CityWatch, May 22, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 41
RETHINKING LA - Austin Beutner, while still stumping the Mayoral
campaign trail, told a story of how many City of LA Departments it took
to change a light bulb. In this case a light bulb on a light pole.
it takes the Department of Water and Power because they control the
electricity to the bulb.
It also takes the Bureau of Street Services because they are responsible
for the actual street and sidewalk that hosts the light pole. Add to
the mix the Department of Transportation because they are responsible
for controlling traffic as the heavy equipment blocks the street.
Rounding out the effort is the Bureau of Street Lighting, the folks who
actually install the light bulb.
If the light bulb is being
replaced as the result of a motor vehicle collision, a fairly common
occurrence in Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Police Department may end up
investigating a traffic collision that will then require the Bureau of
Sanitation to send a team to clean up the debris in the street.
made much of this multi-departmental dance that demonstrates LA’s
commitment to maintaining siloed departments that have their own
language, their own communication style, their own rules, and their own
authority. Heck, some of them have their own police force.
When Beutner told his story, it drew chuckles. After all, it’s a light bulb joke!
when it happens to people who live in Los Angeles and who expect the
City of LA to efficiently deliver City Services to the people of LA, it
is no longer a joke. It is a crisis.
Recently, a resident of an
R-1 home engaged in a bit of Spring Cleaning and found himself with a
big load of trash that would not fit in the single black trash bin given
to him by the Bureau of Sanitation and picked up on a weekly basis. So,
he did what works.
The resident made several trips across the
street to deposit the loose trash on the sidewalk outside the local
church. Why? Because if he called Sanitation, they would charge him for
an extra bin as a long term solution or for the additional trash if he
wanted a one-time extra pickup.
Instead, the resident engaged in
a misdemeanor act of “illegal dumping” that carries with it a
first-time penalty of $500. This misdemeanor doesn’t have to be
witnessed by a law enforcement officer, and in this case, it didn’t take
much to determine guilt. Items with the resident’s name and address
were found in the trash as well as his ID card and then he confessed,
twice, to the illegal dumping.
Here is where the City of LA’s
multi-departmental approach to changing light bulbs, or in this case,
taking out the trash, gets convoluted and ultimately fails the people of
The pastor of the church sees the trash and calls
311. He also sends an email that alerts the City Council office to the
ongoing problem on this street and activates neighbors who call the
Senior Lead Officer of the LAPD.
311 is supposed to be the “one
phone call is all it takes” solution to the byzantine morass that is the
City of LA but the reduced hours of operation, the long hold time when a
call is placed, and the slim chances that the call will activate the
correct department are all evidence that 311 is not a solution.
311 operator took the call and sent the Bureau of Sanitation to clean
up the illegal dumping mess. A neighbor had already pulled the
identifying elements from the trash heap and set them aside for the
After the Bureau of Sanitation cleaned the site,
the Bureau of Street Services arrived to conduct an investigation. They
have enforcement authority, including citation and arrest, but if they
get to the scene after it has been cleaned, it’s tough to investigate or
In this case, there was still evidence because the
Bureau of Sanitation only took the larger debris, leaving behind the
illegal dumper’s identification card from his Law School. (so much for
the “I had no idea!” defense)
The plot thickens though because
the LAPD’s Senior Lead Officer had already knocked on the illegal
dumpers door and accepted the “Sacre Bleu!” defense, allowing the
resident to call 311 and demonstrating a disconnect from municipal code
and Sanitation charges.
While it is hardly incumbent on a SLO to
know the minutiae of LA’s sanitation billing, it is their
responsibility to know the laws that impact the quality of life issues
that a SLO deals with. In this case, illegal dumping on street where it
is a common occurrence would suggest that a SLO with a decade plus of
experience might know the difference between an apartment building and a
house or bulky items and loose trash.
Further adding to the
confusion at the trash heap is the charming habit of the local
Councilman to send a truck he has commandeered from the Department of
Public Works around the neighborhood, picking up trash and focusing on
the symptom of illegal dumping rather than the solution.
of actually running the city and addressing the systemic issues that
result in massive budgets that fail to deliver city services, his
solution is to send a Council Deputy in sandals out in a City vehicle
with a driver to pick up evidence of illegal dumping, further thwarting
an effective investigation.
Missing from this heap o’ departments
at the trash pile is the City Attorney’s office which has a
Neighborhood Prosecutor standing by to address quality of life issues
such as the long-term residents who know how to game the system.
course, there is not much the Neighborhood Prosecutor can do if the
Senior Lead Officer is busy yelling at residents “I don’t know what else
I can do!” and “I don’t know why this is such a big deal!”
to the failure is the ease with which the Bureau of Street Services
Investigator accepted the resident’s story without simply calling 311 to
verify the accuracy of their defense. That would have required the
investigator to breach the silo walls, talking to a 311 operator and
Bureau of Sanitation staff.
The bottom line is this, the City of
LA is incapable of addressing an illegal dumping incident, one that is
actually part of a pattern of abuse on this same street.
Of the many departments involved here, it is apparent that LA’s City Hall has become the Tower of Babel.
Bureau of Sanitation is a mysterious entity that requires an insider’s
password in order get to those responsible for operations.
Bureau of Street Services only takes voice messages that are then
written down by the receptionist, explaining where those old “Missed
Call” message pads were sent.
The City Council office sent
instructions that contradict the 311 advice of old and ensure job
security for the “Trash Truck” Deputy, calling on residents “in the
know” to simply go directly to the Council Office to get trash picked
Through it all, the SLO instructs the local to organize
cleanups because “As you know it is up to your neighbors and the entire
neighborhood to get involved and keep your area clean.”
the beleaguered 311 operators take calls from harried Angelenos who
spend too much time on hold and not enough time seeing results. If 311
is only open when people are busy getting to work, working and getting
home from work, it’s safe to say that the system is not meeting people
where they need to be met.
If there is a budget crisis in Los
Angeles, it is because too many departments are protecting their siloed
turf and antiquated communications systems while the residents of LA
stand by and wonder why it takes so many departments to change so few