Monday, May 30, 2011

CityWatchLA - Paging City Hall: Curtain is Up at Theater of the Absurd

CityWatch, May 27, 2011
Vol 9 Issue 42

BOX SOAP - As the City of LA’s $6.9 billion budget drama played out in City Hall, it was the robust discussion of the current city staff reliance on pagers that demonstrated City Hall’s commitment to the status quo and its complete inability to move forward.

Pagers are a thing of the past, unless you arrive at TGI Friday’s during rush hour when there’s a long wait for tables. Then, and only then, is the little blinky pager/coaster an appropriate tool for communication.

The City of LA is the largest city in the most populated state in the most powerful nation in the world and yet...during the third year of a budget meltdown that continues to memorialize the evisceration of LA’s future, the City Council is somehow able to find time to discuss the merits of a paging system for city staff.

I expect better. But, more and more, the people of LA expect less and less, and that allows City Hall to lower the standard even more.

Faced with a budget crisis, embracing technology as a tool for increasing efficiencies would be a wise commitment, one that would result in a commitment to delivering city services while cutting costs.

But, a discussion of pagers by city staff during the line-by-line charade was by no stretch of the imagination an exploration of technology. It was Theatre of the Absurd!

The alphanumeric pager enjoyed a long stretch of popularity but in recent years, it was used primarily by drug dealers and doctors, then just by doctors. Even the medical profession is rebelling against the use of pagers, dispelling the mythology of electronic interference while statistically demonstrating the fallibility of the antiquated paging technology.

It’s been ten years since Forbes pronounced the pager dead, suggesting then that there might be better uses for the radio networks such as for tracking packages and vehicles by both customers and supervisors.

Imagine that! While LA department heads are fighting for the continued use of an obsolete tool, they could be tracking the city-owned vehicles that end up parked outside strip clubs or in neighboring cities filled with city staff on culinary road trips.

LA’s communications disconnect is readily apparent when there is a major crime and the number given out goes to a desktop phone that accepts messages. At a time when encouraging witnesses to come forward is most important, nothing is more discouraging than an answering machine.

LA’s inability to grab a hold of Internet Technology is demonstrated by the proliferation of city staff generated blogs and websites that are project or topic specific, an admirable workaround that demonstrates the larger failure of City Hall to develop a systemic protocol for websites, web addresses, staff training, connectivity, and interface.

While it’s admirable that the Mayor has released some YouTube videos, grabbing some street cred along the way, the LAPD can’t access YouTube which makes it hard to encourage them to take a look at the videos that may have information they need.

This fear of social media demonstrates the huge disconnect between City Hall and the real world.

During the Station Fire, the public relied on the grass roots communications network for information, learning quickly that the authorities were ill-equipped for handling information as the Brown Act hit the fan.

LA’s Emergency Management Department released pdf documents on their website with emergency bulletins containing information for the public on a regular basis, Monday through Friday, as if emergencies adhere to the traditional workweek and then take weekends off.

There are some bright shining lights in the midst of LA’s bleak communication landscape. The LA Fire Department’s Brian Humphrey was a pioneer in bringing his role as Public Information Officer to life by connecting with the public using the tools that were popular. The @LAFDtalk twitter handle is complemented by a blog, all of which give Brian, and his partners Matt Spence and Erik Scott, an audience that can connect with the Fire Department without having to look for a fax machine.

Ultimately, in the midst of a $6.9 billion dollar budget meltdown, I don’t care if city staff are using tin cans and rope, there are bigger topics to debate during the budget hearings and I fully expect those in charge to put down the sandwich and address the major budget issues.

That didn’t happen.

Instead, they discussed Yogi the Bear but failed to resolve the issue, they discussed Crossing Guard bonuses of $2 million but failed to resolve the issue, they discussed the inappropriate use of Measure R funds for staff instead of infrastructure but failed to resolve the issue, and they discussed the definition of neighborhood council stakeholders, again while failing to resolve the issue.

In magic, it’s called misdirection, diverting the audience’s attention from the sleight of hand. In politics, it’s called a lack of leadership, keeping the public debate away from the tough topics that require decisive action and also come with a cost to political capital.

As the City of LA’s 2011-2012 Budget sits on the Mayor’s desk, awaiting his final approval, one can only imagine the hard work of the budget scribes in the City Hall towers, working late into the night with candles burned to the nub, quill pens in hand, ink-stained blotters at the ready, heating wax for that moment when Sir Anthony applies his mayoral ring to the seal.

Let this be the last year that we wallow in the comfort of old tired technologies. Let this be the last year that we do things simply because that’s the way we’ve always done them.

Let this be the last year that we allow the City Council and the Mayor to distract the people of Los Angeles from the potential of the future.

It’s time for the City of Los Angeles to take its place as the City that leads the world in culture, in technology, in communications, and in innovation. It’s our destiny.

Now, seriously, please turn off your pagers and join us in moving forward.

(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at: .)

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