left office?

There are legitimate and pressing needs for discretionary funds in CD 4: trees to be trimmed, potholes to be filled, sidewalks to be fixed, and the list goes on! Which of the projects on LaBonge’s list should be funded, which should not?  This is public money and each group should have to step forward and make their case for the funds to the Council office – and to the public.

The list of LaBonge’s giveaways ranged from Parent Teacher Associations to museums. It also appears that some funds were earmarked for projects outside of  Council District Four – these are probably the most egregious items.

The amounts on LaBonge’s list range from $2500 to $50,000. Some names are recognizable while others are not. All are just a simple line entry on  a page that lists the names and amount. There are no supporting documents illuminating why one group was to get money and others were not. To many this is the perfect example of a slush fund: opaque, arbitrary, and subjective.

One name and amount on LaBonge’s ledger immediately jumped off the page: Museum Associates was to get $50,000 to finance a way-finding project involving signage along Museum Row.

I had to look at it several times to make sure I was really seeing what I was seeing. Museum Associates is a privately owned 501(c)(3) non-profit doing business as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

This group receives around $30-million a year from the County to run LACMA and is also slated to get another $125-million from the County to build its new museum on Wilshire Boulevard. Museum Associates also owns the old May Company property were the Motion Picture Academy is being built – as well as its Spaulding parking lot and 6006 Wilshire Boulevard. So, the first thought that came to mind was does LACMA really need $50,000 from the CD 4 discretionary fund and if so, why?

In a letter LaBonge submitted to the City Council on July 28, 2015, he asked them to leave his financial gifts in place and not return the funds to Councilman Ryu. LaBonge claimed he was fulfilling a $ 100,000 commitment to Los Angeles County by giving $50,000 to LACMA and $50,000 to the Ford Museum. That actually should be fairly easy to check out. An inquiry to the County should turn up something that references such a commitment.  

Museum Associates should also be of help as they have a personal service contract with an independent contractor detailing plans for a way-finding plan to promote LACMA and other Miracle Mile museums. That contract mentions a grant from the city that will be used to pay the contractor. Surely there is something in writing that Museum Associates can produce that details the conditions of such a grant? The project may be the greatest thing since sliced bread, but what elevated it above all the other needs in CD 4?

Again, these are public funds and there must be a paper trail documenting the basis for this grant. Without that the specter of quid pro quo will forever hang over all of these funds and projects.

David Ryu is committed to an open and transparent process in this matter. He promises to come up with a grant proposal system that all must comply with. There is already a template that many Neighborhood Councils use to help them in this process. Whether a Neighborhood Council or a Council Office, there needs to be a rational and fair way to vet the expenditure of public money. After all, it’s our money – not Tom LaBonge’s.

(James O’Sullivan is Vice President of Fix The City and President of the Miracle Mile Residential Association. This perspective was posted first in the MMRA Newsletter, edited by Ken Hixon.) 

-cw

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 14 Issue 6

Pub: Jan 19, 2016

 

 

 

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