Thursday, January 19, 2012

Landscaping in LA: City Hall has a drinking problem

CityWatch, Jan 19, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 6

LANDSCAPING IN LA - As the threat of a water crisis looms on the horizon, the City of LA finds itself immobilized, tethered by garden hoses and irrigation systems to an unsustainable municipal lifestyle that costs money, wastes water, and sets a poor example.

Consider the unintended consequences of the recent Occupy LA encampment surrounding City Hall that killed the turf lawn, prompting Emily Green of the LA Times to declare it a “positive achievement” that provides LA’s leadership with an opportunity to “walk the talk” of a water-wise commitment.

Many cities use the landscaping and maintenance of their municipal property as a teaching opportunity, showcasing drought resistant options to the traditional turf lawn that is neither native nor sustainable.

LA’s City Council, on the other hand, has spent more time debating lawn-watering strategies in the midst of municipal water rationing than it has on setting a citywide standard that would wean the City of LA from its dependency on sprinklers and fertilizer.

In the wake of the Occupy LA “restoration” of City Hall Park’s open space, LA’s Department of Recreation and Parks (RAP) has taken its “restoration” responsibilities on the road, engaging “a large cross section of City professionals and officials, renowned landscape professionals, and the public to solicit a variety of input, concerns, and suggestions.”

RAP has advanced three proposals that range from a traditional “putting green” gestalt to a design that incorporates permeable sidewalks, water reclamation, drought resistant ground cover and decomposed granite paths.

Missing from the dialogue is an option that liberates City Hall from the need to install an irrigation system. It’s not as if the City of LA is a stranger to the notion of irrigation-free landscape design and maintenance.

The City of LA owns and operates the 110 year-old South Seas House as a community center and RAP maintains its beautiful Xeroscape front yard without relying on an irrigation system, resulting in a beautiful demonstration of alternatives to the traditional turf lawn and a dependency on water.

The City of LA is also home to the Charles F. Lummis Home and Garden, an acre of drought tolerant and native plant landscaping that demonstrates our ability to give up the garden hose habit in favor of low maintenance designs that incorporate water reclamation elements.

The fact that the City of LA actually maintains public space landscaping that is free of the need to install and maintain wasteful irrigation systems has not impeded its commitment to labor intensive landscaping choices that squander a dwindling natural resource.

LA’s new Fire Station #82 is being build on Hollywood Boulevard, a huge training facility that has approximately 500 square feet of streetside landscaping, requiring 134 sprinkler heads. The complexity of a system such as this belies the environmental and budget realities of the City of LA.

In fact, LA has a strong track record of designing and building facilities while neglecting to budget for ongoing maintenance, a pattern of failure that has prompted downtown residents to “adopt” the lawn surrounding the LAPD’s $600 million headquarters.

Now is the time for the City of LA to step back and to look at the barren lawn of City Hall Park as an opportunity to set a standard, to connect traditional turf lawn landscapers with training that prepares them for the future, to demonstrate to Angelenos water conservation techniques that are beautiful and low-maintenance.

Los Angeles is home to the Theodore Payne Foundation, an organization that conducts a year round education center in an effort to promote the use of California native plants and wild flowers. TPF has a presence on the streets of LA, appearing at Park(ing) Day LA events and Farmers Markets to demonstrate the advantages of landscaping that is pleasing to the eye while providing a water conservation solution.

Surrounding communities, such as Santa Monica, San Fernando, and Manhattan Beach all operate municipal facilities that are free of a dependence on extravagant irrigation systems and maintenance commitments, also serving as a teaching opportunity that encourages the community to engage in water conservation efforts.

Covina’s library is surrounded by a 3,300 square foot water-wise Native Plant Demonstration Garden that replaced the turf lawn and now captures run-off water for its irrigation needs.

The Crescenta Valley Water District Demonstration Garden offers ideas for replacing turf with California Friendly plants and serves for a promotion for its policy of offering rebate money to residents who remove turf grass from their yards.

Santa Clarita’s Castaic Lake Water Agency Conservatory Garden features 350 low-water-using plant varieties and 1,500 roses, along with instructional signage and classes to help gardeners be water-wise.

LA’s own Pierce College features the S. Mark Taper Botanical Garden, 1.9 acres of plants from the seven major worldwide Mediterranean climate zones, all suitable for Southern California’s climate.

Meanwhile, the City of LA struggles with an artificial dichotomy between what is functional and what is sustainable, a battle that relies on the assumption that City Hall’s full roster of public events all require a turf lawn landscape.

It simply isn’t true and there is a groundswell of advocacy in favor of exploring the full range of sustainable options. Community leaders, such as Sherri Akers and Melissa Stoller of the Mar Vista Community Council’s Green Committee, have formally asked the City of LA to seize this opportunity and to surround City Hall with sustainable landscaping.

The Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council, long active in community sourced solutions to land use, sustainability, and open space issues, has also jumped in with a commitment to help design and maintain a sustainable City Hall Park landscape.

Why then the drama?

Does the City of LA own a warehouse of water sprinkler equipment that must be used up before it can conceive of giving up its water-wasteful habits?

Does the City of LA have an endorsement deal with Toro, one that requires the city to keep riding lawnmowers active in all 15 council districts in order to qualify for compensation?

The time is now for the City of LA to think beyond the putting green, to give up the turf lawn, and to embrace this opportunity as the fork in the road, the one that the next generation will look back at as the defining moment when the City of LA began to actually walk the talk.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Traffic in LA.: Most Vulnerable Angelinos at Risk

CityWatch, Jan 17, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 5

RETHINKING LA - One of the simplest ways to reduce the traffic congestion that surrounds LA’s schools in the morning and in the afternoon is to support children as they walk and bicycle to school, yet the City of LA continues to engage in a charade that’s all talk and no walk (or ride!)

All it would take is to fix the sidewalks and repair the streets that kids walk and ride as they commute to and from school. Add some refuge islands and roundabouts and streets would be safer to cross. Complement that with some speed tables and shared street design and our streets would work better for everybody.

Typically, the debate over the delivery of city services comes with LA’s standard “budget crisis” excuse but in this case, there is significant federal (SRTS) and state (SR2S) funding that can be used to support children as they walk and bicycle to and from school.

Safe Routes to School is administered by the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) and there is funding to provide infrastructural improvements as well as funding to address distracted driving through education and enforcement. Programs that educate and encourage parents, teachers, administrators and students on pedestrian and cyclist safety also qualify.

The City of LA is a notoriously weak performer in the competition for SRTS and SR2S funds, not only failing to qualify for its proportionate share but then defaulting when it does qualify by failing to execute the funded projects.

Funded parties are given four and a half years to spend the money they qualify for or they get “red-flagged” and are suspended from further grant cycles until they clear their past projects.

The City of LA spends more time arguing for extensions and exceptions than it spends simply working on the streets, enforcing the law, educating the community, and encouraging healthy and safe behavior.

This bureaucratic traffic jam within the City of LA has resulted in lost revenue and a missed opportunity to reduce traffic congestion and make our streets safer for everybody.

During the last funding cycle, the City of LA failed to even submit funding applications that would demonstrate a citywide commitment.

As if broken sidewalks and busted streets are hard to find!

In the competitive Safe Routes to School funding process, projects that come with community support do better than those that are simply proposed by traffic engineers seeking funding for routine scheduled roadway improvements.

Yet the City of LA has the audacity to set a deadline for community nominations that falls on this Friday, January 20, 2012.

How does the City of LA expect the community to engage in a process that offers no real opportunity for real participation?

Surrounding communities (the ones that beat LA in the funding competition) have formed Safe Routes to School organizations that engage the community in ongoing campaigns that use the funding process to educate the community.

Children who walk and bicycle to school are more likely to reach the recommended goal of 60 minutes of physical activity each day, they will arrive at school energized and ready to learn, and they take an active role in their well-being.

What does the City of Los Angeles have against Safe Routes to School funding and why is it so reluctant to get competitive?

Last year, a group of community advocates took a Safe Routes to School project to the City of LA in search of support and a commitment to enter it into the pool of submitted projects. It was an ambitious project, one that proposed improvements to a busy arterial with four schools within walking distance.

The traffic engineers looked at the project and expressed a lack of interest, advising the advocates to take it to the Council office for support, after all, “We get paid the same whether or not this project gets funded. The difference is this, if it gets funded, we have more work to do.”

The honesty is refreshing but the revelation is contemptible.

To charge the City of LA with a lackluster commitment to LA’s most vulnerable mode share, children walking and bicycling to and from school, is a harsh charge but the evidence stands.

The City of LA’s infrastructure is unsafe for pedestrians and cyclists and the token gestures at improving the walkability and rideability of the neighborhoods around our schools fall far short of a commitment to our children.

The City of LA’s performance in past Safe Routes to School funding cycles pales in comparison to smaller surrounding cities with smaller staffs who somehow are able to translate a real commitment to public safety into great projects. LA, on the other hand, turns in weak projects, complains about “Fair Share,” and then fails to spend the money when it eventually qualifies.

The City of LA is currently in the process of preparing for the State of California’s Cycle 10 SR2S process which comes with a deadline of March 30, 2012. (City of LA has given community members until January 20, 2012 to submit their projects)

The City of LA has two months to come up with innovative and inspirational projects that will not only make it safer on our streets and sidewalks, but that will also serve as an invitation to walk or to ride, improvements that encourage great behavior and bring neighborhoods together.

If the City of LA is unable to come up with at least two great proposals per Council District for this coming funding cycle, perhaps it’s time to look at the Cities of San Fernando, Rancho Palos Verdes, Burbank, Covina and Claremont. What are they doing that LA isn’t doing?

The City of LA has a long history of talking the talk, but when it comes to Safe Routes to School can it walk the walk?

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

Friday, January 13, 2012

Emergencies in LA: Most Vulnerable Angelenos at Risk

CityWatch, Jan 13, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 4

RETHINKING LA - The fastest growing demographic group in America is senior citizens, a simple fact that should be guiding the City of LA as it goes through the charade of emergency preparedness planning, but one that isn’t even part of the dialogue.

The essence of emergency preparedness is based on the notion that in a true emergency, the people of Los Angeles must be self-sufficient, prepared to survive for days without public safety support, health services, water & power, sanitation, access to fresh food, or streets that work.

LA’s Fire Department conducts Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training that prepares community members for emergencies in a series of classes that progress from the basics of self-sufficiency to managing an evacuation shelter to advanced emergency medical skills.

The CERT training instills in individuals a hierarchy of emergency responses that is counterintuitive but essential, starting with protecting yourself, then protecting your loved ones, then protecting your neighbors. It may seem selfish to start with yourself but the message the instructors drill into the student’s heads is “You can’t help your loved ones and neighbors  if you allow yourself to become an immobilized or dead victim.”

The CERT training in self-sufficiency is an extremely powerful experience with applications on preparedness that resonate through other non-emergency scenarios, demonstrating at every turn that the most powerful tool we possess is the one between your ears.

It also serves to dramatize a painful oversight that has the potential to leave our largest demographic group vulnerable and on their own in the next major earthquake or fire or catastrophe that requires neighborhoods to evacuate in large numbers.

Quite simply, LA’s current emergency preparedness instructions for the seniors in our community, many of whom are already experiencing a lack of self-sufficiency, is “In the event of a serious disaster, everyone should be self-sufficient for at least three days without help or emergency services.”

It doesn’t take an expert in Gerontology to see the problem in this paradigm of emergency preparedness. Expecting a demographic group that is growing in numbers while experiencing a decrease in mobility and self-sufficiency in the best of times to suddenly become self-sufficient is simply civic malpractice.

Senior citizens currently represent 37% of our adult population and are projected to make up 45% by the year 2015. It’s estimated that men will outlive their ability to drive by 7 years, women by 10 years.

How then does the City of Los Angeles intend to guide this significantly sized and extremely vulnerable demographic group through the next emergency? By admonishing them to buy a “Go” bag and be prepared to evacuate on foot? By advising those who require assistance in the activities of daily living (ADL’s) such as grooming, dressing, going to the bathroom, and eating that they should be prepared to go several days on their own?

When Griffith Park was engulfed in fire and the adjacent Los Feliz neighborhood was evacuated, the surrounding streets and even the freeway was completely jammed with gridlock traffic. Residents walked out of the hillside community, some carrying a well fed lapcat or lapdog under one arm and a bag of prescription drugs under the other.

This is LA’s plan? Walk if you can, condolences if you can’t.

It was the CERT volunteers who set up the evacuation center at Marshall High School and provided services to those who were able to navigate the dark streets and find the solitary unlocked gate on a huge High School Campus. Other residents who were lucky enough to have friends and family near by, simply walked out of the neighborhood to prearranged pickup points and were whisked away to other neighborhoods.

But this scenario required the residents to self-mobilize and included no checks and balances to ensure that nobody was forgotten.

One would think that the City of LA would be better connected, that there would be some mechanism for identifying those who need assistance in an emergency and that there would be a plan in place for connecting with them.

In the summer of 1995, Chicago experienced a record heat wave that saw the city’s hard infrastructure buckle while the administration of city services simply collapsed, resulting in 739 excess deaths in one week.

At first glance, the explanation is simple, it was too hot and the most vulnerable died. But it wasn’t so simple.

In what was termed a “social autopsy,” researchers examined the factors that contributed to disproportionate numbers of casualties in some neighborhoods while equally physically vulnerable seniors in other neighborhoods survived the heat.

They discovered that it wasn’t the heat the killed 739 Chicago residents, it was isolation in the midst of a natural disaster.

Residents of communities with a strong social network were more likely to reach out to others when in crisis. Neighbors checked on each other and encouraged each other to move to cooling stations before it was too late.

Residents of communities with high mortality rates were made up of seniors who withdrew into their homes, who were less likely to answer a knock on the door, and who had no one to turn to when they were in crisis.

In other words, residents of neighborhoods with a strong “social ecology” survived while residents of neighborhoods that weren’t connected saw disproportionate casualties.

The City of LA has had over a decade to look at the Chicago experience and to evaluate LA’s emergency preparedness plan in the context of “connected communities” and the needs of our largest and most vulnerable constituent group and yet, where’s LA’s plan?

Well connected healthy communities are not only more likely to survive natural disasters but they also experience a reduction in crime and gang activity.

This was recently demonstrated when Mayor Villaraigosa and Police Chief Beck released the most recent crime data, touting the fact that crime rate was at the lowest that it's been since the 50's. The Mayor simply said it was "mind-boggling" but the Chief explained that it was due to good police work and the ever increasing role of the community in public safety.

One would think that these results would prompt the City of LA to double down on its social services commitment but the Mayor and the LAPD seem committed to the continual militarization of the police force rather than to an increasing commitment to engaging the community in the process.

This systemic dismissal of the importance of strong connected communities is evident as the LAPD moves forward with a plan to turn the old Rampart station into a SWAT station rather than fulfilling the wishes of the neighbors who envision a community center.

As for the seniors, they vote in greater numbers than any other age group yet they are forgotten during LA’s annual budget melee, victims of a Mayor and City Council that lacks the political will to commit basic resources to the city’s most vulnerable residents.

“Soft” health and social support services are delegated and redelegated, often falling on the shoulders of those who are ill-equipped or unwilling to accept responsibility. Through it all, it is the work of non-profit groups such as the Assistance League that creates the safety net and holds it together.

In times of calm, on any given day, LA’s police and fire departments respond to multiple calls from seniors who then receive transportation, emergency primary medical care, connection to social services, and safety support. times of disaster, the LAPD and the LAFD will be completely focused on the larger crisis and unable to respond to individual calls from residents who are limited in capabilities and mobility.

Watching Mayor Villaraigosa at the podium again, extolling the benefits of emergency preparedness, is to watch a demonstration in complete disconnect from reality.

Villaraigosa’s plan is to talk about preparedness while completely abdicating on his responsibility to implement a plan for connectivity, one that will take root now, not when it’s too late to do anything.

Dying young is a tragedy, but it pales in comparison to the real tragedy which is growing old in a city that takes you for granted and doesn’t have a plan for you in case of an emergency.

Seniors tend to live in one of five different housing arrangements, independently at their own home, in a retirement community with some support, at home but with some support, in an assisted living facility, and in a nursing home where physical and mental needs can be met.

If Villaraigosa is serious about emergency preparedness, he will produce five plans for LA’s senior community, demonstrating a commitment to connectivity that will ensure the survival of our most vulnerable yet significant age group.

If he can’t handle the task, it’s up to those of us who are willing and able. After all, we’ll all be there soon.

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

Monday, January 09, 2012

LA Crime Stats: Can You Trust the Spin Doctors?

CityWatch, Jan 13, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 3

RETHINKING LA - LA’s Mayor Villaraigosa and Police Chief Beck have taken the city’s 2011 crime stats on the road, holding them aloft and touting the fact that the crime in Los Angeles continues to decline and is currently as low as it was in the 50’s.

As Villaraigosa and Beck take a victory lap around the city in anticipation of the upcoming budget hearings, Beck humbly acknowledged that LA’s decade of annual crime rate reductions is a combination of police doing their job well and the “informal social standards’ set by communities, a soft analysis that begs the question “Says who?”

Villaraigosa’s exclamation that “The numbers are mind-boggling!” only serves to stir the embers of an old unresolved debate over the factors that play a role in crime rates.

The larger overarching issue is one of simple data collection and analysis within LA’s City Hall.

The City of LA is the largest city in the most populated state in the most powerful country in the world, and yet we allow City Hall to run itself without the accountability that comes from solid statistical analysis, conducted by professionals who challenge assumptions of causality.

If this seems like a harsh charge to level at the Mayor while he’s still conducting his press tour, consider the fact that the FBI is currently examining, revising and reevaluating its crime definitions, data collection, and statistical analysis.

If the FBI’s ego will allow for introspective analysis and evaluation, surely Los Angeles can ask a few hard questions about the pencils it uses to collect data, the procedures it uses to compile data, the innovative strategies it uses to analyze the data, and the actions it takes based on that data.

If this process seems routine and self guiding, consider the experience of Pfizer, the largest pharmaceutical company in the world. In 2006 the CEO announced to the world that they were on the edge of developing “one of the most important compounds of our generation,” one that would “redefine cardiovascular treatment.”

Two days later the same CEO made a sudden reversal, announcing the termination of clinical trials due to the fact that the drug appeared to be killing people.

Pfizer’s value dropped by $21 billion in just week.

Pfizer’s experience is a clear demonstration of the fallacy of causation, the assumption that the presence of two or more factors implies that one causes the others.

It also demonstrates that even the most skilled professionals operating with vast resources can master the information but still fail to understand the relevant factors or identify any cause and effect relationships.

Trusting the professionals isn’t always the best way to go, as was demonstrated in a study conducted by a cardiologist named Lee Goldman.

Using only four factors, Goldman developed a decision tree that evaluates the likelihood of heart attacks better than trained cardiologists in Chicago’s Cook County Hospital emergency room. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, offers other examples of the difficulty professionals encounter as they collect information but struggle with decisions over what to discard and what to keep.
While Villaraigosa’s befuddlement is understandable, it is hardly acceptable, especially in light of the stakes.

Even more disturbing is the City of LA’s habit of collecting data as if it was simply fodder for the assumption machine, obligatory elements that were part of an old civic process recipe that continues to churn out the same results.

The City of LA has long held the title of the Capital of Homelessness, yet when it comes to collecting data, it’s a volunteer driven process that clearly lacks the commitment that it deserves.

Contrast this with the work of University of Pennsylvania’s Dr. Dennis Culhane who has used incisive data collection and analysis to identify effective and efficient tools for eradicating homelessness.

Professor Culhane was featured in the 2005 Genius Edition of Esquire magazine as one of the brightest minds in our country for his work developing and promoting long term solutions to habitual homelessness.

As Culhane works with other large cities, Los Angeles continues to use volunteers to collect homelessness data. Critics contend that this scenario allows for overcounts by those angling for HUD funds and undercounts by politicians who are protecting neighborhood reputations.

The City of LA has also long held the title of the Capital of Busted Streets, yet when it comes to qualifying for funds and allocating resources, again, it’s a volunteer driven process.

When voters approved Measure R, the half cent sales tax that would fund regional transportation improvements over the next decade, few realized that the $40 billion initiative would rely on traffic mode analysis performed by volunteers with a vested interest in the outcome.

The City of Los Angeles deserves better than a mind-boggled Mayor in charge of a team that continues to collect data without being held responsible for determining cause and effect.

Rick Cole, while Mayor of Pasadena, used hard data to determine the value of a parking space, its ability to generate revenue that could be invested in the immediate neighborhood, and its role in the regeneration of the local economy.

LA, on the other hand, continues to allow debates over everything from public safety to parking to potholes to be driven by emotion and fueled by fear. Then it gets put through the cost-recovery spin cycle so that it turns into a revenue opportunity for the Mayor who can only express honest befuddlement at he looks at the city adrift.

Meanwhile, Long Beach can analyze the value of a single parking space, its anticipated revenue, the appropriateness of its location and its relationship with the local economy, all from City Hall.

While the ongoing decline in LA’s crime rate is a cause for celebration, the fact that we don’t know why things are improving is cause for alarm. If community policing is a big factor in the ongoing reduction in crime rates, why is LAPD militarizing the old Rampart station instead of building a new community center?

The ongoing budget crisis in the City of LA demands that hard questions be asked of all department heads and of all departments, yet without reliable data and analysis, the people of LA are deprived of an essential and effective oversight tool.

Now is the time for the City of LA to prioritize data collection and analysis in all that it does, from public safety to public works to public policy, and to do what counts while counting what matters.

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

LA’s City Hall: Mired in the Moment … Missing a Vision for the Future

CityWatch, Jan 6, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 2

RETHINKING LA - The City of LA’s ongoing budget crisis has allowed a triage mentality to permeate throughout City Hall, framing the ongoing debate over our future in the negative and conditioning the public to focus on what they can give up rather than what they want.

Each year the Mayor’s office gathers with neighborhood council representatives to solicit feedback on the Mayor’s Budget, a process that typically starts with “Where can we cut City Services in order to balance the budget?” and concludes with “Well, we had no choice!”

Along the way, the public is re assured that the decimation of city departments and the continued restriction of city services are inevitable and acceptable, after all, “We’re in the middle of an economic meltdown and it’s not our fault.”

This results in a commitment to the negative, a focus on the worst case scenario and a complete abdication of responsibility, all of which leads the city to engage in cost recovery revenue enhancements that are predatory and regressive.

If the City of LA is going to weather the current storm of unemployment, homelessness, home foreclosures, collapsing infrastructure, and crisis-mode delivery of city services, it must start with a resolution to get positive.

There are some who have set their focus so low that simple survival is considered a worthy accomplishment but I would contend that demonstrates a lack of vision and a failure to commit to success.

As the current budget process gets underway, it’s reasonable to ask a few hard questions of the Mayor, of the departmental managers, and of our City Council.

1) What successful municipal authorities have weathered the same economic storm that put LA on the rocks and what can we learn from their success?

Hint: Look to the LA County Board of Supervisors and take note of the contrast between the different strategies for prevailing during economic turbulence. The Supervisors negotiate contracts that will work through thick and thin while the City of LA squanders when it’s ahead and issues promises when it’s behind.

2) What successful municipal authorities have increased revenue without inflicting higher fees, fines, and penalties on its residents and businesses?

Hint: Look to Boston and take note of their economic growth, an increase of 4.8% in 2010, and their ranking as the sixth most economically powerful city in the world. Boston has created an “Innovation District” that is designed to bring major biotechnology business to town while LA still struggles with permits for sidewalk dining outside small cafes.

3) What successful municipal authorities have increased efficiencies in the delivery of city services without increasing costs?

Hint: Look to Long Beach and try to find the Department of Transportation. You won’t. You’ll find Public Works and within it you will find people working together on transportation, engineering, street services, etc. You’ll also find funding experts who represent a city 1/8th the size of LA yet when they go to the same funding sources, they ask for five times as much as LA and they get it. They prevailed because they had the audacity to think big and to go to work.

The people of Los Angeles have a right to leadership that is focused on a vision for the future, not simply a deferential survival of the storm, but a strong commitment to highly functional city machine that delivers city services and moves LA forward, confidently and successfully.

It’s time to reject the traditional budget triage and to reframe the debate, starting with the tough questions for the Mayor, the City Council and the department chiefs.

The LA Times took a shot at asking the candidates for Council District 15 some tough questions, but years of service to a sinking ship has left the editorial staff unable to come up with anything other than “Is there anything the city currently does that it should no longer be doing?” and “One more time: Because you acknowledge we have to cut something, is there anything the city doesn't need to do? Anything we could or should cut or leave to someone else?”

Missing from the interviews are questions that address a vision for LA’s future, the establishment of goals for the city and its departments, oversight and accountability of those performance goals, and a firm commitment for establishing outside revenue streams.

Of course, it’s not up to the LA Times to hold City Hall accountable, it’s up to us, the people of LA, and it starts with a resolution to reframe the debate and insist on a positive approach to the future that is built on a Great City vision.

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

2012 Resolution: Put an End to Killer Meetings

CityWatch, Jan 3, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 1

RETHINKING LA - Public meetings are the bane of a community activist’s life, a necessary evil that demands attention and consumes incredible amounts of time, all while offering only the slimmest of hope that a moment of comment will change the course of history or at least impact the outcome of a vote.

In looking back over the past year and setting resolutions for the future, I resolve to spend less time in meetings and more time on other activities that move issues forward, that hold public officials accountable, and that engage the public in working together to improve our communities.

Most importantly, I intend to apply the “oversight and accountability” standard to the meetings that are conducted by the people who run this city.

As the City of Los Angeles wallows through the ongoing financial drought that has eviscerated departments and prompted budget cuts that squeeze department heads to cry for supplies and staffing, one of the most unregulated areas of operation is the meeting, the squandering of staffing in gatherings that are heavy on headcount and light on significance or impact.

A recent City Council meeting drew a full house, a standing room only crowd of members of the public, all eager to petition their government, to address the issues, to weigh in on the agenda items to be considered that day.

I saw a high-ranking member of the LA Police Department and greeted him, saying “Hey, welcome back! How was your vacation?” He glumly informed me that he was still on vacation, but was called in to represent the LAPD during a City Council resolution. He was not alone but was surrounded by a full contingent of LAPD brass.

Not to be outdone was the presence of LA’s Fire Department, represented by a small cluster of high-ranking officials in full uniform, buttons polished and gleaming, all standing by for hours on the slim chance that their presence would add anything significant to a process that was short of controversy and long on ceremony.

A reasonably concerned community activist could embark on the honorable road to poverty simply by engaging in the process and participating in the public comment charade. After all, who isn’t concerned with issues related to the LAPD and the LAFD?

Add to the public safety dialogue at City Hall a few CERT meetings, some CPAB meetings, a few neighborhood watch meetings, and the schedule is starting to fill up.

At some point, it becomes obvious that public safety is related to planning and land use issues and it becomes necessary to engage in the Community Plan journey, the local Planning Commission activities, the Neighborhood Council’s PLUM committee, and specific committees and authorities related to hills, valleys, rivers, parks, and anything with a view.

Another epiphany occurs and the connection between land use and transportation rears its well-funded head and Metro meetings appear on the calendar, surrounded by Measure R project meetings, Walkability audits, Ridability audits, Livability audits, and hearings over permit parking, apron parking, and metered parking.

Along the way, LA’s infrastructure sends a reminder that it would like some attention or it will simply collapse from loneliness, setting in motion a series of meetings with the Department of Water & Power, the Bureaus of Street Services, Sanitation, Engineering, and the Department of Transportation.

All this work is enough to drive even the most dedicated activist in search of diversion but a visit to a park or library simply sets in play another round of “Attend this meeting if you care about the future of...” meetings that simply suck the energy out of the most committed supporters.

Eventually, the accidental activist realizes that the battle to improve the quality of life and ensure the delivery of city services demands the full support of the respective elected officials, setting play another byzantine journey in search of representation.

It’s been my experience that the average person on the street is hard pressed to identify their City Council district, let alone their State Senator or Representative, a fact that is further complicated by the current redistricting process that has many communities in flux.

One would think that by now there would be a simpler process for engaging our elected officials in the process of serving their constituents, one that doesn’t require a trip to Sacramento, to a district office, to City Hall or to the County Hall of Administration.

Granted, there is something powerful about speaking in public but it’s also fairly late in the game to wait for public comment. One would think that 2012 would be a reasonable time for our elected officials to implement the digital tools that would allow the public to participate in the process without having to trade a half-day of personal time for 60 seconds of public comment.

San Francisco uses a smart phone application called SFGov as a tool for “making government more responsive and City services easier to access” according to Mayor Lee.

Boston uses “Citizens Connect” as a tool for engaging the public while other cities opt for a service called Government Outreach [[ ]] that allows community members to get information, submit requests, send geo-tagged photos, and follow up on requests.

Councilmembers Garcetti and Krekorian have both demonstrated a commitment to utilizing social media tools in connecting with their constituents but their success must be balanced by the overall failings of the city as a whole to keep up with the times, with the technology, and with the demands that fall on the public.

Within the city family, the LAFD’s Brian Humphrey has been recognized for his mastery of social media as a mechanism for keeping the public informed, regardless of the platform they favor but again, his success is tempered by the LAPD’s Public Information Office which is still staffed by people who giggle when they say “twitter” out loud.

It’s 2012 and my first resolution is to spend less time in meetings, sitting idly and hoping that my 60 seconds of public comment will be meaningful. Instead I resolve to engage more, to participate with increased fervor, and to insist that the people who manage the process do so on a platform of modern tools and techniques.

Most importantly, I will work to ensure that the voice of the people count for something, that feedback is collected and tabulated, and that it amount to more than simple background noise as City Hall consumes staff time in obligatory meetings that maintain the status quo.

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

Monday, January 02, 2012

Optimism, It’s Our Only Choice!

CityWatch, Dec 30, 2011
Vol 9 Issue 104

MOVING LA FORWARD - This past week, I was at a political event that was disguised as a holiday party, or maybe it was a holiday party disguised as a political event, but either way I found myself elbow to elbow with candidates running for office and the political operatives who wage the battles and stage the campaigns.

It was against this background that I found myself talking with a candidate for citywide office who had just welcomed a newborn child into his home two weeks ago. Surrounded by the din of political aspirations and machinations, we ended up comparing notes on our experiences with the nocturnal feeding habits of our infants, firmly putting the travails of the world in perspective.

As I traded “new father” anecdotes with one of the most powerful men in Los Angeles, I realized that our experiences contained within them the lessons that could move LA forward.

Here are five things I’ve learned as the proud father of a newborn baby boy:

Pay Attention: A heightened state of awareness can be an exhausting experience, but it actually results in greater energy and productivity. “More effort takes less effort” may seem counterproductive but it works!

Keep Close: Babies raised in cultures that favor contact over separation cry less. It’s true no matter how old we are, social connections are the key to happiness.

Give Thanks: To hold a newborn baby is to connect with the powerful energy of thankfulness. I count my blessings as I look my newborn son's perfection and as I experience the overwhelming support of our community of friends and family.

Keep Moving: Nothing brings a smile like going for a walk, even if it’s just a small journey around the neighborhood, and it’s a reminder that we were born for action.

Be Positive: Our energy is contagious and to see a baby mimic our attitudes and emotions is to experience the incredible responsibility that demands our optimism. After all, it’s our only choice, that and then delivering on our promise to make it come true.

As for the party, I’m sure the food was great and that lots of good work was done, but from where I stood, it all faded into the background as two fathers slowed down, just for a moment, and connected with the power of optimism and its rightful place in our immediate future.

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

A Humbled Father: Confessions Part II

CityWatch, Dec 27, 2011
Vol 9 Issue 103

RETHINKING LIFE - My newborn son was still at the hospital when his footprints were taken, an old tradition that has lost its usefulness as a mechanism for identification but one that continues to take place as a generator of keepsakes.

Some friends who happen to be fairly serious runners came by to visit and their first comment when looking at Sydney’s footprints was to exclaim “Oh my, he has the feet of a runner!”

I swelled with pride, picturing our son running for the finish line, convinced that our newborn was destined to be a champion.

It was later that somebody observed Sydney’s hands as he waved them in the air, commenting on his long, lean fingers “Oh my, he has the hands of a pianist!”

Again, I swelled with pride, picturing our son performing, further convinced that our newborn was destined to be a champion.

My confidence in his unique destiny as a champion continued as I watched my wife feed him, after all, he had a veracious appetite. As I watched him sleep, I was sure this was the sleep of a champion.

As I held my little champion in my arms, I imagined how pleased my father would have been to meet Sydney, to lift him up and to bless him and I knew what he would have said. “Whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not to men.”

I was humbled.

Yes, it would be wonderful if Sydney has the feet of an athlete and it would be a joy if he has the hands of an artist, but what truly matters is that he has feet that walk the talk, that he has hands that reach out to those in need, and that he has the heart of a leader, one that is committed to service.

I regretted contemplating Sydney’s future as a champion, a role that typically revolves around competition with others, resulting in victors and vanquished.

My only hope for Sydney is that he is true, that he does what is right and that he finds peace in his journey, whether he leads or follows, regardless of whether his role is in the limelight or in the audience.

It’s been less than a month since Sydney joined us and I’m already learning from him, reminded that my role is to remember my father’s words and to teach my son by example.

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