Tuesday, May 31, 2011

CityWatchLA - Please Hold for City Hall!

CityWatch, May 31, 2011
Vol 9 Issue 43

RETHINKING LA - LA’s City Council took another step toward complete irrelevance during the recent budget hearings as it moved from a discussion of city pagers to a robust consideration of the hold music on the city’s 311 phone system.

Faced with a $6.9 billion budget, a half billion dollar shortfall, and impending cuts to city services, LA’s City Council abdicated responsibility and instead continued to engage in a discussion of antiquated communications technology.

In the wilds, this is known as the displacement activity of a cornered animal. At City Hall, it’s simply the Peter Principle coming to life in the Theatre of the Absurd.

To discuss the hold music on the 311 system demonstrates two significant disconnects from reality.

First, the hold music would be somewhat irrelevant if hold times were reasonable. But they’re not. The staff has been cut and the calls for help have escalated.

Reductions in city services, the collapse of a city, and an increase in calls for help as the public realizes that they’re last in line are the symptoms of eviscerated departments and the downward spiral of a city in crisis.

Second, the ongoing discussion of pagers and hold music in City Council Chambers demonstrates a complete disconnect from innovative communication strategies and technologies.

The City of LA is the largest city in the most populated state in the most powerful country in the world and yet its online presence is painfully provincial and disjointed, lacking any sense of center or internal strategy for navigation.

Planning has a “frame” design that prevents visitors from bookmarking or sharing links with others. During the revision of the Housing Element, staff overcame the limitations of the website by simply building their own temporary site for the Housing Element campaign.

LADOT has also employed the “workaround” solution but in their case, they allowed the consultant to build the website, resulting in a Bike Plan site that now belongs to a vendor that is no longer on the job. Oops!

A visit to the Mayor’s website offers a search feature but “Vision for Connectivity” fails to yield any results. For that matter, simply searching for “Vision” only turns up references to gang reduction, Performance Management, and an old, dusty commitment to turn LA into the cleanest and greenest big city in America.

This is one of those moments when everything becomes clear.

There’s no vision for connectivity at City Hall.

To be sure, each City Councilmember has his/her own strategy for connecting with the public and they range from pagers and rotary phones to the web, typically serving as filters rather that open and transparent opportunities for the public to connect.

For all of the talk of social media, there’s no way to find the folks at City Hall unless you already know them.

@MobilityMaven will send you lots of advice on avoiding the 405 in July, but only if you’re already connected.

@Villaraigosa will send you lots of messages announcing the great work being done in schools, parks, libraries, theatres, cultural centers, and churches, but again, only if you’re already connected.

If you’d like to follow the twitter accounts of the Emergency Management Department or the many Deputy Mayors, it’s an insider game, not for the common folk. In fact, simply calling them by phone or visiting them in person is not for the hoi polloi, it’s for those already connected.

The City of Los Angeles is in need of a Communications Czar, someone who can...well...connect the disparate departments and staffers and electeds under one digital roof that allows the people of LA to understand how the City works, what it consists of, and who does what.

The league of Women Voters of Los Angeles put out a great book entitled “Los Angeles: Structure of a City Government” and it serves as a road map that opens the doors of City Hall to the public.

LA’s website could do the same thing, connecting the public with their city and empowering civic engagement, and it all starts with a simple strategy for the Internet that commits to open and transparent connectivity.

The fact that LA’s City Hall is a cell phone dead zone and requests for wi-fi access simply prompt snickers demonstrates how far LA has to go if it expects to take its place as a Great City.

In the meantime, rumors that “Nearer My God To Thee” will be played as the hold music on LA’s 311 system are unconfirmed.

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

Monday, May 30, 2011

CityWatchLA - Paging City Hall: Curtain is Up at Theater of the Absurd

CityWatch, May 27, 2011
Vol 9 Issue 42

BOX SOAP - As the City of LA’s $6.9 billion budget drama played out in City Hall, it was the robust discussion of the current city staff reliance on pagers that demonstrated City Hall’s commitment to the status quo and its complete inability to move forward.

Pagers are a thing of the past, unless you arrive at TGI Friday’s during rush hour when there’s a long wait for tables. Then, and only then, is the little blinky pager/coaster an appropriate tool for communication.

The City of LA is the largest city in the most populated state in the most powerful nation in the world and yet...during the third year of a budget meltdown that continues to memorialize the evisceration of LA’s future, the City Council is somehow able to find time to discuss the merits of a paging system for city staff.

I expect better. But, more and more, the people of LA expect less and less, and that allows City Hall to lower the standard even more.

Faced with a budget crisis, embracing technology as a tool for increasing efficiencies would be a wise commitment, one that would result in a commitment to delivering city services while cutting costs.

But, a discussion of pagers by city staff during the line-by-line charade was by no stretch of the imagination an exploration of technology. It was Theatre of the Absurd!

The alphanumeric pager enjoyed a long stretch of popularity but in recent years, it was used primarily by drug dealers and doctors, then just by doctors. Even the medical profession is rebelling against the use of pagers, dispelling the mythology of electronic interference while statistically demonstrating the fallibility of the antiquated paging technology.

It’s been ten years since Forbes pronounced the pager dead, suggesting then that there might be better uses for the radio networks such as for tracking packages and vehicles by both customers and supervisors.

Imagine that! While LA department heads are fighting for the continued use of an obsolete tool, they could be tracking the city-owned vehicles that end up parked outside strip clubs or in neighboring cities filled with city staff on culinary road trips.

LA’s communications disconnect is readily apparent when there is a major crime and the number given out goes to a desktop phone that accepts messages. At a time when encouraging witnesses to come forward is most important, nothing is more discouraging than an answering machine.

LA’s inability to grab a hold of Internet Technology is demonstrated by the proliferation of city staff generated blogs and websites that are project or topic specific, an admirable workaround that demonstrates the larger failure of City Hall to develop a systemic protocol for websites, web addresses, staff training, connectivity, and interface.

While it’s admirable that the Mayor has released some YouTube videos, grabbing some street cred along the way, the LAPD can’t access YouTube which makes it hard to encourage them to take a look at the videos that may have information they need.

This fear of social media demonstrates the huge disconnect between City Hall and the real world.

During the Station Fire, the public relied on the grass roots communications network for information, learning quickly that the authorities were ill-equipped for handling information as the Brown Act hit the fan.

LA’s Emergency Management Department released pdf documents on their website with emergency bulletins containing information for the public on a regular basis, Monday through Friday, as if emergencies adhere to the traditional workweek and then take weekends off.

There are some bright shining lights in the midst of LA’s bleak communication landscape. The LA Fire Department’s Brian Humphrey was a pioneer in bringing his role as Public Information Officer to life by connecting with the public using the tools that were popular. The @LAFDtalk twitter handle is complemented by a blog, all of which give Brian, and his partners Matt Spence and Erik Scott, an audience that can connect with the Fire Department without having to look for a fax machine.

Ultimately, in the midst of a $6.9 billion dollar budget meltdown, I don’t care if city staff are using tin cans and rope, there are bigger topics to debate during the budget hearings and I fully expect those in charge to put down the sandwich and address the major budget issues.

That didn’t happen.

Instead, they discussed Yogi the Bear but failed to resolve the issue, they discussed Crossing Guard bonuses of $2 million but failed to resolve the issue, they discussed the inappropriate use of Measure R funds for staff instead of infrastructure but failed to resolve the issue, and they discussed the definition of neighborhood council stakeholders, again while failing to resolve the issue.

In magic, it’s called misdirection, diverting the audience’s attention from the sleight of hand. In politics, it’s called a lack of leadership, keeping the public debate away from the tough topics that require decisive action and also come with a cost to political capital.

As the City of LA’s 2011-2012 Budget sits on the Mayor’s desk, awaiting his final approval, one can only imagine the hard work of the budget scribes in the City Hall towers, working late into the night with candles burned to the nub, quill pens in hand, ink-stained blotters at the ready, heating wax for that moment when Sir Anthony applies his mayoral ring to the seal.

Let this be the last year that we wallow in the comfort of old tired technologies. Let this be the last year that we do things simply because that’s the way we’ve always done them.

Let this be the last year that we allow the City Council and the Mayor to distract the people of Los Angeles from the potential of the future.

It’s time for the City of Los Angeles to take its place as the City that leads the world in culture, in technology, in communications, and in innovation. It’s our destiny.

Now, seriously, please turn off your pagers and join us in moving forward.

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

Friday, May 27, 2011

CityWatchLA - Route 66: Still Kickin' In East Hollywood

CityWatch, May 20, 2011
Vol 9 Issue 40

The East Hollywood Neighborhood Council (EHNC) has embarked on a journey to revitalize Santa Monica Boulevard,
the final stretch of America’s Main Street, embracing the Route 66 legacy as an opportunity to fulfill its City Charter mandate to “promote more citizen participation in government and make government more responsive to local needs.”

David Bell, President of EHNC, kicked off the project by proclaiming “The EHNC is excited to support quality of life improvements in this under served community. By partnering with the business community, state and local governments, charitable organizations, and concerned stakeholders, we are able to leverage our efforts to create maximum impact.”

The East Hollywood Route 66 Task Force is committed to encouraging the local community to participate in the civic engagement process, first by identifying and working with the many civic partners, and then by embarking on community projects that address public safety, public works, public health, public education, and public service opportunities.

From the National Parks Service and its “Historic Route 66 Corridor Program” to LA’s Office of Historic Resources the Route 66 Task Force leverages the rich legacy of the past with the opportunity of the future.

The campaign kicked off with three components, the Economic Alliance, the Livability Initiative, and Civic Engagement.

The Route 66 Economic Alliance connects the local businesses and merchants from Sunset Junction to the 101 and has already raised the funds necessary to hire Chrysalis to conduct street cleaning, maintenance and graffiti removal. In addition, the Metro has partnered with the EA by steam cleaning all 22 blocks of the corridor, all as the result of leveraging a small investment by the neighborhood council into a sustainable effort.

The Route 66 Livability Initiative has embraced the Complete Streets standard and is engaging the community in the process of pursuing federal Safe Routes to School (SRTS) funding, California State Parks funding for a Route 66 park, a Caltrans Environmental Justice grant, and Historic Preservation funding.

The Civic Engagement component brings it all together with Town Halls and Forums that introduce the residents and business operators to their Federal, State, County and City of LA partners, from Caltrans and Metro to City Council and departments that include Street Services, Transportation, City Planning, and the LAPD.

Route 66 is neither the oldest of the longest stretch of highway in America but it certainly is the most famous. Tourists continue to travel to Chicago where they rent a car and drive across the country, re-invoking the romance of America’s Route 66 and reconnecting with the promise of the land of opportunity.

Built in the 20’s during a time of unparalleled social, economic, political disruption and global conflict, Route 66 opened up the west coast and gave people an opportunity to pursue their dreams in a land that is still famous for its great weather, economic opportunity, the entertainment industry, the tourist attractions, the arts & culture community and the creative energy.

In 1990, the U.S. Congress passed the Route 66 Study Act which formally acknowledged that Route 66 “has become a symbol of the American people’s heritage of travel and their legacy of seeking a better life.”

To the people of East Hollywood, that better life consists of a densely populated and heavily traveled transit corridor that moves lots of traffic at the expense of those who struggle to cross the street and the local merchants who watch the world race by, always on the way to someplace else.

Once memorialized by poets, serenaded by musicians, and celebrated on television and in films, Route 66 was decommissioned in 1985, forgotten by most and in danger of losing its unique place in history.

For East Hollywood, it was a simple complaint from a stakeholder about overflowing trashcans that prompted the formation of the Route 66 Task Force, resulting in a campaign that has resonated through the community.

As Route 66 Task Force Chair Armen Makasjian prepared for the latest Route 66 Town Hall he proclaimed “As a second generation business owner on this street, I am thrilled at the attention being directed at this vital stretch of American history.”

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

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

CityWatchLA - Five Signs LA is a DIY City

CityWatch, May 17, 2011
Vol 9 Issue 39

BOX SOAP - The City of LA’s self-crippling budget crisis gives new meaning to the phrase “If you want something done correctly, do it yourself.”

Consider these five examples of Do-It-Yourself management initiatives sponsored by the people of Los Angeles in response to the failings of City Hall.

1) The Inspector General for Revenue Collection, as proposed by the Commission on Revenue Efficiency (CORE), is a position that will have the authority and staff to collect the revenue owed to the City of LA.

The Byzantine structure of LA’s government has resulted in billing collection redundancies that leave individual departments responsible for collecting revenue but with little incentive or oversight. Focused on headcount and generating billing, department heads have allowed the actual collections to fall between the cracks, resulting in $541.1 million in bad debt.

When CORE released its 107-page Blueprint for Reforms of City Collections and the 67 specific recommendations including the creation of the Inspector General position, Chairman Ron Galperin pointed out "The City has no real centralized billing and collection process and systems are woefully outdated."

2) The DWP Ratepayers Advocate, as championed by neighborhood council leaders such as Jack Humphreville, President of the DWP Advocacy Committee and CityWatch columnist, and as approved by 80% of the voting public who voted for Measure I which authorizes the Office of Public Accountability and the Ratepayer Advocate, to be effective July 1, 2011.

The movement to forge a relationship with LA’s Department of Water and Power, a Proprietary Department, was motivated by the failure of the Mayor and the City Council to control the nation's largest municipal utility, owned by the people of LA but operating as if the relationship were reversed.

Responsible for delivering reliable, safe water and electricity supplies to the 4 million residents and businesses in Los Angeles, the DWP has also delivered controversy and drama that has resulted in a revolving door of General Managers and recent ballot measures that attest to the failure of City Hall to control this city asset, placing the responsibility on the people of LA.

3) The City Prosecutor is a position that would require bifurcating the City Attorney’s office, creating a position that would actually represent the people of Los Angeles. The current scenario has the City Attorney representing the City of LA as the client, while the people of LA are forced to provide their own legal representation.

The absurdity of the current one-sided legal arena was most recently demonstrated when Barry Sanders, Chair of the Rec and Parks Commission and retired Latham & Watkins Partner, appeared before the City Council in defense of his park advertising scheme.

Sanders complained that the City Attorney’s office should stop raising legal objections based on LA’s sign ordinance to the Parks Foundation sale of advertising in city parks and should instead be looking for ways to legalize it as “Government Speech” on behalf of the Commission.

Sanders singlehandedly made the case for the creation of a City Prosecutor for the City of LA.

4) Community leaders have long held that as long as the citizen oversight of the city’s departments comes from people appointed by the Mayor and confirmed by the City Council, the people of LA are not represented and there is no real accountability.

LA’s Commissions range in effectiveness and power, some meeting for mere moments on an irregular basis to approve consent agendas while others meet regularly and exert significant influence over city policy and operations.

Joe Barrett of Sunland Tujunga made it a campaign issue in the most recent elections that the people of LA should have a seat on each Commission that is filled by the neighborhood councils.

This would require a Charter amendment and a campaign to get a neighborhood council sponsored initiative on the 2013 ballot must start immediately.

5) Task Forces consisting of both city staffers and community leaders have stepped up to fill the void left behind as the city has bogged down in the budget crisis, demonstrating an effectiveness and agility that has raised the bar.

Under Chief Beck’s leadership, cyclists and the LAPD formed the Cyclists/LAPD Task Force and now work together on policy and programming, resulting in an educational program that is ahead of the state standard.

DONE’s GM, BongHwan Kim, points to the work of the Elections Task Force and the By-Laws Task Force as examples of community members partnering with city staff to move quickly and to maximize results.

Kim has long advocated for neighborhood councils to go beyond simple “median strip beautification” projects and to use each action as an opportunity to fulfill the City Charter mandate “To promote more citizen participation in government and make government more responsive to local needs.”

The East Hollywood Neighborhood Council took a simple constituent complaint about blight and formed the Route 66 Task Force, committed to engaging the people of the community and the city departments in a campaign to reconnect Santa Monica Boulevard with its Route 66 legacy.

PlanCheckNC has picked up the slack with City Planning, the Budget Advocates have made great recommendations on the Budget, and the LA Bike Working Group took the Bike Plan where the LADOT and its consultants were afraid to ride. Through it all, LA’s Task Forces are demonstrating that the future of LA lies in partnerships.

At this past Saturday’s GM Roundtable, Amir Sedadi of LADOT and Ron Olive of Bureau of Street Services both indicated that the most effective way for neighborhood councils to work with the departments on the delivery of city services is to engage the community, establish priorities, and communicate clearly on behalf of the neighborhood.

The people of Los Angeles have an opportunity, to get lost in the budget drama and the debates over “budget dust” or to seize this opportunity of crisis and to use the energy to fight for systemic change.

Now is the time for the people of LA to work together to bring the offices of the Inspector General, the Ratepayers Advocate, and the City Prosecutor to life, complemented by an initiative to create a “People’s Seat” on each City Commission and supported by Task Forces that address the ongoing power vacuum in Los Angeles.

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

Friday, May 13, 2011

CityWatchLA - City Planning Chief: From ‘Keeper of the Vision’ to ‘Merchant of Exceptions’

CityWatch, May 13, 2011
Vol 9 Issue 38

It was a shotgun wedding, Mayor Villaraigosa stood alongside Michael LoGrande as First Deputy Mayor Austin Beutner officiated, proclaiming “There’s no further need to conduct a search!” and then introducing the happy couple as Mayor and City Planning General Manager.

LoGrande was tapped to replace Gail Goldberg as the head of City Planning, a move that demonstrated the Mayor’s commitment to moving forward on the 12-2 program in an effort to speed up development.

Critics dismissed the action as a misguided “out with the planner, in with the expeditor” move that confirmed suspicions that City Hall belonged to the developers and the community was up for grabs.

Granted, there were some optimists who held hope that the move would translate into a more efficient department but they were outnumbered by pessimists who expressed fear that a more efficient department meant bad planning done faster, all of which was complemented by insiders who proclaimed “The Fixer is in!”

Nine months later, the City Planning Department has continued down the path of evisceration at the hands of the Mayor’s Budget Hawks and LoGrande has facilitated the move to cost recovery that has resulted in a department that is 75% funded through fees.

While some may look at this “cost recovery” scheme as fiscally responsible, it translates into an abdication of City Charter mandate and concludes the Planning Department’s transition from “keeper of the vision” to “merchant of exceptions.”

Land use and transportation issues are the stuff of legend, fracturing communities and dominating neighborhood civic engagement to the point of absurdity. Case by case debates over variances and exceptions that drag on and destroy trust in the process leave stakeholders distrustful and disenfranchised.

LoGrande had an opportunity and he took it, demonstrating with results that under the current planning process, good projects are nearly impossible and bad projects are highly profitable.

Some of the most active community planning advocates contend that LoGrande missed the real opportunity, one that would have required him to rally his department and fight for the funding necessary to really plan.

Critics refer to the disconnect between the elements of the General Plan and the Community Plans, the Specific Plans, the Master Plans, and the Vision Plans, all of which leave the battlefield of the community open to developers who can write 39,000 page documents as the bulldozers rev their engines and the public watches the circus come to town.

LoGrande had an opportunity to embrace technology and to actually connect real data with the direction that City Planning is headed but that failed to happen.

As the population declines, City Planning is braced to support further density, complete with antiquated code that results in empty lots on major boulevards, open parking lots that live on as protected use, huge developers that thrive while small developers go bankrupt, and a default attitude that allows the CRA to assume de facto Planning authority.

Yesterday’s Planning Commission hearing included a presentation that revealed 70% of the multi-unit development over the last several years consisted of projects that were 10 units or less. Yet the City of LA continues to punish (with codes of absurdity) small developers in favor of large “luxury living” developers who enjoy tax breaks and subsidies that result in housing in excess of demand for a market that doesn’t exist.

All this takes place while the middle class continues to get priced out of neighborhoods that locals refer to as “under siege” by developers who prey on communities by investing based on current zoning and then develop based on exceptions and variances that destroy the community and make a mockery of City Planning.

LoGrande has had nine months to demonstrate his convictions and his intentions. Based on results it appears that Bigger & Faster is his mantra and it is taking place at the expense of our city.

As Zev Yaroslavsky said at last week’s Citywide Alliance meeting, “This is not only a disaster for the people, the environment, and local neighborhoods, it's also a disaster for the builders. If the Rule of Law is gone, there is no stability and everyone suffers except for those who abuse the system.”

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

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Forget the Budget Kabuki, How about City Budgeting Based on Performance?

CityWatch, May 10, 2011
Vol 9 Issue 37

City Council’s Budget & Finance Committee has proven so efficient at rubber-stamping the Mayor’s proposed budget that they recessed early. They apparently made sufficient noise as the City’s department chiefs paraded through council chambers in defense of their departments and their budgets.

Those speaking before the Committee tend to fall into one of three categories; those who completely fold and then overflow with gratitude for the privilege of maintaining their position as the head of an eviscerated department, those who accept the preordained but refuse to give it their blessing, and those who resist and call out the Mayor and City Council for their folly.

City Planning’s GM, Michael LoGrande, gave a category one performance, thanking anybody within thanking range and then accepting his fate, a loss for the people of LA who depend on a strong planning department as LA’s land-use debates continue to fracture communities.

Jon Kirk Mukri, General Manager of Recreation and Parks, represented the second category and came armed for battle and prepared for debate, but made no headway as the Mayor’s “cost-recovery” scheme continues to prey selectively on charter departments that deserve better.

William Carter of the City Attorney’s office, standing in for Carmen Trutanich, gave a fiery performance, calling out the budget as an abdication of responsibility, rejecting the budget cuts as short-sighted, and building a solid case for the value of his department.

On the whole, most department heads showed up ready to discuss departmental headcount, furlough impacts on staffing levels, and empty positions that needed to be filled. Few and far between were the discussions over intended performance, actual performance and proposed performance.

Demonstrating the difference a year can make, BongHwan (BH) Kim of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment did well in standing out from the crowd as he introduced DONE’s "Performance Dashboard" and spoke affirmatively of the past year and the upcoming year.

On the one hand, as the City of LA wallows in the budget crisis, it’s sad that the Committee spent so much time discussing neighborhood council stakeholder definitions and elections but it serves as a reminder that most people experience the $463 million budget gap on a personal level.

The proposal on the table for neighborhood councils was a 10% cut in funding (to $40,500 from $45,000) and the loss of rollover funds. Councilmen Koretz and Rosendahl made strong cases for protecting the encumbered funds, pointing out that many NC projects take years to complete and that the funding must be protected.

Other issues that came up were NC elections and the options that would allow councils to select boardmembers without having to spend millions of dollars as was the case with the City Clerk elections.

On the subject of elections, stakeholder definitions, by-law revisions, and funding options, Kim made two points; that much work was being performed by DONE in conjunction with NC Task Forces, and that CD2 (Paul Krekorian, Chair of the Education & Neighborhoods Committee) was working on the legislative revisions that are necessary for addressing structural issues.

The Mayor’s proposed budget was released to the City Council on April 20, and the Budget & Finance Committee took a week to review it before commencing with its Budget Hearings, a process that recessed several days early as enthusiasm faded and the opportunity to take on real structural change slipped away.

Budget & Finance is back at it today and tomorrow for a final polish and then presents it to the full City Council on Friday. Council has until June 1 to return the proposed budget with any recommended changes to the Mayor for the final stage of the approval process.

As the budget hearings fade into the sunset, neighborhood councils have a short amount of time to do three very important things; call your City Councilmember and speak up to protect rollover (encumbered but non-invoiced) funds, call DONE and give the GM encouragement if you like the direction he’s going, and start thinking now about which City Councilmember should head up the Education & Neighborhoods Committee when the City Council shuffles committee assignments in July.

Most importantly, speak up if you like the Performance Management style of departmental budget presentation, one where the year starts with projected performance. Department heads would be evaluated based on their goals and their accomplishments, their budgets would be set based on service commitments, not simply protecting headcounts.

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

Friday, May 06, 2011

CityWatchLA - For LADOT GM the Honeymoon is Way Past Over

CityWatch, May6, 2011
Vol 9 Issue 36

Amir Sedadi, Interim General Manager of LA’s Department of Transportation, demonstrated that the honeymoon is over as he took his turn before the City Council’s Budget and Finance Committee during the ongoing Budget Hearings.

The gloves came off at “Hello!” as Sedadi greeted the Committee by pointing out the late hour, revealing a perceived slight based on his 7pm position on the agenda.

He then took the Committee on a journey of his departmental headcount losses over the last couple of years but neglected to offer up any accountability for his performance and for the performance of his department. This was a huge shortcoming.

City Council’s Budget and Finance Committee reviewed Sedadi’s performance during the
Budget Hearings, finding fault with his creative staffing and budget solutions and taking him to task for moving Measure R funds from the intended infrastructure projects and using them for staffing. Chairman Parks clarified by saying “Measure R funds projects, not people.”

Councilman Smith offered his analysis, digging a little deeper and pointing out that the LADOT paid part-time crossing guards $2.2 million in bonuses on top of $5 million in salaries, causing LADOT staff to scramble for answers, finally resulting in Sedadi explaining “We did it because some of the staff worked weekends and evenings.” Smith called it “Shocking.”

Sedadi’s high point during his reign was the approval of LA’s Bike Plan and Councilman Rosendahl gave him bragging room with questions about the LADOT Bikeways Department and the implementation of the Bike Plan.

Sedadi pointed out that the Bikeways Department was fully staffed with seven engineers, two project coordinators, four paid interns and four unpaid interns. He spoke glowingly of the support of the community and the partnership between the Department and the public.

If only it were true. If only there were any results to show for the staffing commitment.

From LA Streetsblog to members of the Bike Plan Implementation Team, the criticism from the public and from the media is that the LADOT staff have failed to implement any of the Bike Plan projects and that they continue to show up for meetings unprepared and unwilling to move forward.

Prior to the Budget hearings, City Controller Wendy Greuel had taken Sedadi and the LADOT to task for failing to collect an estimated $15 million in unpaid parking tickets from "scofflaws," or frequent law violators.

Demonstrating leadership skills that cry for evaluation, Sedadi had explained that the LADOT’s centralized unit for scofflaw enforcement has been disbanded because of budget cuts.

This short sighted budget solution resulted in long term revenue losses that could have gone a long way to delivering city services to the people of Los Angeles.

NBC4 has also been critical of Sedadi’s leadership, offering up news that two LADOT employees had participated in shooting a porn while on duty, in uniform, and in a city vehicle.

Most damning is the fact that LADOT management knew of the incident for more than two months in advance of the NBC4 broadcast but failed to initiate action until confronted by the press.

Adding to the well-rounded criticism of Sedadi’s performance came a whistleblower’s call to Greuel’s office that exposed the LADOT’s $2.5 million overpayment on an old contract while leased gear sat in storage accruing charges. Sedadi blamed old management from 2006, failing to mention that he was Assistant GM for four years and either missed the overpayment or failed to act on it.

Amir Sedadi first began working for the City of LA in 1990 and has served in several positions, including as Assistant Deputy Director of Transportation in the Mayor’s office and as the LADOT’s Liaison to the Mayor and City Council. He knows his way around City Hall.

Sedadi took over the reins of the LADOT six months ago, a role he prepared for by serving as the heir apparent to Rita Robinson, the City Hall veteran who capped her 35-year career with a tour of duty at the helm of the Department of Transportation.

When Robinson announced her retirement, transportation advocates from around the city expressed hope that the Mayor would engage in a worldwide search for a leader in transportation innovations and active transportation, one capable of serving as a "change agent."

Common wisdom from the streets held that a promotion from within would result in “more of the same” while hiring from outside would represent a Mayoral commitment to Complete Streets and multi-modal transportation.

Informal surveys advanced candidates such as Long Beach’s Sumi Gant, San Francisco’s Tim Papandreou, Bogota’s Gil PeƱalosa, New York’s Janette Sadik-Kahn, and Copenhagen’s Jan Gehl, resulting in a petition generated by Streetsblog that called for a “Game Changer” at the helm of the LADOT.

While Sedadi’s performance as the leader of LA’s Department of Transportation falls far short of minimal acceptable standards, the real call for accountability belongs to the mayor and his staff, past and present.

As the Mayor coasts into the sunset, as former First Deputy Mayor Austin Beutner embarks on his mayoral campaign, and as Deputy Mayor Jaime de la Vega steers $40 billion in Measure R funding down the pike, Sedadi’s failure to perform calls into question any notion of accountability at City Hall.

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

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

CityWatchLA - What IS Art?

CityWatch, May 3, 2011
Vol 9 Issue 35

The debate over the definition of Art is as timeless as Art itself. This spells opportunity for LA’s City Hall, a creative institution filled with wild imaginations and machinations that never fail to seize opportunities to short-cut the process and side-step the public.

Consider the CRA, the good folks responsible for bringing Hollywood & Vine to life with the LED pillars on the 1600 Vine Project that are now positioned as an Art installation, a convenient work-around on the city’s sign ordinance and a mechanism for establishing signage with revenue potential on a CRA development. Crafty!

Consider the Wilshire Grand Hotel, a large redevelopment project that promises architectural lighting features and an electronic skin that will display colored, changing images. In any other town this would be referred to as a billboard but Councilman Ed Reyes settled the issue by declaring, “It is art. And I believe it adds more culture.” Bold!

The Wilshire Grand Hotel debate over the nature of advertising and the difference between a billboard and a building disguised as a billboard involved architects, artists, planners, developers, and LA’s City Council.

Reyes further clouded the issue by allowing that an LED wrapped building is permissible because "It will be artistic in nature.”

“Artistic in Nature” has long been the domain of Barry Sanders, President of the Recreation and Parks Commission and proponent of a crafty proposal to position a common advertising package in public parks as an Art installation, one that would simply use imagery of Yogi the Bear on buildings, trash and words such as “play” and “picnic” that encourage responsible park use. Ingenious!

Sanders demonstrates a knack for creativity as he positions signs as murals, advertising fees as donations, and illegal signage as protected “government speak” that warrants the support of the City Attorney, not warnings of legal limitations.

From the CRA to the City Council to the Recreation and Parks Commission, the debate over the definition of Art demonstrates a desperate pursuit of revenue that has the City of LA challenging the same laws, codes, and rules that it is responsible for enforcing.

Through it all, the definition of Art remains unresolved. It has been said that true Art stirs an emotional response from the audience and the fact that the City of LA is able to continue this charade without stirring outrage from the public demonstrates that these schemes fail to qualify as Art.

At the same time, watching Councilmembers and Commissioners perform their lines with a straight face as they claim a commitment to avoiding visual blight is such a compelling delivery of fiction that perhaps it is their performance that is Art.

If only it were believable.

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

CityWatchLA - Yogi ‘Sparks’ Debate

CityWatch, Apr 29, 2011
Vol 9 Issue 34

Stephen Box

In the midst of LA’s City Council Budget Hearings and a department-by-department examination of the Mayor’s proposed $6.9 billion budget, it was Yogi Bear who stirred the most rigorous debate, courtesy of Recreation and Parks Commission President Barry Sanders who continues to bemoan the failure of his park advertising scheme. Against a backdrop of Union deliberations over their contract with the City of LA and in the midst of presentations by the Police and Fire Departments, the City Controller and the City Attorney, and the Finance and Pensions departments, the introduction of Yogi Bear into the discourse borders on the misdirection typically reserved for sleight of hand artists.

(See a more indepth analysis of Rec and Parks session at the City Budget meeting by Kristin Sabo at Griffith Park Wayist)

The Mayor’s proposed budget of $6.9 billion includes $4.3 billion in General Fund costs and includes strategies to overcome an anticipated General Fund deficit of $463 million.

The most interesting whisper came during Wednesday’s opening session when LA’s Chief Administrative Officer reported that the anticipated revenue for 2011-2012 would actually increase by 0.1%, begging the question “Where does all that money go?”

Then began the litany of General Fund expenses, including the cost of two labor forces, the current city staff and the 30 thousand LA City retirees. With current pension contributions at $800 million and projected to climb to $1.6 billion, the unavoidable long term budget balancing solution must address labor, healthcare and pension costs.

Meanwhile, the Coalition of Unions, representing 19,000 employees, voted on the Mayor’s proposal to reduce salaries and increase healthcare contributions in return for an end to furloughs and an agreement to forgo layoffs.

Of the 18 participating unions, 4 voted against the proposal, including the union that represents LA’s Deputy City Attorneys which rejected it 143-288 and then issued a press release condemning the proposal.

The irony here is the fact that it was the City Attorney’s office that defended the City of LA in its fight to impose the furloughs, winning the legal battle on behalf of the City. Much was made of this dichotomy of loyalties as Chief Deputy City Attorney William Carter defended his department during the opening day of the Budget Hearings.

Need to Know: To follow the daily Budget Hearings, the schedule and agenda is available at the Budget & Finance website. The schedule is fairly fluid, sometimes moving quickly, sometimes slowing down, so check back often if you want to participate in the review of a specific department.

To listen in on Council Phone, dial (213) 621-CITY (2489), (310) 547-CITY (2489), (310) 471-CITY (2489) or (818) 904-9450

For Live and On-Demand Streaming Video of the Budget Hearings, video and audio archives are available as well as the hearings when they are in session.

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

CityWatchLA - Improving Public Safety or Picking the Public’s Pocket?

CityWatch, Apr 26, 2011
Vol 9 Issue 33

Stephen Box

Promises of efficiency and revenue herald the arrival of LA’s Administrative Citation Enforcement (ACE) Program, a streamlined process that is positioned as a public health and safety tool for the departments who provide code enforcement services to the people of Los Angeles.

The ACE program is an alternative enforcement method that allows the Police, Fire, Building & Safety, Housing, Transportation, Public Works, and Animal Services to issue administrative citations within their normal scope of work rather than the traditional citations that tend to get lost in the priorities of the City Attorney’s office and the logjam of our court system.

Current code violations tend to take up to a year to process, wearying both those who initiate the complaints and those who fight to defend themselves against the complaints. The only winners are those who abuse the system and benefit from the random effectiveness.

Debate over the ACE program tends to position the same features as both benefits and liabilities.

For example, the fact that the program is a source of revenue is a benefit to a city in the midst of a budget crisis but it hardly bodes well for the defendants that their guilt and penalty is linked to the solvency of the city. Against the backdrop of the LAPD’s recent “ticket quota” court case, the notion that the program’s success could prompt overzealous hearing officers to generate revenue has been positioned as a liability by civil rights advocates.

The fact that the ACE program has a lower burden of proof is a benefit in terms of efficiency, allowing Pro-Tem judges (attorneys who volunteer for the courts) to process the low-priority cases that tend to get lost in the current scenario. Of course, the ease with which defendants may find themselves on the penalty end of a judgment issued by hearing officers eager to please their potential future employers is a liability.

The fact that the program is complaint-driven is a benefit to those in the community willing and able to participate by initiating complaints for barking dogs, gasoline leaf-blowers, over-height fences, front lawn parking and a host of other violations. At the same time, it allows for an uneven application of citywide municipal code, creating a liability that can fracture a local community by pitting neighbor against neighbor instead of simply applying standards that are enforce uniformly and evenly.

While the concept of a City Attorney’s office that can focus on serious crimes while the ACE program dispenses with the lower priority violations is attractive and potentially revenue generating, the devil is in the details.

Missing from the proposal is an interdepartmental process establishing responsibility for tracking and collecting administrative fines for all non-contested citations.

If the revenue goes to the General Fund, departmental motivation is lost. If the revenue goes to the respective Departments, it creates a motivation to generate citations.

Through it all, it relies on efficiencies within the City Attorney’s office but does nothing to address the disconnect between the many Departments with the authority to cite for municipal code violations.

The Neighborhood Council Budget Advocates have called for the implementation of the City Attorney’s Administrative Code Enforcement (ACE), referring to it as a “Revenue Generator.”

The ongoing debate will need to determine if the ACE program is an effort to improve public safety and health more efficiently or to generate revenue more efficiently.

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