Back in 2003 when Mitch Englander was his chief of staff, Councilman Greig Smith, with support from Janice Hahn, proposed creating a network of video conferencing stations with fax machines and computers available for ordinary citizens to communicate with City Hall and speak at Public Comment during City Council meetings.
The motion began:
The City of Los Angeles is one of the largest, most culturally diverse and geographically dispersed cities in the country. Nearly 4 million Los Angeles residents speaking 92 languages live and work in 97 neighborhoods located across 472 square miles of hills and valleys. Travel during peak times is often slowed by freeway congestion, mass transit difficulties, and other transportation-related issues. These challenges often make it difficult for City residents to visit City Hall and communicate with the City Councilmembers regarding issues pending before the City Council. Widely used, low-cost technology at key locations could help bridge this communication gap … If implemented properly, a video conference based system will complement ongoing efforts to bring City government closer to City residents using modern technology.
Nine years later, LA is still a vast, sprawling city with amazing cultural diversity among its four million people who are dispersed over 472 square miles. They still find it difficult to move about because of a wretched public transit system, the nation’s most congested and potholed roads.
And now more than ever, LA is in desperate need to bridge the gap, facilitate communication with Council members and bring city government closer to residents using modern video-conferencing technology that has gotten so cheap and available using Skype and other services, even Facetime on I-pad.
What took Smith two years of begging and dealing to achieve — videoconferencing from Van Nuys and San Pedro that allows citizens to comment publicly to the Council during meetings –took his successor Englander just two minutes to kill effective July 1.
The excuse Englander and his Valley Council colleagues Paul Krekorian, Paul Koretz and Tony Cardenas plus public access “champion” Bill Rosendahl used in the May 7 committee hearings on the budget was to save money — exactly $20,976, for part-time contract workers paid $19 an hour four hours to operate the system at the 138 Council meetings a year.
That’s right cutting off the 1.5 million people in the Valley and 80,000 more in San Pedro from the ability to exercise their constitutional right to be heard by their government and to seek redress for their grievances saves $20,976 — out of $7.2 billion in the city budget.
In an effort to please the Budget Committee which demanded a report to justify this anti-democratic action (CAO-memo-videoconferencing), the City Administrative Office came up with an additional cost of $24,821 in direct and indirect costs to have a General Services police officer standing guard — an officer who will soon be getting a healthy raise by making him an LAPD cop and probably still be assigned to protect Van Nuys City Hall from Al Qaeda terrorists.
The video of the May 7 Budget Committee meeting shows the dangerously ambitious Krekorian honing in on how many people used the service in the last year: 20 in San Pedro, 419 in Van Nuys.
“Was any effort made to distinguish how many distinct people that made up?”
“That is not the number of unique visitors but the number of times the service was used,” responded Mark Wolf of Internet Technology. “I would say in general just from my observing the meetings that maybe there is a core of 12 people who utilize it.”
The same is true, of course, most days at the City Council Chamber itself so why not be honest and tell the truth: The public is so alienated from the farce of government at City Hall that only those with a special interest and gadflies ever participate.
Honesty is beyond their ability as Englander shows with his praise for those who used the service, like Miriam Fogler and Rich Nightingale and the other regulars, because of the high cost and waste of time of going downtown to comment to public officials who don’t listen to what they have to say anyway.
Then, he pulled the plug — not just on the gadflies but on the right of all of us to speak out without losing a whole day and wasting a lot of money.
He called for ending the program “not for lack of participation . . . but right now when every dollar counts right now when we’re looking to staff and fund critical services, and we’re talking about eliminating jobs, critical jobs, mechanics that work on fire trucks . . . this is not the time to continue funding” remote access.
How dumb does he think we are? Does he even know what he’s saying?
Last week, they gave $67 million in tax dollars to the nation’s second biggest hotel chain and agreed to pay $300,000 to an out-of-town law firm in case somebody sues to block how they gerrymandered Council districts
This is chump change and they know it. They are liars and they know it although sometimes I think they get so used to lying as a way of life they may actually believe their own nonsense.
Englander even keeps referring to $45,000 being available when he knows full well the cop’s salary isn’t available for other uses.
Then, he refers to using the money for 311 services which have been cut back sharply because as Krekorian pipes in that serves everybody and not just the few. But then somebody whispers in Englander’s ear that it should go to ITA and Krekorian applauds Rosendahl is ecstatic as if $20,976 is going to restore public access TV when the Council has stolen the $5 million a year cable subscribers pay specifically to fund that.
Not to be left out, Koretz offered his analysis: “When people want to be heard about something important, they come here . . . even though it seems like a great idea, I don’t think the actualization of it is worth the present cost.”
Oblivious to what he was saying, Koretz hit on a truth: The actualization of what City Hall is doing is not worth the cost.
That is exactly the reason so many people are angry, why only gadflies bother to speak up at meetings, why so few people vote.
No, this isn’t about public access. It’s about cutting off public access.
Not to worry, Krekorian reassures: “If people do feel the need to come to Van Nuys City Hall and address the Council directly, they have that opportunity on a monthly basis.”
Not exactly monthly but from time to time.
Maybe the time has come for all you Neighborhood Council and homeowner and community group members who have left it to gadflies to speak for the city to do something constructive and fight for the rights of all.
Will you organize a massive turnout at Van Nuys City Hall on Friday to protest or will you sit back and worry about what Englander characterized as your real concerns like “potholes and tree trimming.”