Wednesday, May 30, 2012

LA’s City Council Needs a Maître d’

CityWatch, May 29, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 43

RETHINKING LA -One of City Hall’s best defenses against public participation is its charming tradition of vagueness with regard to the business of the people.

With great regularity the City Council acts with firm authority and calls on city departments to conduct surveys, to issue reports, and to return with proposals and drafts suitable for further pontification and public dissemination. Eventually the activity begins to wane and the original action dies the most humiliating death, it gets smothered by dust and simply fades into irrelevance.

As for the members of the public who were engaged in the initial action, their patience has been tested, their time has been wasted, and their confidence in the efficacy of civic engagement has been depleted.

When controversial issues continue to draw the attention of the public, much to the dismay of the Council Members who would like to see actions take place in empty chambers, free of the noise that comes with enthusiastic public participation, the best way to shake the crowd is to hold it in limbo until it finds its way on a busy agenda and slips through the system silently.

It requires dedicated and diligent trackers to catch these items, some of which languish for months before they race for the finish line on agendas that are typically surrounded by distractions.

When the trackers catch these stealth City Council actions and alert the community, turning out the crowd that insists on speaking in public and drawing attention to the controversial issue, the next sleight of hand takes place as the agenda is shuffled and the meeting is drawn out to such lengths that time runs short, public comment is reduced to the minimum, and the item in question is held until anything and everything else is resolved. Hours later, even the hardiest of community members has had time to rethink their commitment and their hope for meaningful civic engagement.

Observers of LA’s City Council agenda machinations fall into two schools, those who believe in conspiracy and those who attribute it all to incompetence.

Conspiracy buffs point to the scheduled absences of Councilmembers and note the issues that come up while they are gone, a pattern that allows them to maintain the neutral high road as controversial actions slide through the system.

The current Hollywood Community Plan is an example of a hot-topic item that is floating, prompting community members to track Hollywood Councilmember Eric Garcetti’s scheduled absences in the hopes of determining when the controversial issue will surface in City Council.

Those who dismiss the foibles of City Council as simple incompetence need only point to the familiar refrain “What are we voting on?” that is heard with alarming regularity from a body that gets better press for debating the background music on the City’s Channel 35 than for actually running the city and delivering the services that the people depend on.

Through it all, it’s fair to ask “What can we do?”

The answer is quite simple, run City Council like a decent restaurant. Hire a host, take reservations, announce specials in advance, greet the public, offer them a menu, stick to a schedule, deliver what is promised, check back to ensure satisfaction, and get paid based on prompt and satisfactory service.

As simplistic as this sounds, having a host run the agenda would allow people to check in, determine when their item would be scheduled for hearing, and return when appropriate.

Currently, the public sits for hours, afraid to leave for fear their item will be taken out of order.

From London to Toronto, community activists are calling on their city leadership to introduce respect and empathy into the civic engagement process by embracing scheduling as a foundation for robust meetings and hearings.

As for LA, there’s nothing wrong with City Hall that can’t be fixed by a decent maitre d' and a commitment to serve the people on time and efficiently.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

City Hall: Everybody's Talking, Nobody's Listening

CityWatch, May 25, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 42

RETHINKING LA - Brown Act be damned, it takes a skilled tracker to navigate the City of LA's Byzantine process for communicating announcements, policies, meetings, hearings, agendas and actions.

Veterans of the bureaucratic jungle typically develop tracker instincts that allow them to monitor the subtle signs of City Hall activity and stay informed of impending actions on behalf of the people.
It shouldn't be that way. It shouldn't require such diligence to stay informed, to get involved, and to monitor City Hall as it engages in the business of the people.

Dave Meslin, a Toronto based artist and activist, contends that typical municipal communications come wrapped in a web of barriers that alienate everyday people. Meslin contends that public participation would increase if City Hall employed the same successful standards for communication that can be found in the private sector. After all, that's where businesses die if they keep old customers informed while engaging new customers.

"Public notices should be completely redesigned as marketing materials," says Meslin, "instead of the traditional documents that are characterized by small type, lack of color, lousy graphics (or none at all) and oodles of bureaucratic gobbledygook."

It may seem like a tall order to expect the folks within City Hall to turn into marketing experts overnight but the evidence demonstrates they already have significant skills.

The hallway to the DWP's cafeteria is crowded with colorful posters that are tastefully displayed on easels, all announcing retirement parties and featuring photos and hard to resist invitations to party one more time with a beloved co-worker.

When it matters, people know how to throw a party and to invite the guests with lots of time to prepare. If only those skills were put to work on the people's business.

City Hall has a big poster announcing the City Clerk's road trip to Harrah's Casino. It's colorful, enticing, and has a big headline announcing the "End-of-Year Celebration."

Perhaps if the people's business was treated as a celebration rather than an obligation, we'd see colorful notices that entice instead of confuse.

The bulletin boards at City Hall are full of well designed flyers that clearly communicate car pools in need of passengers, social events in need of participants, retirement parties in search of celebrants, and exercise clubs in pursuit of moral support.

Again, they're fun, well designed, and they successfully compete for attention in crowded hallways on cluttered bulletin boards.

The skills exist in City Hall, but the habit of erring in favor of the legal minimum when it comes to announcement, agendas, actions, and policies has resulted in what Meslin refers to as an insurmountable wall of obfuscation.

When it matters, the people within City Hall have the skills necessary to communicate as if they really wanted you to know what was going on and why you should be there if the City Council meetings were given the same enthusiastic billing.

It's up to the people of LA to demand that City Hall communicate with the public with the same degree of respect that the carpoolers, the stair masters, and the bingo junket riders get.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

LA’s City Hall: Too Many Departments, Not Enough Light Bulbs

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.

Apparently 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.

Beutner 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!

But 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 Los Angeles.

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.

The 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 investigators.

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 prosecute.

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.

Instead 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.

Of 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!”

Added 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.

The Bureau of Sanitation is a mysterious entity that requires an insider’s password in order get to those responsible for operations.

The 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 up.

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.”

Meanwhile, 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 light bulbs.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Why Does Illegal Dumping Take Place in Hollywood? Because it Works!

CityWatch, May 18, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 40

RETHINKING LA - The Pastor of a local church arrived at his office to find a large pile of debris on the sidewalk next to his church property. It consisted of some furniture, some busted boxes of personal belongings, some trash, the kind of debris that is typically left behind when somebody moves.

The Pastor called 311 and then sent an email with a picture of the illegal dumping to some neighbors and to the City Councilman asking “What are people thinking?”

The answer is simple. They are thinking “If I carry my trash across the street, I won’t get charged for the pickup of the bulky items.”

In other words, people dump their junk on our quiet street because it works.

The Senior Lead Officer responded by sending an email saying “One idea would be is to contact the Department of Sanitation and have them remove the trash. I will put in a request for you but in the future you can contact 311 and place a request for a cleanup. Another idea, if you are interested, is to organize your neighbors and do a cleanup day in your neighborhood. I can contact operation clean sweep and request cleaning supplies. If you have further questions please feel free to call me.”

The problem with this advice is that it rewards the person dumping the trash by removing it without an investigation, and makes it the neighbor’s responsibility to do the dirty work. In other words, it works. 

The Council Office responded by sending an email (two days after the illegal dumping) “I have sent this to our beautification crew and have requested that they go out today and remove the items. In the future, please send it directly to me as well so that I can forward it on to the appropriate beautification staff depending on the day.”

This solution is equivalent to wiping the blood off the wound. It doesn’t stop the problem it simply cleans it up for a few moments. Again, for the person dumping, it works.

The Department of Sanitation responded by sending a crew that picked up the bulky items, leaving behind the broken glass and small debris that would require a broom or a shovel and a little more attention.

This solution is paid for by the “Multi-Family Bulky Item Fee” that is charged to all residents of apartments with 5 or more units per building on a monthly basis on their utility bill. In other words, two-thirds of the city pays for bulky item pickup while the other third pays if they call for a pickup. This is what motivates people to carry their trash across the street and to dump it in front of apartment buildings or in this case, a church.

The Bureau of Sanitation responded to the 311 call by sending a truck and picking up the larger items, leaving behind small bits of debris that included the ID card for the person who ended up confessing to the illegal dumping.

This solution keeps the Department of Sanitation busy cleaning our streets but it does nothing to stop those who do the dumping. In fact it does the opposite because it sends a loud message that “Illegal dumping works!”

The Bureau of Street Services is responsible for investigating illegal dumping but they don’t get notified when a resident calls 311 unless the party calling knows that Sanitation cleans while Street Services investigates. (Even our Senior Lead Officer didn’t know this!)

The person who dumped the trash on the sidewalk outside the church left several items in the trash that contained their name and address. (Across the street!) They left packaging from recent Amazon purchases and their final examinations from Law School. These items were given to the investigator from Street Services who took another look and found the ID card.

Meanwhile the Senior Lead Officer is convinced that no crime had been committed because the person who did the dumping says they called 311 for a pickup. The SLO was happy with the explanation, missing the “defrauding the city” and “illegal dumping” possibilities along with the trash that remained on the street.

The City of LA has Neighborhood Prosecutors who respond to quality of life issues, they simply need the cooperation of the LAPD. The LAPD has Senior Lead Officers but if they are limited to suggesting that residents do a better job of cleaning their streets, there is little hope that the Neighborhood Prosecutor will get LAPD support.

Sanitation cleans up big and bulky things but is not so good at the detail work. Meanwhile Street Services investigates illegal dumping and could balance the city’s budget crisis just by tracing the trash before it gets picked up and charging the offending parties the appropriate penalties.

As for Hollywood, it is your dumping ground. Your trash will be blamed on the renters, the Council Office will send the Beautification Team, the illegal dumping will get picked up for free, and the Senior Lead Officer will come around to suggest that the locals sweep the street up after you.

Seriously, illegal dumping takes place in Hollywood because it works!

(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at: You can also find him on Twitter and on Facebook.)