My Last Sunday Column: The Importance of Remaining Engaged — and Taking Moral Responsibility for Your Moral Actions

A young man responded to a recent column by emailing me the story of a moral dilemma he faced when he saw a bee on the ground, unable to fly, its wings flapping desperately, disoriented.

“I stood there watching the bee a long time, just to see if it would fly away… I felt many things, to name a few, sadness anger…Thinking of all the chemicals and pesticides we use on plants, flowers, and how bees and animals, in general, are treated…Anyway I just stood there thinking and feeling bad for the bee so I decided to step on it and end its misery. It sounds mean, but I did it with the best intentions at heart.”

It seems a small thing, I suppose, but something about it intrigued me so I engaged in a conversation with him. He told he never finished high school, working odd jobs more than attending class, and said his name was Abel Montes Jr., and that he was 21 and looking for work.

I thought about his story and our conversation for days trying to understand why crushing a dying bee seemed to hold a greater meaning. It crystallized the other night watching the new movie “Hannah Arendt” about the great writer and political thinker who created a global uproar in 1960 with her account of the Nazi Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Israel.

Her judgment on Eichmann’s role in the Holocaust was captured in her book’s subtitle and its final words — “the banality of evil.”

Watching the trial, she concluded that Eichmann was the epitome of the “good German” — an unthinking (and poorly educated) bureaucrat who did his duty and obeyed the law without taking even the slightest responsibility for his actions.

Arendt accepted his claim that he was not anti-Semitic and argued that the greatest evils in history were not perpetuated by the fanatics like Hitler but by ordinary people who accepted the orders from authority without resistance or challenge, without thinking for themselves.

In other words, we all have the moral imperative to make conscious and deliberate choices, to stand up for our beliefs, even when it comes to whether we walk on by or decide to terminate the life of a dying bee.

I have tried and largely failed for the last 50 years as a journalist, as a citizen, to put into words the world as I see it, as I experience it, to attempt to define the moral calculus of our collective lives. As circumstances would have it, the death of a bee will stand as the last metaphor of my relationship with you on Sundays in the Glendale News-Press, though I still intend to write occasionally on topics of local interest.

It hasn’t been easy writing this column nearly every Sunday for the last three years. I don’t live in the Glendale-Burbank-Pasadena area. I don’t know the communities that well so every week required reinventing the wheel, discovering a story with relevance to the region, and trying to peel away the nonsense to reveal some meaningful core.

I couldn’t have done it without the help of a lot of people including public servants like Glendale City Manager Scott Ochoa and Sgt. Tom Lorenz, the city’s public information officer, whose openness in discussing city issues and willingness to provide access to public documents is in sharp contrast to the way writers are treated in the town I’ve called home for so long, Los Angeles.

For the last 33 years of my 50-year career in journalism, Los Angeles has been my news beat — a city I love and hate, a post-cultural society where traditional institutions of family, tribe, religion are weak, where the myths of absolute freedom have been twisted into a narcissistic belief that you can be anything you want, have anything you want — if you want it bad enough.

It is a culture of greed and selfishness on a scale the world has never seen before.

Many of us come here to reinvent ourselves, to work out our karma as a I did in the San Fernando Valley, where I found a calling at the Daily News as an apostle of the middle class, something I’d run away from in my youth.

The story of the Valley, once the largest geographical enclave of middle-class life in the world, and City Hall’s assault on it has been my story through exposure of the officially-sanctioned use of police violence against the poor and minorities, the documentation of how the Valley is denied a fair share of city services and the trumpeting of the possibilities of what the Valley could be like as its own city — the richest, safest and most integrated big city in America.

After retiring in 2008, I wrote columns nearly every day on my blog about the destructive actions and policies of City Hall, organized community groups to fight for a more responsive and democratic city government and founded a citizen journalism project — all futile efforts in the face of a political system that is as closed and narrow as any in America.

It’s not like that in your communities, which is why I jumped at the offer in early 2011 from News-Press Editor Dan Evans to write a weekly column.

It has been refreshing, cleansing really, to learn more about your communities and see how they work, to break out of the strangling conformity of corporate journalism’s formats, to express myself in writing better than I had ever done before.

You made good choices living in cities where people still count, where the concerns of the residents and businesses are important to officials, where elections are not under the absolute control of a political machine with all the money and power.

Your cities are not paradises, but the streets and sidewalks are paved, the infrastructure generally in good repair, crime low, the economies relatively healthy. They would be even better if more of you paid attention and got involved in community life and the political process.

At a time when America is engaged in a suicidal national political war that is casting a dark shadow over all our futures, we need to take far more seriously what is going on all around us.

We need to stop being “good Americans,” stop accepting the orders of the state, stop surrendering to the controls of the corporations, stop defining ourselves as little more than consumers of goods and services.

We have left the fight for our country’s survival to the fanatics on the fringes and powerful special interests while most of us act like we are just innocent bystanders without a stake in the outcome. It’s time we stand up for what we believe and respect the beliefs of others. It is the only way we will find the common ground and deal successfully with a world that is changing so dramatically.

(THIS ARTICLE WAS PUBLISHED SUNDAY DEC. 1 BY THE GLENDALE NEWS-PRESS)

My Sunday Column: RIP Blockbuster — and Human Connectivity: Who Needs People in a Virtual World

Dish Network, its shares up 50% since March, soared to new highs on Wednesday just hours before its Blockbuster employees were showing up for work in the middle of the night for the opening day of the liquidation sale of DVDs and video games in the last 500 of what once was a 9,000-store chain.

It was the end of an era that began 30 years ago.

Video stores like chain book and music stores before them are victims of the Internet virus — Sam Goody, Tower, Glendale-based Licorice Pizza, Virgin Megastores, Wherehouse, Borders, Crown Books, Walton Books, B. Dalton… the list goes on and on and the job losses are staggering.

Where have all those people gone? Are they working in the warehouses of Amazon — the most destructive company that ever existed because it prefers to eliminate all competition and avoid taxation by never making much of a profit at least until the day comes when there is nowhere else to turn?

Are we, the consumers, so averse to being among other people, of going out and about, that we have become agoraphobic or maybe just so lazy?

You would never have guessed that at 10 a.m. Thursday at Blockbuster’s “flagship” store in the San Fernando Valley, there would be a mob scene of more than 100 customers scooping up handfuls of used DVDs at a 33% discount and used video games reduced 10% or cover inserts for 20 cents each or anything else that was portable from TVs to display cases.

As he rang up sales and clambered up and down an aluminum ladder to remove equipment hanging from the ceiling, the manager of my local Blockbuster was his usual cheery self, unfazed by getting his dismissal notice in an email, unfazed by being at work since 3 a.m. to get his store ready.

“Pride,” Robert Sprout said, “That’s what makes this store so special, why we survived right up to the end.”

After a pause, he added: “And it’s fun….Wasn’t it Sir Isaac Newton who said, ‘If you love your job you never work a day in your life.’ It’s that way for me.”

Actually it was Confucius, but why quibble. The point was well taken. Sprout loved his job, and created an atmosphere in his well-run store that made it fun. He greeted customers, offered his opinion on movies, asked what movies they liked lately.

It isn’t quite the same on Netflix, which suggests you watch movies based on algorithms of what you picked in the past, not on an open-ended conversation that might lead somewhere unexpected. We are dehumanized by our lack of human contact, by our willingness to respond to our computer-determined definitions of who we are as if we were incapable of change and growth.

Sprout loved his job so much, loved the movies so much, loved talking movies with customers, that he worked for Blockbuster for a dozen years, the last 14 months as manager of the Topanga Canyon store in Chatsworth.

“How about a fridge for your man cave, $50,” he suggested to one customer.

“Would you like any popcorn? It’s a dollar now,” he told another.

The customer responds, “We’re sad you guys are going.”

Then he said a few minutes later, “It’s like losing a thousand friends.”

Sprout got the bad news in an email a week ago like the managers of the other remaining stores. He has eight weeks to finish the job of closing the store. Then, he is going to drive to Iowa, visit his grandmother, “have time to watch all the movies I haven’t watched” — and figure out what to do with the rest of his life like thousands of others who will be looking for work when there aren’t very many jobs.

The genie is out of the bottle. The Internet, globalization and so many political, economic and other factors have changed the world we live in and we, in our self-indulgence and narcissism, are active participants in feeding trends that are as toxic to our futures as the greenhouse gases we spew into the atmosphere and the poisons we spew into our waters.

America doesn’t create wealth anymore; we consume. And the disparity between rich and poor grows and the middle class shrinks and we are as indifferent to the plight of others as Marie Antoinette was before she was beheaded.

Yet, there still are odd enclaves that survive the trends even in video rental, businesses like Eddie Brandt’s Saturday Matinee on Vineland in North Hollywood, where 100,000 movies in DVD and VHS formats are available, many of them available nowhere else.

Brandt, a legendary Hollywood figure, died in 2011 at age 90 and the shop has been run successfully by Alex Van Dyne for the past five years.

“We survive because we deal with the old films, all the way back to the beginning of cinema,” Van Dyne said. “We deal with the films people can’t get ahold of, the old movies that people want. That’s our customer base.”

He sheds no tears for the death of the video chain: “The future of rentals is online. That was determined years ago. It was bound to happen, just a matter of time, the path of least resistance. Why get in your car when you can just download something to watch at home. It’s the way things are.”

(THIS COLUMN WAS PUBLISHED IN THE GLENDALE NEWS-PRESS ON SUNDAY OCT. 17, 2013)

Sunday Column: We’re playing a game of national suicide — a game in which everybody is a loser

My favorite Halloween-week movie, promoted at a discount by Redbox, was “Daddy, I’m a Zombie,” described as a coming-of-age film about an early teen named Dixie who turns into one of those living dead creatures that populate, along with vampires, so much of our culture of mass distraction.

I bring this up because in my own earlier years, social critics often referred to America as a nation of sheep intimidated by McCarthyism into silence and held in bondage by strangling rules of conformity.

Today, we have become a nation of zombies staggering through our lives while the rapacious vampires feed their lust for power and blood money.

The only music we can hear is our own song. We aren’t talking to each other. We communicate mostly though social network and text message. There is no public conversation unless it involves Miley Cyrus — an important point since the generation gap has become a chasm that cannot be bridged.

We’ve come a long way to getting past our separations by race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality, but now we segregate ourselves by insisting we’ll only engage those who share our beliefs and values — the like-minded cohort that is so easily manipulated by the cynics and masters of power.

We used to worry about the mind-numbing impact of eight hours a day in front of the boob tube. Now we carry it with us 24/7, infecting our consciousness with digital blips from cyberspace as we live unreal lives in virtual worlds.

We have lost touch with reality and with each other.

It has been building for a long time, from the impeachment of Bill Clinton for sexual misconduct that would get the vast majority of our politicians removed from office if the truth about their indiscretions were known.

We blamed Bush and Cheney for wars that had bipartisan support after 9/11 with hardly a peep from anyone of influence questioning our nation’s lockstep march to eternal wars that now are used to justify spying on everyone in the world’s mail, email, phone calls and Internet browsing.

What a joke! A government that can’t build a website to help us buy healthcare, or figure out that people like Edward Snowden, Bradley Manning or Aaron Alexis are security risks, isn’t a threat to play the role of Big Brother as much as a senile old grandfather.

Yet, several times a day the tea party blasts half-truths to mostly well-meaning, decent people in an effort to squeeze another few dollars out of them, playing on their fears and their anguish over a world that no longer makes any sense to them.

They accuse Obama of “crimes against humanity,” of doing “everything in his power to subvert and ignore the Constitution and the power of Congress,” aiding “terrorists with money and weapons, destroying the economy” and trying to “give amnesty to millions of illegals.”

“His true colors have been exposed: he is a dictator bent on shoving his radical agenda down our throats,” they said, calling for his impeachment while urging supporters to “lock and load” their weapons.

And now they are going from borderline seditious words against the president to cannibalizing their own by trying to oust all moderate Republicans, even the very conservative Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who dared to engage in discussions on how to fix the budget.

It’s their right, to be sure, to say anything they want. It is still, after all, a free country. But surely there are limits — it is well established you can’t scream “fire” in a crowded theater.

This is a very crowded theater, this America, and we are committing national suicide.

Incredibly, liberals delight in it as much as conservatives.

More than anyone, they are the political vampires concealing themselves behind benign smiles and feigned warm hearts while selling out to every conceivable special interest from Los Angeles to Sacramento to Washington, D.C., to keep power.

We are a nation divided against itself and, as we should have learned from the Civil War, in President Abraham Lincoln‘s immortal words, a house divided against itself cannot stand.

We are consuming wealth, not creating it, in a global economy where our richest corporations and individuals do their best to avoid taxation; where the middle class is being squeezed, has been squeezed for decades, and the opportunity to rise to the middle class grows dimmer by the day; where spying on ourselves and our allies seems rational in the name of a war on terrorism that is less a threat than the war on ourselves.

How can anyone in their right mind actually think we are on the right track is beyond me. It’s like a marriage gone bad after so many good years. There has to be a starting point where we can talk to each other again, where we can hear each others’ songs again, where we can find common ground and move forward.

But that would require turning a deaf ear to all those voices out there that flatter our basest feelings and those voices already inside our heads that insist on their righteousness, telling us we do not need to listen to somebody else’s song; that in a narcissistic world, we are all that matters.

(THIS COLUMN WAS PUBLISHED SUNDAY IN THE GLENDALE NEWS-PRESS AND POSTED ONLINE AT THE NEWSPAPER WEBSITE ON TUESDAY)

 

My Sunday Column: Living the Dream at Stengel Field — Will the Major League Step Up to the Plate to Help Fund a New Stadium?

Every child ought to have a dream, a big dream. It ought to be a human right.

Mine was to be a major league baseball player. It was the summer of 1948 and my family bought our first house and I listened to Jimmy Dudley and Jack Graney on the radio and cheered the Cleveland Indians into triumph in the World Series, the second and last time my beloved tribe won a championship.

We played stickball up against the stairs in front of my house. When the weather was bad, we played games like All-Star Baseball, and when there was nobody to play with, I invented baseball games with dice: pencil stubs for bats and marbles for balls.

I lived baseball and became a math whiz-kid, keeping my own sets of statistics on Lou Boudreau and Dale Mitchell and Larry Doby and Al Rosen and Bobby Avila and the Big Four pitching rotation of Feller, Lemon, Wynn and Garcia.

And I came to hate the Yankees — Mantle, Berra, Rizzuto, as well as Whitey Ford, Ed Lopat and Allie Reynolds, and all the other great players they could buy.

It was money that made the Yankees who they were, going back to 1920 when they paid Boston $125,000 for George Herman “Babe” Ruth, the Red Sox star who led his team to three World Series in six years, setting the record for shutout innings in the World Series and, in 1919, shattering the home-run record with 29 while doing double-duty on the mound.

From then on, the Yankees, the damn Yankees, were the best team money could buy.

And then, in my youth, there was Casey Stengel, the legend himself, the “old perfessor,” who guided the team to a record five-straight World Series championships that ended in 1954 when the Cleveland Indians, my Indians, won a record 111 games and then lost to the New York Giants in four straight. He won four more pennants and two more World Series in the following four years.

Stengel was a clown genius who said, and sometimes did, outrageous things. He was a managerial wizard who could keep a team of overpaid drunks and womanizers performing at the highest level.

In an age of conformity and McCarthyism, he was the rarest public figure — someone who spoke his mind with a homespun Kansas humor and sense of irony, a manager who didn’t require his fun-loving players to live by the rules. They coined a word for his brilliantly garbled speech. They called it Stengelese.

“The trouble is not that players have sex the night before a game. It’s that they stay out all night looking for it…. They say some of my stars drink whiskey, but I have found that ones who drink milkshakes don’t win many ball games…. Never make predictions, especially about the future…. All right everyone, line up alphabetically according to your height.”

There are hundreds of such quotes, but the one relevant to this moment occurred in 1952 when Stengel, who had come to live in Glendale during the off-season, was being honored by the city.

“I feel greatly honored to have a ballpark named after me, especially since I’ve been thrown out of so many,” he said at the time.

Casey Stengel Field, formerly Verdugo Park Municipal Baseball Field, was just three years old at the time, a beautiful stadium with locker rooms and facilities rarely found in a city ballpark.

To generations of young ball players and baseball fans, it was a jewel of the Jewel City. Crescent Valley High, the community college, the youth leagues played there in what seemed like the big leagues with a playing field that is still as terrific as ever.

But the stadium is a teardown. Water has damaged the structural integrity of the stadium so badly that it was declared unsafe to use in 2011. In June, the bleachers were closed off — except for the two lowest rows, allowing seating for only 300 when crowds of 1,000 are still common.

Last month, the city cut a short-term deal with Glendale Unified to take over running Stengel Field and last week the City Council approved an expenditure of $450,000 to demolish the stadium and put up temporary bleachers.

The story doesn’t end there; it’s only the beginning of the next chapter for Casey Stengel Field.

The school district and many business and community leaders are organizing a fundraising drive in hopes of coming up with the $8 million it will take to build a great new stadium and preserve the history and importance of the facility.

“Our hope is that the Yankees relationship with Casey Stengel might help,” said Bryan Longpre, who grew up playing ball at the stadium for Crescenta Valley High and in youth leagues. “There’s a lot of money in baseball and many people in the baseball community would be very willing to help … it’s not just the Yankees, it’s the Dodgers and it’s the business community and all the people who have been around Glendale a long time.”

Longpre, 26, made it as far as the minor leagues with the Toronto Blue Jays before a sore arm forced him to give up the game last year. He now works for the Stone-Beck Group at Morgan Stanley in Glendale as a financial adviser and was the lone speaker to the council last month on the effort to restore the stadium.

“There’s so much history there. I’m hearing stories from people who grew up in the community, people who knew Casey Stengel, people who played there, who watched games there,” Longpre said. “They really care about that stadium and what it’s meant to the community. There is a lot of support out there. We just have to ask for it.”

As someone who has loved the game as much as Longpre, who has devoted so much of his life to it and gotten so much from it, there is something really important at stake.

“I lived the dream,” he said. “I hope there’s kids out there today who get that same chance. They deserve it.”

(THIS COLUMN WAS PUBLISHED BY THE GLENDALE NEWS-PRESS 10/27/13)

My Sunday Column: Getting Their Names on the Vietnam War Memorial Wall — ‘Lost 74’ Sailors of the USS Frank E. Evans

A year after graduating from Hoover High School, where he was a star pitcher who attracted attention from major league scouts, Seaman Apprentice James Kerr found himself sitting on a dock at Subic Bay, near Manila, chatting with Signalman Stephen Kraus as they waited to go out to their ship, the destroyer USS Frank E. Evans.

This was Kerr’s first assignment after boot camp. It would also be his last.

Days later, at 3:15 a.m. on June 3, 1969, the Evans was cut in half by the Australian aircraft carrier, the HMAS Melbourne, during a multi-national training exercise called “Sea Spirit.” The bow half of the Evans, where Kraus was on watch and where Kerr was asleep below, sank in less than three minutes, while the aft half stayed afloat.

It was a freak accident that led to formal military inquiries and court-martials.

For 74 of the 278 crew members — including 18-year-old James William Kerr — it was the ultimate sacrifice, a tragic end to their lives. Kraus was among the lucky 40 or so who were rescued, although he was fighting for his life in the South China Sea for more than 30 minutes.

“I can’t imagine the grief my parents went through to lose a child, especially in such a horrific, by-chance accident,” said Fred Kerr, 15 months younger than his brother and now a San Luis Obispo-area resident.

“For up to a week after he dies, we’re getting letters to me or my sister and he says, “Hey, say hi to Mom and Dad.’ For my mother, who is 94, it’s like he left and never came back. There’s no headstone. There’s no closure,” Fred Kerr added.

They are called the Lost 74 and the grieving has never ended for the loved ones, the parents, the siblings, and in some cases, the children. They all want closure and over the last 44 years, that has come to mean getting the names of the Lost 74 on the Vietnam War Memorial.

They have a great claim that until now has fallen on deaf ears of U.S. presidents — Democratic and Republican — and a string of defense secretaries.

The USS Evans was providing artillery support for troops on the ground in Vietnam when it was ordered to join several dozen other naval vessels for the training exercise off the coast of the Philippines. It was scheduled to return to the combat zone after this show of force, put on for China, Russia and anyone else who might be tempted to take advantage of America’s fading support for the war.

When the ship sank, it was 110 miles outside the “designated combat zone,” which Kraus, vice president of the USS Frank E. Evans Assn., describes as “initially drawn up arbitrarily for administrative purposes so the IRS could determine which pay to tax and which pay to not tax in war areas.”

The association grew out of a reunion event in 1992 that has become an annual affair bringing together veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam who had served on the ship, as well as the families of those who died. It pushed to pass the Fairness to Veterans Act that would revise the combat zone rules, but the bills died in congressional committees.

Then they got thousands of signed petitions pleading for an exception to the rule, as quite a few others who died on R & R or in other situations had gotten, but to no avail.

“It’s not a popular issue,” laments Kraus. “They say it will open the floodgates.”

Along the way, they found a champion in local Congressman Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), who got support from the Secretary of the Navy, among others, only to be rebuffed by then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and his successor, Leon Panetta.

“I met with some constituents and it seemed like an awfully compelling case and should certainly bring some solace to the families,” Schiff said in a telephone interview Wednesday just minutes before the House voted to end the deadlock over federal funding and the debit limit.

“It seemed awfully arbitrary that a line in the water should decide who should be commemorated on the memorial and who should not,” Schiff said. “Having met these families, I can see what this would mean to them. It doesn’t detract from anybody else’s sacrifice. If others have a compelling case, they should be recognized too.”

One of those constituents was Tim Wendler, a Pasadena environmental engineer who was seven days shy of his second birthday when word came that his father, Radarman Ronald Thibodeau, then 23, was among those lost at sea.

“I never really had the chance to know my father,” said Wendler, liaison to the families for the USS Evans Assn. “My mother was devastated for a long time.”

Like most of those who have gotten involved, it was the Vietnam War Memorial — the wall designed by Maya Lin — that inspired hope for closure.

“My grandfather went to visit the wall and expected to see his son’s name on the wall. It wasn’t there,” Wendler said, adding that “because only one body from the Lost 74 was recovered, it’s so much harder to get closure. To be able to have their names on the wall will help.”

A lot of people have tried other ways without finding the closure they are looking for. James Kerr’s name is on the Glendale War Memorial and the Sage family, of tiny Niobrara, Neb., who lost three sons that fateful day — Gary, Gregory and Kelly, none older than 22 — have a memorial to them in their hometown.

Then-Sen. Chuck Hagel attended the rededication ceremony in 1999 and praised them for their sacrifice. A Vietnam veteran himself and now Secretary of Defense, Hagel holds the hopes of the USS Evans families and survivors in his hands and has promised to meet with Schiff to talk about an exception.

A lot of people will be watching, including Stephen Kraus, who says that Eunice Sage, the three young men’s mother, only wanted their names on the wall “to see that they were recognized as part of the brotherhood of that conflict. If we can do this and get it done, we can at least get some of those fathers and mothers, if they’re still alive, and their brothers and sisters, to say this definitely is closure.”

If there’s a takeaway for me from talking to the USS Evans community, it’s this: In this 21st-century America that seems to be perpetually at war with somebody or other, old soldiers — or sailors — never die. They just fade away — and not enough of us even notice or care.

(THIS COLUMN WAS WRITTEN FOR THE GLENDALE NEWS-PRESS FOR 10-20-13)

Here’s the song of the USS Frank E. Evans, compliments to composer Tom Guerra:

 

My Sunday Column: Is the Civil Grand Jury Relevant? Are Ordinary Citizens Any Better at Governance Than Politicians?

The Los Angeles County civil grand jury got a well-deserved thrashing last week from local officials for its dumbfounding end-of-the-year report on the financial health of the county’s 88 cities — a report that made Glendale, Burbank and Pasadena seem more like bankrupt Stockton and San Bernardino than the prosperous suburbs they are.

It wasn’t the first shot the 23 civic-minded citizens who volunteered for the job took at Glendale.

You might remember that just before Glendale’s election last April, the grand jury dropped a bombshell report that called into question the legality of the city’s transfer of $21 million in “surplus” electricity revenue to the General Fund and cast doubt on the competence of city officials in putting a Charter amendment on the ballot that didn’t clear up the issue by replacing the transfer with a straight-out tax.

It was an unprecedented interference into a local election by the grand jury and it had an impact, helping to defeat the ballot measure.

“If anyone in the city had done that, they would probably be prosecuted,” Glendale Councilman Ara Najarian said at last Tuesday’s City Council meeting, where an official repudiation was made of the grand jury’s year-end report on the most critical local issue of our time, the financial health of the cities.

“The (year-end) report tells a story and that story is failure of a process,” he said.

It’s clear a lot of time and money was spent gathering data, but the astonishing conclusions reached obscured the value of the statistics.

On the upside, you can see for yourself why cities have problems in the fact that there are 772 fat cats on city payrolls making more than $200,000 — two-thirds of them working for fire departments or municipal utilities.

More than half — 411 — are on the payroll of Los Angeles. Locally, Glendale has 15 and Pasadena has eight, while Burbank has 14, although it isn’t in the same league with Beverly Hills, a third its size, 1/100th the size of L.A., with 64 fat cats.

Where the report goes astray is in leaping to conclusions solely on the basis of comparing raw financial data without a deeper understanding of the details — or explaining why cities with the best financial practices often are ranked lower than those with the worst practices.

For instance, how come South Pasadena jumped from 82nd to 32nd place for financial health while ranking 55th for following best financial practices? Or how come Cudahy, ranked worst in the county for financial best practices, was given an average fiscal-health ranking as fiscally healthier than Glendale (57), Burbank (57) or Pasadena (45), soaring 21 places to 34th place?

Maybe corruption is good for a city’s financial health; federal investigators have exposed “a long list of people” involved in bribery and extortion in Cudahy.

Najarian offered an explanation for what was wrong that called into question the entire civil grand jury system.

“The process is collecting volunteers from the community, lay volunteers, volunteers who know nothing about finance or municipal government or municipal finance in general, to pass judgment on our city and other cities,” he said. “Now these jurors, many of them retired from all walks of life, have no requirement for any experience or training or education in these fields and they are led along … very much led by County Counsel, who may or may not have an agenda.”

At that point, Najarian reached for the Fitch Ratings report released on Monday. It affirmed Glendale’s “AA+” credit rating, much as Standard & Poor’s had previously affirmed both Glendale and Burbank’s “AAA” rating, the highest.

“Sound reserve levels, good liquidity, satisfactory financial performance and prudent financial policies and budgeting practices,” Fitch said.

“Glendale is a safe-and-sound city with excellent financial practices,” Najarian added. “To me, we can take that grand jury report and build a bonfire with it to keep us warm in the upcoming winter months.”

Added City Manager Scott Ochoa, “This is a very simple case of garbage in, garbage out … in my professional opinion.”

Ochoa pointed out that the Tri-Cities, each with its own utility system, got dinged for transferring “surplus” electricity revenue to their general funds and got further punished for their past reliance on the now-defunct community redevelopment funding mechanism that left them dangling in the wind over when, and how much, of redevelopment loan repayments will be approved by the state.

The County Counsel offered no explanation for how this kind of meaningless nonsense could be disseminated as if it had significance, citing attorney-client privilege protecting disclosure of what legal advice was given and noting the grand jury does what it wants.

It is time to take a hard look at whether the civil grand jury itself is a relic of the past and no longer relevant.

The 23 grand jurors included 21 retired people; 16 men, seven women; four blacks, two Latinos, 16 whites and one person who was classified as “other.” Not very representative of L.A. County, to be sure. But what can you expect when 320 of the 396 original candidates were retired, with only 10 under age 35, and men far outnumbering women?

Back in March and the effort to scuttle the Glendale election, grand jury Foreman Frederick Piltz warned that passage of a Charter amendment clarifying the language allowing the revenue transfer “might” lead someday to violations of Propositions 26 and 218, so the “maximum utility of this investigation would best be served by publishing this investigation at this time.”

The report expressed concern the city was “erroneously interpreting” the law and then misstated the upshot of a legal case that the Howard Jarvis Taxpayer Assn. won to block transfer of water revenue as a violation of the state Constitution — a protection that did not apply to electricity.

This is all very discouraging to someone like me who believes in government of, for and by the people, and who thinks the answer to the selling out of the public interest at all levels by professional politicians is devolution of power closer to the people.

Certainly, something has to change, or nothing the new grand jury does will be taken any more seriously than the actions of the last one.

(THIS COLUMN WAS PUBLISHED SUNDAY IN THE GLENDALE NEWS-PRESS)

My Sunday Column: Facing the State’s Day of Reckoning — When Tyranny of the Super-Majority Has Its Day

Gov. Pete Wilson suffered a power outage over his Prop. 187 assault on illegal immigrants. Gov. Gray Davis self-destructed over runaway spending policies that hurt just about everybody. And the politically ambivalent Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s big ideas went up in the cigar smoke emitted from the tent where he schmoozed with cronies from both sides of the aisle.

Gov. Jerry Brown is in a different position. Having been there before, and now with super-majorities in both the Assembly and Senate, he can do just about anything he wants. So what happened in the recently concluded legislative session offers some guidance about where California is headed.

Take for instance the multitude of issues affecting the quarter of the California population who are legal or illegal immigrants from other countries — about twice the national average. From what went down in the state Legislature, you might think they mattered more than the 75 percent who are actually U.S. citizens.

The most significant legislation on the subject was a bill that was revived and passed at the last minute with the approval of the seemingly all-powerful governor and even a few Republicans.

It would allow those here illegally to get driver’s licenses that would be marked in some way to identify their status so that, theoretically, they couldn’t be used to get work, public benefits or vote.

Despite the complaints from some that this is a reward for illegal behavior, it is long overdue. It will prompt a lot of the 1.4 million eligible immigrants without proper documentation to provide photos and fingerprints to get licenses, buy real insurance and register their vehicles — and leave those without licenses facing legal consequences including fines and 30-day impounds, laws that have been shelved in Los Angeles and other sanctuary cities.

In a lot of places in California, unlicensed drivers account for up to 25 percent of all drivers and a lot of them are responsible for giving the state the highest rate of hit-and-run accidents in the nation.

Other legislation, like allowing legal immigrants to serve as jurors, poll workers and lawyers, seem more like a slap in the face to those who take citizenship seriously.

Do we really not have enough lawyers, poll workers or jurors? Don’t people involved in these roles have to have a clear sense of what America is about as the land of the free as well as an allegiance to the Constitution?

And what possible benefit to public safety and public interest is there in the state banning local jurisdictions from holding arrestees in this county without permission until Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents can process them? Don’t we want to get them out of the country, rather than back on the streets?

It really doesn’t matter much, since the governor was full in charge of the legislature in a way we haven’t seen in a long time; so he felt the need to offer no more justification for the preoccupation with immigration than that he was sending a message to Washington to pass a long-overdue immigration reform bill.

In fact, he was giving the left what it wanted on largely secondary issues — like making it harder to fire bad teachers and muddling the rules on student testing, like requiring overtime for domestic and home care workers, and making serious youth offenders eligible for early parole unless they got life sentences.

By pandering to the left on these issues, Brown — with a long history of canoeing a little bit left and a little bit right — was able to hold the reins on the legislature’s runaway spending proclivities while giving the business community everything it wanted, with one exception: He agreed to a 25% hike in the minimum wage to $10 an hour.

As usual, the governor and legislature left a lot of important issues in a total mess — issues like prison overcrowding and the expanded funding of schools with income from Proposition 30 and sales tax increases. Voters bought the school funding plan believing it would restore harsh cuts imposed on every school district. But instead of delivering on that promise, the governor chose to redistribute the money from good schools to bad schools and left school officials everywhere in the dark about how much money they will actually get.

Still, the day of reckoning is coming, the day when the total domination of California politics leads to the fulfillment of the long-ago prophecy that the nature of democracy in America would inevitably lead to a tyranny of the majority.

That is already true in Los Angeles, where the political system has total and absolute control without effective countervailing power unless dissidents have the resources to go to court.

The real question at this point is when that will happen in the Legislature.

Brown has been able to able to forestall pressure from labor and business to write loopholes into Proposition 13 and the state’s environmental laws, and he may even have been able to put them off through the 2014 elections, when it appears the 75-year-old governor intends to seek re-election and the Democrats are likely to retain their super-majorities.

So then what?

When business and labor are as happily in bed with each other as they appear to be, you have to wonder how the 88 percent of workers who aren’t in unions and the 99 percent who are not capitalists will fare.

That leaves the fate of California in the hands of Republicans. They could field candidates in swing districts with centrist views that appeal to mainstream voters or they could continue to demand the same ideological purity that we see pushing the nation to the brink of catastrophe in Washington, D.C.

Personally, I believe in a world where everybody is worthy of respect and inclusion, even those I disagree with, if they are sincere in their beliefs.

Why do I feel so alone?

(THIS ARTICLE WAS PUBLISHED SUNDAY IN THE GLENDALE NEWS-PRESS)

My Sunday Column: Mike Gatto and the condom measure — The Perils of Politician and How Hard It Is To Speak the Truth

Mike Gatto is a clever fellow. But like a lot of smart guys, he’s sometimes too clever for his good.

A case in point came a week ago when the AIDS Healthcare Foundation denounced the assemblyman as “a pornographer’s best friend” for blocking consideration of a bill that would require the use of condoms in all adult film production in California, a requirement approved by Los Angeles County voters last year.

The group’s president, Michael Weinstein, accused Gatto during a teleconference of “single-handedly” putting the measure on hold and refusing to let it come to a vote even when his stated concerns about its constitutionality were answered by a federal court judge in late August.

“He is serving the interests of the pornographers,” Weinstein said in announcing that 1,000 protest letters were being sent and a robo-call campaign to 100,000 of his constituents was under way.

What had happened was this: Back in May, Gatto, as chair of the powerful Assembly Appropriations Committee, put a hold on the bill, AB 332.

A month later the bill’s author, Assemblyman Isadore Hall (D-Compton) gutted another bill of his, one that dealt with regulating tobacco sales, and put the language of the condom measure in its place. The tobacco bill already had cleared the Assembly but when it was changed to a condom bill, it got stalled in the Senate Rules Committee because of what they call the “jailbreak rule.”

It is a long-standing rule of the legislature, one that is only violated in exceptional circumstances, that a bill held in a committee of one house cannot be taken up in the other house without the express permission of the committee chair, in this case Mike Gatto, or the Speaker, currently John Pérez.

“The protocol and accepted practice is we would not move the bill unless the leadership of the Assembly, meaning the Speaker, asked us to do so,” said Mark Hedlund, communications director for Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg.

Yet here’s what Gatto told the L.A. Times: “I don’t control the California Senate. I’m flattered, but there are two houses of government.”

And the Daily News: “I have not made any decisions. We’re really not quite sure what they are talking about. It’s clear they are trying to engage in some public brow-beating. It’s before the Senate. It’s not before me.”

There is no possibility that a guy as smart as Gatto doesn’t know the rules as well as anybody, so at the least his comments are misleading and disingenuous.

With several new cases of HIV infection in the adult film industry in less than a month, there are concerns of a serious outbreak that could get worse.

Opposition to the condom requirement has come from the adult film industry and the Valley Industry and Commerce Assn., a leading voice of the business community in the San Fernando Valley, where for decades most of the nation’s pornography has been produced.

VICA President Stuart Waldman called the measure a “bad bill,” saying it contained no funding mechanism and “doesn’t really solve the problem.”

“This is a $6 billion industry just in the Valley,” Waldman said. “Requiring the use of prophylactics will drive this multibillion-dollar industry out of the state.”

Since passage last November requiring the use of condoms in L.A. County, the number of permits for adult filming has dwindled from 500 permits in 2012 to just two this year.

Thursday was the hectic last day of this year’s state legislative session, with intense wheeling and dealing going on, but Gatto agreed to answer my questions in writing.

I submitted emailed questions about why the condom bill was held in his committee and whether the last-minute negotiations on it were likely to lead to it going forward.

The key question was this: “How does the Assemblyman square his comments to the Times and Daily News with the ‘jailbreak rule,’ which is intended to prevent utter chaos and destruction of the committee system?”

In his emailed response, Gatto noted the bill was held “on suspense,” along with hundreds of others, “because of cost concerns,” litigation and enforcement costs in this case amid doubts about “whether such a law could ever be enforced.”

He suggested state inspectors might be required on film sets, saying, “Imagine a government official asking a filmmaker, ‘Excuse me Mr. Spielberg, but what will your upcoming film portray, and would you mind if we posted a monitor on the set?'”

He noted the bills, if passed, would not take effect for more than a year, so they would have no impact on reducing concerns about an HIV epidemic in the adult film industry and addressed the core question this way:

“As for the rest of your questions, I know even you can’t seriously expect me to try to prove a negative. The California Senate has its own rules, and I serve in the Assembly. I can tell you that the framers of our constitution put legislative procedures in place specifically to avoid hasty, emotional decisions, and prevent tactics that undermine the legislative process and committee procedures.”

His response ended: “It’s clear that AHF is trying to bully the legislature into spending taxpayer money, and that they don’t understand the legislative process. There are two houses of government, and I don’t have a vote in the Senate, let alone control it.”

He’s sticking to his guns and denying that there is a protocol of civility between the Assembly and the Senate, insisting the “jailbreak rule” does not have the force of law, so it is irrelevant.

So it’s not Mike Gatto’s fault the condom bill died as the session ended. Just ask him.

(THIS COLUMN WAS PUBLISHED SUNDAY IN THE GLENDALE NEWS-PRESS)

 

My Sunday Column: Get up and do something about the homeless — The LA River & The Passion of Robert the Walker

My connection with Robert the Walker started back in March with an emailed copy of his letter to Burbank officials about how much he loves the newly-opened Glendale Narrows portion of the Los Angeles Riverwalk and the sadness he feels seeing homeless people living there.

He didn’t get an answer to his question: “How about a couple of bucks to create a sanctuary for the homeless, vagrant scavengers that are living (on) your streets?” Several dozen emails followed in the ensuing months.

They contained pictures of the beauty of the Narrows and the ugliness of homeless people hidden in the nooks and crannies and the trash they leave around.

His missive at the end of August pushed me to take a greater interest: “Seeing some innocent kids going down to the river at night to have their fun, or a single woman walking her dog. Would these innocent folks represent an opportunity to the homeless who have nothing … this is a disaster waiting to happen.”

So I made a date for Robert the Walker’s Glendale Narrows tour — a date that coincidentally occurred the same morning last week when I got an email from Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti about the city’s 232nd birthday. (Watch Garcetti’s video up the river with a paddle http://youtu.be/K9RHFMuJu3A)

“The L.A. River is the best-kept secret of Los Angeles! You can bike, kayak, walk and run throughout the 51-mile stretch with great scenery like Glendale Narrows and Atwater Crossing,” Garcetti wrote in explaining it was the public’s choice to use photos of the river to greet tourists arriving at Los Angeles International Airport.

Still, I was not prepared for the beauty, the serenity I encountered when I met up with Robert the Walker or the truly L.A. vista of natural beauty amid two massive freeways and steel-and-glass high-rises — the light and dark of a schizoid place in a single image.

We were at the start of the mile-long first-phase pathway, the exact point where Burbank, Glendale and L.A. meet — a political and law enforcement no-man’s land.

“This is a bird habitat, birds you don’t see every day,” Robert the Walker explained. “That’s a stilt over there. That black bird there, standing on the rock, that’s a cormorant. That channel over there is where the fish all come down, guys are around here all the time with fly rods.”

Before we’ve gone very far, we encounter a guy named John Pearson, who tends the native gardens of succulents and cactuses and who comes regularly to look after what he helped create as the Glendale Parks Department’s project manager for the Narrows.

“This was my baby, still is,” said Pearson, who retired a year ago. “We started this back in the late ’90s. It took a long time to get all the property issues resolved because of the overlapping jurisdictions and the easements we needed from Disney and others. Now I’m just a volunteer helping out.”

We resume our stroll and Robert the Walker points out what he sees in the river. “Look at the cormorant, he’s posing for you. There’s a green heron. A pair of black-hooded mergansers will spend the winter here. Oh, and there, right in the middle, is the common egret and some seagulls,” he said.

“How beautiful is that? That was me standing there at 17 looking at the world in wonder.”

At that point, the story of Robert the Walker starts to tumble out and I learn how, at the age of 68, this retired star salesman, actor, writer and so many other things winds up finding his calling as the self-styled janitor, gardener, photographer and policeman protecting this mile-long trail.

He is the son of a Syrian father and British mother and grew up in Dearborn, Mich., home base for the Ford Motor Company, at a time when Arabs were not very welcome.

At 17, he took his guitar and his Elvis Presley hair on the road, hitchhiking to L.A. in search of fame and fortune.

Half a century later, things didn’t quite work out the way he’d dreamed, but he made good money and got to live in New York and the Bay Area before winding up selling post-production services for TV and film projects in L.A.

His wife died nine years ago, their daughter has grown into womanhood and now he’s writing a book about the moral dilemma of someone happening onto a murder scene where $10 million is lying on the floor and no one is around.

Do you take the money and run or do you call the cops? Interesting guy, this Robert the Walker, who finally tells me his last name is Acey.

He tells me he lives down Riverside Drive in an apartment and how he walked nearly every day along the Equestrian Center trails that run all the way to Warner Bros. studios until the Glendale Narrows became his passion.

“It’s nature in the city, you got a cormorant and a stilt talking to each other,” he said. “This is peace and quiet and love. It’s spiritual. And yet we’ve got a problem waiting to happen. We can’t have crazies living in our park. They’re an intrusion, they don’t fit. We got to deal with it, come up with a solution.”

I run Robert the Walker’s “Get Up and Do Something” philosophy by Glendale Police Lt. Bruce Fox, who has spoken with him many times and who shares his concerns about the homeless problem and the public’s safety.

“He’s a great guy but he might expect a little more out of me than I can perform,” Fox says.

“We will literally drive a homeless guy to a rehab center once he or she says they’ll come. If there’s even a glimmer of hope that they want some service, we’ll get it to them; but these guys are very, very service-resistant, so we’re in maintenance mode, making sure it doesn’t lead to crime,” Fox explained.

The homeless are a big problem with their dysfunction, psychological issues, addictions — problems that defy simple solutions that are humane, problems that can’t be alleviated unless more people adopt Robert the Walker’s “Get Up and Do Something” philosophy. (THIS COLUMN WAS WRITTEN FOR THE GLENDALE NEWS-PRESS)

(PHOTOS OF BIRDS PROVIDED BY ROBERT THE WALKER)

My Sunday Column: Watching as a New Councilman Discovers the Wonderful — and Dangerous — World of Politics

It is well established in all times and all places that even a little power tends to corrupt, especially when the power derives from being elected to public office.

That’s why it’s so interesting to get to know people right after they have taken the oath of office and to check in with them periodically to see how they are handling the temptations, the pressures and the opportunities that arise when everybody wants to be your friend — especially those who want favors.

With that in mind, I called Zareh Sinanyan, the newest member of the Glendale City Council, elected back in April after a particularly rough campaign in which comments he had made several years earlier on Youtube — hate speech of a racist and homophobic nature — had come back to haunt him and would have cost him the election, were it not for the efforts of the Armenian National Committee.

Not everybody in town wants to be Sinanyan’s friend; to this day his comments still shadow him. But his colleagues on the council and the city’s officials, as well as most people in the community, have welcomed him, though some have done so with a wary eye.

But no complaints have surfaced about how he has handled himself as an elected official. From perception and the observations of others, he’s not a long-winded blowhard or a tricky fox or a double-crosser; but as a politician, he’s got a lot to learn.

“It was very strange at the beginning,” he said over coffee last week as we talked about his first four months in office and his intentions for the future.

“Everybody knows more than you, so you try to keep quiet and absorb all you can and learn. I tried to become better informed and reach out to everyone on the dais. They have been great. We have a pretty dynamic relationship together.”

Watching how he handled himself in the tough debates recently on the upcoming electricity rate hikes, which will average about 30% compounded over the next five years, with most of the increase coming this year and next, it was pretty obvious that like every politician, his position had a lot to do with who brought him to the dance — in this case the Armenian National Committee, which strongly lobbied against the hike.

Sinanyan fought for 3% hikes every year and would have gone along with Frank Quintero’s push for 4% a year rather than the 8%, 7%, 5%, 2% and 2% increases that were approved.

With three votes in support of the plan, Sinanyan had a free pass to oppose it, so the issue that simmers too often below the surface in Glendale — the Armenian question — and his reasons for challenging the rate hike became issues that interested me.

“I have found myself in the position where I look after the interests of South Glendale in a way that I’m not sure others do. Drive around and you can see how it’s qualitatively different than North Glendale, where I live, and where people are more affluent. For South Glendale, the increases are a critical issue.”

The increase from $10 to $13 a month for low-income residents was just a “consolation prize, a backdoor solution” — and that’s the kind of thing Sinanyan says he wants to change.

“I ran on a platform that was, ‘Let’s make Glendale better.’ In order to do that, we need to make Glendale more business-friendly and we need to be more transparent,” Sinanyan said. “Let’s be straightforward, let’s be honest about what we’re doing, about what the needs are, about what’s motivating us. What I was saying is that sometime in the next five years, we’re going to raise salaries and then this whole model is going to collapse, so we’ll be having the same rate increase conversation again.”

One goal is to get rid of the transfer to the city’s General Fund of 11% of Glendale Water & Power’s electricity revenue as “surplus” when it clearly is not, since the city’s utility has been running through its reserves and delaying investment. The transfer dates back decades and has never been legally challenged. But activists have kept the controversy over it alive.

“I understand the necessity, that there’s a level of service that the public wants, so we need that money,” Sinanyan added. “What I don’t agree with is the way it’s done. We’re told GWP will be broke by 2017 the way we’re going. But it’s because of the transfer, so in reality, it is Glendale that will be broke, not GWP.

“Why are we playing this game? Let’s be honest. Let’s go to the voters and say you expect X and we’re getting Y amount of money, so to match X with Y, we’re going to need some kind of an increase somewhere.

“Maybe I’m being naïve, maybe I’m too green. I know it’s hard to pass taxes and easy to raise rates. But we should put our time and energy and political capital into this and say, ‘We don’t want to take your money and put it in one pocket and then transfer it to the other pocket to pay someone else.’ That’s where I’m coming from.”

Sinanyan wants to build relationships in all parts of the city to be a “sort of interpreter willing to do whatever it takes” to build bridges.

“I want our city to be known for substantive things because it is a great place to live and do business. This is a great city, but there is a lot of work to do to break down barriers, to help people understand each other better, to make Glendale better for everyone and not at the expense of one group or another.

“Do I know how to do it? Not really; time has its role and you have to be out there in the community.”

Having observed a lot of politicians, big and small, in a lot of places big and small, I can only tell you that politics is like heroin and like most addictions, few survive the experience intact and undamaged. It’s what makes keeping an eye on a newcomer like Sinanyan interesting as he tries to give life to his ideals.

(THIS COLUMN WAS PUBLISHED SUNDAY IN THE GLENDALE NEWS-PRESS)