Grappling with the City Budget Crisis: More Money for City Hall or More Power to the People?

Editor’s Note: The following two columns I wrote were published this week in local community newspapers. The first one in Wayne Adelstein’s North Valley Community News and the second one in Nina Royal’s North Valley Reporter.

Remembrance of a Valley Past

Every week, Councilman Greig Smith’s newsletter shows up in my email and every week I keep thinking I wish I lived in Council District 12 instead of a few blocks away in CD3. 

After all, I grew up in a happier time in the 1950s and Smith’s weekly briefing conveys that world of half a century ago when life was simpler and father really seemed to know best.   

For Smith, who has spent his whole adult life on the city payroll, it must still seem like 1954 all over again. Library book sales, youth sports programs, Earth Day celebrations, college reunions, health issues of the elderly, honors for worthy citizens, after-school programs, benefits for veterans, special reports from staff on the Boys and Girls Club and electric lawn motors, community outings, visits from foreigners

All causes and activities worthy of note but not a word about how LA – even Chatsworth and Northridge and other communities in CD 12 – has reached a fork in the road and we have to decide whether this is the tipping point for the city or the turning point where we start to fix all that is broken.   

Even as he was sending out his newsletter, Smith was leading the charge on the City Council to impose dramatic increase in water rates that will almost entirely be paid by his constituents who live in single-family homes, particularly those with horse properties and those with smaller lots. 

The rest of the story…



Can Neighborhood Councils Fill the City Services Gap?

At a recent
City Council meeting where water rate hikes that punish single-family
homeowners and horse properties were approved, Janice Hahn seized on the
failure of the Department of Water and Power’s to reach out to Neighborhood
Councils.

 

“I am very,
very troubled that our Department of Neighborhood Empowerment’s General Manager
(BongHwan Kim) says you do not have a good relationship with Neighborhood
Councils,” the councilwoman lectured DWP General Manager David Nahai in
opposing the rate hike.

 

She noted
the city initiated its first Memorandum of Understanding with the NC movement
to bring the community inside the nation’s largest municipal utility – a
relationship that flourished until Nahai took over and cut off communication.

 

DWP
Commission President Lee Alpert raised the same issue just days earlier and
Nahai – a man widely criticized inside and outside the DWP for his arrogant and
contemptuous attitude – seemed to gag every time he had to utter the words
Neighborhood Council. He couldn’t bring himself to even refer to the DWP MOU
Committee.

 

A year ago
relations deteriorated to the point that the committee’s president, Soledad
Garcia, set up a separate DWP Committee outside the MOU to advocate for
ratepayer rights.

 

It was
Garcia’s group that set in motion what became the No on Measure B campaign that
against all odds stopped a $3.5 billion fraud from being perpetrated on
ratepayers.

 

I raise
this issue because it goes to the heart of what’s wrong with City Hall: Our
elected officials think we the people are so dumb we don’t know what time it
is.

 

They think
that a little lip service and occasional patronizing smiles will keep us quiet
while they cut sweetheart deals in exchange for campaign cash and free lunches
at fancy restaurants. They have good reason to think that way because it’s
worked so long.

 

But
economic hard times have a way of waking people up.

Continue reading Grappling with the City Budget Crisis: More Money for City Hall or More Power to the People?

Free Speech in LA? Help Save Public Access TV

This afternoon, public access TV producer Leslie Dutton 
of the Full Disclosure Network will lead  a group of us from the left,
right and center of the political spectrum before the City Council’s
Budget Committee where we will get a minute or two to plead for some
token of support for a radical idea.

It’s called the First
Amendment. You know that quaint notion embodied in these words:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or
prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of
speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to
assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Free speech is an idea whose time has come — and gone in LA.

For
years, Dutton and people with all kinds of beliefs — from Neighborhood
Council activist Dr. Dan Wiseman to sexologist Dr. Susan Block — could
hold forth on public access TV.

It was pretty bizarre at times to be sure but it was open to one and all and it also produced
serious news and commentary like Dutton’s Emmy-award shows.

Public
access TV was part of the deal that cable companies agreed to in
getting franchises. They provided 14 studios and channels and the
equipment and staffing so that anyone could speak their mind.

But
that ended in January when state legislation stripped cable companies
of their franchises and freed them from providing public access
facilities. Instead, Time Warner which still owns the LA market despite
being de-franchised, has to provide the city with roughly $25 million a
year with $5 million designated by law for capital investment in
public-educational-government TV.

So far, City Hall has shown no inclination to do anything to keep the public element alive.

Instead,
Channel 35 remains a showpiece for government propaganda from the
usually well-staged and scripted City Council meetings to “Fishing with
Herb Wesson” (my personal favorite) and uncritical reports on the
city’s great achievements — shows that are reminiscent of the Soviet
Union’s portrayals of heroic wheat farmers in the Ukraine.  There is
also the tepid educational programming on Channel 36.

The city has the option to maintain four other channels but so far has
refused to, just as it has refused for so long to help fund development
of stronger public access programming.

Anyone who has watched how council members chat or are absent during
public comment or seen how Neighborhood Councils and other community
groups are kept in the dark and excluded from participating in the
debate on major issues knows how little respect City Hall has for the
public or for free speech.

Dutton is not someone to take City Hall’s rebuff quietly.

Last month, she brought together a diverse group of people — Ed Asner,
Stanley Sheinbaum, Arlene Peck, Dr. Charlotte Laws, David Hernandez,
Sandra Needs and me — to help set up the Public Television Industry
Corp. as a non-profit to keep public access TV alive. Each of us has
reached out to others, including former California Attorney General
John Van de Kamp d and Scott Minerd, CEO of Guggenheim Partners Asset
Management.

What we’re seeking is a small fraction of the city’s cable revenue to
help get a four-channel public access system off the ground with
private funding providing the rest of the money needed.

My own beliefs as a newsman is this is critical of we are to stop the
decline of LA and turn it into a great city where people from all over
the world have come in search of freedom, in search of bringing their
dreams to life.

The news media are in sharp decline and are struggling just to survive in
a scaled-down form. The Internet as a news and information source is
still in its infancy.

My own project, OurLA.org. a community-based online newspaper combining
citizen and professional journalism is I believe part of the solution.
Public access TV is another critical element.

Free speech is the first principle of American democracy. We need to
bring it back to life in LA to have an informed populace and the kind
of civic engagement that will break down the barriers of race and class
and bring us together as a city.

I hope you will support the free speech campaign.

Whodunit Chapter 15: Who’s Killing My Neighborhood

It all seemed so simple way back when the case of the house that became a tenement came my way.

Nadya Mahdavi bought a house in my tract out of foreclosure and got cited for construction without a permit and over the next three months wound up with four criminal charges for allegedly converting a single family home into a three-apartment tenement that seemed like a cancer in our neighborhood — the start of what could become the deterioration of modest 50-year-old Valley floor tract into a slum.

But the ownership of the house got flipped three times and her husband Nasir Shaikh emerged as a suspect too. Through month after month of legal maneuvering, the case has dragged on without resolution, costing untold thousands of dollars for the time of Chief Building and Safety Inspector Frank Bush and his team, Assistant City Attorney Don Cocek and various magistrates and court personnel.

Trial is supposed to take place Thursday but it won’t. Shaikh has finally hired a lawyer and undoubtedly will get another continuance.

In the meantime, the house on Haynes StreetBudget_Summary_FY09-10 WEB_0001.jpg in Lower Woodland Hills north of Victory Boulevard has more or less been restored to legal status as a single family home under the law. There’s only one kitchen again and there are passageways between rooms so the apartments are gone although there are multiple tenants.

With maximum penalties of $1,000 per charge and six months in jail, a sentence unlikely to be imposed, it’s hard to see how my neighbors will ever feel justice has been done. There might be some satistaction though knowing that Mahdavi and Shaikh, for all their machinations, say they’re broke, their investments in this house and others under water, and their marriage on the rocks.

As the amateur detective in this case, I’ve come to understand they are not the real criminals. The city is filled with thousands of illegal conversions, illegal granny flats, illegal dwellings that don’t meet minimum standards for a civilized city.

I have sat in court for dozens of hours over the last 10 months and watched prosecutors, city officials, court personnel try to deal with rat-packers, prostitutes, druggies, building code violators, dog fighters and assorted petty criminals of one type or another like a woman cited for smoking a cigarette in the park.

They were dealt with compassionately with occasional stern lectures to get them to change their behavior and comply with the law. They even got compliance from Mahdavi and Shaikh whose profiteering schemes have apparently gone awry.

I also have come to realize the victims of crimes like the illegal conversion in my neighborhood are the people of Los Angeles.

It is we the people who suffer the consequences of the failure of the leadership of this city. It is they who are killing my neighborhood, and yours.

Weak laws with weak punishments, the failure to use civil laws in conjunction with criminal laws, the failure to fund the Building and Safety Department with the money needed to crack down on slumlords and all the others who flagrantly violate laws intended to protect the health and safety of our neighborhoods.

I’ve heard from people all over the city that what happened in my neighborhood is happening just about everywhere.

There are thousands of illegal conversions like this one. There are thousands of granny flats with illegal wiring and inadequate facilities. There are thousands of people getting government housing assistance living in squalor.

It is the shame of this city that the $7 billion we’re pouring into the city treasury isn’t enough to provide effective laws and adequate funding to enforce them.

If there was any doubt in my mind about who’s killing my neighborhood, my city, it was erased when I listened to the budget hearings going on this week when Building and Safety General Manager Andrew Adelman came before Councilman Bernard Parks’ committee.

The mayor admits to having created a $530 million deficit that is soaring so fast it will be closer to $1 billion by July 1 when it takes effect. He says it’s a balanced budget when it’s built out of $80 million in hypothetical revenue from selling off parking structures, $240 million from hypothetical reductions in city worker costs, $146 million from stealing the money for badly-needed parking structures.

It is a fraud and the consequences are disastrous.

Adelman’s testimony makes that painfully clear and he’s only running one department.

He’s supposed to enforce the city’s new proposal for tightening controls on digital and other off-site billboards with three inspectors when there are already 4,000 illegal ones. “It’s a joke,” Councilman Bill Rosendahl (building3.mp3)called it.

He described how the revenue stream from various building permits and fees fully supports his staff in quickly and efficiently carrying out inspections for new projects with its “enterprise” fund. But he noted his code enforcement team is paid for out of the general fund and is facing such steep cuts that the number of inspectors could be cut –“virtual elimination” of code enforcement, Councilman Greig Smith (building1.mp3)called it.

That means a lot of code violators will get away with it, among those Adelman cited being celebrities and other prominent people who have ignored height limits on fences and hedges to protect their privacy. Undoubtedly, more serious violations also won’t be dealt with as Building and Safety focuses its diminished resources on problems where this is an immediate health safety hazard (building2.mp3).

He was complaining, mind you> He accepts the idea of “shared sacrifice,” as the mayor calls it, or “shared responsibility,” as the council prefers. He was just stating the facts in response to prodding by the council who seemed to be staring the truth in the face but too weak to embrace it.

There are answers to this crisis and it’s not selling off our assets or raising our taxes or early retirements. It’s not deferring wage increases or slashing services or laying off city workers.

It’s about the leadership of this city standing up in public and acknowledging their actions over a long period of time are killing LA. It’s about forming a new partnership with the people of the city, not public-private partnerships with corporations happy to profit from our troubles.

It’s about city workers accepting sharp reductions in pay and benefits and most of all, it’s about making the Neighborhood Councils the agents of change by using them and the residents of their communities as the first line of service-providing and problem-solving.

Power must be pushed down and the people must rise up.

I know now who’s killing my neighborhood and I know who can save it.

UPDATE Public Be Damned: Taxi Parking Measure Stalled

EDITOR’S NOTE: The City Council’s rush to please lobbyist Ken Spiker Jr., who represents taxicab operators and billboard companies, by giving taxis an exemption from the ban on long-term parking on residential streets has stalled thanks to community opposition. Here’s the email:

Subj: Taxi Parking in Residential
Areas.

The Department of Transportation, whichThumbnail image for 232123123.jpg opposed this last September, now says next week’s hearing was canceled and has not be rescheduled.

This is to inform you that this item will not be heard at the May 6
Special Meeting  of the Transportation Committee.  This will give
you more time to schedule discussion of this proposal by your NC and/or your
Transportation Subcommittee.

The next regular meeting of the
Transportation Committee is scheduled for May 13; this item may appear on
the May 13 agenda.  I will let you know if this item will be considered
by the Transportation Committee on May 13 as the agenda for that meeting
takes shape.

Yours in public service,
Carolyn Jackson, Senior
Management Analyst
Department of Transportation, Office of the General
Manager

City Budget Day One: Mayor Backs Down on Water Runoff Tax — For Now

At the end of a long day of hearings on the city budget crisis, officials of the Board of Public Works and the mayor’s office admitted Monday there was no “urgency” to efforts to quadruple the storm water runoff tax and it wasn’t a budgetary problem.

The stunning admission, coming just days after the idea suddenly popped up before the City Council, came as community groups were already activating a campaign to defeat the tax measure as they did Measure B. (Earlier item)

The reasons were similar. It was not presented to Neighborhood Councils, no case was made for the tax in public, it was being rushed before voters without any facts that allowed for full debate.

In this case, there was even a subterfuge involved to use a mail ballot to the three-quarters of a million property owners and allow them 45 days to respond while officials, backed by a campaign undoubtedly well financed by contractors and unions, sought to sell on the public on paying more for something they already have agreed to put up $500 million for.

It was nothing but an attempt to get more money out of taxpayers to avoid facing the crisis caused by overspending and underperforming.

The mayor’s representative left open whether the tax hike would come back in several months, presumably with a more methodical approach and hopefully a more honest argument.

David Zahniser in the Times today quotes City Council President Eric Garcetti as saying he feared the tax would face the same fate as Measure B.

“It’s going to get killed, for now,” said Garcetti after discussing the plan at the Los Angeles Current Affairs Forum.

Councilwoman Wendy Greuel said she and her colleagues were troubled by
the speed with which the proposal had moved. “A lot of questions
couldn’t be answered to show that it was ready to go.”

And Public Works Board President Cynthia Ruiz said her agency would now develop a public
outreach plan promoting the
Bureau of Sanitation efforts to remove pollutants from storm water.

What’s really appalling is that Ruiz — like other members of the board draws a six-figure salary — admitted she was pushing the tax to raise nearly $25 million a year to buffer the impact of the department actually having to come up with a 10 percent cost reduction because of the budget crisis.

In other words, the storm water tax had nothing to do with the storm water runoff program anymore than tripling the trash fee had anything to do with hiring more police officers as the mayor claimed.

It’s all about charging the public for basic services so they could pour the money into sweetheart contract and programs that they city can’t afford.

I’d suggest the first step the Public Works Department should take to reduce costs is eliminate the salaries of the board members, the only paid city commissioners. There’s never been any justification for these salaries except to create plum jobs for political insiders.

Public Be Damned: Taxi Drivers Matter More to City Hall Than You

It’s stories like this that remind the newspaper man in me why I love LA, I mean really LOVE.

For pure in-your-face, public-be-damned audacity it’s hard to beat the City Council’s sudden mad rush to lift the ban on taxicabs parking for more than three hours at a time on residential streets.

Campaign money, influence peddling, back room deals — it’s all there between the lines of how a motion by Janice Hahn and Bill Rosendahl back October 2007 germinated into this assault on our neighborhoods, quality of life and sense of place.

Bans on commercial vehicles parking 232123123.jpgovernight or for long periods of times in front of homes and apartments are routine in cities across the region even in LA. They make sense because of the visual blight of advertising and the limited amount of street parking.

The problem that was brought to the City Council’s attention by Hahn and Rosendah — undoubtedly with the assistance of top lobbyist Ken Spiker Jr. who makes a fortune representing both billboard companies and taxicab operators — is where can taxi drivers park if there’s no off-street parking at their homes.

The council duo acknowledged in their motion that “it makes sense to prohibit” commercial vehicles and their signage from parking in neighborhoods.

“This restriction does not allow the numerous taxicab drivers who live in the City of Los Angeles to park on streets outside their homes during non-working hours. Taxis are no different than any other passenger car or van except for the exterior signage. These hard-working individuals often have no other parking option and it makes no sense to penalize taxi drivers simply because of their livelihood.”

The motion sat dormant for 11 months until last September when Department of Transportation General Manager Rita Robinson reported back to the council that the problem is really non-existent, that city parking enforcement is so lax taxi drivers are rarely cited.

Robinson looked at the parking ticket record of the city’s 2,239 cabs over a three-year period and found they were issued a total of 5,319 parking citations — 705 for parking too long in a residential area.

In fact, 80 percent of the fleet had no such citations; 308 just one, 93 just two, “33 vehicles had three tickets, eight vehicles had four tickets, eight vehicles had five tickets, two
vehicles had six tickets each, one vehicle had seven tickets, one had eight
tickets, and one had 13 tickets.”

That works out to 0.15 tickets per cab per year and only “a very small percentage (2.34%) of total taxi vehicle operators” get one or more tickets a year.

She recommended that her report be filed away and forgotten, saying “It is submitted for informational purposes only and no further action is required.”

But that isn’t what happened. Because 53 taxi drivers have even a once a year problem, the council is moving forward on letting 2,239 taxis to park in residential areas and opening the floodgates to all kinds of commercial vehicles with all kinds of signs getting the same right.

We already have sign trailers standing alone trashing out neighborhoods and 4,000 illegal billboards the city does nothing about and digital billboards going up everywhere and now the city wants to let commercialism invade where we live and our children play and we look out on our trees and gardens.

Transportation Committee Chair Wendy Greuel took the lead back in November by putting the pressure on Robinson for a new report but it didn’t surface until March 12, nine days after she won election as City Controller, the public’s watchdog on city government..

At that meeting, GM Robinson did an about-face and with what reads like the gritted teeth of a politicized bureau recommended that “the City Council direct the City Attorney to prepare an ordinance to amend Los Angles Municipal Code Section 80.69.2 to exempt taxis from restrictions prohibiting commercial vehicles from parking in residential areas for periods exceeding three (3) consecutive hours.”

She reiterated what she reported last September “There had not been a substantial number of these types of citations issued in the past three years, and that allowing this exemption may set a precedence for other types of commercial vehicles requesting this same type of exemption in the future.”

She also reported that she had complied with the council’s orders to survey other cities in the area. “We did not find any city that specifies in their local code that taxicabs may park in
residential areas…Most of the cities surveyed do specifically limit commercial vehicle parking (which includes taxicabs) in residential areas.”

But orders and orders and Robinson parodied the council’s willingness to enact this ordinance by calling for several meaningless conditions.

“They should obey all posted or painted signage and curb markings, including any requirements to obtain permits in preferential parking districts. It is recommended that just one taxicab be allowed the exemption per residence.”

She also noted that bandit taxis would benefit from the ordinance since it would be “discriminatory” to exclude unlicensed cab drivers and that many taxis display advertising on the vehicles.

“It is unknown how local residents will react to the sight of taxis (with advertising) parking for extended periods in their neighborhoods.”

For that line alone with its wry wit, Robinson deserves forgiveness for not telling the council to take this ordinance and shove it.

The community is already taking action in that regard.

Blueprint for Bankruptcy: Hearings Start on City Budget, LA’s Future at Stake

The future of LA hangs in the balance of 12 days of City Council budget hearings that get under way at 9 a.m. Monday but only a fool like me would hold any hope that the nation’s highest paid — and most overpaid — municipal elected officials will actually deal with the grim realities.

As proposed by the mayor with his rhetoric of “shared sacrifice” and “reinventing” LA’s middle class, the budget is a blueprint for bankruptcy.

The real sacrifices beneath the surface of the mayor’s proposal are lopsidedly the public’s, the reinvention a recognition that decades of misrule have destroyed the vibrancy of the city’s middle class that will not be restored by selling off future revenue streams, raising fees, rates and taxes even higher or providing a few thousand make-work “living wage” jobs.

The surface itself is a list of possible temporary wage reductions and “deferral” of some wage increases to deal with the estimated $530 million deficit that will be far higher by July 1 and is likely to get as large as the entire general fund budget within five years unless drastic steps are taken now to reduce payroll costs and eliminate wasteful spending and unaffordable programs.

In truth, the mayor — for all his emphasis in public on the sacrifices
being asked of city employees — has proposed
in closed-door negotiations with unions an early retirement plan that
will cost the public tens of millions of dollars and add to future
deficits. 

Already, it has had the negative effect of causing hundreds of employees to delay filing for retirement in hopes of padding their pensions with five more years of credit. The situation will be even worse if his scheme is carried out since he will eliminate a critical layer of managers — some of whom are “deadwood” as the mayor describes workers over 50 and some the experienced talent that have held the system together.

In truth, for all his talk about delivering on his commitment to reach the arbitrary number of 10,000 cops, the LAPD on his watch has grown by only 2 percent — barely 200 overall — with sworn officers doing the work of 600 unfilled lower-cost civilian jobs. There are no more cops on the street and the tripled trash fee has been used to inflate the rest of the city workforce by 10 percent or so and delay the impact of falling revenues and rising costs.

And so we come to the budget hearings, the public’s last chance that the worsening crisis will be dealt with honestly and with courage.

Our hope for genuine reform rests with Budget Committee Chairman Bernard Parks and committee members Councilmen Jose Huizar, Bill Rosendahl, Greig Smith and Controller-elect Wendy Greuel.

As I said, only a fool like me would hold out hope.

With the exception of Parks, who has a bead on the mayor’s police hiring plan for reasons as much personal as professional, none of the committee members has shown more than an occasional moment of independent thought and action.

And they don’t help matters by relegating public comment to the end of each day’s budget hearings schedule so that even if we the people had some thoughts about what needs to be done, we’ll have to call on the indefatigable Zuma Dogg to present them.

Still, I hold out hope. It’s my nature to always look at the way things are and develop a theory on how things could improve. It’s why I’m usually on the losing side but hope springs eternal and keeps me young in my outlook.

I don’t see how any sane person can look at the LA’s financial situation and not come to the conclusion that the situation is going to get worse in a hurry.

Unemployment in the city already is officially at 12.5 percent — that’s one in eight people.  The unofficial rate is roughly twice that, one in four. And more people are certain to lose their jobs in the coming months and nearly everyone is certain to see their incomes decline.

Home prices are down 40 percent or more so more people will lose their homes, Taxes are soaring so there’s even less money to spend in stores. And the increases being put in place — sales tax, water conservation rate hikes, stormwater parcel tax — are all regressive.

They add to the burdens of working people who have lost or live in fear of losing their jobs, their homes, their security, their futures.

The budget hearings involve a parade of bureaucrats who spend hours making the case for more money for their departments. At the end of each day, there’s public comment.

We should know early on whether these five council members are prepared to rise to the occasion and face up to the challenge of seizing this opportunity to restructure city government while there is still time.

The options will be far worse months from now than they are today.

A Week Without Water: The Plight of the People of Shadow Hills

20090424.jpg

Shadow Hills residents Kurtis, left, and Kamini
King, Maria Mejia, Bill McChesney, Mike Graf and Rudy Madrid have all
been battling neighboring property owner Patrick Wizmann over water.
(Evan Yee/Staff Photographer)

Editor’s Note: What good’s a city if it can’t help its people? An email campaign last weekend about the plight of these residents of a Shadow Hills enclave in the rural Northeast Valley aroused dozens of people to plead for help from Councilwoman Wendy Greuel. The DWP had shut off Maria Mejia’s water at the request of developer Patrick Wizmann whose property surrounds the enclave and where therir water meters are located. After high-level discussions involving DWP General Manager David Nahai, city officials decided they were powerless to help, deciding it is a civil matter. I got the information to the Daily News and here is the story published today.

By Dana Bartholomew
Daily News

Patricia Ruffolo had taken a long, hot shower before filling her dog’s water dish and heading out to visit her mom.

But
when she returned to her rental home last Saturday, at the dawn of the
springtime hot spell, she found her water had been shut off — the
latest volley in a bitter and long-running property dispute with a
neighbor.

“It’s been hell — (and) hot as hell, and un-American,” said
Ruffolo, 53, of Shadow Hills, who with her English pointer endured
triple-digit temperatures this week under a dry spigot. “No one should
go without water.”

Ruffolo and several other residents of this rustic
equestrian community have periodically had their water flow reduced or
shut off because of a neighborhood feud that’s straight out of the Wild
West.

On Thursday, Los Angeles County health officials ordered water be restored immediately to Ruffolo and her landlady.

“You
can’t live without water,” said Kenneth Murray, a top official with the
Department of Public Health. “You’ve got to flush the toilets and
stuff.”

On one side of the dispute are a half-dozen neighbors who
have filed numerous lawsuits against Patrick Wizmann, owner of
California Home Development.

The decade of complaints and lawsuits against Wizmann range
from harassment to failure to prepare an environmental impact report
for his project.

On the other side of the dispute is Wizmann, whose plans to build 21 homes on 17 acres were blocked by the neighbors’  suits. On his property lie water meters belonging
to Ruffalo and two of her neighbors, and the leaky underground pipes
connecting them.

Continue reading A Week Without Water: The Plight of the People of Shadow Hills

Stench of New York Pay-to-Play Scandal Hits LA City Hall

For months, the rumor mill has heated up over possible federal investigations of various individuals inside City Hall’s narrow political culture.

There was nothing to back them up until now.

David Zahniser and Walter Hamilton of the LA Times posted a story this afternoon about two LA city pension fund officials getting “informal” inquiries from the Securities and Exchange Commission’s enforcement division asking them “to produce information on their sources of income
since Jan. 1, 2005, including their bank and brokerage accounts.”

The letters to Sean Harrigan and Elliott Broidy, who serve on the Los Angeles Fire and Police Pensions board, were dated April 7, two weeks before news broke in New York about the LA and California links to pension fund kickback scandal.
 
Pro Publica reported Tuesday that the morris.jpgprominent LA investment firm, Wetherly Capital Group, allegedly “funneled $314,000 in checks to indicted political consultant Hank Morris through an
intermediary firm he owned. Wetherly received up to $3 million in fees
for one pension deal in New York, investigators say.”

The indictment described the checks from Wetherly as
“proceeds of criminal conduct.”

Morris, longtime partner with top LA Democratic political consultant Bill Carrick, is accused of taking millions  in kickbacks from firms seeking to invest assets from New York’s $122-billion public pension fund
between 2003 and 2006.

Daniel N. Weinstein, a top Democratic fundraiser, founded Wetherly in 2001, the same year Carrick was guiding James Hahn’s successful campaign for mayor.

Wetherly allegedly shared fees with Morris’ firm, Searle & Co., for helping a private equity firm seal three
multimillion dollar deals with CALPERS and LA’s two city pension funds, LACERS and the LAFPP, Pro Publica reported. The firm is not charged.

The Times story said the SEC asked Harrigan and Broidy “to identify any source of income
greater than $10,000 since 2005 and any document showing communications
they have had with four companies — Aldus Equity, Wetherly Financial,
StepStone Group and Pension Consulting Alliance Inc. — or
representatives of those companies.” The companies have been involved in investing LAFPP assets.

“For purposes of this request, ‘document’ includes, but is not limited
to, memos, letters, e-mails, reports and notes of conversations,” the
SEC letter states.

“Because the facts acquired as a result of this inquiry may be
considered for possible enforcement action by the commission or other
law enforcement agencies, you may wish to consult with your attorney
with respect to this matter.”

Both men were appointed to the board by Mayor Antonio Villaragosa, Broidy previous servingly as Hahn appointee.

The Times said Wetherly hired Harrigan to perform consulting work in 2006,
according to city Ethics Commission documents. Harrigan recused himself
on a vote regarding LA real estate firm CIM Group, a Wetherly client, a year later.

The Pro Publica article is rich in detail and a lot of other LA names come up.

It’s hard to say where all this will go but my journalistic instinct is this story has legs and given the fact the feds are involved and indictments issued it pays to read up on it if you want to be an informed citizen

Antonio and the Fine Art of Political Seduction

The mayor’s first road-show appearance selling his hypothetical $7 billion city budget took me around the corner Thursday afternoon to Providence Tarzana Medical Center where I kibbitzed with leaders of VICA and the United Chambers waiting for the inevitably late Antonio to arrive.

Suddenly, as the program began with antoniopensive.gifintroductions, someone grabbed me from behind in a chokehold. I didn’t have to turn around to know it was Antonio.

It’s a funny relationship we have. I’m probably his harshest critic and yet I like him a lot and we’ve had some long serious chats over the years, though not lately.

“Antonio is a great guy with great potential,” a prominent Valley business leader told me before the event. “It’s tragic for the city that he’s done so little with it.”

That’s how I feel. And that sense of the disconnect between the man himself and his actions as a political leader only strengthened as I watched him in action wooing a crowd that doesn’t share his political views and sees the community they love in jeopardy, the city they love getting worse,

The screen in the front of the auditorium proclaimed “Keep LA Working,” a sign said “Saving Jobs, Maintaining Services,” another showed rows of city workers in four scenarios for how their jobs can be saved with furloughs, deferring raises, additional pension contributions, one less paid hour of work a week.

The mayor smiled and turned on the charm, looked straight into the faces of people in the front, danced through his routine of how terrible the economy is and how no mayor in modern LA history ever was prepared to lay off so many workers, ready to make such tough decisions.

He’s a pro-union guy, no one can question that, he said, but payroll costs have to be reduced 10 percent and the unions are going to have to make concessions or else. The only other way out is early retirements — getting rid of the deadwood was a phrase he avoided repeating.

“We don’t have the money, so let’s figure it out together,” Phil Willon of the Times quoted the mayor as saying in an article only published online like so many these days.

It all seemed so logical, so reasonable, so fair. We’re partners in this crisis. He’s listening to us. He respects our values and interests. He understands the problem is government costs more than we can afford and is fixing it.

Hardly a mention of fees, rates and taxes going up  or that he’s expanding social welfare programs. Ot that deferrals and furloughs aren’t permanent reductions in costs or that early retirement has the same impact on services as layoffs, only worse because it wipes out a generation of experienced managers without regard to the value of their labor.

Willon noted wrily that “he received a much warmer reception than he did in the March election” when the mayor actually ran second in the Northwest Valley and failed to get a majority in the Southwest Valley.

It was the same earlier in the afternoon when he met with 20 or so Valley Neighborhood Council leaders at the home of Al Abrams, Tarzana NC leader and a mayoral appointee to the Board of Neighborhood Empowerment, to listen to their concerns and pitch his budget.

“We have a budget deficit that’s historical and unprecedented, and I believe there’s a way out,” Kevin Modesti in the Daily News quoted the mayor as telling the group.

What a performance, good if not great to be sure, from a super-salesman.

But what is he selling?

Is he proposing a solution to the catastrophic city pension crisis that will require taxpayers to pay 80 cents into pensions for every dollar of police and fire payroll in five years and more than 50 cents for every dollar of payroll for all other city workers? Is he surgically getting rid of programs that we can’t afford or don’t work or the real “deadwood” in the city workforce and getting back to basics?

Or are the real problems being deferred to another year as he did in the current budget and the one before?

That is what is wrong with smooth-talking and glibly gliding over the truth. It all sounds so good in the moment of seduction but it isn’t necessarily love the next morning that you awaken to.

Next week, Councilman Bernard Parks will start budget hearings and attack the mayor’s plan to keep on adding more cops even as other services deteriorate.

He’ll prevail to a degree and free the mayor from his unshakable commitment to the symbolic 10,000 cops promise but the City Council will go along for the ride and we’ll sell off parking revenue that will make things worse in the future and make the pension crisis worse with early retirements.

It will all fall apart within months and the $530 million deficit today will become a $700 million deficit as unemployment goes from 12.5% to 14 or 15 percent and revenue shrinks even farther.

The day is coming when even the mayor won’t be able to talk his way out of the troubles facing the city.