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: 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)

 

MTA Secrecy and the 710 Fiasco — Eric & Zev, LA’s New BFFs

The No on 710 coalition of groups that cuts across community and demographic lines from the Eastside of Los Angeles to the affluent hillsides of La Canada-Flintridge posted this statement with a 35-minute video of last Thursday’s meeting of the Metropolitan Transit Authority Board:

“Mike Anotonvich tries to sabotage Ara Najarian’s motion by having the county attorney claim ‘client attorney privilege regarding who make the final decision on the SR710 tunnel. The public has right to know & not let this backroom BS continue.”

Hard to beat the poetic force of those words.

Najarian, the Glendale Councilman and stalwart opponent of digging twin multi-billion tunnels more than four miles from Alhambra to Pasadena, submitted a motion and an amendment back in April demanding a full explanation of what’s going on with regards to the 710 extension that has been stymied for 60 years.

He wanted to know whether Caltrans or the MTA is in charge and whether there is a contractual relationship justifying the expenditures of tens of millions of dollars for an environmental impact study and massive community outreach program.

As I watched the video of the meeting provided by Joe from El Sereno for the No on 710 activists, I was struck by what was going on in the background.

Every time I looked up, there was the aging Zev Yaroslavsky — the man who coulda and shoulda been mayor of Los Angeles six or seven times over in the last 30 years — and the young newly-elected mayor Eric Garcetti in an intense mostly one-sided conversation.

As a guy whose support might have been more valuable than a former President, woman Senator or the fabulously rich or fabulously powerful like the unions, Yaroslavsky chose to avoid the hardships of battle as he has done for so long in so many ways.

“I have remained neutral in this election in thought, word and deed.”

But now that the election is over and an easily manipulated mayor is in place, Yaroslavsky appears in this video excerpted at various points in the 35-minute banter discussion of  why the nature of the relationship between Caltrans and the MTA is top secret, too hot for the public to handle, like spying on our phone calls and emails and snail mail and bank accounts and credit card charges and …National security is all that matters in a nation of frightened little people who protect themselves pretending they are zombies — or maybe they are.

It would seem the termed out Yaroslavsky has found his calling as a mentor to Garcetti, who was attending his first meeting of the MTA, as important a political body as there is because that’s where the money is.

But I digress: The questions before the MTA board posed by Najarian (710- Montion April 25, 2013.)three months ago simply sought what would seem like simple answer: What’s the deal and why after all this time isn’t it clear with regards to the 710 extension?

Brilliantly — if you enjoy the tactics employed by dictatorial governments around the world, at least those that need to pretend they have some legalistic legitimacy — was the ruse chosen by the MTA to avoid public discussion of knowledge of what’s up.

They had their lawyer Charles Safer, who is actually the county’s lawyer rather than the MTA’s, respond to Najarian in writing so they could invoke the attorney-client privilege exemption under the California Public Records Act and keep their misfeasance and possible malfeasance from the public.

It is a specious assertion they made, one I challenged on Friday with emails demanding in emails to all board members and top MTA officials that they release the document in question under the CPRA as a matter of urgency. I haven’t heard back from any of them.

But I’ll bet you umpteen millions of dollars of Measure R taxpayer money that the money does its best to justify the lack of a legal relationship between the MTA and the state and to offer hollow arguments why illegality in the name of expediency is the only way they can move forward and trample on the rights and interests of hundreds of thousands of people.

You can read the transcript of what transpired during the MTA meeting on the subject (710 Transcript – Regular Board July – Item 60) or watch the start of the segment where a flabbergasted Najarian struggles to remain professional in the face of the indifference of others who dare to call themselves public servants.

Note the number of times they had a good laugh.

 

My Sunday Column: Activism and the 710 Freeway Tunnel — How People Power Has Stopped the Machine for 60 Years

Joanne Nuckols has put the people she calls “transportation bullies” in their place for decades.

She reels off the long, sordid history of South Pasadena’s fight against extending the 710 Freeway through her town, lawsuit by lawsuit, injunction by injunction, community action by community action, as the grassroots movement spread to include residents all along the corridor.

On Saturday, Nuckols and dozens of other activists joined by a cadre of elected officials from Glendale, La Cañada, Pasadena and South Pasadena were to stage a rally and press conference at Blair High School in Pasadena before the start of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority‘s community meeting intended to sell the public on the virtue of a multi-billion-dollar, four-mile tunnel from Alhambra to Pasadena.

It has been a tough sell for 60 years, but transportation officials keep trying, with the full support of those who would benefit most: the engineers, contractors, truckers, unions as well as the politicians they keep in office.

“It’s so exciting to be involved, it’s like a revolution,” said Nuckols, who has been active on transportation issues almost since she and her husband moved to town in the late 1960s. “They treated us like we were just a little fly they could swat away. The defining moment came in ’73 when we got the first injunction against the freeway.”

Saturday’s protest, coming on the 14th anniversary of yet another injunction that blocked freeway construction, was called because of the fire that occurred a week ago in the northbound tunnel connecting the Pasadena Freeway to the I-5 when a tanker spilled 8,500 gallons of gas and set off an inferno, causing damage that will take a long time to repair.

A similar fire occurred six years ago in Santa Clarita when two dozen trucks crashed and burned in the southbound I-5 bypass tunnel — an event that prompted Nuckols and other activists to create a banner and yard signs to show “what can go wrong in a tunnel.”

Doug Failing, who was regional Caltrans director at the time of that crash but joined Metro as its highway construction expert after passage of the Measure R sales tax for transportation, is the target of much of the criticism from the No on 710 activists.

“You ask questions and you get no answers,” Nuckols said. “It’s like they’re tone deaf. They try to feed us this pablum, but we’re not eating it. They just ignore the fact that those tunnels should never be built and will never be built.”

The anti-freeway movement gained momentum and much broader support last summer when Metro included a possible tunnel or surface route on Avenue 64 through much of L.A.’s Eastside and the San Rafael neighborhood in west Pasadena.

All along the route, people got organized and forced Metro to abandon the plan that affected them directly. But they didn’t stop there; they kept working with other neighborhoods to pack meeting after meeting to challenge transportation officials, the community relations firm they hired and their technical experts, as well as rounding up support from the Pasadena City Council as well as La Cañada-Flintridge and Glendale officials.

The coalition now has multiple websites as well as Twitter and Facebook accounts to keep everyone informed and involved.

“It’s very multilayered and complicated, but we have different guerrilla groups that go out and deal with different issues as part of the overall umbrella group.” Nuckols said.

“What’s so incredible is we get no response from Metro to the information and questions we raise,” she added. “That’s one of their big problems. They think we’re going to go away, but our group is just growing.”

One of the strongest supporters of the No 710 Action Committee’s campaign has been former Assemblyman Anthony Portantino, who reached out to Nuckols even before he first ran for a seat on the La Cañada-Flintridge City Council.

“The fight against the 710 has turned from a local issue into a regional issue of significant importance precisely because of the mounting public activism and the horrible approach taken by proponents,” said Portantino, one of the political figures who was slated to be at Saturday’s protest.

“Nothing gets folks more engaged and active than a poorly acted charade and MTA’s advocacy for a project that most folks feel will negatively impact the San Gabriel Valley and the city of Los Angeles,” Portantino added. “As a result, neighbors from across the region are seizing the moment, the initiative and making a difference.”

With a new L.A. mayor in Eric Garcetti, who is on the record as opposing the tunnel and has hired former Pasadena Mayor Rick Cole, a long-time 710 opponent, as a top aide, the Metro board has the votes to kill the tunnel project once and for all and end the waste of tens of millions of dollars on something that is never going to happen.

In this rare case, where the people have gotten so well-organized, so informed, so strong, it should be clear that they are going to keep on truckin’ against the 710 gap project for as long as it takes.

The “transportation bullies” and the greed merchants who want this should be shown the door and the $780 million set aside for this boondoggle should be used to expand rail and rapid bus service in the region, synchronize lights and take other steps to improve the flow of traffic and movement of people.

That’s what people want, the people who pay the bills for all of this.

(THIS COLUMN WAS WRITTEN FOR AND PUBLISHED IN THE GLENDALE NEWS-PRESS AND OTHER LA TIMES COMMUNITY NEWSPAPERS)

My Sunday Column: The Valley’s Missed Opportunity

The meeting started late and it started badly, with a 10-minute argument about approving the minutes of the last meeting. Then it headed downhill.

Issues that were raised were sent to committees for further study, though no one was quite sure which members were on them or when they would be able to meet.

Welcome to the San Fernando Valley Council of Governments — a three-year-old coalition that was supposed to finally, belatedly, bring the cities of Glendale, Burbank, San Fernando, Santa Clarita and Los Angeles together to develop plans and raise funds to solve transportation and other regional problems like every other part of the county has been doing for so long.

But the Valley COG is not like the others. It was set up to fail.

There are 13 members: one council member from each from the smaller cities, seven council members who represent parts of the Valley in Los Angeles, and the two Los Angeles County supervisors who carve up the region, Mike Antonovich and Zev Yaroslavsky.

Amazingly, every one of them has veto power. Even more incredibly, each of the smaller cities contributes $10,000, the same amount L.A. and the counties contribute, for a total annual budget of $60,000, a fraction of the funding provided to other COGs.

As the dysfunction has become painfully apparent in the last six months, it was inevitable that the politicians would need to find a fall guy.

Since the only employee is Executive Director Robert Scott, there were no other candidates. For more than a quarter century, Scott has been a driving force behind efforts to organize the Valley politically and economically, the last man standing from the Valley secession movement when others have moved on or been co-opted by the downtown power structure.

The focus of last week’s meeting was the same as several previous meetings: Find candidates to replace Scott, who has irritated some with his aggressive efforts to change the voting rules and get enough funding so the COG can get projects moving.

There are 18 candidates, including Scott, who will be considered at a special meeting June 17 or 24, depending on whether all 13 members can make it.

Getting members to meetings is a big problem, even though they are only held every two months, and on Thursdays, when there are no conflicts with other meetings.

Last week, only five of the 13 members showed up — Chairman Ara Najarian of Glendale, Jesse Avila of San Fernando, Marsha McLean of Santa Clarita and Paul Krekorian, one of the L.A. seven, and Yaroslavsky. Three others sent aides so they had a quorum.

Through a series of reports, the two professional politicians — Krekorian and Yaroslavsky — expressed repeated irritations that bookkeeping and financial operations were not up to the high standards they are used to in their giant governments with tens of thousands of employees.

There was some good news from the county Metropolitan Transportation Authority: Money left over from local projects can be used in the region — a long list that does not include improvements to the Ventura (101) Freeway through the Valley, as Coby King, chair of the Valley Industry and Commerce Assn., noted in a presentation.

“It is one of the most congested routes in the world,” King said, adding that “not talking about the 101 doesn’t do anything to fix the 101 … I know it’s a political hot potato, but we need to stop ignoring it.”

Yaroslavsky, long-time MTA board member and representative of much of the Valley, demanded King be specific: what problems, what solutions?

“If we approve something this global, than anything is possible,” he warned, recalling that proposals a decade ago to double-deck or widen the freeway created an uproar. “It could be interpreted by some that we are looking to get back into what was politically explosive in 2002 … I don’t know what this means, other than trouble.”

Added Krekorian: “There’s no need to reinvent the wheel here. There’s been a lot of studies over the course of decades. There have been task forces convened, summits held.”

It was agreed, unanimously, to find out what’s already in the files and to consider, down the road, convening a task force to propose specific fixes someday.

With that, Santa Clarita’s McLean triggered another round of hand-wringing by asking for support for a resolution urging the Valley legislative delegation to vigorously oppose Gov. Jerry Brown‘s plan to “borrow” $500 million dollars earmarked for local governments from the cap-and-trade program.

“We all know how well they pay back loans,” she said. “Once it goes into the general fund, we have no say in it. It just disappears … I don’t know what you need to know beside that.”

Krekorian needed to know a lot, raising unanswerable question after question about possible effects on state finances and casting doubt that a “generic statement, ‘Don’t take our money'” would be taken seriously in Sacramento.

“We just don’t have enough information to make an informed decision … I don’t have anything in front of me,” he said.

But he gave in when it was pointed out that Bob Blumenfield is chairman of the Assembly Budget Committee and councilman-elect for the West Valley. He will be joining the COG board on July 1.

The Valley COG represents a missed opportunity for a region with more than 2 million people, 20% of the county.

It’s why the subway ends as it reaches the Valley, why light rail skirts Burbank and Glendale, why every other part of the county is getting major transit projects.

Unless the rules of the Valley COG are changed dramatically, the region will remain badly underserved — exactly the way officials downtown in the county Hall of Administration and L.A. City Hall want it to be.

(THIS ARTICLE APPEARS IN THE SUNDAY GLENDALE NEWS-PRESS)

My Sunday Column: Respect for the Council of Governments — The Valley’s Last Shot at Getting Its Fair Share

One of my first impressions when I called the San Fernando Valley my home nearly 30 years ago was that this vast middle-class enclave suffered from a bad inferiority complex, like it was populated by a lot of Rodney Dangerfields who just couldn’t get respect.

Respect – or the lack of it – is still pretty much the problem, through the failed secession movement and derailed efforts to make local government more responsive.

The last vestige of a reform to change that is the San Fernando Valley Council of Governments, a little-known and largely ignored three-year-old, quasi-governmental body that brings together the county, the city of Los Angeles and the cities of Glendale, Burbank, San Fernando and Santa Clarita.

It is little-known and largely ignored for good reason: Unlike the 20-year-old COGs that link up all the other cities in the county to get grants and public investment to improve transportation, air quality, housing and other basics, the Valley COG requires unanimity, rather than a simple majority, to take any action. With seven L.A. Council members and L.A. County Supervisors Mike Antonovich and Zev Yaroslavsky — each with veto power — on the board, that makes significant action impossible.

Unlike all the other COGS that get hefty contributions from the member governments that give them annual operating budgets in the $1 million-to-$2 million range, the Valley COG is on a poverty diet with $10,000 a year from each of the member governments — the same $10,000 from the 23,564 people of the city of San Fernando that gets one vote as from the four million people of the city of Los Angeles that gets seven votes, reflecting the number of Council districts that fragment the Valley politically.

With that in mind, I headed Thursday to the Van Nuys Civic Center for the Valley COG’s bimonthly meeting with the full intent of writing its obituary, an untimely death that could be laid justly at the feet of the seven L.A. Councilmen and the two county supervisors who feared that somehow the four smaller cities were going to gang up on them and take all their money and power.

Executive Director Robert Scott, a longtime civic leader who was at the forefront of the secession drive and other efforts to give the Valley a political voice, started the ball rolling Thursday by explaining the various ways each government entity could have an equal vote and the other issues that need resolution, such as determining what constitutes a quorum and whether a simple majority or a super majority would be required.

“I think we all realize that it’s not the easiest thing to get a unanimous vote, especially on the issues we all deal with,” said Glendale Councilman Ara Najarian, the COG’s chair. “We don’t always see eye-to-eye, except for a lot of the feel-good things like the Mobility Summit and let’s save-the-whales sort of stuff that we can all agree on.”

It didn’t take long for the hammer to fall.

Yaroslavsky’s representative, Ben Saltsman, said his boss “wholeheartedly agrees,” but the point of unanimity was “so one entity doesn’t get run over by the others.”

“I think the important point we need to focus on here is that the reason we got to … the unanimous vote was so that we knew the Valley was going forward together and it wasn’t going to be moving forward with bare majorities and 4-3 splits and a divided Valley. The point was to unite the Valley,” he said.

“So my suggestion is in the spirit of where you were trying to get the COG to go … maybe we ought to set a six-month deadline, refer this issue out to a steering committee and say in six months bring this back for a vote,” Saltsman added. “Right now, we’re just simply not ready to get past the unanimous point.”

Santa Clarita Councilwoman Marsha McLean, noting the issue has been discussed for more than a year, would have none of it.

“I don’t see why we need to wait another six months,” she said. “We already did that. We had a working group,”

Arriving a little late for a rare appearance at the COG, Antonovich, arguably one of the smartest and most effective local politicians of his generation, weighed in, saying, “The other COGs have been pretty effective. Each member has a vote and if it takes a majority as it does in the other COGs, then so be it. Each member has one vote and we move forward, and by that I mean each city has one vote and the county has one vote.”

The energy in the room suddenly changed.

“What I’m hearing is there is good news here, we want to move past the unanimous requirement,” Najarian responded.

“It was almost designed for failure the way it was put together,” Burbank Councilman Jess Talamantes said.

“The big question we have to ask ourselves is, do we want this COG to succeed and move forward in a positive direction or we’re not going to let it succeed and we’re going to put it aside…. I feel it’s very important, not only to my city but the region as well,” he said.

With everyone aboard, the COG members agreed to put the issue with various voting formulas on the agenda for a special meeting in April when other issues important to its future will be considered.

So instead of writing about the death of the Valley COG, I can say it is finally pregnant with possibilities. We might actually soon see the birth of an organization that unifies the region and gives it the platform to get the leadership and funding it needs to solve its problems, such as connecting the Metro transit lines from North Hollywood to Burbank, Glendale and Pasadena, and even Bob Hope Airport, to all Metrolink lines.

Then, like Rodney Dangerfield, we’d be laughing when we said we can’t get respect.

(Published Sunday March 17, 2013, Glendale News-Press)

My Sunday Column: Democracy wins a round — How the County’s 87 Cities (Not LA) Found Common Ground in a Storm

The setting was beautiful: a hill high above the intersection of the Santa Monica (10) and Long Beach (710) freeways, with panoramic views of downtown L.A. and much of the San Gabriel Valley, even on this dark and misty Thursday night.

But the scene inside the banquet room at Luminarias, the landmark restaurant in Monterey Park, was ugly — dozens of conspirators were set to finish the job they had started back in December when they launched a sneak attack on the reappointment of Glendale Councilman Ara Najarian to the Los Angeles County Metropolitan board.

The Cities Selection Committee, the governmental body that represents the 87 cities in the county that are not Los Angeles, had never before denied approval of any nominee from its four sectors to any agency — an action that left the nomination in limbo.

This is how I started my report on what led up to that dramatic moment:

“Things have come to a pretty pass when we would rather cannibalize each other than respect each other, would rather vilify our opponents than work out some kind of deal that balances our competing interests and values.”

Now the cannibals were ready to devour their prey.

The moment the Najarian appointment came up, an official from Palmdale in the back of the room shouted: “Chair, with all due respect on behalf of Mayor Jim Ledford … I would like to offer a substitute motion and refer this item back to the North County sector for further discussion.”

So began 40 minutes of cheers and jeers, anger and intrigue, parliamentary games and procedural flip-flops.

Here was a roomful of public officials representing 5 million people acting at times like democracy was an alien idea.

When the chair considered taking up the delay motion, Glendale Mayor Frank Quintero got sustained applause when he asked, “Don’t we have bylaws?”

When he won his point, the delegate from Rosemead appealed the chair’s reversal and Lancaster City Manager Mark Bozigian demanded to know, “What’s wrong with sending it back to us so we can take another look at it?”

That set off a minute of boos and hoots and a shouts that he “should sit down,” since he is not an official delegate.

“I’ll stand up as long as it takes,” he responded.

Pasadena attorney Chris Sutton — who had a videographer taping the meeting — warned that “it violates California law to consider items not on the agenda,” specifically the appeal and the motion to send the nomination back.

“Make no mistake that this whole disagreement is about Ara Najarian’s opposition to the 710 tunnel,” said Mayor Pro Tem Laura Olhasso of La Cañada Flintridge.

“He made the mistake of asking hard questions like, ‘Is this the highest and best use for our tax dollars? Are there other alternatives to a tunnel that we can spend our constituent dollars to a better use?’” she said. “Because he has asked those questions strongly and vocally, he has been vilified by members of this group. This is not democracy.”

That’s what this was all about — the “710 gap project,” the multi-billion-dollar tunnel extension to Pasadena that has been stymied for decades by opposition from communities all along the Arroyo Seco, where it is seen as a total waste of money, a threat to the quality of their lives, and a boondoggle that doesn’t improve the transportation system.

To the lead conspirators — longtime Duarte councilman and MTA board member John Fasana and Alhambra Mayor Barbara Messina — the freeway extension is a boon to their communities, not a boondoggle.

But instead of delivering the death blow when he took the podium, Fasana — who had been quietly chatting with Najarian on and off — offered an alternative, an opportunity “to look for the common ground.”

They had agreed to let the 710 environmental study go forward so the decision can be made on the basis of costs, environmental impacts and transportation impacts, and to move forward on an ongoing dialogue among the four sectors on how they can work together for mutual benefit instead of endlessly being divided and conquered by Los Angeles, which gets the lion’s share of the funds.

“In my view, for the last five years there is not majority support on the [MTA] board for the subway being the primary project in Los Angeles County. The only way to see that resources are diverted or allocated fairly … [is] if our cities can find a way to take the issues of the sub-regions and work together,” Fasana said.

“We can be successful…. We can walk out of here with some unanimity, but also really strengthen the position of the 87 cities.”

To laughter, cheers and applause, Najarian began by acknowledging he was “at the center of this storm.”

“John’s idea is a great one so that we four sector reps get together on a regular basis so that we become the big boys on the MTA, not the mayor of L.A.,” he said. “We’re going to have that group of four and we’ll know exactly what the South Bay needs, what San Gabriel needs, what Glendale, Burbank and even my good friends in Lancaster, Palmdale and Santa Clarita, need.

“Then, we can all pull for each other and we can all get the funding we need. That’s the only way we going to succeed. If we stand divided as we are in this room … we’re only playing into hands of whoever the new mayor of L.A. is.”

Messina, who has worked for the freeway extension for 28 years, echoed their sentiments, saying, “I want to see this region move forward and I am willing to compromise. I asked [Najarian] if he was a man of his word and he said, ‘Yes.’ I’m going to trust him.”

Soon after, the chair decided the only vote that would be taken was on the nomination itself — not the substitute motion or the appeal.

Only Lancaster and Palmdale voted against Najarian, who got 316 votes — 62 more than needed — when the tedious process of population-weighted voting and tallying was complete.

I guess that’s why the cliché about democracy and sausage-making still applies — when it works. And why there is chaos when it doesn’t, as we have come to see all too often these days.

(Published March 10, 2013 by the News-Press & Leader serving Burbank, Glendale and nearby communities)

The Art of the Political Holdup: Raising Taxes to Fix Street and Storm Water Systems without Fixing the Corruption of Power

Tracy Rafter, founder of BizFed representing tens of thousands of businesses in LA County, and Jack Humphreville, community leader and LA watchdog, laid out a long series of questions to the Board of Supervisors Monday.

 

Supervisor Gloria Molina eloquently exposed all that is wrong in the proposed storm water runoff property tax increase.

 

It was like enduring a colonoscopy, two of them actually.

First, the deadbeats of the City Council on Tuesday killed — but only for the moment — the insulting proposal handed to its most junior and obedient members to carry: An ill-conceived and unstudied plan to soak property owners in an iniquitous manner to the tune of $3 billion or $4 billion or $5 billion (who knows?) to fix the streets neglected for nearly 60 years.

Then, the County Board of Supervisors allowed, reluctantly, a couple of hundred angry citizens to speak for five  or six hours, a minute at a time, about the insulting, ill-conceived and unstudied plan to soak property owners in an iniquitous manner to the tune of $9 billion (or is it $15 billion) to finally fix the storm water runoff problem after decades of neglect so the pollutants don’t reach the sea and ruin our beaches.

Anybody who doesn’t think those are worthy goals are not worth listening to — a point so clear and obvious nobody among all those opposed to either or both taxes ever questioned the goals.

What they questioned is in the integrity and competence of their government officials — a point of view that was only opposed by those who supported the taxes because they benefited financially, ideologically or in other ways personally, like environmentalists, hillside homeowners and other rich people, S-M Conservancy King Joe Edmiston, unions and  trade associations that would get all the billions of dollars in work.

The politicians have not offered a single justification, accepted an iota of responsibility or a word of apology for letting these and other vital problems get so out of hand for so long.

All they wanted was your money, specifically your money if you happen to own property — something that means to them you must be rich so it’s fair to stick a gun in your face and hold you up.

It’s like the Sheriff of Nottingham robbing Robin of Sherwood Forest at sword point, which is what drove him to made adopt the revolutionary posture in the first place.

The revolutionaries in these cases were homeowners, railroad executives, small business owner, school districts and nearly every city in the county except the City of Los Angeles that has never seen a tax it doesn’t love, never seen a tax it wouldn’t kill for, never seen a tax it wouldn’t foreclose your home for, never seen a tax it didn’t desperately need to pay employee salaries and provide the grease that feeds a corrupt system of contractors, consultants, lobbyists, lawyers, P.R. execs and other selfish special interests.

What’s telling is that both the city and county backed away from putting the tax hikes before voters because they couldn’t answer the most basic questions about the proposals: How they came to decide on the amount of the taxes, what projects would be funded, what protections would be put in place to protect the taxpayers’ money from being stolen.

Worst of all, they had to admit in both cases that amount of increased taxes they sought were picked because they thought it was as much as the public would bear. Incredibly, the money would be insufficient to the city’s streets and do nothing to fix the sidewalks and in the county’s case only solve part of the storm water runoff problem.

 

 

 

 

My Thanksgiving Column: Holiday philanthropy is vital in time of cutbacks

Charity begins at home — and for Southern California communities that was never more important than it is today, when government is cutting back sharply on providing services and funding for those in need, while poverty is soaring amid enduring affluence nearby.

That was my take-away from an extraordinary event last week at Valley Presbyterian Hospital where more than 100 nonprofit service providers met with major Los Angeles-area funders, including the Weingart Foundation and California Community Foundation and experts in managing and operating charities.

It was timed for Thanksgiving and the start of the season of giving, to be sure. But more importantly, it marked a critical step, long overdue, to place the San Fernando Valley’s philanthropic identity high on the civic agenda. It serves as a call to action for communities throughout the Los Angeles County region.

Most of all, it was a recognition of the dramatic demographic changes that have transformed the Valley from being America’s quintessential suburb – the nation’s largest overwhelmingly middle class (and white) enclave – into what is now America’s quintessential urban core where the divide between rich and poor is deepening and middle class opportunity shrinking.

The contrast between rich and poor is stark, according to data culled from a 2011 study called “A Portrait of California.”

Residents of communities like Panorama City and Arleta have shorter life expectancies, much lower incomes, and much higher rates of diabetes. One-third to half of adults lack high s chool diplomas, and a third as many have college degrees than communities like Woodland Hills.

On “average,” the Valley remains comparatively affluent, but as Bill Allen, head of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. and former head of the Valley Economic Alliance, noted:

“This valley is made of distinctly different communities. There is significant wealth along the foothills of this community. But there are significant challenges with poverty along the Valley floor, particularly in the Northeast Valley. … Participation in the labor force is critical for both physical and psychological health. Losing a job undermines well-being, erodes self-esteem and can chip away at our very identity.”

That was not news to participants in the conference Hiding in Plain Sight: Engaging Philanthropy With San Fernando Valley Nonprofits, an event organized by Valley Council of Governments head Robert Scott, Valley Economic Alliance leader Ron Wood, Valley Community Foundation head Peter McCarty, and Valley Nonprofit Resources Chairman Thomas Backer, among others.

(READ FULL STORY)

My Sunday Column: Fun and Games at the MTA — Why Is It So Hard Just To Do What’s Right for the People?

In the climactic scene of director Ivan Reitman‘s 1993 political satire “Dave,” President Mitchell (Kevin Kline) tells a joint session of Congress he lost his way, forgot his job was to make people’s “lives a little better…care more about you than I do about me…care more about what’s right than I do about what’s popular…”

The occasion for my viewing “Dave” recently was Warner Bros. executive Jeff Brown’s quarterly movie event for staff and guests on the Burbank lot where he brings together filmmakers to talk about what they created in advance of screening their movie — directors, producers, editors, writers and actors.

It was fascinating to hear how a movie got born, but it was Reitman’s comments about how the political culture he made fun of 20 years ago seems like child’s play to what we see today.

I was getting “Dave” flashbacks Thursday morning as I watched the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority‘s board members squirm over whether to give the bus-train advertising contract to CBS or Titan — firms that are spending fortunes on dozens of lobbyists to get a $22-million to $23-million-a-year contract.

The meeting started nearly an hour late with only seven of the 13 members present and went downhill from there, to the point they couldn’t even muster a quorum for a while to approve a long list of non-controversial measures because of conflicts of interest.

Then chairman Mike Antonovich announced that in discussions with the California Department of Transportation, several of the “alternative concepts” for extending the Long Beach (710) Freeway to Pasadena along Avenue 64 and through the San Rafael neighborhood were “off the table” from consideration as staff had recommended because of “low-performance characteristics.”

(READ FULL STORY)