CityWatch, July 13, 2011
Vol 9 Issue 55
RETHINKING LA - Councilman Bill Rosendahl is to be commended for his recent attempt to force the City Council’s Ad Hoc Committee on the Proposed Downtown Stadium and Event Center to conduct its business openly, transparently, and in compliance with California’s Brown Act.
That being said, his journey down the moral high road will be smoother if he applies the same open-door standard to the business that takes place within his Transportation Committee.
Rosendahl’s Brown Act campaign was set in motion when a representative of the Office of the City Attorney opined that “ad hoc committees of this City Council are not bound by the provisions of the Ralph M. Brown Act -- the state law that guarantees the public’s right to attend and participate in meetings of local legislative bodies.”
Almost 60 years ago, an editorial in the Sacramento commented on the proposed Brown Act, saying:
A law to prohibit secret meetings of official bodies, save under the most exceptional circumstances, should not be necessary. Public officers above all other persons should be imbued with the truth that their business is the public’s business and they should be the last to tolerate any attempt to keep the people from being fully informed as to what is going on in official agencies. Unfortunately, however, that is not always the case. Instances are many in which officials have contrived, deliberately and shamefully, to operate in a vacuum of secrecy.
Since then, the Brown Act has been revised, enhanced, clarified, amplified, debated, ignored, embraced, manipulated and periodically rediscovered.
Rosendahl’s recent rediscovery of the Brown Act resulted in his opinion that “while some may argue it is legal for the City Council to form ad hoc committees that have the right to waive or ignore public notice and information requirements, doing so would break faith with a public that rightly expects and deserves transparency in its government.”
Well said! Only Ralph M. Brown could have said it better, and he did, in the introduction to the Brown Act:
The people of this State do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.
Rosendahl’s role as crusader for the Brown Act set him up for a symbolic win but a practical loss as his motion for transparency failed in City Council Chambers amidst protests and shock from Councilwoman Jan Perry who prefaced her comments by saying “Mr. Rosendahl, I consider you a good friend.” Then the Brown Act hit the fan and Rosendahl’s motion was sent to committee where those who voted in opposition to Brown Act transparency will control its progress.
Rosendahl has an opportunity here, one where he moves beyond simple Council Chamber debate and actually sets a standard for City Hall, starting in his Transportation Committee.
The City of Los Angeles engages in the business of transportation in a process that is within the oversight of the City Council’s Transportation Committee. The City of LA competes for federal, state, and local funds through competitive programs that include Metro’s Call for Projects and the Caltrans administered Safe Routes to School.
For years, LA's transportation strategies, funding applications, and project implementation have been controlled by the Interdepartmental Task Force Committee (“the Committee”) made up of representatives from the Mayor's office, the Council offices, the Bureaus of Street Lighting and Street Services, the Chief Legislative Officer's office, the Chief Administrative Officer's office, Transportation, Water & Power, and the City's Redevelopment Agency.
"The Committee" typically engages in the business of the people with three motivations, desperation, deadlines, and diplomacy.
Typical recommendations from “the Committee” come with the caveat that “there wasn’t much time, we did the best we could,” resulting in proposals made with a commitment to expediency over effectiveness. This cycle of desperation is the result of an ongoing inability to plan ahead for looming deadlines.
“The Committee” then dilutes any hope of a regional commitment to a strategic transportation plan by requiring that every council district get a piece of the pie, whether or not it makes sense.
All of this takes place in secret, away from the public, in spite of the fact that the City Council and the Transportation Committee have both directed “the Committee” to conduct its business openly.
Several years ago, the City Council directed the Transportation Committee, lead department on “the Committee,” to keep the City Council informed of its planning, priorities, and performance. That display of bravado failed to yield meaningful results, a position that the DOT defended by arguing “We had no time!”
Three LADOT General Managers in a row have tendered the same defense as they exclude the public from the process of proposing, prioritizing, and presenting transportation projects for funding, all as the Transportation Committee directs them to engage the neighborhood councils in the process.
One might argue that the participation of the public in the process might slow it down, a fair point to make that fails to acknowledge the simple fact that projects with community support perform better in the competitive funding process.
Based on results, often harsh but always fair, the current actions of “the Committee” fall far short of acceptable and are starved for the infusion of accountability that would come from opening the process to the public.
Years after the LADOT revealed that the City of LA had no Strategic Transportation Plan in place to drive the funding proposal process, the LADOT still meanders without guidance.
Years after the City Council demanded to be involved in the process, “the Committee” continues to offer tepid proposals that lack commitment, vision, innovation, community support or any hope of successfully competing for transportation funding.
For too long, the City of LA has relied on the “fair share” approach to transportation funding, arguing that it deserves the money simply because of its size. This has resulted in an internal process controlled by city staff that recycles old failed proposals and debating process in order to fund projects that lack vision, support, and efficacy.
It’s time for the people of LA to raise the standard for transportation planning, to participate in the process of planning, presenting proposals for funding, prioritizing projects and evaluating performance.
Rosendahl’s role as champion of the Brown Act demands that he seize this opportunity and open business of the Transportation Committee to the public by bringing “the Committee” from behind closed doors, opening its business up to the community, and embracing the public as partners in the business of the people.
(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at: Stephen@thirdeyecreative.net.)