Tuesday, December 21, 2010

CityWatchLA - All the World's a Stage

CityWatch, Dec 21, 2010
Vol 8 Issue 101

Several years ago, my wife and her theatre group participated in a Met Theatre fundraiser that consisted of staging Shakespeare's entire body of work in one continuous, non-stop performance that went around the clock for several days. "As good luck would have it," Enci's company took to the boards at 2 am and with enthusiasm that belied the late hour, delivered their leg of the Bard's marathon.

As the last line was spoken, I stood to my feet and rigorously applauded, offering up a one-man standing ovation. To my surprise, they responded by returning the applause and thanking me. They later explained that it's one thing to perform, but all is for naught if not for the most important element, an audience that connects and engages and responds.

As I look back over this past year and think about the many events and meetings, the projects and the protests, the victories and the losses, it all begins to blur.

There have been inspirational occasions such as Park[ing] Day LA and the Neighborhood Council Summit, there have been challenges to the status quo such as BudgetLA and the Safe Streets Campaign, and there have been the many incidents and tragedies that have brought us together in shock and outrage.

Through it all, members of the public write letters, make phone calls, file Community Impact Statements, and go to meeting after meeting, all in hopes that a couple of minutes of public comment will complement the work of others and add up to something that will improve the quality of life in their community.

There have been times that I have questioned the value of public participation in the civic process. Especially after waiting eight hours for 2 minutes of public comment, only to have the item tabled for another meeting.

Along the way, I've written articles, spoken at meetings, traveled to Sacramento, and appealed to reason, only to watch motions get rubber-stamped with a unanimous and unquestioning vote, bouncing from Commission to Committee to Council agenda without skipping a beat.

I've sat alone in Council Chambers and questioned the folly of the fight, only to experience an amazing and powActive Imageerful phenomenon, the participation of an engaged and enthusiastic audience.

It was during a long City Council agenda and I was about to give up and leave when I received a text message from someone who was listening to the proceedings on CityPhone. They offered some advice, they urged me on, and most importantly, they thanked me for speaking up.

As I walk precincts and talk to voters, I meet people who greet me as an old friend and refer to radio interviews with Kevin James and to Channel 35 broadcasts of City Council meetings. It's especially encouraging to know that at those moments when I'm filled with doubt, there are people listening and watching and counting on somebody to represent them.

Perhaps the most touching feedback I get is from the families of people who have died on our streets.

After Gwendolyn Coleman was tragically killed by a DASH operator as she crossed the street, I received this message from her son; "I'm writing you to just say thank you for giving my mother a voice when no one accountable for her death seems to really care. It means a lot to my sisters and I that even though you didn't know her you still took the time to speak for her."

When Julia Siegler was killed on Sunset Boulevard, her father wrote; "More tragedies like Julia’s are inevitable unless citizens rally to return Sunset Blvd – at least sections of it – into a neighborhood-compatible thoroughfare...Thank you for your thoughtful and upsetting piece."

As I look back over the events of this past year, I realize that the circumstances add up to some victories, some defeats, and a load of stalemates.

Some folks take me to task and sent a message of "There you go again!" Others have enjoyed the journey and written "This is the best editorial written about our city!!!!"

In looking back, I'm grateful that we've connected and in looking forward, I'm grateful for the role that you play and I hope you'll keep reading!

(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at: Stephen@thirdeyecreative.net. Disclosure: Box is also a candidate for 4th District Councilman.)

Friday, December 17, 2010

CityWatchLA - Los Angeles: A Crisis-Driven City

CityWatch, Dec 17, 2010
Vol 8 Issue 100

If those who run City Hall were to spend more time in the garden, they'd know that it's extremely dangerous to eat the seed corn, something the City of LA is attempting to do in LA's Community Gardens, in Hollywood's Farmers Market, and with the City's Parking Structures.

This past Tuesday, City Hall was inundated with gardeners, farmers, vendors, residents, and business leaders who all came together to demonstrate the delicate balance of connectivity found in our neighborhoods.

LA's Community Gardeners trekked to City Hall to urge the City Council's Arts, Parks, Health & Aging (APHA) Committee to rescind the impending City of LA community garden plot fee rental increase.

Department of Recreation and Parks management was on hand to offer their "turnip squeezing" theory for balancing the budget, one that consists of implementing "full cost recovery" fees without actually knowing the real costs, if any.

The gardeners countered that a simple cost/benefit audit would reveal that community gardens are responsible for many positive impacts that actually reduce expenses for the City of LA. In addition to serving as caretakers for the Wattles Orchards, the Wattles Farmers are responsible for reducing crime in the area. Solano Canyon Garden had a water reclamation impact on an eroding hill. Sepulveda Gardens has an educational component. Ocean View accepts waste product and returns compost to the neighborhood.

Gardeners charge that the Rec & Parks process was flawed, that the plan violates existing land deeds, and that charging fees that exceed costs is an act that is beyond the authority of the Department.

The public left the APHA Committee with this request, that the City of LA rescind the impending fees, impose a moratorium until July 1, 2011 on any fee or permit increases, conduct an evaluation of actual costs and benefits, and embrace community gardens as an asset, not a liability.

At the same time, farmers, vendors, and customers from the Hollywood Farmers Market rallied on the steps of City Hall and then took their case to the City Council, fighting for the survival of LA's oldest and biggest Farmers Market.

The Hollywood Farmers Market has grown over the last two decades, now drawing 10,000 customers each week. Its success allows the non-profit operator of the market to support other less profitable markets in neighborhoods such as Atwater Village, Canoga Park, Echo Park, East Hollywood, Central LA, Crenshaw, and Watts.

Also growing in success is neighboring Los Angeles Film School which now opposes the renewal of a street closure permit for Selma and Ivar Avenues because the market blocks one of the school's parking ramps for several hours every Sunday.

The tremendous irony here is that the Los Angeles Film School sells parking to the customers of the Hollywood Farmers Market, setting in motion a circular battle of dueling successes. The more customers there are at the Market, the greater the value of the LA Film School parking, resulting in a parking lot version of "The Scorpion and the Frog."

The farmers, vendors, and customers who spoke in favor of the Hollywood Farmers Market asked LA's City Council to look at the market as an asset, one that should be protected as the "front porch" for an intricate ecosystem of farmers, employees, and communities that includes the community gardeners at North Hollywood High School.

LA's City Council is faced with a crisis, one that didn't arrive unannounced or without warning. It was simply allowed to fester until it reached the point that 50 farmers and 120 employees approach the holidays not knowing if they would be working in Hollywood in 2011. All because of a debate over parking.

Joining in on the debate over parking, residents and business representatives from LA's Civic Centers stood in solidarity in Council Chambers, challenging the City Council to protect the City's parking assets as a vital component of a vibrant community. Business Associations, Chambers, Neighborhood Councils and Homeowners Groups all railed on the City of LA for its proposed "Parking Asset Restructuring" that would result in the type of conflict that is already jeopardizing the Hollywood Farmers Market.

The proposed "Parking Asset Restructuring" is a City of LA scheme to generate at least $53 million for the General Fund by selling off approximately 9,000 revenue producing parking spaces for the next 50 years.

The City of LA would then enter into a "no-compete" agreement that would prevent the City of LA from providing parking to those same communities. One of the impacted parking facilities is the Arclight, located on Sunset Blvd., just across the street from the LA Film School.

Two things became clear on Tuesday.

First, it's all connected, from Master Gardeners teaching senior citizens to grow fava beans, to high school students learning business in a pumpkin patch, to market vendors bringing life to the streets of a neighborhood, to city assets that support a vibrant economic environment.

Second, as the City of LA squeezes the turnips in LA's Community Gardens, prunes the roots in Hollywood's Farmers Market, and eats the seed corn in LA's Parking Structures, City Hall is demonstrating a short-sighted commitment to revenue at the expense of LA's future.

(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at: Stephen@thirdeyecreative.net. Disclosure: Box is also a candidate for 4th District Councilman.)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

CityWatchLA - The Mythology of "Full Cost Recovery"

CityWatch, Dec 14, 2010
Vol 8 Issue 99

To call the City of Los Angeles "Penny-Wise and Dollar-Foolish" would be an insult to those who are actually good with pennies.

The City's current assault on community gardens is the latest evidence that the Mayor's ongoing "Full Cost Recovery" marketing campaign falls far short of addressing the systemic economic problems that are responsible for LA's current and projected financial woes.

Community Gardeners are the latest victims of the "Full Cost Recovery" shakedown and their plight has prompted the Los Angeles Neighborhood Council Coalition to call on the Rec and Parks Commission to rescind a plot fee rental increase of 380% that is scheduled to take effect in January of 2011.

During the most recent Commission hearing, it became apparent that the Department of Recreation and Parks doesn't know what costs are involved in operating community gardens yet it has set its sights on the people of LA and is about to pull the "Full Cost Recovery" trigger. When a Charter Department is unable to account for its responsibilities, its areas of oversight, and its expenses, it becomes evident that all the talk of cost recovery is simply a smokescreen.

If the City of Los Angeles is going to have a discussion of cost recovery, it must start with an honest audit of the real costs of each department and of each service. Regardless of how the "Full Cost Recovery" debate plays out, the benefits of open and transparent operations are tremendous and would provide the first step to real accountability at City Hall.

It has also become apparent that the Department of Recreation and Parks doesn't know what costs would be incurred if LA did not have community gardens operating in different areas of the city. In some cases, the community gardeners provide services to the city by maintaining common space that would need to be serviced by the city if the gardeners were gone.

In other cases, blighted land was cleaned up by community gardeners and their presence results in a public safety savings. Another garden was built as a water reclamation project to save a hill that was eroding, resulting in a public works savings and demonstrating again that the presence of a garden can cost less that the absence of a garden.

If the Los Angeles is going to have a real discussion of cost recovery, it must include an honest evaluation of costs and benefits of LA's programs and services before bureaucrats are able to simply refer to everything as a liability and an opportunity to start dispensing invoices.

Through it all, it is apparent that the Mayor's "Full Cost Recovery" plan is responsible for generating false revenues as city departments charge each other and count as revenue the circular exchange of services and goods that all belong to the City of LA.

The plight of LA's Community Gardens remains to be resolved and the issue is working its way through City Hall. Through it all, the Rec and Parks Commission has directed staff to develop an inventory of assets, an accounting of real costs and benefits, a comparison to the expenses of other cities, and a real analysis of the economic impact of community gardens on the department and on the city.

Community Gardeners are simply fighting for their gardens but in doing so, they have triggered a process that could set a standard for City Hall access, transparency, and accountability that could have greater positive impact on LA's financial woes than any "Full Cost Recovery" invoice.

(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at: Stephen@thirdeyecreative.net. Disclosure: Box is also a candidate for 4th District Councilman.)

Friday, December 10, 2010

CityWatchLA - Breaking the Law and playing dumb

CityWatch, Pub: Dec 10, 2010
Vol 8 Issue 98

The laws that require the City of Los Angeles to conduct its business in an open and participatory manner are regularly trounced by people who don't know any better or who simply feign ignorance. Either way, it demonstrates a significant need for oversight and reform at City Hall.

The Brown Act, named after its author, Assemblyman Ralph M. Brown, and passed by the California State Legislature in 1953, guarantees the public the right to attend and participate in meetings of local legislative bodies that include neighborhood councils, City Commissions, and the City Council.

Unfortunately, the 57 year-old law is not required reading by the very people who are in the best position to violate it as demonstrated by the regularity with which it gets abused.

LA's City Hall is manned by a security detail that requires people to utter the phrase "The Brown Act" in order to invoke the State Law guaranteed rights, an odd approach to public participation, especially since it wasn't too long ago that those same officers were unaware of the phrase. It was the public that insisted that the Brown Act covered the public from the front door to the gavel.

LA's Police Commission is staffed by very polite people who seem completely unfazed by Ralph M. Brown's legacy, again offering the public an opportunity to educate those in charge of enforcing the law.

LA's Department of Water and Power Commission is staffed by City Attorneys who waste no time jumping on complaints and deflecting criticism, but who are completely unable to address the simple fact that the Brown Act requires a do-over if people are prevented from freely attending meetings.

If the Brown Act is violated at the front door, it is safe to say that those in charge are not diligent in enforcing compliance and the public should be diligent about agendas, reports, actions, and participation.

The upside to the tremendous burden that this puts on the public is the simple fact that legal fees are recoverable which means that the remedy or "cure" for the public is a do-over and any legal assistance is recoverable.

The California Public Records Act, (CPRA) also referred to as California Government Code Section 6250, guarantees the public the right to review documents, reports, and other records including digital files, as a fundamental and necessary right of every person in the state.

The CPRA is also not required reading by the very people who are in the best position to violate it as demonstrated by the inconsistencies within City Hall.

The LADOT lists instructions for records requests on its website, rules that are repeated by staff when requests are made. The problem is that they require payment in advance for information that has not yet been reviewed. It's the other way around. Requested information can be reviewed and if copies are requested, a reasonable fee may be charged. But, most importantly, simply reviewing documents does not come with a fee.

The LADOT also says "Please allow 10-14 working days to receive your requested documents. Absolutely no rush orders will be accepted."

The CPRA, by contrast, says "Each agency, upon a request for a copy of records, shall, within 10 days from receipt of the request, determine whether the request, in whole or in part, seeks copies of disclosable public records in the possession of the agency and shall promptly notify the person making the request of the determination and the reasons therefor."

City Planning doesn't accept verbal requests, and then when they are put in writing, they must be sent to the correct person or they simply languish in limbo, violating the 10 day window of required response. Apparently "I'm sorry, you've come to the wrong person!" is still an option at City Planning.

The City of LA is not alone in its unequal and illegal interpretation of the California Public Records Act. Both Metro and the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) are staffed by employees well-trained in the "I'm sorry, you've come to the wrong person!" approach to public service. Typically, locating the correct staffer is enough to make even the most intrepid member of the public simply give up and fade away.

By design? Regardless, it's illegal and once again, the remedy is to correct the situation and the legal fees are recoverable.

The 1st Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America says "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

LA's City Council recently engaged in a discussion of the 1st Amendment and an LADOT staffer pointed out that the 1st Amendment "came under federal purview" and was not the responsibility of the City of LA. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The City of Los Angeles has run afoul of the 1st Amendment on more than one occasion, costing the city significant amounts of money in legal fees and settlements. The City of LA deals with the 1st Amendment on a regular basis, from newspaper racks on the public right-of-way to tourist attractions such as the Venice Beach Boardwalk and Hollywood Boulevard.

A federal judge recently ruled that LA's lottery system for vendor permits on the Venice Boardwalk was a violation of the law and issued an injunction that paved the way for a 1st Amendment "Freedom of Speech" lawsuit by those who were cited by the LAPD.

Another federal judge ruled in favor of "superheroes" who dress up and pose for tourists on Hollywood Boulevard, defending their right to perform and ask for tips as a 1st Amendment guaranteed "Freedom of Speech" issue that was violated when the LAPD cited the characters.

Critics point to the City of LA's inability to train its staff on the Brown Act, the California Public Records Act, and the 1st Amendment as evidence that the public needs to have greater authority over City Hall and its adherence to the law.

Others claim that the City's bumbling over agendas and motions is a smokescreen that prevents the public from focusing on violations of California's prohibition against the gift of public goods, a charge that comes up with increasing regularity in land use issues, or from noticing Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) powerful deterrents to public participation.

Through it all, former Los Angeles councilwoman Ruth Galanter puts things in perspective by reminding us "I used to believe in conspiracies, until I discovered incompetence."

(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at: Stephen@thirdeyecreative.net. Disclosure: Box is also a candidate for 4th District Councilman.)

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

CityWatchLA - If City Hall Were Run by Gardeners

CityWatch, Dec 7, 2010
Vol 8 Issue 97

If the City of Los Angeles were run by gardeners we'd have a long term plan for survival, municipal departments would learn to share, we'd spend less money getting rid of water and we'd be a lot closer to becoming America's greenest big city. As the City of LA prepares to levy a 380% plot rental fee increase on its community gardeners, it's worth taking a look at our subtle urban farming ecosystem and considering the contrast in behavior between short sighted bureaucrats and gardeners with a vision beyond the harvest.

Silver Lake Farms touts the success of their long term vision, one that results in soil that needs no digging. Companion plants, crop rotation, composting, and other long term commitments to the soil, not just the immediate harvest, are all behavior that could inspire City Hall. Imagine if LA's departments worked together, looking for efficiencies, committed to the long-term, evaluating success based on the impact to the community, not just the short-term harvest.

The Holy Nativity Church in Westchester has a garden that grows food for churchmembers and the homeless, but most importantly, it is tended cooperatively and is maintained as a teaching garden to share the skills of how to grow food. Imagine if City Hall looked for opportunities to encourage and inspire community members, not frustrate and interfere. Harsh criticism echoed by insiders who acknowledge that the weeds of bureaucracy are choking the potential harvest of public participation.

Fallen Fruit creates one of the most powerful forces on earth, community, by engaging people and introducing them to each other, all as they source and map public fruit bounties. Along the way, a neighbor with abundant lemons will met a neighbor with loads of passion fruit and a community walk culminates with a "Public Fruit Jam". Imagine if City Hall were to get beyond the "either/or" approach to the delivery of services and look for synergies.

Edible Estates took underutilized and completely unappreciated land and removed the turf, reducing the need for water and fertilizer. The host replaced his lawn with a beautiful garden that became the pride of the neighborhood, producing a bounty that exceeded the needs of his family. Imagine if City Hall looked at underutilized assets as opportunities to invest in the future, not simply as short-sighted fire sale fodder.

Urban Homesteaders embarked on a journey that was motivated by a desire for a better life. Along the way they went from making their own bread to growing their own vegetables to raising their own chickens to writing a book on living the sustainable intentional life in an urban environment. For all the talk of municipal sustainability, the Urban Homesteaders have demonstrated that the real opportunity takes place one home at a time, a lesson that should resonate in City Hall as it continues to look for high-altitude solutions to street level problems.

Backwards Beekeepers rescue bees and remind us that bees are responsible for pollinating fully one third of California's agricultural output. Misplaced bee swarms are opportunities to find a win-win solution that is good for the bees and great for the community. Imagine if City Hall responded to "buzzing" with an honest and sincere desire to find a win-win solution instead of just limiting public comment and adjourning early.

Green Streets is one of LA's best kept secrets, one that will allow us to reclaim water and divert it to bioswales and gardens that will put the water to good use, slowing it down and cleaning it before it finally makes its way to the river and the ocean.

Andy Lipkis of Tree People reckons that LA spends a billion dollars getting water and then a half billion dollars getting rid of it. The City of LA could get out of the business of battling over water if it focused on putting its water to good use, an endeavor that would start with green streets and a partnership with local community gardeners.

Sustainable Gardening is an opportunity to teach "Mow & Blow" maintenance workers a marketable skill that is environmentally responsible and economically valuable. The City of LA can pass anti-leaf blower ordinances all day long but as long as homeowners maintain "Mow & Blow" turf, nothing will change. City Hall must support green education and set its sights on training urban farmers, not just planting trees.

Victory Gardens have generated as much as 40% of America's produce during times of crisis and today's economy should serve as a motivation to revisit the benefits of community gardens. The National Gardening Association estimates that a well-maintained vegetable garden yields a $500 average return per year and a study by Burpee Seeds claims that $50 spent on gardening supplies can multiply into $1,250 worth of produce annually.

California's State Capital has a Victory Garden, the White House has a Victory Garden, but LA's City Hall has turned its back on opportunities to embrace the community gardening.

If City Hall were run by Community Gardeners, Los Angeles would take an Urban Farmers approach to Public Safety, Public Health, Public Works, and Public Education. Solutions would last longer than the terms of the officeholders and short sighted plans would find no traction.

Most importantly, Los Angeles would look beyond the immediate harvest, nurturing complementary relationships and investing in a long-term commitment to the future for the people of Los Angeles.

(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at: Stephen@thirdeyecreative.net. Disclosure: Box is also a candidate for 4th District Councilman.)

Friday, December 03, 2010

CityWatchLA - Gardening and Other Criminal Activity

CityWatch, Dec 3, 2010
Vol 8 Issue 96

"God almighty first planted a garden. And indeed, it is the purest of human pleasures." ~ Francis Bacon

LA's Urban Gardeners are faced with a tough choice, work small plots on City of LA property and pay a 380% rental increase or work the soil on private property and risk taking the first step toward a life of crime.

The next time you're at Starbucks and you see those bags of used coffee grounds that can be used as fertilizer, stand back. Used improperly, those grounds could end up in a private compost pile, violating an old law that prevents individuals from gathering table scraps from restaurants to be used in a private compost pile. An obscure legal relic that has been enforced in Los Angeles against a private gardener.

The next time you're in your neighborhood and you see a talented gardener teaching community members, stand back. Passing on knowledge at a residence can be construed as running a home based business with guests that exceed the limit of one per hour. Tupperware parties are acceptable but teaching people to grow food that will go into the Tupperware containers violates another obscure legal relic. It has been enforced in Los Angeles against a private gardener.

The next time you're in your front yard and you look at the parkway strip between the sidewalk and the curb and imagine how beautiful it would look with some edible landscaping, get a lawyer. A grassroots "Food and Flowers Freedom Act" campaign prompted the City of LA to recently revise its parkway rules, resulting in the approval of turf alternatives that include strawberries, as long as they don't grow taller than 2 inches. Even if your only consideration is to simply plant drought resistant plants in lieu of traditional water-hogging turf, think twice. The permit process for doing the right thing is approximately $400.

The next time you're at the Farmers Market and you look at the wide variety of flowers, nuts, fruits and vegetables and wonder where it came from, it might be your neighborhood. The students at North Hollywood High School work the soil and then work the market, learning everything from composting to investing. Silver Lake Farms sells locally grown organic cut flowers, a callback to a time when flower production in Los Angeles was a backyard enterprise that allowed women to add to their household income. Keep in mind, laws passed in the 40's and 50's that were designed to aid the development of Los Angeles made it illegal to simply grow and sell flowers. Again, garden at your own risk and always consult a lawyer.

The next time you're at the grocery store, stop and give thanks. In many parts of LA, residents live within walking distance of dozens of liquor stores but no grocery stores. The City of LA's response to the food justice crisis is to loan liquor stores a refrigerator on the condition that they stock it with lettuce and tomatoes. Another option would be to have a Master Gardener take a bag of seeds and teach a class, perhaps on one of the many empty lots that litter the landscape, and give the gift of sustainable self-sufficiency to the community. Of course, gardens are the gateway to a life of crime, hence the liquor store partnership.

LA's most recent assault on Community Gardens is just the latest in a long list of municipal obstacles that prevent the people most in need from living sustainable lives of self sufficiency. It comes at a time when the City of LA should be doing the exact opposite, committing to more community gardens, supporting the urban farmers and rewarding them for their contribution, not gouging them with a 380% increase in rental fees.

Locally grown flowers, nuts, fruits and vegetables stimulate the local economy. That alone should end the debate and get the Mayor into a pair of overalls.

Local produce makes it to market without huge shipping and trucking costs, resulting in fresher food that is cheaper. The food in our markets typically travels more than the average Angeleno, a trend that comes with tremendous negative environmental impact. Locally produced food is an essential component of a sustainable big city.

Local "Distributed Agriculture" allows more people tending smaller plots to increase the variety of food within the community while breaking our dependency on large industrial agriculture which has proven its capacity for catastrophic collapse. The "Black Swans" of agriculture have resulted in Bee Colony Collapse Disorder, poultry recalls, e-coli deaths, and large scale Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) disasters that threaten the stability of our precariously balanced agricultural network.

The City of Los Angeles has an obligation to do the right thing for the people of LA and that means getting behind groups such as the Environmental Change-Makers and Liberty Hill as they address long-term solutions that will turn LA's food deserts into food oases. Most of all, it means treating LA's Community Gardeners and Urban Farmers like heroes, not like criminals.