CityWatch, Oct 22, 2010
Vol 8 Issue 84
What a difference a complaint makes! Actually, it took a series of relentless complaints, but the dormant City of LA excavation site on the sidewalk of Hollywood Boulevard has been "tidied" and there seems to be some DWP activity, giving hope that someday soon the site will return to normal.
To recap, the City of LA took a sidewalk on Hollywood Boulevard out of compliance, left it in a dangerous state, and then debated departmental responsibility to the point of absurdity. Eventually, the DWP showed up and is now the proud owner of an excavation pit on the most famous boulevard in the world. (See video)
This simple exercise in frustration bears witness to the brutal fact that the people of Los Angeles live in a complaint-driven city, not a standards-driven city. This approach to the delivery of services and enforcement of standards is beyond inefficient, it's frustrating, it's divisive, and it wastes valuable assets. Most of all, it simply doesn't work.
1) Not everybody knows how to complain. City Hall has designed the process so that simply calling attention to "a big messy hole in the sidewalk" requires patience, fortitude, and an insider's knowledge of the many departments that have some authority over the streets of LA.
To take it further, participation in a City Hall Committee, Commission, or City Council meeting is limited to those proficient at navigating the agenda, the rules, and the process.
Even then, public comment gets limited to 60 seconds, items go forward without comment because the opportunity took place in another meeting, the agenda is rearranged, and City Hall continues to turn gold into straw.
2) Not everybody has the time and energy to complain. Today's call to 311 took two attempts, the first one reached an overloaded system and the second resulted in a journey that lasted 42 minutes. All to get back to the beginning.
A trip to City Hall can consume a day. A bit of prep, some travel time, navigate the Committee, Commission, Council schedule, wait for the agenda to advance, jockey for that magic moment when the public gets to speak to an audience who is transparent in their collective desire to scream "Next!" and then the long journey home, only to find that nothing has changed.
3) Not everybody can overcome the obstacles. Well meaning people care about their communities but they give up, simply to survive and because the cost of overcoming the obstacles is too great.
City Hall is a system that responds to complaints but then the leaders of our city disqualify people for complaining.
It's a system that requires the participants to fight, to complain, to increase the volume in order to increase the delivery of services which are delivered until the murmuring goes down and then they stop.
It's demoralizing and even the hardiest quit and withdraw. This is the cycle that takes our neighborhoods down, allowing for the decline that in turn prompts more complaints. It's a declining cycle and nobody wins.
4) Those who are elected to complain on our behalf spend the best part of their time (99.93%) being agreeable, and when it's their turn to stand up on our behalf, they turn their backs on the people they are supposed to serve.
When AB766, the Safe Streets Bill, was in the Assembly, I was there to support it. The City of LA had staff in the room but they were silent.
When AB 2531, the Kelo legitimizing bill, worked its way through the process, the City of LA did nothing to protect the people of LA. The bill was eventually vetoed by the Governor while those who purportedly represent the people of LA went back to the Kelo drawing board.
Does the public have to be excellent at navigating the system while the professionals are forgiven for their mediocrity? Apparently so, because time after time the public is disqualified from the process for coloring outside the lines while those in office work aggressively to work around the Brown Act, to complicate the public process, and to design a bureaucratic labyrinth so complicated, even the staff get lost. It's an insider's game and the public is excluded. Make some noise, get a pothole filled, now go away.
All of which begs the question, what's the alternative?
The National League of Cities (NLC) recognizes cities with outstanding programs that improve quality of life with Awards for Municipal Excellence. Among the 45 programs that were highlighted during 2010 was the Neighborhood Code Compliance Program (NCCP) which was created in response to a community call for a shift from a a complaint-driven process to a pro-active process.
The NCCP was credited with replacing the tension and conflict of a complaint-driven code enforcement process with a positive partnership with the community that encouraged "ownership responsibility, volunteerism, and confidence in the city."
Communities around the country are embracing the efficiency of a standards-driven operating style that embraces a systemic commitment to the delivery of city services. Successful programs vary widely in structure but they have one thing in common, they all treat the residents as partners, not as noisy rabble in need of a Toastmasters Class and a lecture on process.
If the City of Los Angeles is to take its place as a Great City, it will be as the result of embracing a standards-drive approach to the delivery of city services.
LA will move forward when it embraces the public as partners in improving the quality of life in the neighborhood. Most of all it will operate efficiently and effectively when it works for the people, not against them.
As for City Hall, it could use a concierge. Embracing the service model instead of the fortress model would mean that the public would be welcomed, offered assistance even if they ask incorrectly or haven't read the rulebook.
As for Hollywood Boulevard, the site has been tidied up and one might argue that it was now ADA compliant. Of course the recent rain turned the dirt into mud but for now, it's very tidy mud.
It's progress. I'll take it. But we've got a long way to go!
(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at: Stephen@thirdeyecreative.net. Disclosure: Box is also a candidate for 4th District Councilman.)