Tuesday, January 26, 2010

CityWatchLA - City Hall Rock Stars and NCs have Priorities Screwed Up

CityWatch, Jan 26, 2010
Vol 8 Issue 7

Neighborhood Councils have a charming tradition of deference at their meetings that allows elected officials, their representatives, and city staff to move to the front of the agenda for their comments and presentations. After all, "They're very busy, with places to go, with things to do, with many responsibilities!"

As for the riff-raff, the stakeholders who simply volunteer their time and talent and energy to improving the quality of life in their communities, apparently our existence is of lesser value in the grand scale of things, and typically the people who most need to hear what we have to say are long gone by the time we get to speak.

Along comes the City of LA's Budget crisis, a financial emergency of epic proportions, and the handwriting is on the wall: "The City of Los Angeles must act decisively, it must act effectively, and it must act quickly if it is to survive the current financial crisis. This means a real evaluation of LA's Bankruptcy options, a real review of LA's Pension scheme, and a real analysis to LA's commitment to the delivery of services and a systemic reorganization that ensures that LA has a future as a Great City."

It should also mean that all neighborhood council meetings start off with "The Budget" as the first item on the agenda, after all, advising the Mayor and City Council on the City Budget is one of the neighborhood council's most basic responsibilities.

In many cases, neighborhood councils have risen to the occasion, most recently when reps from over 40 councils gathered for a one-topic session where they took on the City Budget and confronted the possibility of bankruptcy, the significant impact of LA's pension obligations, and the impending threat to the continued delivery of services to the people of Los Angeles.

In that meeting it became apparent that the Budget Crisis demanded more study but the reps voted to start by taking a stand in opposition to the sale of revenue producing capital assets (specifically LA's parking meters and parking structures) as a short-term revenue gap solution.

It was hoped that the reps in attendance would take the proposed motion to the community and come back with support. In some cases, such as Sunland Tujunga and Greater Wilshire, motions were passed within days, but that was the exception, not the rule.

The Valley Alliance of Neighborhood Councils (VANC) met four days after the "Emergency Budget Meeting" and on the agenda was a discussion of LA's Budget Crisis and a motion to "stand in opposition to the sale of revenue producing capital assets (specifically LA's parking meters and parking structures) as a short-term revenue gap solution."

Wendy Greuel, the City Controller of Los Angeles, the largest city in the most populated state in the most powerful country in the world, showed up and became the dominant player in a passionate and emotional discussion of her recent audit of the neighborhood council funding system.

This discussion became the substance of the evening and the subject of LA's Budget Crisis was simply overshadowed by Greuel's presentation of her audit.

In her cover letter introducing the audit, Greuel says:

"At the request of DONE, my office recently conducted an audit which examined how the department oversees neighborhood council expenditures,” Greuel wrote. “The findings showed that, while engagement and activism have grown, there has been a systematic failure of accounting and fiscal oversight of the neighborhood councils by DONE.”

Somehow our elected officials have become the equivalent of "local royalty" and an appearance by Wendy or Eric or Tony is certain to draw a crowd, a deferential crowd that is pleased to share an evening of scripted and managed political "handling," steering clear of information and controversy and accountability and responsibility. This takes place because we allow it to take place. It's our fault for allowing it to happen and it needs to change.

Most importantly, our elected officials need to get their priorities straight and if LA's City Controller thinks that an audit of neighborhood council funding is of greater importance than LA's Budget Crisis, then the City of LA is in big trouble. Of course, we already knew that and the evidence supports our conclusion.

Imagine if VANC had waited until Greuel showed up and then engaged in a discussion of LA's budget crisis and a call to action on the proposed motion. Imagine if that discussion and proposal had taken place with the participation of LA's City Controller. That would have been a powerful experience and an informed process and a dramatic opportunity to take action and to immediately put it in the hands of the City Controller.

The next day, City Controller Wendy Greuel could have released a letter saying "At the request of VANC, my office is conducting an audit which will examine how the City of Los Angeles oversees its budget. The findings will show how we got into this Budget Crisis and will lay down specific recommendations for addressing the threat of Bankruptcy, for confronting the Pension crisis, for ensuring the delivery of services to the people of Los Angeles and for reorganizing the City of Los Angeles so that we can function in the style worthy of a Great City!"

But that didn't happen. Instead, Greuel engaged in a robust discussion that included the intricacies and complexities of providing sandwiches for a neighborhood council meeting and the importance of getting a good sign-in sheet so that the number of sandwiches can be matched to the number of attendees. No mention was made of a policy on "seconds" or on "extra cheese" requests. Whew! This LA City Controller business must be exhausting stuff!

The City Charter says very specifically, in Sec. 909., "Annual City Budget Priorities." Each neighborhood council may present to the Mayor and Council an annual list of priorities."

This is a very good time for the neighborhood councils of Los Angeles to seize this opportunity and to get busy preparing this list of priorities.

Now is the time to offer advice on REVENUE to ask the hard questions such as "Why do the cities surrounding Los Angeles come home with higher per-capita transportation and safety and stimulus funding? Is Los Angeles looking outside Los Angeles for an increase in revenue or is it simply looking for more resident pockets to pick?

Now is the time to offer advice on BANKRUPTCY and to ask the hard questions such as "Is it possible?" and "Is it an opportunity to improve our position or would it have a negative impact?" and "What is the timeline for a decision and an action or is it simply something that happens to us rather than with us?"

Now is the time to offer advice on LA's PENSION obligations and to ask the hard questions such as "Can LA's budget be balanced under the current obligations?" and "Can the current pension obligations be renegotiated?" and "Is the City of Los Angeles obligated to continue with current commitments or are there other options?"

Now is the time to offer advice on the DELIVERY OF SERVICES and to ask the hard questions such as "Can the budget be balanced by reducing the delivery of services and if not, why is it the priority discussion?" and "Are there existing department priorities and objectives and how can the community participate in them?" and "Are city departments evaluated and held responsible according to their objectives, their priorities and their performance?"

The City Charter also says, again very specifically, in Sec. 910, "Monitoring of City Services." Neighborhood councils shall monitor the delivery of City services in their respective areas and have periodic meetings with responsible officials of City departments, subject to their reasonable availability."

Good Advice and Honest Communication fall under the category of "City Services" and the neighborhood councils need to meet with the people who have the information that we need if we are to work together to navigate this LA's Budget Crisis.

Neighborhood councils must meet with Miguel Santana. Neighborhood councils must meet with Sally Choi. Neighborhood councils must have real conversations with the people who are in charge and with the people who are advising them.

I want the people who occupy elected positions, their representative, and the people who work for the City of Los Angeles to move to the back of the agenda and I want them to sit through the meeting, I want them to listen to the stakeholders discuss the "delivery of services" in their community and I want them to come to our neighborhood meetings prepared to engage the public and to inform and advise us on LA's Budget Crisis and I want them to work with us so that the neighborhood councils can advise the Mayor and Council on the City budget. I want us to work together.

And yet, has one neighborhood council presented a "list of priorities for the City budget?"

Years ago, 56% of the neighborhood councils responded to the Mayor with their priorities for the City budget but as of last count, the number of councils who have taken an official position on the City budget and submitted it to the Mayor and the City Council is reported by the Mayor's office to be "zero." Perhaps they are wrong, it would be great to hear from the neighborhood council(s) that have reviewed the budget and agendized and discussed and taken a formal position on the budget priorities and delivered it to the Mayor and the City Council. Until then, the count is zero.

Perhaps it's time to look for the people who aren't involved in city politics and to engage the experts who surround us.

Dr. Donald Shoup of UCLA is currently in New York City presenting his "High Cost of Free Parking" book to an audience that refers to him as a "Parking Rock Star" and who go standing-room-only to get his advice. How about Los Angeles?

Allison Yoh, also of UCLA and formerly of the Metro Board, was on the Rand Corp team that developed "Moving Los Angeles: Short-Term Policy Options for Improving Transportation" which included many traffic congestion relief proposals that are also revenue generators. Why isn't Los Angeles looking to the transportation and funding "Rock Stars" for advice?

Surely there are additional "Rock Stars" out there who can offer counsel and advice to the City of Los Angeles and who can help us navigate the treacherous journey ahead. Who knows, they might even already be involved in the neighborhood council system. Of course, our elected officials will have to stay for the entire meeting if they want to hear from them.

(Stephen Box is a grassroots democracy advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at Stephen@thirdeyecreative.net)

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