Menace on the Streets: Not Gangs or Potholes, L.A. Cracks Down on Cactus on People’s Lawns

In the name of “public safety,” the City of Los Angeles has cited Alan Krieger and his wife Sandy Saks with prosecution as criminals for daring to have a drought-resistant front yard including their tree lawn.

I know you’re thinking we’re in a drought and we’re all supposed to replace our grass with cactus and succulents native to a desert climate, which is what this environmentally-sensitive Playa del Rey couple did five years ago.

Dozens of neighbors have done the same and thousands of people across L.A. as well but you are all criminals or could be if some Department of Public Works inspector decides to single you and issue a citation and you don’t rip out your desert garden and plant grass immediately.

Sure, tens of thousands of lawless thugs roam our streets and city officials selectively enforce laws or ignore them altogether when it suits their purposes but that didn’t spare Krieger and Saks.

“With all the major issues the city faces, it’s Thumbnail image for drought2.JPGshocking they would spend as much time and energy on something like this,” Saks said.

About two months ago, Public Works Inspector Ron Henderson dropped by and cited the couple for a “safety hazard,” ordered them to remove the plants from the parkway tree lawn, which is city property but the responsibility of the homeowner to maintain. He was nice enough about it and sensitive to the fact Saks was dealing with the death of her father so he gave them 30 days to comply.

That didn’t sit well with Inspector Joanne Frampton who came by a week or so later  and ordered them to remove the hazard “at once.”

So they removed the cactus and the rocks but left the succulents and the tall desert grasses and the flat stones needed to prevent erosion, all that Henderson had required originally.

Clearly, in the minds of the bureaucrats, they drought3.JPGwere being defiant. So they were sent a registered letter and ordered to appear at an administrative hearing that was more like a kangaroo court.

“They were laughing and scoffing and treated us shabbily,” said Saks. “They made us feel like, ‘We have the power, you don’t.’ It was devastating. We did everything in good faith.”

I took the couple’s story to the Public Works Department. Michelle Vargas in the public relations office looked into and got back to me in an email with this information.

The City of Los Angeles, Department of Public Works is committed to public safety.

of the responsibilities of the Department’s Bureau of Street Services
is to ensure that there are no trip or safety hazards on parkways. 
Residents that receive citations from the Bureau to remove plants,
drought-tolerant or not, in the parkway are asked to do so because the
plants may potentially hurt passers-by or vehicle passengers.  In the
case that you described over the phone, a cactus with spikes may cause
a pedestrian to trip and fall, exposing the City to liability. 

City’s policy on what is allowed on parkways include: soil, turf,
ground cover — all must be maintained, kept clean, and not
weed-infested.  If residents want to plant other species that may not
be soil, turf or ground cover, a permit must be obtained from the
Department of Public Works Bureau of Engineering.” 

She went on to say Public
Works loves drought-tolerant plants, is trying hard to fulfill the mayor’s Million Trees LA campaign and has embraced green building standards.

So I passed the story on the couple to their Councilman, Bill Rosendahl, along with the reply from Public Works.

“This is totally insane,” he said. “We’ve got to learn to work together. We’ve got to be more responsive to the citizenry. My sympathy goes out to these people.”

He promised to get hold of the couple personally and wondered aloud about the drought and the environment, saying: “Grass might be a thing of the past.”

An hour or so later, he got back to me after having a chance to talk with Public Works officials. His mood was a little lighter.

“We’re going to have a meeting with the couple and the officials and clear this up,” he said. “There won’t be any fines and we’ll straighten things out. We’ve got some work to do on the details but we need a new set of rules that reflect climate change.”

Lesson in Grassroots Democracy: Council District 5

And the winner is … David T. Vahedi.

The 60 or so representatives of dozens of groups that are part of the Coalition of Homeowner Associations-Council
5 came to a near-unanimous verdict that Vahedi, an attorney and former state tax auditor, was their choice vahedi.jpgto succeed Councilman Jack Weiss, the wannabe City Attorney they disliked so much they tried to recall him.

I was one of the moderators of the group’s recent two-hour forum in which five Fifth District candidates participated and here’s what homeowner activists said when asked later “which candidate
or candidates were the most likely to be an advocate for protecting and preserving

1. David T. Vahedi (83%)

2. Ron Galperin (33%)

3. Paul Koretz (15%)

4. Robyn Ritter Simon (4%)

5. Robert Schwartz (0%)

Adeena Bleich was a “no show” at the last minute, which didnt help her case among this segment of the population of CD5, which includes Sherman Oaks and a large chunk of the Westside.

CD5, along with Bill Rosendahl’s district farther west, are the most affluent areas of the city. Yet, the most striking impression I have from giving up my status as a Valley guy and venturing out across L.A. among community activists from every part of the city is the universal experience of anger and frustration.

Rich or poor, regardless of race or economic class, the experience is the same: City Hall gives them the runaround, nothing but lip service, and doesn’t solve their problems or address their needs.

Some are angrier than others, their specific issues are different and so often are the values they have. But they are fed up with being disrespected and powerless.

The groundswell of this discontent is beginning to coalesce and the city elections in March will show, I believe, that a popular uprising is taking shape.

Marcia Selz and her CD5 homeowners coalition taught me a lesson in how community groups can methodically dissect candidates’ backgrounds, records and positions.

They started with a small group interviewing the candidates individually at length and compiled what they learned and the independent research they did into this chart cd5interviews.htm.

Then, they prepared a detailed set of questions for the three moderators to ask and gave each candidate the chance to respond. Development was their No. 1 concern as it is in much of the city.

After the forum, they surveyed cd5survery.htm the participants and came up with the scores reflecting their judgment, not an endorsement.

They also surveyed what participants thought of the process and found 83 percent said they were much better informed and 78 percent said the interviews were very or extremely helpful.

Personally, I felt like I knew a lot — not just from what they said — but from the way the candidates responded which gave me a feel for their personalities. The coalition intends to put the video of the event on the Internet.

I’m not sure every group has someone as organized and detail oriented as Marcia Selz but the basic process could be used anywhere.

In fact, I hope the Saving L.A. Project applies it to officeholders themselves as a means of pinning them down on the issues confronting the citybefore they go into back rooms and make deals and script their public performances.

As community groups come together, we are seeing positive signs of change. The Cultural Heritage Commission vote to grant monument status to Griffith Park, the DWP debate on a Ratepayer Advocate, the Planning Commission push for a ban on new billboards are just a few of the recent events where public pressure have helped move things forward.

Even the lively City Council debate on ballot measures this week shows what happens when the poltiicians see the community is paying attention, getting aroused and organizing.

For a long time, I’ve said i’m not sure if we can change the people but I know we can change the agenda.

I’m now beginning to think we could even change the people. The entry of DWP board president Nick Patsaouras into the Controller race, strong challengers to Weiss for City Attorney and the possibility Rich Caruso will jump into the mayor’s race provide the opportunity to wake up the voters and make a difference.

Save Griffith Park: Activists Win Key Support for Protections Against Development

It’s hard to believe that the City of Los Angeles has designated 900 places for preservation as cultural-historical monuments and it’s taken this long and this much effort from so many to get the city’s greatest asset, Griffith Park, within reach of that status.

In a hearing room packed with 150 or so griffith park.jpgcommunity activists, the Cultural Heritage Commission voted 4-1 to approve monument status for the park, setting the stage for the City Council to act on their decision.

The key moment came at the outset when Councilman Tom LaBonge, who represents the park area and is it’s No. 1 cheerleader, ended doubts about where he stands with unequivocal support for the commission staff report which found nearly all of the park contributed to its cultural-historical significance.

LaBonge talked about his love affair with the park and his daily hikes, and how Babe Ruth found out he was traded from the Red Sox to Yankees while playing golf at Harding and how his idol Walt Disney dreamed up Disneyland watching kids playing on the park’s merry-go-round.

The crowd loved it and cheered him for his support, and for dispelling the notion that he harbored a dream of creating a different kind of “Disneyland” in the thousands of acres of wilderness in Griffith Park.

In all, 58 community members signed up to speak and they got their chance after representatives of the Autry National Center and the lobbyist firm Latham & Watkins accused them of having “misunderstood” or worse “misstated” the Autry’s position on the park proposal.

They were all for approving monument status for the park as long as it fully excluded the Autry.

The Autry, the zoo, Toyon Landfill were among the parts of the park that city planning staff determined were not elements of the historical nature that justified granting special protections.

The Autry, which pays $1 a year lease for its 12 acres and wants to expand dramatically on the 10 unused acres, is the most contentious issue and its continuing dismissal of community opposition only fans the passions of their opponents.

The sore spot has less to do with Griffith Park but its willingness to commit to maintaining the Southwest Museum in the Mt. Washington/Highland Park area as a living museum of western and Indian culture. Long mismanaged, the Southwest — with a collection of art and artifacts far more valuable than the Autry’s — was taken over several years with a promise it would be restored and maintained.

The Autry, once seen as a savior, now faces intense community opposition and the Cultural Heritage Commission spent a lot of time talking what it’s role could be since it is included in the overall monument area but not a “character defining” element of the history.

The issue of the Autry and similar elements was left vague and the staff was directed to develop a policy that would let the commission intervene if any development might negatively impact the park’s character.

In the end, community activists came away pleased that they had gotten as much as they could have hoped for and started gearing up for the dealing with the City Council.

Priming the Pump for Poverty Programs

So how does an out-of-state company that gets paid $32 million under a three-year contract with L.A. County to help welfare recipients get jobs win a contract renewal when it fails to meet five of its eight goals?

This is L.A., baby, so it does it the L.A. way. It hires well-connected lobbyists like Harvey Englander and Associates and it starts spreading the money.

According to Garrett Therolf in the Times, Maximus Inc. of Virginia has contributed thousands of dollars to county supervisors and spent $124,000 on lobbying the county this year, making it the third biggest spender on influence peddling for the first half of the year, according to records.

The money seems to have helped. Maximus is still in the running for a new contract, one that includes a 21 percent bonus for achieving certain goals, despite being rejected by Department of Public Social Services officials, a review panel and the county auditor-controller.

“The recommendation to cut Maximus follows previous efforts by county
officials to sever the county’s relationship with the company, whose
aggregate 13 years of service have been marked at times by significant
shortcomings,” the Times reported.

It may have helped Maximus that the top-rated firm for the contract, Policy Studies Inc., of Denver spent only $5,000 on lobbyists.

Or maybe having Supervisor Don Knabe’s son Matt on the payroll of Englander’s lobbying firm is helping or that Englander himself has served as a political consultant to Knabe in the past.

No way any of that would influence anybody, according to everyone involved.

Whether Maximus gets the contract appears to depend on Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky with Knabe and Mike Antonovish on side with the company and Gloria Molina and Yvonne Burke opposed, in part because they think the job placement work should be done by unionized county workers.

In 2000, Yaroslavsky took heat from the unions for casting the deciding vote for Maximus a year after the company made a $25,000 donation to a political committee run by his political allies fighting efforts to expand the Board of Supervisors.

is likely to be in the same swing vote position again. His spokesman, Joel Bellman,
said: “He is still studying and gathering information.”

A Few Hours of Democracy in L.A. — Signs of Life among the Living Dead

For a few hours Wednesday afternoon, the Los Angeles City Council actually acted like a legislative body debating issues of great public importance as if they represented democracy in action — instead of a conspiracy to hoodwink the people and sell out the public interest.

The issues that caught my ear as I listened in were the Instant Runoff Voting ballot measure and the Luxury Tax on big houses.

The sell in both cases amounted to money, nothing but money. And why not when the city admits to a $110 million current deficit and a looming $400 million shortfall and knows it will get worse in the months ahead.

Instant Runoff is one of those great ideas that works in really democratic communities where there’s lots of candidates for every office, a contentious political environment and competitive races — towns like Berkeley or Santa Monica or Cambridge, Mass.

It eliminates runoff elections by having voters number their first choice, second choice and so on. So when no one gets a majority, the also-rans are eliminated and the second choices are counted until a majority is attained.

In L.A., the unions and such great advocates for the masses as Jackie Goldberg and other ultra-liberals are gung-ho for it because they believe it will all but eliminate the pretense of city elections and allow them to indulge their destructive political fantasies for decades to come no matter what the people think.

Surprisingly, the argument that eliminating runoffs would save millions fell apart because election officials pointed out the near impossibility of doing that in isolation from the state and and county and Councilman Dennis Zine honed in on the fact it would actually cost more for the next few years at the least.

Others spoke up like Jan Perry and noted that underdogs in L.A. stand almost no chance in elections that are as lopsided in fund-raising and insider support as they are unless they can force a runoff. The playing field levels then as it did in her upset win to her first term.

Councilman Richard Alarcon’s class warfare against the rich was even more inspiring since what he proposed had even less merit.

Frankly, I could sooner support a soak-the-rich city income tax than go along with charging them money because they have a big house as Alarcon wants. That at least would represent an honest socialist point of view about redistributing the wealth rather than taxing them on the presumption that owning a big house requires more city services.

By that illogic, residents of poor, crime-ridden neighborhoods would pay higher taxes because they require more cops and support services than affluent hillside residents.

Bill Rosendahl actually got testy about it — a violation of the council’s rules of tepid engagement and unanimous agreement — and Alarcon bristled at the violation, arguing the $10 million his plan would raise would make his class warfare supporters happy even if it wouldn’t do anything to solve the massive deficit problem.

All in all, I took it as a good sign that there was still some life left in City Hall politicians. Maybe, just maybe they aren’t dead souls.Maybe they are just the living dead and we can still resurrect them if we can awaken ourselves.

UPDATE: Rape Kits Backlog

In an orgy of self-congratulations and abdication of responsibility, City Council members agreed Wednesday that the LAPD’s crime lab needs more money to eliminate over the next 30 months the 7,000 backlog of rape kits that have gone untested for DNA for years.

Council members, without even a hint of shame, acted as if they had not ignored the problem and endless warnings for years even as they admitted that an up-to-date crime lab is a  necessity, a basic service, to protect the public.

No sooner had the hour-long discussion of how they are all committed to contracting with outside labs in the short-term and hiring 10 criminalists every six months than officials of Emergency Management Department stepped forward and said they were ill-prepared for the city’s frequent disasters whether its fires, floods, earthquakes or train wrecks.

They said they desperately need three of the seven positions they have been asking for filled to begin to deal with their inability to provide this basic service.

Again, it’s about basic services that aren’t being met even as revenues soared. Now the city faces a massive deficit.

I invite you to respond in comments or email me at with your examples of basic services that are not being delivered.

UNFORGETTABLE: “When I put my word to it, you can take it to the bank.”

That’s what Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said Tuesday at a hurriedly called press conference that he had miraculously found nearly $1 million to pay for testing of semen stored in the nearly 7,000 rape kits that have piled up because City Hall didn’t have enough money to hire lab technicians.

I don’t want to be overly harsh about the mayor’s audacity in boasting about how he keeps promises but maybe the operative word might be “bank” since we all have learned in recent days that they can’t be trusted and are subject to failure.

But let’s not get lost in the question of breaking promises. The issue is untested rape kits and it was put in perspective just last week by City Hall’s persona non grata, Controller Laura Chick, who in a scathing report riled up the public by exposing just how negligent city officials have been in investigating rape cases.

Given the abhorrent nature of rape and other sex crimes, the report prompted the mayor, Police Chief William Bratton and the trio of ambitious City Council members — Jack Weiss, Wendy Greuel and Eric Garcetti — to hold a press conference in time for the evening TV news to announce $950,000 was suddenly available for the LAPD’s crime lab.

Noticeably not invited to the event was Chick for reasons that should be obvious: If she’s going to embarrass City Hall for rolling up a deficit of hundreds of millions of dollars and not solve the most basic problems, then she won’t get invited to the self-promotion party.

The mayor, under whose leadership police requests for adequate crime lab funding were turned down, declared the city has a “solemn obligation to seek justice” when crimes are committed and he now has found the political will to fulfill his duty.

“When I put my word to it, you can take it to the bank,” the Daily News quoted him as saying.. “If you are a rapist and you think you got away, forget it.”

Continue reading UNFORGETTABLE: “When I put my word to it, you can take it to the bank.”

Beverly Hills for Sale: No Offers Refused

The price certainly won’t be cheap but the brand is pure gold — Beverly Hills 90210.

Feeling a lot like the woebegone residents of Los Angeles whose leaders have sold out the city and its people, the community is fighting what they believe is a critical battle against high-rise development that will set the course for the city for years to come.

At issue is a project adjacent to the Beverly Hills for a massive high-rise development at one of the nation’s busiest and most famous intersections — where Wilshire and Santa Monica meet.

It is the dreamchild of tough guy developer, the one-time schlock computer maker Beny Alagem and the hardball lobbyists and consultants he has hired to sell voters on the virtues of Beverly Hills tallest building and two other high-rises that will provide expensive condominiums and a Waldorf Astoria Hotel adjacent to the Beverly Hilton.

Residents see it as the start of something big, way too big –– a domino effect that would turn Beverly Hills into Century City and Wilshire Boulevard in Westwood, creating massive traffic congestion, changing the skyline, polluting the air during five or more years of construction.

For many like Terre Thomas, daughter of the late entertainer Danny Thomas and sister of actress Marlo Thomas, community activism had meant her involvement in St. Jude Children’s
Research Hospital which had been her father’s favorite charity.

know this isn’t the ’50s anymore,” says Terre Thomas, daughter of the late entertainer Danny Thomas and sister of actress Marlo Thomas, 
whose community activism had meant her involvement in St. Jude Children’s
Research Hospital, her father’s favorite charity.

“But some things have got
to stay the same. Many people are very upset at Beverly Hills becoming
a high-rise city and that this will unleash a whole lot of other
high-rise projects. We don’t want to see Beverly Hills ruined.”

Thomas has helped produce a video that tells the story of why so many oppose what Alagem, who has parlayed his wealth from the knockoff computer maker Packard Bell nearly two decades ago into a real estate fortune.

The Planning Commission rejected his proposal after months of review 5-0 but the City Council approved it 3-2, forcing residents to get a petition drive going and get it on next Tuesday’s ballot as Proposition H.

They want people to vote “No” and reject the project, forcing Alagem to come back with a more appropriate sized project.

If it’s any consolation to residents of L.A. who are fighting battles like this all over town, the issue isn’t demographics — Beverly Hills is 85 percent white. BH has an annual household income nearly twice L.A.’s. BH has a tenth the population of L.A. and BH has hundreds of millions of dollars in the bank versus L.A. facing a deficit of hundreds of millions of dollars.

So why did the Beverly Hills City Council ignore the interests of the community and sell out the city’s future? Listen to what the No on H campaign has to say and what the yes on H campaign has to say about this project:


The Fear Factor: No More Mr. Nice Guy

Editor’s Note: I wrote this article for the October edition of Nina Royal’s North Valley Reporter which is now available.

For too long the
politically conscious people of Los Angeles have projected their own
good hearts and good intentions onto their City Council members and
come hat in hand hoping for favors like a speed bump on their street or
been seduced by a smile and flattering word.

If we’re going to change the political culture of City Hall and
save the city from over-development, over-population and over-taxation,
we’re going to have to stop being so naive and get tough with our
elected officials.

The problem in a nutshell is they treat us like their servants and
order us around and make decisions for us that aren’t in our or the
city’s best interests. The elected officials have to be put in their
place. They’re the servants, the public servants and they are handsomely
rewarded for it.

They live like millionaires — and somehow most of them become
millionaires while on the public dole — with the highest salaries of
municipal officials in America and lucrative perks.

listened to a lot of City Council meetings in the last six months and
I’ve attended a lot of commission and city hearings and I’m shocked —
critical as I’ve long been about the arrogance of City Hall — by the
way the pubic is treated.

Continue reading The Fear Factor: No More Mr. Nice Guy

NEWS FLASH: Nick Patsaouras Will Run for City Controller

Nick Patsaouras, president of the DWP Board of Commissioners and a long-time watchdog on public spending, disclosed Monday that he will run for City Controller in the March 3 primary.


Patsaouras, who played a key role in the Villaragosa Administration keeping costs under control and overseeing construction of the new LAPD Headquarters as well as performing similar roles for the County-USC Medical Center and Harbor-UCLA Hospital, will challenge Councilwoman Wendy Greuel for Controller for the right to succeed Laura Chick, who is termed out.

In recent months, Patsaouras has emerged as an advocate for DWP ratepayers and championed creation of an office within the utility specifically to serve as the equivalent of an ombudsman or inspector general.

“I don’t believe in coronations. We need to discuss the issues,” he said a phone interview.

“We need someone in the Controller’s Office who has the experience, technical knowledge and ability to make sure we’re using the best management practices and look after the public’s money..

“We have to think about our kids and the future of the city.”

Greuel, a two-term councilwoman from the East Valley, appeared to be headed towards an easy primary victory without significant opposition until Patsaouras entered the race.

His decision to run for controller caught City Hall insiders by surprise.

“There’s a lot of very surprised people tonight — especially Wendy Greuel,” said one source. “This is not the way it’s supposed to work in LA nowadays. Wendy and Nick travel in the same circles and have many of the same friends and political allies.  Given Nick’s personality, this will be a helluva of a race.”

A Greek immigrant who worked his way through community college and CSUN, he brings 30 years of experience in key roles in city government from the Tom Bradley years through to today.

He runs a successful electrical engineering company and is president of Polis Builders, a developer of mixed use projects.

Patsaouras was a key figure in the MTA and its predecessor transportation agencies and helped drive the subway and light rail projects. The Patsaouras Transit Plaza near Union Station is named in his honor.

He and his wife Sylvia are long-time residents of the Valley and have two grown children.