The Rebirth of the First Amendment

I spent 44 years of my life in newspapering and I loved the daily grind of trying to tell stories about what might mean something in the lives of readers — to inform them, amuse them, touch their hearts and minds, to shock them with revelations about what the hell is going on out there.

It’s a frustrating profession. You’re bound by the taste and judgment of the audience, the standards of the profession, the limited vision of your newspaper and most of all during my years in the business, the bean counters whose only interest is to drive profit margins of 20, 30 event 40 percent at some papers.

That isn’t why the American revolutionaries wrote the First Amendment with all that stuff about freedom of speech and of the press.

When they made those ideals the cornerstone of our country, there were more than 100 papers in Philadelphia and not a single reporter. Anyone who owned a press could print a newspaper and say whatever they wanted and what they wanted to say was often so scurrilous and defamatory that they would be driven into bankruptcy today by high-priced lawyers even if what they printed was true and defensible.

Today, it’s not like that at all. Corporate monopoly journalism denies the basic right of free speech to the reporters and editors who work in the mainstream media. Sure, they sneak in bits and pieces of themselves and the super-talented can actually express themselves but fundamentally newspapers, radio and TV news people are product manufacturers, and never more so than today when news media are dying from the decline in audience and advertising.

Continue reading The Rebirth of the First Amendment

A salute to Beth Barrett: L.A.’s best reporter

Beth Barrett.jpg

Revealed: Antonio’s Mistress

GANGS: Terror in the Streets

Does the Valley get its FAIR SHARE?

Anatomy of malpractice

Rodney King: The record against LAPD

Rocketdyne Lab contaminated

Cranston‘s funny money games

Payola to L.A. Prep Star

Valley woman to the rescue


Those are headlines from just a few of the hundreds of stories Daily News reporter Beth Barrett has done over the last 22 years.

No reporter in L.A. has had a bigger impact on the politics of the city or raised public awareness more about important issues.

Tonight, the Society of Professional Journalists in L.A. is honoring Beth for her achievement along with five other distinguished journalists: Bob Banfield of KABC-TV,  John Rabe of KPCC-FM, Tom Tugend of the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles and Los Angeles Times reporters Scott Glover and Matt Lait.

I have had the privilege of working with Beth since she came to the Daily News from Alaska in 1986 and nobody ever deserved to be recognized for her achievement more.

The most remarkable thing about Beth is that as tough and relentless as she at nailing down a story, people still talk to her because she is always fair and straightforward about what she is reporting.

Much of the Daily News’ reputation for hard-hitting coverage of City Hall is due to Beth. She is one of a kind, a great reporter and a great friend.


When will they ever learn…



Scaled down and still unable to arrange financing, Eli Broad’s grandiose vision for L.A. is in deep trouble.

The Grand Avenue project was supposed to be the Central Park of L.A., the masterpiece of human ingenuity that was finally to make downtown the true center of the city, the place where all roads led and all people came to celebrate the wonders of urban life in Southern California.

In truth, the project exposes everything wrong with the city.

There is utterly no grassroots support for it, no public demand or interest, only the vision of a philanthropic billionaire who truly believes great monuments and a great downtown make a great city and has the clout to bring politicians to their knees to do his bidding.

Ever since Tom Bradley won election in 1973, the insider power structure has invested the city’s wealth into downtown with massive public subsidies that robbed neighborhoods everywhere of services, infrastructure investment and support necessary for community health.

Continue reading When will they ever learn…

Your money or your life

feuer.jpgOnce upon a time I delighted in giving Mike Feuer a hard time.

He asked for it by always reminding everybody he went to Harvard and acted like that proved he was smarter than them as if being smart was the most important quality in a person, as if going to Harvard meant you were better than getting an AA degree from Pierce College.

Maybe losing the election for City Attorney to fellow Harvard grad Rocky Delgadillo chastened Mike but I’ve found myself liking him a lot in my last few encounters and that made his earnestness more appealing.

So I’m not giving Mike a hard time personally over his latest email blast to constituents where he boasts of all the bills he has introduced — 22 in all. Think about it: 22 bills times 120 members is potentially, 2,640 new laws. God help us!

There’s so many laws on the books already that nobody knows what’s right or wrong anymore. I’ve long argued there ought to be a law: No new law can be passed without repealing an old law. I don’t have a clue as to how many laws there are on the books in L.A., California and  Washington but I’ll to bet the number runs into the millions.

Enough already, let’s cap the number until all reasonable people can tell what’s legal and what’s illegal. It makes you wonder how God boiled it down to Ten Commandments, obviously he hadn’t created lawyers when He set down His law.

Continue reading Your money or your life

Urban blight and legalized public corruption

It was nearly 25 years ago that then state Attorney General, John Van de Kamp, told me the politicians had written California’s public corruption laws in such a way that only a politician stupid enough to stand up in public — or get caught on camera _ and admit he took money and did favors could be convicted of a crime.

The politicial culture of L.A. has thrived on that carefully sculpted loophole for years, Our elected officials give access to special interests they don’t give the general public, do favors that sometimes are worth tens of millions of dollars and sell out the public interest for contributions to their campaigns and officeholder accounts — if nothing else.

L.A. is corrupt in a way and on a scale that goes far beyond what goes on in Chicago or New York where politicians often go to jail but the system works to make those cities better — not worse.

A prime example was back in the news today in the L.A. Times  where Ted Rohrlich followed up on the long-running scandal involving well-connected developer Chris Hammond and the Santa Barbara Plaza project near Baldwin Hills.

The plaza was a rundown center with 20 shops and Hammond — with the generous help of Mayor James Hahn — put together a plan for a $123 million redevelopment called Marlton Square. It was to be a housing and retail project with $43 million in public subsidies.

The Daily News exposed the shenanigans in an an article by Harrison Sheppard which discussed Hahn’s hope to win votes in South Los Angeles with his no-questions-asked support.

Even by that time, Hammond had bundled tens of thousands of dollars into politicians’ coffers despite a record of bouncing checks on his own accounts. He had close ties to most of the area’s black politicians, including Herb Wesson, Bernard Parks and Mark Ridley-Thomas among others.

Because Hammond had such strong political support, the project got approved even though there was critical news coverage, a critical audit and criticism from the city’s watchdog, Controller Laura Chick.

Insiders say Hammond was smooth and made big committments to campaigns and nonprofits, and even his bad checks. never stopped fundraisers from putting him high on their lists of targets for money.

Hammond’s story is the story of how City Hall works, or rather doesn’t work for the benefit of the city.

Hammond bought influence, the politicians gave him what he wanted, which was public money and Santa Barbara Plaza is just the way it was years ago — except even more run down, a cancer in the community.

Did Hammond get in trouble wth the law? No.

Did any of the politicians who did him favors for money for their campaigns. No.

Were crimes committed? No.

Is this corruption? Yes.

And it is still going on every day. Follow the money and you will see how and why your elected officials aren’t serving you and why they back projects that are bad for your community and why they are constantly taking more money from you and why L.A. keeps getting worse.

Give me some out-and-out quid-pro-quo bribery like they get in Chicago and New York. and I’d give you some politicians in jail and a city that works.



The Home Depot Challenge

By Ellen Vukovich

Reader and Sherman Oaks activist

Here’s my prediction — a full-scale EIR will be ordered as a compromise. What’s another year to Home Depot?

By this time, Wendy Greuel will probably be our next Laura Chick – City Controller. That means the new Council Member will declare that there is nothing he/she can do to “stop” the project because Home Depot has worked with the (Sunland-Tujunga) community and mitigated its impacts to an “insignificant” level as per the EIR.

And, the last thing this City will jeopardize is its working relationship (read that as collecting more sales taxes, etc.) from Home Depot when facing its record bugetary shortfalls coupled with losing a multi-million dollar lawsuit.

My suggestion is that all residents of Council District 2 unite and find a candidate for Wendy’s seat that will do their bidding. That’s the only solution to all of the “Home Depots.”

A lesson in empowerment: Sunland-Tujunga vs. Home Depot

When you get off the 210 Freeway at Sunland Boulevard, you leave the grit and noise of the rest of L.A. and enter what seems like an old California town of well-kept modest homes and small businesses set between mountains .

It could be 1968 as easily as today.

But the peace and quiet of this community of less than 60,000 has been disrupted by a four-year battle against City Hall and the corporate America Goliath, Home Depot.

On Saturday, that battle came to a turning point with the city sending out a team of mediators to look for an opening that would get Home Depot to drop its lawsuit and get its project greenlighted to transform a closed Kmart store into another home improvement megastore .

More than 300 residents showed up for the Day of Dialogue, and were quickly split into 30 or so small groups, sort of like when the cops separate a group of suspects so they can’t collaborate on their story.

The residents didn’t need to collaborate. They knew their story cold after fighting what they see as the beginning of the end of everything they love about their community, a rustic place where people sometimes ride their horses down Foothill Boulevard and neighbors look after each other.

The back story is that the city approved Home Depot’s request for permits without informing the community or bringing the people into the process, without even takiing a look at what the store would do to the character of the community or to local merchants. The bureaucrats just took the work of the lobbyists and corporate execs like they do every day as they go about trashing the neighborhoods of L.A. and the quality of life of its residents.

But Sunland-Tujunga organized and fought back while Home Depot played hardball, packing meetings with hirelings, blitzing the mainstream meda which is so dependent on Home Depot for advertising revenue, even accusing the residents of racism for not wanting dozens of day laborers hanging around their neighborhood.

The roar of the community, magnified by Home Depot’s arrogant tactics, forced the City Council to nix the development unless the company did an extensive environmental impact report that would take years and in the end would show it was the wrong business in the wrong place anyway.

So the corporate giant sued and the City Attorney’s Office, which has such a poor record of defending the public interest in litigation, sought the mediation effort.

I sat at Table 27 with six local residents, a representative of Home Deport and a volunteer facilitator. Oddly, at the outset of the entire event, media representatives were asked to identify themselves but bloggers like myself were accepted on equal footing with my former colleague, Daily News reporter Rick Coca. And the facilitator questioned at length the appropriateness of my joining in at Table 27.

Truth be told, the event came four years too late. If City Hall gave a damn about the neighborhoods, every development project with any significant impact on the quality of life would start with community information meetings and this kind of mediation event if there was much of a controversy. 

Regina Clark set the tone for my group by setting out a long series of problems and making it clear Home Depot could never win even if the store got built.

“Most people in this community would never shop in another Home Depot no matter what happens,” she said.

The company representative offered no objection to that or any other statements during the next 90 minutes or so, making sure everyone understood listening to the community’s concerns was the mission.

The group’s list of objections was long: It will destroy the small-town character of the community; small merchants, especially hardware stores and home repair services, would be put out of business; noise; traffic congestion; dozens of 18-wheel trucks on the street; a school less than 500 feet away; day laborers; violation of the community plan; the start of  overdevelopment and high density. Similar lists of issues that came up at every other table.

So what do these people want?

A town center with a Target or other general merchandise store, with a meeting hall, and places to stroll, lots of little shops — why it sounded like a scaled-down version of every Rick Caruso project like the Grove or Calabasas Commons.

I couldn’t help but wonder why the city wasn’t working to achieve that for Sunland and every other neigbhorhood in the city. Isn’t that why we have a government at all? Shouldn’t City Hall be working with every community to create gathering places and economic health? Isn’t government supposed to deliver what we the people want, not what’s good for the politicians, bureaucrats, developers and influence peddlers?

After four years of consciousness-raising experience, the people in my group had a good grasp on what’s wrong with L.A.

Kathy Kennedy said, “We’re not getting heard, all we get is lip service.”

“We don’t trust the city,” said Dan Smith. “No matter what we do somehow or another this thing is going to go through.

Added Jeff Buzard: “Democracy is just a buzzword anymore. All they’re saying is, ‘Let’s give them a voice so we can say we did before we get our way,'”

Almost in unison the group in the end asked the same question: “Why are we even doing this?”

A good question. Nothing came up that wasn’t well known to them, to Home Depot and to their elected representative, Councilwoman Wendy Greuel, who will receive the full report of what each of the group found important. Killing the project outright  or requiring a full EIR were at the top of the list.

Greuel supports the community in this fight, the same way every council member in the city will support the community if they face large numbers of people organized, informed and ready to fight for themselves.

It’s unthinkable that Home Depot won’t see the light and back down on this project before people everywhere start questioning whether supersized stores and corporate America aren’t causing more harm than good.

And it’s unthinkable that Greuel and her colleagues will back down because the people in this community have shown that people power works. Similar struggles to theirs are going on all over the city as the mayor and council do their best to remove all community input and give developers the go-ahead to do whatever they want, wherever they want.

And that’s why the battle of Sunland-Tujunga is so important. The community won. It won because it empowered itself by banding together and raising the stakes for the politicians..

So if you want to save your community and the character of your neighborhood, look, listen and learn from the people of Sunland-Tujunga. Perhaps someday this will be seen as an historic event, the moment when City Hall first learned that the government belongs to the people and exists to serve them.




Home Depot logo- smaller 



Company Officials Listen to Community Opinions About Proposed New Store


LOS ANGELES, CA (April 26, 2008) – The Home Depot® today issued the following statement regarding the company’s participation in the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Mediation Group voluntary public dialogue at Mt. Gleason Middle School in the Sunland-Tujunga area of Los Angeles.


“Today we were able to listen to and interact directly with members of the Sunland-Tujunga community,” said Jeff Nichols, Director of Real Estate, Western Division for The Home Depot.  “We believe it is important that all parties involved in this neighborhood hear from differing perspectives and opinions and today’s meeting was an important step toward accomplishing this goal.  On behalf of The Home Depot, I would like to thank the City Attorney’s Mediation Group for facilitating this forum for community dialogue.  I would additionally like to thank the committed residents of Sunland-Tujunga for the frank and helpful opinions expressed here today.”


As background, The Home Depot acquired the site at 8040 Foothill Blvd. from Kmart in 2004 as part of a multi-store transaction.  The Home Depot applied for and received remodeling permits in July of 2006, which were later revoked by the Los Angeles City Council.  The Home Depot sued the City of Los Angeles on November 9, 2007, asking the California Superior Court (Court of Los Angeles, Central District) to reinstate the incorrectly revoked permits.  On March 4, 2008 a stipulation to a stay of litigation was agreed to by The Home Depot and the Los Angeles City Attorney, allowing the two parties to work toward finding solutions other than litigation.  On April 22, 2008, The Home Depot submitted a new project permit compliance review application to the City of Los Angeles as part of the stipulation to the stay of litigation.


As a separate component of the stipulation, the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Mediation Group was charged with facilitating discussions between The Home Depot and Sunland-Tujunga community stakeholders. 



Where in L.A. is the 100th monkey?

In college, I majored in anthropology, the study of humankind and how it evolved genetically, culturally and socially — which m

monkey.jpgay explain why I’m so attached to the 100th monkey theory of evolution.

The idea is that some crazy monkey stood upright and found he could run faster and see farther than his pals. Upright, he could wield a club so he survived longer, ate better, had more kids who as soon as they learned to walk, stood upright and  turned out to be even faster and stronger than their father.

A lot of monkeys pooh-poohed what was going on, and accused the upright monkeys of betraying their heritage and warned that if they didn’t watch out, they’d be thrown out of the monkey world. But a few smart monkeys started imitating their upright brethren, and then a few more until one day there were 100 of them and at that moment a threshold was passed and all the monkeys started standing straight up…well almost all, some were so resistant they slinked off into the jungle and continued monkeying around forever.

Anyway, that’s a theory of how Homo Sapiens started to evolve from monkeys.

I apply that theory to the political evolution of L.A. We’ve come a long way from six families ruling the town and tolerating no dissent to the Committee of 25 and today’s insider culture of big shots, developers, contractors, unions and the politicians who front for them.

The roots of democracy have been growing. Neighborhood councils, resident groups, volunteer organizations and a host of others that are mostly preoccupied with their own agendas have steadily grown stronger and more vocal. It’s my view that the efforts to make L.A. a more democratic city is nearing the threshold where all these groups can look past their narrow interests and see the big picture.

It just takes that 100th monkey to trigger a movement that brings all those people who want the power to affect the decisions that affects their lives. That’s all democracy is about and I don’t see how anyone can object to the empowerment of all sections, all communities, all individuals in L.A..

I’ve believed in that for the nearly 30 years I’ve lived here. I believe in it now more than ever. I believe it’s possible for democracy to flourish here, and I believe that if it does, Los Angeles would become a truly great city, a city that shines like a beacon of hope to a world that so often seems on the brink of catastrophe.

Maybe I’m right, maybe I’m wrong. But it’s what I’ve worked to achieve and what I’m doing now that I’ve retired from the Daily News and expanded my horizons beyond journalism and am now just like everybody else an ordinary citizen exercising his rights to speak his mind and work for what he believes in.

I know there are a lot upright monkeys out there and I know we are near a threshhold where standing up for what you believe in and working with others to find common ground to make things better for all, inch by inch, day by day, is more possible today than ever.

The only questions are when will it happen and, of course, who will be that 100th monkey.

As the sidewalks crumble…Don’t tread on City Hall

Here’s why my mantra for so long has been: I love L.A., phonetically that comes out I luuuuuv L.A.

greig.jpgThis is a city of light and dark, yin and yang, Hellywood where the lost souls of the world come to work out their karma, a city of temptations where there’s no middle ground. You either get well, get dead or get out.

Which brings me to L.A. City Hall which has done none of those things. It continues to operate much like the Kremlin undemocratically and indifferent to the needs of the people.

Perhaps that’s why the sidewalks have been left to crumble for decades without City Hall even being able to decide on a policy of whether the city or property owners are liable for repairs and for injuries that occur because of broken cement. The result is the city has paid out tens of millions of dollars in damage claims and there’s an 83 year backlog of needed sidewalk fixes, even worse than the 75 year backlog for street paving. Some 4,600 miles of sidwalks need repairs, nearly half of the city’s sidewalks.

Enter the do-littles of the City Council with a brilliant scheme to shift the responsibility to property owners who would have to pay for sidewalk repairs to be able to sell their homes or businesses. Homeowners could be hit with as much as a $7,000 repair bill which could wipe out a lot of people’s equity given the 25 percent drop in home prices which is certainly going to get worse before it gets better.

With its typical cynicism the council named its most conservative, pro-business member, Greig Smith, to be the point man for this trick, a man with nothing to lose since he’s leaving office next year after two terms and 25 years or so serving the whims of his illustrious predecessor, the unforgettable Hal Bernson.

Trouble is Smith has run into a firestorm of opposition from the Realtors and the newly-formed 80,000 member Los Angeles County Business Federation. They think the proposal won’t fix the sidewalks, will hurt a lot of people and slow down property sales. They want the current 50/50 split program between the city and property owners to be expanded instead of elminated.

None of that matters to the council, having given away the treasury to city unions, developers and contractors — not to mention all the money they put into their own pockets as the nation’s highest paid elected city officials. The council now faces a monumental budget deficit that they want to solve by taking more money away from the people’s pockets and providing less services to them.

The sidewalks point-of-sale policy fits in perfectly. It achieves nothing to make the city better and it saves the $9 million the city now pays annually for repairs plus it makes property owners the liable party, saving millions more in damage claims. That will go a long way toward keeping them and their vast staffs with all those city cars and blackberrys and other perks happy and keep the unions supportiing them.

The last point is the most telling. The pressure to adopt this policy comes from the SEIU, the largest city union whose members are the lowest paid — which isn’t saying much since city workers salaries and benefits far exceed those available in the private sectors or in big cities across the country for that matter.

The union wants to make sure its members get the 5 percent a year raises they were just promised and keep their jobs until they can retire at any early age with 75 percent of their salary and health benefits for life.

Who can blame them.

All that’s standing in the way of this deal going through is the entire business community of Los Angeles which has harbored long-standing feelings that City Hall’s brand of municipal socialism is somehow anti-business.

So they’ve mounted a letter-writing and lobbying campaign to derail the plan, much to the chagrin of Councilman Smith.

He is mad as hell about their resistance and in an email now circulating throughout the business community made it perfectly clear he’s not going to take it anymore.

Smith asserts he is the “lone voice’ that even wanted the business community to have be involved in the process. He accuses Realtors in particular of the “lie” that city wants to “shift” the responsibility for sidewalks to property owners, noting a 1911 state law making property owners responsible.

“The fact that the city began fixing sidewalks under Mayor Riordan has given the false imprression, and promulgated by the representatives of the Board of Realtors and the Daily News, that it is a city responsibility. IT IS NOT.”

Then Smith throws his best punch, he’ll turn against the business community if they persist.

“So, if the Board continues to tell its members and the public, as your spokesman did on television not long ago, that the “City is trying to shift its responsibility onto the taxpayer, and they have plenty of money to fix it themselves (the city), then I shall cease being your major supporter.”

I know Greig is hard to read and understand and there’s various grammatical issues but i’m just repeating what he wrote.

But you get the gist: He’s not going to be their friend anymore unless they play nice the way he likes it.

Far be it for me to throw around accusations about lying but Smith either is deliberately obscuring the truth or he doesn’t know his L.A. history despite more than three decades in city government.

The facts are these: One of the first things that the Tom Bradley revolution did in 1973 was to formally take responsibility to get the crumbling sidewalks fixed across the city. And Bradley did that for a decade or so until federal money ran out and the economy softened and the city stopped making the repairs.

And there the issue has sat for more than 20 years except for a brief period when Richard Riordan was trying to fix city government to actually fulfill its mission of serving the people.

Can you imagine how a city government can even pretend to be a government when it can’t even decide who has to fix the sidewalks. 

Is it any wonder that they can’t fix the public transportation system, or get rid of gangs, or attract companies with good-paying jobs, or create healthy neighborhoods?

When the secession movement in the Valley was in full sway, the Daily News did stories with photographs showing how the streets and sidewalks in L.A were broken and crumbled and how across the street in Burbank, San Fernando and other cities they were in good repair.

Cops talk about the broken window theory of crime, how broken windows are a symbol of the breakdown in law and order. Well, broken sidewalks belong in the same category, a symbol of the failure of government to do its fundamental job of making life better for the people. 


Screw the public!

“The easiest thing would be to have the unions work with us to reduce salary increases.” 

That’s what Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa told the Daily News Tuesday in trying to explain why he wanted to take $90 million out of our pockets and reduce various services to us.

Unfortunately, the mayor didn’t do “the easiest thing” — in fact it’s the only thing — which is to confront the problem that the city pays its workers too much and gives them benefits that are too costly.

L.A. has arguably the nation’s costliest municipal workforce and the most coddled with civil service rules that make it almost impossible to fire people or even lay them off. The result is mediocrity, and lackluster performance is rewarded while creativity and energy are punished.

This isn’t an anti-union screed. I’ve been a union leader. I believe unions are vital to balance out the power of corporations and create healthy work environments. This is about how L.A.”s public employee unions — with help from big money special interests like developers, contractors and lobbyists — own our elected officials.

Instead of confronting the real problem, the mayor took the same old route that City Hall has taken for too long when there’s financial problems: Screw the public! Raise taxes! Cut services!

Antonio knows better, he knows what has to be done. He knows that he and the City Council just approved whopping pay raises to city employees in the face of a weakening economy. And he knows that the people aren’t organized enough to give him the political room needed to confront the problem without gambling with his own ambitions.

That’s our fault. But it’s his and the rest of the city’s leadership that they don’t have the courage to stand up for what’s right, to privatize functions that can be done cheaper and better outside of government, to bring the unions and other special interests in line.

For example, private companies could fix the broken streets and sidewalks faster and cheaper than the city does, and actually reduce the 75-year backlog that leaves taxpayer liable for millions of dollars in lawsuits every year. Rather than breaking the social contract and charging the public the full cost of home garbage collection as a subterfuge for paying for more cops, the city could let residents contract with the many private firms at lower cost, even organizing whole neighborhoods to bargain for discounts.

We need City Hall to focus on reducing crime, getting rid of the gang menace, improving the public transportation system using jitneys, bus lanes and other low-cost measures.

I’ve told Antonio more than once that many voters liked the idea of a punk from East L.A. who wanted to be somebody in the mayor’s office because they believed he’d stand up for the people. But as much as I like Antonio personally and believe that he would respond if there was a groundswell of public support for radical changes to make the city better, I’m sad to say what we’ve got for the most part is Jimmy Hahn with a smile and a charming personality.

The community is waking up over new development rules that will destroy their neighborhoods and disenfranchise them, to the failure to come down hard on gangsters and criminal illegal immigrants, over the worsening congestion on streets and freeways, over political rhetoric without an action line.

I still hold out hope that Antonio will seize this moment of crisis and be the one who finds the guts to do the right thing for the city and its people. But the clock is ticking and things are going from bad to worse.