Saturday, June 30, 2012

Neighborhood Councils: Death by Meeting!

CityWatch, June 29, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 52

RETHINKING LA - Neighborhood Councils face many obstacles as they set out to “promote more citizen participation and make government more responsive to local needs” and the most formidable is the threat of “Death by Meeting!”

In many ways, Neighborhood Councils have become the enemy, taking on the bad habits that were the original seeds of discontent when the Battle Cry of Neighborhood Councils was “Let me in!” Neighborhood Council agendas look like City Council agendas, far from informative and even farther from inviting or interesting.

Neighborhood Council meetings look like City Council meetings, some going so far as to require sign-in sheets (in violation of the Brown Act) and identification of speakers (in violation of the Brown Act) because “That’s how they do it at City Hall!”

The loudest message that Neighborhood Councils can send to City Hall is not by email or by Community Impact Statement or by Board Resolution, it’s with behavior.

If Neighborhood Councils are committed to “promoting more citizen participation in government,” it will start with better agendas that actually inform the public and entice them to participating, not the current City Council knockoff that requires a bureaucratic decoder ring to figure out that ZA-2012-454-CE has something to do with that restaurant everybody is excited about and that ZA-2012-2258-CUB has something to do with the development that is causing much dismay.

When journalists cover Neighborhood Council meetings, they make them sound interesting by talking about the relevant topics that were discussed, the passionate speakers who participated, the delicious fare from local eateries that some councils feature.

Tiffany Kelly, now writing for the LA Times, had a knack for storytelling that turned ordinary and routine meetings into the local marketplace of ideas, stirring interest in her readers and prompting them to participate in local events.

The Woodland Hills Patch is able to convey the entire agenda of the Woodland Hills - Warner Center Neighborhood Council in simple language that makes it sound interesting, inviting, and even relevant.

If Neighborhood Councils are able to entice the public to participate, the next step to avoiding “Death by Meeting” is to make things interesting.

Even Walmart has a Greeter, someone with a special gift for saying “Hi!” If Neighborhood Council members hope to be treated with respect, it starts at the front door and requires that strangers get a big welcome when they give up their evening and venture into a Neighborhood Council meeting.

That greeting must be followed up with an introduction and a process that is inviting, not exclusive. Sign-In sheets and Speaker Cards are an option, not a requirement. Participation is the right of the public, not a privilege, and the process should reinforce that at every turn.

Once the public is in attendance, make the meeting interesting and avoid repeating the painful housekeeping tasks that kill a meeting.

Watching a Board debate corrections to meeting minutes is a sure-fire way to communicate “contempt of public” to an audience that is there to partner with the Council in making the neighborhood a better place for everybody.

Successful Neighborhood Councils know their audience and organize the agenda accordingly. Only the sadistic can look at a room full of people in attendance for an agenda item and hold them through all kinds of painful “business” while the energy in the room is depleted as a dwindling crowd waits for their topic.

Finally, if Neighborhood Councils have any hope for engaging the public and “making government more responsive to local needs,” it will start with a well-organized agenda that allows speakers and audience to plan their evening and know when their item will be heard.

Lots of people who present to Neighborhood Councils could attend two and three evenings if there were some method of actually organizing meetings so that presenters didn’t sit for hours looking at the agenda and wondering if they missed their moment of glory.

This isn’t about one person’s time being more important than another person’s, it’s about operating efficiently and with respect so that Neighborhood Councils can draw more, not less, interaction with City Management, Neighborhood Partners, local organizations, and the public.

The quickest way to end “Death by Meeting” is with agendas that are written for the public, programming that plays to the audience, and meeting time management that encourages participation.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Experts Split on Whether the Brown Act will Kill LA’s Neighborhood Councils

CityWatch, June 26, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 51

RETHINIKING LA - The mere suggestion that it might be time to revisit California’s open-meeting law with a Sunshine Ordinance draws two kinds of responses, best summed up as “It’s about time that common sense prevailed!” and “Have you joined the regulatory race to the bottom?” California’s Brown Act is currently under attack amidst charges that it is an outdated law that lacks contemporary teeth, allowing the more sophisticated municipal authorities to abuse it while the smaller community based parties find themselves encumbered by its complexity and liability.

On the one hand, the LA County Board of Supervisors acts with complete disregard for the Brown Act requirements that the people’s business be conducted in public. On the other hand, Neighborhood Councils close their Facebook accounts and create email firewalls out of fear that their digital conversations might qualify as a serial meeting in violation of the Brown Act.

As for Terry Francke’s suggestion that it might be time to follow the lead of other cities, both small and large, with an updating of the half-century old Brown Act, the feedback was both supportive and dismissive. And now it’s public!

On the one side came this message from a former member of the US Foreign Service who also participated in his local Neighborhood Council and points to the Brown Act as one of the reasons for dropping out.

“It seems to me that the spirit if not the letter of the Brown act could be preserved without “secret cabals and back-room politics”  if written communication between NC members (e-mail) was permitted as long as copies were sent to the NC archives.

“Anyone could read them there (even though it seems very few care about anything), and so the history of how a decision was reached could be preserved, without it all having to be done orally at NC meetings squeezed for time and often in confusion.

“None of the things an NC does are inherently secret, but having more time, over a matter of weeks instead of minutes, could result in better drafted resolutions with a chance to think about them and ponder unintended consequences for a while before a vote is taken.  Most of the problems I have seen come from the perceived prohibition on pre-meeting discussion of a topic.

Haste may make waste, but it also results in bad politics.”

Speaking for the other side came this response from a lawyer who is an expert in the Brown Act and the Public Records Act, both of which he relies on as he advocates on behalf of the people.

“Your complaint is that so many people violate the law that we should abolish the law.  If the law were stupid, like the pot laws, yes, but if the laws protect us from fraud and cronyism, then No. We need better education, but some people like ignorance.”

“If you tinker with the Brown Act for NCs, you'll find huge loopholes for City Councils, etc.  Already, the Brown Act is very weak on remedies.  The last thing this country needs to do is to encourage more fraud.

“Corruption and incompetence are the core evils that are killing LA and the nation as a whole.  In fact, corruption has spread far into Europe.  We need more ethical people and reducing laws that require them to act right even when they do not want to will never build a moral society.”


While the debate over the Brown Act continues to simmer, it’s clear that the current scenario must be addressed with better education and enforcement so that those who are violating California’s Open Meeting commitment are held accountable while those who are acting appropriately can be relieved of the fear of liability and legal action.

Through it all, it is incumbent on our leadership to set the standard for compliance and for enforcement with their behavior.

In other words, it’s up to the people to hold the LA County Board of Supervisors accountable and for the City Council, Committees, and Commissions to demonstrate an inspired approach to conducting the people’s business in an open and transparent manner.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Will the Brown Act Kill LA’s Neighborhood Councils?

CityWatch, June 22, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 50

RETHINKING LA - When it comes to California’s Brown Act and Public Records Act commitment to open meetings and transparency, LA’s Neighborhood Councils are held to the same high standard as the LA County’s Board of Supervisors and LA’s City Council.

On the one hand this seems fair, after all, we’re all in this together and the spirit of the law is simply good governance.

But when the rubber hits the road, Neighborhood Councils are completely out-gunned and the result has had a chilling effect on grassroots democracy.
Neighborhood Councils continue to waste energy debating the impact of Facebook pages on their ability to engage in a public discussion without engaging in a serial meeting, a violation of the Brown Act. Unfortunately, the threat of liability has prompted some Councils to simply shut down their Social Media accounts as a solution to conducting their business openly and in accordance with the law.

Some Neighborhood Councils have been pummeled with Public Record Requests to the point that their solution is to simply refuse all documents and materials so that they can honestly respond to invasive and cumbersome requests by saying, “We have nothing!” which is an unfortunate result to the threat of liability.

Other Neighborhood Councils live in fear of violating the Brown Act through email conversations between Board members, resulting in firewalls that literally separate and isolate community members rather than bringing them together.

These three examples demonstrate the unfortunate outcome of the open meeting commitment: community members who disengage from their community and each other, all in response to threats of liability.

Terry Francke, President of Calaware, a non-profit committed to supporting and defending open government, dismisses the concerns by explaining, “The only concern of the Brown Act is that physical congregations or digital linkups, online or otherwise, not be used to build majority consensus about something the members should be reserving to meetings.  I don't know what kind of participation is contemplated, but if there's no contemporaneous or serial discussion by the majority of the same topic, there should be no risk.”

Francke knows what he’s talking about. He just settled a lawsuit with the LA County Supervisors in which he charged them with multiple violations of the Brown Act, including closed-door meetings and a conference call with the Governor, resulting in the Board paying $14,750 and including a statement regarding the September 2011 meetings in the official "Statement of Proceedings'' for the board.

On the one hand, large municipal bodies such as the County Supervisors and LA’s City Council repeatedly challenge the Brown Act and the Public Records Act with their behavior, supported by their deep pockets and their abundant legal counsel.

On the other hand, community volunteers find themselves vulnerable and overwhelmed by restrictions that have a chilling impact on their desire to engage the community and advise City Hall.

Francke suggests that it is time for Neighborhood Councils to enjoy some sunshine, in the form of a city Sunshine Ordinance.

“The ordinance would have to be done by initiative and would have to amend the city charter.  That's a tall order in terms of signature gathering, but Los Angeles residents have one advantage in such efforts that exists nowhere else in the state: the Neighborhood Councils. If most NC members, followers and alumni could agree on a common text for reform, they could provide an experienced and highly motivated corps of petition circulators to get the measure on the ballot.

“A Sunshine Ordinance could not only increase the visibility of what is done at City Hall and in the departments and the accountability of those who do it (or fail to), but address problems like the one you raise in your most recent column: the failure of adequate notice to the NCs of matters to be docketed by the council.  In broad terms, the Sunshine Ordinance strategy is pretty simple: Come up with a list of changes for which you can easily explain the need to the public, creating a reasonable agenda for public participation; present it to the council for adoption; watch the council attempt to water it down, stall its serious consideration or reject it outright; then launch signature gathering, citing the council's resistance to reform.

“I don't mean to oversimplify the task: it involves long, hard work, but for some sense of what voters will do when given a chance to play a role in controlling their own political institutions, look at the Sunshine Ordinance just placed on the November ballot in the tiny (18,000) City of Dixon, based on petitions circulated by an ardent civic watchdog and a relative handful of her friends.  You won't find a tougher upgrading of the Brown Act, Public Records Act and similar rules anywhere.  Another sunshine measure, on the Berkeley ballot, is not as demanding but does emphasize giving the public greater advance notice of items on city bodies' agendas.”

If Neighborhood Councils have any hope of keeping up with City Hall, they need a Sunshine Ordinance that keeps City Hall open and transparent without strangling the public in obstacles that can’t be overcome.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Are Neighborhood Councils Ready for Facebook?

CityWatch, June 19, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 49

RETHINKING LA - The great thing about participating in a Neighborhood Council is the fact that it provides a crash course in the Brown Act and in the Public Records Act. Unfortunately it's typically a literal crash, one that brings meetings to a screeching halt as members share anecdotal experiences, second hand information, and collective fears of legal action. Neighborhood Councils are currently debating the use of Facebook in the public arena, urged on by those who embrace the social media revolution and held back by those who fear Brown Act violations and Public Record Liabilities.

The irony of this Facebook debate is that it takes place in a city that is led by Social Media fans, including Mayor @Trutanich, City Attorney @Trutanich and LA's Facebook pioneer, former City Council President @Garcetti who was one of the first to max out his Facebook page with friends.

LA's City Leadership is so fond of social media that LA's Ethics Commission recently addressed the antiquated application of analog legal restrictions in a digital world. Politicians with active Facebook and Twitter accounts may soon be required to set up separate accounts for their political candidacy campaigns, a requirement that acknowledges the legitimacy of social media activity within City Hall and the need to address appropriate use.

Individuals with social media accounts have an obligation to keep their political work separate from their government work, a standard that applies to all they do, not just social media.

Groups with social media accounts, such as Neighborhood Councils, have an obligation to conduct themselves in accordance with Open Meeting Laws, a standard that applies to all public arenas and digital communications, not just social media.

The idea of a Neighborhood Council using Facebook to tell their story, engage their community, and invite stakeholders to events should result in a hearty round of yawns, after all, Facebook accounts are so common, they're almost passé.

But in some cases, simply suggesting that a Neighborhood Council operate a Facebook account as part of their outreach strategy results in shrill cries of "What about the Brown Act?"

Terry Francke, the Executive Director of CalAware and the lawyer who succeeded in his Brown Act case against the LA County Supervisors, reports that there is nothing unique about social media when it comes to the Brown Act.

Neighborhood Councils have much to contend with and threats of Brown Act and Public Records Act abuse simply has a chilling effect on the spirit of volunteerism.

LA's Mayor, City Attorney, and former City Council President have all utilized social media in their governmental work and have all demonstrated an ability to differentiate between appropriate governmental use and distinctly separate personal or political use.

Neighborhood Councils are definitely ready to follow City Hall down the same digital road.

LA's Ethics Commission stands prepared to grapple with need to address digital technologies and analog laws, removing the mystery from the discussion.

Again, Neighborhood Councils are definitely ready to follow City Ethics down that digital legal road.

The tools for communication will continue to evolve and if Neighborhood Councils are firmly grounded on their commitment to open and transparent governance, then they are ready for Facebook.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Can LA’s Neighborhood Councils Keep Up?

CityWatch, June 15, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 48

RETHINKING LA - Neighborhood Councils face an uphill battle as they attempt to fulfill their City Charter mandate to engage the public and advise City Hall, after all, they typically meet once a month while the City Council meets three times a week, making it tough to keep track of the issues and resulting legislation. Even the members of City Council, complete with dedicated staff and departmental liaisons, find it tough to keep up with the logjam of legislation, resulting in cries of “What are we voting on?” in a process that allows inaction to count as an affirmative vote.

Through it all, Neighborhood Councils are expected to monitor the delivery of city services and keep the public engaged in the process, a Sisyphean responsibility that challenges the capacity of the volunteer-driven Neighborhood Council system.

This prompts the question: “Can Neighborhood Councils keep up with the City of LA?”

If the City is serious about encouraging feedback from Neighborhood Councils, here are three things they can do to facilitate participation.

1. Plan ahead. Motions that have been simmering for years suddenly spring on to an agenda, leaving Neighborhood Councils 72 hours to wade through 15 pages of agenda to find the item and then mobilize and communicate with City Hall.

Councils can file Community Impact Statements on the general topic (“We like sidewalks!”) well in advance of the agendized legislation but the final action will typically have specificity (“Homeowners will pay for repairs by deferring costs until the property is sold.”) that defies official Neighborhood Council Board action. Volunteers that meet every month can’t respond to 72 hour notice with a Community Impact Statement that addresses the most recent iteration of long-simmering legislation.

Neighborhood Councils must get better notice when agenda items such as the Hollywood Community Plan are going to appear on the City Council agenda, especially if they have been in the process for years, so that community members can be involved in the journey all the way to the finish line.

2. Stick to the schedule. City Council agenda items are typically a moving target on agendas that are jammed with the full range of legislation, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. On some days, arriving a few minutes late means a wasted trip downtown. On others days, arriving on time means sitting for hours, never sure when a specific item will come up for comment and action.

The business of the people is important enough to schedule so that the public can participate without having to give up a day’s work for a minute’s commentary. The public’s ability to participate depends on the City Council treating the public with respect and the public’s time is a valuable asset that should not be squandered through sloppy management or underhanded machination.

3. Set a good example. Neighborhood Council leaders learn from the City Council, the Committees and the Commission. When members of the public are interrupted during public comment, it sets a bad example. When the public is required to sign in, a violation of the Brown Act, it sets a bad example. When the public is treated to agendas that are impossible to read, it sets a bad example.

If the City Council is serious about supporting Neighborhood Councils and engaging the public in the process, they will set an example by communicating well in advance, welcoming people to council chambers, offering informative agendas, and by listening during public comment, not interrupting or, even worse, simply ignoring.

As for the question, “Can Neighborhood Councils keep up?” the answer is yes, if the City Council is willing to partner with Neighborhood Councils in communication, organization, and respect.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Los Angeles: Are Neighborhood Council Elections Worth the Price?

CityWatch, June 12, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 47

RETHINKING LA - It’s Neighborhood Council election season, a period of time that is marked by the perennial  debate within City Hall over the high cost of representative government and the challenge “Do Neighborhood Council elections matter?” Elections are a Neighborhood Council’s most significant outreach opportunity, one that allows them to tell their story to their stakeholders, their potential candidates, the city as a whole, their neighborhood partners, and to City Hall. Most of all, it offers an opportunity to evaluate the past and to set a vision for the future.

LA’s City Charter calls on Neighborhood Councils to “Promote more citizen participation in government and make government more responsive to local needs,” a mandate that is best fulfilled with robust elections.

Simply positioning Neighborhood Council elections as an outreach event results in a firm “Yes, Neighborhood Council Elections matter!”


(NOTE: The Education and Neighborhoods Committee will hear the CLA and CAO report on Tuesday on “the appropriate dollar amount for each Neighborhood Council to contribute toward conducting the 2012” NC elections. These funds would come out of individual Neighborhood Council budgets for 2012-13. Make sure your Neighborhood Council voice is heard on this issue. Info: Education and Neighborhoods Committee meeting, Tuesday, June 12, 2 pm. City Hall Room 1050)


Elections also offer Neighborhood Councils an opportunity to “check their attitude,” a phrase used by airline pilots during landing who refer to their relationship to the ground as “attitude.” Pilots who want to avoid crashes will repeatedly “check their attitude.”

Neighborhood Councils who embrace robust and contested elections have an opportunity to revisit their story, their mission, and their relationship with the community.

Again, if Neighborhood Council Elections were evaluated simply on their ability to “check a council’s attitude,” the result would be “Yes, Neighborhood Council elections matter!”

Elections are a Neighborhood Council’s opportunity to connect with City Hall by engaging the community in a dialogue on the issues that matter to the people, whether they are voters or candidates.

City Hall’s commitment to responding to local needs is contingent on participation from the community. Candidates who can clearly address the issues that motivate them to run will give stakeholders a clear opportunity to communicate their priorities and their values.

This alone makes Neighborhood Council elections a worthwhile endeavor and the result is a clear “Yes, Neighborhood Council elections matter.”

Neighborhood Councils were created in response to local dissatisfaction with the delivery of city services and they came as part of a commitment to engage the people of LA with City Hall.

To that end, Neighborhood Council elections matter most to City Hall because, without them, City Hall’s commitment to involving the people in an open and participatory government is broken.

City Hall’s commitment to the people, as codified in the City Charter, is priceless. As a result, Neighborhood Council elections matter and they are worth the price.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Neighborhood Councils: Do They Matter?

CityWatch, June 8, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 46

RETHINKING LA - LA’s Neighborhood Councils are finally getting some respect, unfortunately it’s from admirers who live in cities such as London, Toronto, and Nagoya who look to LA and find inspiration.

As for hometown love, Neighborhood Councils find themselves struggling to get attention in a city that threatens their survival each budget cycle, challenges their purpose when convenient, and ignores them when they dare to advise City Hall.

As Neighborhood Councils kick off election season, the first challenge comes in the form of a yawn, first from City Hall and then from the community, followed by the tough question “Do neighborhood councils matter?”

The answer from fans in Toronto is “Yes!” and a picture of the front door of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment is part of an exhibit called “The Fourth Wall” which is challenging the notion that government takes care of the people’s business while the people play the role of spectator.

In London, activists and politicians cry “Yes!” and are looking to LA’s Neighborhood Councils for inspiration as they embark on a mission “to rediscover London as a collection of villages" and to address the budgetary tug-of-war between City Hall and the 32 borough councils.

The Mayor of Nagoya yelled “Yes!” and left his career in national politics to move into the real source of power, the local level, embracing LA’s Neighborhood Council concept and making it his own, demonstrating that imitation is the most sincere form of flattery.

Meanwhile, Neighborhood Councils in the City of LA find themselves at a fork in the road. If they don’t act decisively, the answer to the question will be “No, Neighborhood Councils don’t matter.”

But if the people of LA step up, the answer will be a resounding “Yes, Neighborhood Councils matter!”

Neighborhood Councils are simply people. They are you. They matter if you matter and they matter if you believe in an engaged community, in transparent governance, in a direct route to City Hall, and in seizing the opportunity to hold city government accountable.

“Yes, Neighborhood Councils matter!” they matter because the people of LA matter and Neighborhood Councils are a tool for bringing individuals together so that they can address City Hall with a collective voice, one that comes with a City Charter mandate to hold City Hall accountable.

But the real answer to the question “Do Neighborhood Councils matter?” comes from you, the individual who must ask yourself the tougher question “Do you matter?” If the answer is “Yes!” then Neighborhood Councils matter because they are you and they are your best opportunity to ensure that City Hall listens to you, treats you with respect and delivers the City Services that you pay for.

Really, it’s all about you!


The Education and Neighborhoods Committee will be hearing two important issues this Tuesday pertaining to Neighborhood Councils- 1) A CLA recommendation on how much NCs should be docked toward the cost of NC elections; and, 2) A detailed DONE report on who’s in and who’s not on Neighborhood Council Elections.

Councils should be monitoring and participating in these decisions. E & N Committee Meeting … Tuesday, June 12 … 2 pm … City Hall (Room 1050). Agenda details here.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Los Angeles: The People Must Come First

CityWatch, June 5, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 45

RETHINKING LA - Los Angeles will take its place as a Great City when it shifts from a complaint-driven system to a standards-driven structure, putting the people of LA first and positioning respect as the foundation for developing powerful relationships between the public and those in public service.

This simplistic statement amounts to a proverbial fork in the pothole-laden road for Los Angeles, one where the city can continue to instruct the public to call 311 to report potholes or one where the city develops a standard for its streets and then sets out to bring the streets up to standard.

In more general terms, it would free the public from being responsible for spending inordinate amounts of time requesting the most basic of city services and allow the public to actually partner with City Hall, working together to improve the quality of life in the community.

1) Open the front doors of City Hall to the public. Reward those who take the Metro to the Civic Center station and then walk to City Hall, put out the welcome mat, turn the courtyard into great public space, and send a message to the public that City Hall is their home. City Hall is a beautiful building but asking the public to use the back door is simply unacceptable.

For all of the money being spent on the 12-acre Grant Park that is being built to the west of City Hall, it still connects to doors that are closed to the public.

2) Position a concierge at each entrance and greet the public, offering real information and real answers. Tone down the oppressive security gauntlet, get rid of the stickers, lose the irrelevant sign-in sheet and dispense with all of the unnecessary labor. It's City Hall.

The most significant violence in recent history to occur on city property was committed by city employees so the inconsistent security standard simply positions the public as 2nd class while the staff are 1st class. Open the doors, treat the public with respect, put customer service first and hire those concierges!

3) Listen to the public, not simply as a demonstration of endurance, but as an opportunity to take notes, to engage, to incorporate public comment into the active-solution process. Public comment is not simply a Brown Act obligation, it is the essence of the relationship, it is the minimum standard and any real leader will transcend minimum and look for optimum.

Engage the public, ask for input, make feedback an integral element of moving forward. Anybody who takes a half day of their time to travel to City Hall should be thanked for caring enough to participate, rewarded for the investment of time and enlisted as a partner in making LA a Great City, not simply dismissed as 2 minutes of noise.

4) Instill an "Every door is the right door" policy so that the public never ever has to navigate the Department of "No" journey that fatigues the hardiest and consumes inordinate amounts of energy and time.

From the Mayor to the intern, treat every request as an opportunity to be of service. Find the answer, find the department, find the solution but never, ever send the public away with an admonition that they asked the wrong person or the wrong question or the wrong department. City Hall exists to remove obstacles.

I'm often convinced that there are those in power who think that it would be a lot easier to run the City of Los Angeles if it wasn't for all of the people.

This attitude seems to originate in City Hall and then waft through some of the departments and offices, resulting in staff who seem to think that transportation would be a lot easier to manage if it wasn't for all of the traffic, that social services would be easier to handle if it wasn't for all of the needy people, that emergencies would be easier to address if they would just take place between Monday and Friday.

It's simple to suggest that the City of Los Angeles could take a lesson from Disneyland or Nordstroms or Trader Joe's or Southwest Airlines or Rackspace, companies that put a focus on customer service in good times and then double down when things get rough. But the immediate response tends to be "That's different, we're in the public service sector!"

Fair enough but one of the most successful change agents has been busy at work in Los Angeles over the last couple of years and the City of LA let him get away.

The Metrolink’s CEO, John Fenton, just took a job in Florida after spending two years turning Metrolink around. He arrived in the wake of the deadly 2008 train crash that took the lives of 25 passengers. He transformed a demoralized organization into a tight team that focused on treating passengers like guests, not cargo.

Fenton took a train system that spans 500 miles and services 6 counties, hobbled with budget constraints and bad press, and the world took notice.

While others were courting John Fenton, the City of LA debated the hold music on 311 and the background music on Channel 35.

The City of Los Angeles exports talent, from our schools, from our companies, from our public works partners, and from our municipal ranks.

When John Fenton arrived in town he declared  "Everything we do, we do for people. If we forget the human element, we will fail!"

We let Fenton get away but his words belong in City Hall. City Hall exists to serve the people of LA and if Los Angeles is to become a City that Works, it will be because the people of Los Angeles come first.

High atop City Hall in the Tom Bradley room, the words of Thomas Jefferson are inscribed on the wall. "That government is the strongest of which every man feels a part.” I propose that the Mayor and the City Council have a basic mandate and that is to make sure that every man and woman feels a part of the City of Los Angeles.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

City Hall’s Welcome Mat Says It All

CityWatch, June 1, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 44

RETHINKING LA - To live in Hollywood is to assume the role of tour guide. On a daily basis I am reminded that I live in a great city, one that attracts tourists from around the world who come here to experience the stories that Los Angeles tells, some true and some fiction, but all of them compelling.

I frequently meet strangers who have that lost look on their face and it’s my habit to make eye contact and give them the nod, indicating that it’s okay to ask for directions. That brief moment of wayfinding costs me nothing and yet it has such an impact. All it takes is a moment to point them to the best place to photograph the Hollywood sign or visit the Griffith Observatory or find the Hollyhock House or travel on the Walk of Fame.

I rarely speak the correct language but it never matters, even when they’re on the wrong train, headed to North Hollywood in search of the Kodak, or on Santa Monica Boulevard looking for the sandy beaches. A bit of pantomime, directions to a map, a quick sketch on a scrap of paper, even a brochure from one of the many racks, and my work as an ambassador is complete.

Tourism is the number one jobs generator in Los Angeles so it makes sense to take care of our tourists and it certainly reminds me on a daily basis that I live in the center of the universe when it comes to culture, the arts, history, the entertainment industry, education, and all of the things that attract people from all over the world.

Local businesses capitalize on the opportunity by reaching out with information, some by passively hosting brochure racks and others who fill the sidewalks with flyer patrols who compete with hawkers and buskers.

Through it all, they communicate loudly and clearly, “Welcome to LA, we’ve been waiting for you!”

Walt Disney wrote the book on hospitality and central to his philosophy was the simple rule that your number one responsibility was to care for the guests, no matter what your position. The people who sweep the streets of Disneyland are typically the first person a lost child will encounter so their training starts with learning the names of the Seven Dwarfs, not with principles of sanitation.

This focus on “corporate culture” means that everybody in the Disney organization is trained to understand that their professional competence can be evaluated by their ability to communicate successfully with a lost child.

Imagine if that commitment to guest satisfaction were part of LA’s “civic culture” and an expression of City Hall’s core purpose and core values.

Visitors to City Hall, whether local or tourist, would be able to wander through City Hall and be greeted by friendly and helpful hosts who are ready to offer directions, tell a story, comfort a lost child, and steer the public through the City Hall experience.

Dave Meslin of Toronto has taken to acting like a tourist in City Hall, asking the first person at the first counter for directions to the brochure rack, to the information kiosk, the tour guide. He typically gets a blank stare but he is determined to remove barriers to civic engagement.

If City Hall is serious about conducting the business of the people in a transparent and inclusive manner, it will start by treating locals the way Walt Disney treats tourists, like honored guests.