Tuesday, June 28, 2011

CityWatchLA - LA’s Battle Over Safety and Too-Tall Fences

CityWatch, June 24, 2011
Vol 9 Issue 50

RETHINKING LA - Los Angeles is a city of conflict, filled with neighborhoods that struggle to protect their unique identities, balancing the restriction of boundaries against the freedom of common space while maintaining the natural tension between the rights of the individual and the obligations of the community.
24 years ago, a Los Angeles resident called the Department of Building and Safety and complained of a neighbor’s over-height fence. A battle broke out that went on for years.

The Canoga Park homeowner with the illegal front-yard fence refused to tear it down and instead offered evidence of oversize and illegal fences and hedges at the homes of Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner and City Council members Joy Picus, Marvin Braude, Joel Wachs and Hal Bernson.

The City Attorney considered the abundance of over-height front yard fences in communities throughout Los Angeles and finally issued a statement declaring that the City of LA would only prosecute "emergency situations" involving privately owned fences that are public-safety hazards.

Since then, the memory of the City Attorney’s policy has faded but the municipal code restricting
front yard fences and hedges to a height of 42 inches (three and a half feet) still stands. It is complemented by a requirement that the Department of Building and Safety investigate all complaints from the community, resulting in the selective and uneven enforcement of LA’s front yard fence code.

In East Hollywood, the Department of Building and Safety has experienced a seven-fold increase in complaints of over-height fences and hedges, demonstrating a rift in the community and a disagreement over public safety, crime prevention, personal space and self-preservation. Complaints in Council District 13 typically average one per week but so far this year, there have been 177 complaints.

The cited community members have appealed to anyone who will listen but the response from the Mayor’s office, the City Council office, the City Attorney’s office and City Planning has been underwhelming. Residents argue that the fences are legal if one pays the variance fee but that in a lower income family living in a higher crime rate neighborhood, $4800 is simply too expensive. They want to protect their families and their homes and they perceive the security fencing as a vital last resort.

The Hollywood Studio District and the East Hollywood Neighborhood Councils have responded by calling for a moratorium on the enforcement of over-height fence code violations, for an investigation into the creation of a fence district that would allow for exceptions to the city’s fence limitations, and for a policy that would waive the traditional variance fee in lower income/higher crime neighborhoods.

The typical argument for the issuance of a variance is public safety as the Mayor’s Windsor Square request for a “security wall” at the Getty House demonstrates. Citing public safety concerns, the Mayor’s team successfully navigated the variance process and demonstrated that with sufficient money and expertise, a resident can build an over-height wall.

The Beverly Press reports that the city’s general services and police departments wanted to construct the wall “in order to provide enhanced security for the front of the house.”

So much for the neutrality of the LAPD on the issue of front yard fences.

In the Mayor’s case, the proposed six-foot-three-inch wall not only exceeds the city’s 42” limit, it violates the Windsor Square Historic Preservation Overlay Zone (HPOZ) standards which exist to preserve the architectural character and identity of the neighborhood.

While some argue that the Mayor of Los Angeles is entitled to a wall that protects his privacy and safety, members of the HPOZ Board responded “When he leaves, we will be stuck with the fence whether or not there is an occupant of the house.”

The argument against over-height walls typically rests on public safety issues that arise from the creation of hiding places, the removal of “eyes on the streets” and connectivity, and the obstruction of sight lines for motorists in driveways. These concerns only apply to solid walls and hedges and yet open security fencing is still prohibited.

The philosophical debate of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) is lost on the residents of East Hollywood who simply build fences as a last resort in their efforts to protect themselves and their families from criminal activity.

This past month has been full of community meetings in East Hollywood where the weary turn out with crime reports, citations, and letters of non-compliance in their hands. They bring their families and they tell their stories of children who can’t play outside, of families who live in fear, of a neighborhood under siege. And they ask for help.

At a Town Hall meeting this past Wednesday night, Building and Safety’s Frank Bush and Kim Arthur entered the fray and offered up the options from their perspective, explaining the process and the options. They are responsible for responding to complaints and the complaints come from the community and the fees and penalties are simply cost-recovery.

All true and all demonstrating the limitations of a complaint-driven city operating under the burden of cost-recovery, resulting in the uneven and inequitable application of the law and the revenue driven process that is destroying the middle class.

The LAPD was also at Wednesday’s Town Hall meeting, represented by Rampart’s Sgt. Munoz along with Senior Lead Officers from the Hollywood, Northeast, and Rampart divisions. That’s three divisions from two bureaus (West and Central) giving further witness to the “Who do you call?” dilemma that faces the residents of East Hollywood. They collectively advised the community on the importance of reporting crime but had no official LAPD recommendation on the benefits of security fencing.

City Council President Eric Garcetti was represented by two deputies who echoed Frank Bush’s claim that their hands were tied, that the real issue of fence standards was City Planning’s responsibility, and that the real solution was municipal code revision, a long term process.

The CD13 representatives rejected any short term solutions such as a moratorium on enforcement (dismissed as impossible) and a fence district (dismissed as impossible) and a waiver of variance fees (dismissed as impossible) which left the public with little recourse other than to ask for a payment plan for the fees and fines.

Missing from the Town Hall meeting was the City Attorney and the Mayor, both of whom share responsibility for the loss of the neighborhood prosecutors who should be working with the LAPD on abatement measures and gang injunctions in East Hollywood.

It’s no news to the community that the recent and anticipated wave of parolees means an uptick in criminal activity in the neighborhood, it’s already here and the increase in gang graffiti is the proverbial yellow ribbon.

City Planning may be responsible for the code that specifies the height limits for front yard fences and Building and Safety may be responsible for investigating complaints but none of it would be an issue if the Mayor and the City Council were to partner with the City Attorney and the LAPD in making the streets of East Hollywood safer for the residents.

Then the community could go back to the good old days when front yard fence debates were limited to the merits of picket fencing vs. ornamental iron.

Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall” is set in a rural environment but it also applies to the urban density of East Hollywood when the narrator quotes the neighbor as saying "Good fences make good neighbors.”

Variations of that bit of country wisdom appear in Norway (“There must be a fence between good neighbors”), Germany (“Between neighbor’s gardens a fence is good”), Japan (“Build a fence even between intimate friends”), and even India (“Love your neighbor, but do not throw down the dividing wall”).

But in East Hollywood, they’re fighting words.

This is a shame because East Hollywood is the most densely populated neighborhood in the City of LA and researchers at the University of California have tested the “Good fences” adage and discovered that it's true. An increase in personal space or privacy increases the likelihood of residents talking to each other, interacting with each other, and creating community.

Meanwhile, in Windsor Square, the deadline for appeals to the Mayor’s variance request was yesterday, resulting in a chorus of tepid “What are we going to do, he’s the Mayor!” objections and then silence.

As for the Mayor and his staff, they have not been seen at any of the neighborhood meetings in East Hollywood, they have not responded to any of the community concerns over public safety in East Hollywood, and they have not offered any solutions to the calls for relief in East Hollywood.

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

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

CityWatchLA - A Tale of Two Fences

CityWatch, June 21, 2011
Vol 9 Issue 49

RETHINKING LA - Tony and Walter live in Los Angeles, just two and half miles apart, and they both want to live quietly and safely in homes surrounded by security fencing.

Tony has called Windsor Square his home for the last six years and he lives in a lovely house provided by his employer as a condition of his employment.

Walter lives in East Hollywood with his wife and teen-age daughter in a house he bought 14 years ago with money he earns as a painter.

In a city of almost four million people, Tony and Walter live relatively close to each other but they have never met. For all practical purposes, they might as well live in two different countries.

Tony’s neighborhood is very quiet at night. The only sound on Irving Ave. comes from the engine of an idling City of LA Public Safety vehicle which serves as the “guard shack” for the 24 hour city funded security that watches over Tony’s home.

Walter’s street is noisy at night, serving as a popular cut-through between Melrose and Santa Monica. It’s only a short walk to lots of great shops and restaurants but pedestrians are rare in this neighborhood because of fear.

Both gentlemen place a high premium on public safety and Walter agrees with Tony who said "Keeping our City safe is the first responsibility of local government.”

When it comes to results, the men disagree.

Tony recently stood shoulder to shoulder with LAPD Chief Charlie Beck and proudly announced across the board reductions in the city’s crime statistics, “marking the city’s safest point in more than 50 years.”

Walter’s experience contradicts Tony’s claim and to prove it, he simply holds a police report in each hand, representing the two unsolved criminal invasions that took place in his home this past year.

Tony and Walter have both gone public with their experiences.

Tony is often quoted in the press claiming “crime is at historically low levels, gang violence is on the decline, and the City is seeing the fewest homicides in four decades.”

Walter doesn’t get as much media attention but that hasn’t stop him from speaking out about the gang activity, the criminal element, the abandoned homes, the drug and alcohol activity under the freeway overpass, the dumping, the graffiti, and the other signs of a forgotten neighborhood.

In spite of Tony’s “safe city” claims, he apparently agrees with Walter’s personal safety concerns because his office recently submitted paperwork requesting a variance to city bylaws in order to build a security wall around his home.

Tony’s request prompted John Welborne, Windsor Square Association vice president for planning and land use, to say “Should all of Los Angeles, including its historic residential neighborhoods, become a collection of walled compounds?”

Walter has moved more quickly than Tony, building a six foot tall security wall consisting of wrought iron fencing decorated with Asian designs and supported by a series of brick pillars. This defiant act of self-preservation incurred the wrath of the City of LA’s Building and Safety Inspectors who told him his fence exceeded the permitted 42” height. He was fined for building the fence and then fined again for non-compliance and ultimately told to remove his fence.

Meanwhile, Tony is proceeding with a variance request that was prepared by and funded with public funds, after all, his house is provided by his employer which in turns contributes more than $100,000 per year to the foundation that operates and maintains his home.

In spite of the LAPD report indicating that there have been no “calls for service,” Tony knows what it’s like to feel threatened. Just last year, city librarians held a children’s storytelling session on his front lawn to protest his proposed reduction to city library services and staff.

Fortunately for Tony, an LAPD security detail arrives each morning to escort him as he engages in the business of the day, leaving Office of Public Safety officers to guard his home, all at the expense of the City of LA.

Meanwhile, Walter gets up every morning and looks out onto a busy street filled with speeding motorists, littered with shopping carts, host to fresh dumped trash, pocked with the campsites of vagrants and the campers that favor the shade of the freeway overpass. As he locks the gate, he does so knowing that if his family calls for help, there are no neighbors left to hear them. If they call the police, it will take a long time to respond and will simply generate more useless paperwork.

The ongoing debate over walled homes starts with a public safety failure. On the one hand, there is a credible argument for Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) that holds the enhanced safety of open and visible space. Walled environments create hiding places and interfere with “eyes on the street” security.

None of this philosophical debate over walls and their impact on public safety, CPTED, or historic preservation matters much to those who have been victimized and who have failed to receive the support of the Mayor’s office, the Council office, the LAPD, the City Attorney.

Walter has been making the rounds of the neighborhood councils, asking for help making their community safer and in getting relief from the crippling fees, fines, and penalties that the City of LA levies as they simply attempt to protect their homes and families.

East Hollywood has more than 100 languages spoken and the greatest obstacle addressing public safety, city ordinances, permits and variances is simply mastering the most difficult language of all, Bureaucratese.

Walter and his neighbors are struggling to master a system that is Byzantine in nature and unforgiving to the mistakes of the uninitiated.

Tony, on the other hand, is the person in charge. The one responsible for public safety, for the staff who administer and enforce the rules and regulations, who respond to issues on the streets. He even has a staff to help him navigate his request for a variance, one paid for by Walter and his neighbors.

Walter and his neighbors have appealed to the Mayor’s office, to City Council President Garcetti’s office, to the LAPD, to the City Attorney’s office and to the local neighborhood councils.

While on the neighborhood council circuit, they often share space with representatives from the city, including the City Attorney’s office, the City Council office, and the LAPD.

The City Attorney’s office showed up recently to extol the virtues of the Administrative Citation Enforcement (ACE) program that would expedite enforcement of municipal code issues such as over-height fences using a complaint driven process for enforcement that allows the City Attorney to move swiftly with an internal process that fines violators and increases contributions to the City’s General Fund.

Walter and his neighbors looked at each other and realized that this ACE program targeted the residents and small businesses in their community, not the predators who violate their neighborhood, threaten their families, steal their possessions and destroy their peace of mind. From Walter’s perspective, the City Attorney should be focused on pursing the criminals who are mocking the Mayor’s “Safe City” claim.

The LAPD, a billion dollar department, was represented by Captain Bea Girmala who has made the rounds of the local neighborhood councils asking for a share of their $45K annual budget (now $40.5K) in order to buy tactical gear for her officers. The neighbors watch and wonder, a few thousand from Central Hollywood, a few thousand from East Hollywood, when will they have enough tactical gear so they can send a police officer over to our street?

Through it all, Walter and his neighbors encounter the power of the “Department of No!” They call the Mayor’s office but can never get through to anyone who finds their situation worthy of a call or a response. They certainly never bump into a Mayor’s representative on the neighborhood council circuit.

They call City Council President Garcetti’s office and after weeks of communication with a representative, they encounter weeks of silence, only to discover that this representative had transferred into the Mayor’s office.

They call the LAPD and they wait, only to get great advice such as “Build a security fence!” from the officers who arrive at the scene of the crime hours after the call with no greater response than the creation of more paperwork.

Tony and Walter have a lot in common, they both want to build a fence around their homes.

For Tony, his fence represents failure, after all, he has acknowledged that his first responsibility is public safety.

For Walter, his fence is a defiant act that demonstrates his commitment to protecting his home and his family, with or without Tony’s help.

Walter’s front yard has two lawn chairs in the center, decorated with American flags. He hopes to host Tony someday, just the two of them sitting together, watching the street and discussing great neighborhoods and safe communities.

As they say, good fences make good neighbors.

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

Friday, June 17, 2011

CityWatchLA - “The Future, Mr. Gittes … the Future”

CityWatch, June 17, 2011
Vol 9 Issue 48

RETHINKING LA - LA’s City Hall confuses growth for development.

There is a huge difference between growth and development, a distinction that is lost on the caretakers of LA’s future as they gamble on size over substance in a planning Ponzi scheme that is consuming our resources. Growth is simply an increase in size, something third-world countries are capable of doing to the point of absurdity, resulting in unstable governments, illiteracy, disease, high mortality rates, low economic development, high levels of poverty, low utilization of natural resources, the lack of a middle class and heavy dependence on developed nations.

Development, on the other hand, is an improvement in the quality of life for a community, regardless of increases or decreases in populations, and results in improved infrastructure, health care, education, economic opportunity and prosperity, arts and culture, justice and freedom, mobility, and a commitment to a sustainable future.

For years, City Hall has held fast to a planning strategy based on the assumption that the hordes were at the gates and that the population of Los Angeles was going to spike dramatically, straining the infrastructure of an already challenged city.

City planners stoked the fears in local communities, and politicos pushed agendas that paved the way for speculators, builders, and investors by softening restrictive code and supporting construction with public funds.

Mayor Villaraigosa went so far as to claim the construction boom was an indication of economic prosperity and promised to name the “construction crane” the official bird of Los Angeles. The fact that LA’s biggest years for construction coincided with the slowest population growth in over a century was lost on Villaraigosa who continues to tout publicly funded construction sites as evidence of economic growth and employment opportunity.

The State of California doesn’t leave county and city development to chance, requiring all municipal authorities to adopt a General Plan that will serve as a “constitution for future development.”

It’s unfortunate that the term “development” is used so freely, diluting the impact of a word that at one time was used to refer to the implementation of goals and policies that improve the quality of life in a community. Now it symbolizes a commitment to growth at the expense of quality of life, an investment in construction at the expense of infrastructure, and all for a market that doesn’t exist.

LA’s General Plan has seven required elements; Land Use, Transportation (now referred to as Circulation), Housing (recently updated), Conservation, Open-Space, Noise, and Safety. In addition, LA includes elements such as Power Systems, Libraries, Public Schools, Sewerage and Wastewater, Cultural and Historical Monuments, and Water System.

None of this means much because the elements lack integration, have been adopted or updated independently of each other, and are fairly consistently ignored. In fact, it’s safe to say, the City of LA is being run as if the only thing that mattered was funding public safety at the expense of city services and infrastructure maintenance while projecting bold optimism in the restorative power of crony speculation.

Through it all, the members of the public most engaged in the civic process spend the bulk of their time on land use issues, from hillside construction to McMansions to parking to fence heights.

Even the most committed eventually tire and fall by the wayside, leaving scant few to fight the larger battle, a Mayor and City Council leading the City of LA into the future without the benefit of an updated General Plan, without a commitment to investing in infrastructure, and without the full delivery of city services.

The City of LA is looking more and more like a third-world country, broken streets, failing schools, high unemployment, a disappearing middle class, and an unstable government that is unable to deliver on its city service commitment. These are the symptoms of a city led by people who confuse a commitment to growth with a mandate for development.

It’s evident that the Mayor and the City Council are in denial, ignoring State Law and City Charter mandate by engaging in Community Plan updates charades that rely on fictional data that is contradicted by reality.

LA has within it the elements of a global city, capable of taking a leading position in culture, technology, communications, industry, economics, politics and human rights. All that’s missing is the leadership of the people to demand of City Hall a General Plan that commits to development as a refinement, not simply expansion, and a commitment to infrastructure and city services to support the Great City vision.

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

Monday, June 13, 2011

Playing Let’s Pretend: LADOT’s Fake Regime Change

CityWatch, June 10, 2011
Vol 9 Issue 46

RETHINKING LA - Mayor Villaraigosa has responded to the recent spate of controversy at the Department of Transportation by moving his Deputy Mayor of Transportation, Jaime de la Vega, over to the General Manager’s position. Villaraigosa touts de la Vega’s experience as a public policy leader and as a manager with extensive experience working in city government. This begs the question, “Where has de la Vega been for the last six years?”

De la Vega has served the Mayor as the Deputy Mayor of Transportation since 1995, a period of time that has seen the LADOT helmed by a series of short-timers that includes Wayne Tanda, Frances Banerjee, Gloria Jeff, Rita Robinson, and Amir Sedadi.

At each turn of the revolving door, Villaraigosa has had the opportunity to draw on his worldwide contacts and to call up a serious world class change agent capable of taking on the mean streets of Los Angeles and its meaner halls of bureaucracy.

Villaraigosa’s decision to move de la Vega over to the GM’s position calls into question the Mayor’s ability to attract world class transportation experts such as Janette Sadik-Khan and Gil PeƱalosa. Either he lacks the contacts or he lacks the commitment to change that they would require. Perhaps it’s a combination of both.

Granted, de la Vega has been a loyal Deputy to the Mayor who has a vested interest in avoiding risk and in staying away from controversy. Most of all Villaraigosa needs to keep the spotlight on America Fast Forward, his last real opportunity to exit office with an accomplishment under his belt.

De la Vega has his work cut out for him, even if his mandate is to quell the audit drama and to keep the LADOT humming quietly with no more trouble.

Even such a low standard for success will prove to be a challenge for three reasons, the politics of transportation in Los Angeles, the culture of contempt within the LADOT, and the antiquated strategies for transportation that contradict LA’s claim as a world class city.

LADOT’s politics would challenge Solomon and transportation improvements make the case. Funding gets cut 15 ways so that every Council District gets its fair share of traffic signals, stop lights, speed humps, Safe Routes to School projects, crosswalks and other traffic improvements. This may seem fair but it prevents fast and innovative work from taking place, and it prevents focused implementation which is more effective.

The fact that King Solomon never split the baby is lost on the LADOT which errs in favor of 15-way diplomacy over inspired funding and implementation. This has resulted in LA accepting third world engineering and traffic control while surrounding cities perform better in funding competition and in implementation.

LADOT’s culture of contempt is palpable, witnessed by a recent email when a local transportation engineer responded to a constituent request by emailing instructions to “Contact the Mayor's office and Council office. This is due to the budget that has been adopted by them. You can let them know that it is an essential city service.”

From top to bottom, the “anywhere but here” response is common, including the following exchange from an Assistant General Manager in response to a California Public Records Act CPRA request: “The process for requesting LADOT documents is shown on our website...go to Contact Us then Documents Request to place your order and submit your payment.”

One would think that a 35-year veteran of public service would be aware of the legal requirement to respond to formal CPRA requests but not at the LADOT.

Truth be told, the LADOT doesn’t play well with the Feds nor the State, resulting in the City of LA having their Safe Routes to School funding “red-flagged” or frozen for failure to perform.

The LADOT doesn’t play well with surrounding cities, actually demanding that the neighbors “dumb down” their traffic control communications to match LA’s antiquated technology.

The LADOT doesn’t even play well within the city family, competing with other departments while surrounding cities outperform at the funding pool.

In fact, the LADOT doesn’t even play well with itself, resulting in a silo environment that saw Operations installing bike lanes on Wilbur Avenue without informing the LADOT’s Bikeways Division, a demonstration of disconnect that comes with a hefty price tag.

LADOT’s culture of caution has resulted in a city that errs in favor of avoidance rather than innovation.

When transportation professionals from around the country gathered in Chicago for a conference last year, they acknowledged that America was a full generation behind in traffic engineering and innovations.

Against that backdrop, a slide was projected that displayed one of LA’s most recent implementations of traffic control and it drew groans and a robust discussion of the ability of local transportation authorities like Los Angeles to misinterpret and misapply simple roadway improvements.

LADOT’s current management argue for the status quo as if LA’s streets and traffic were enviable. They’re not. They’re third world and they’re dangerous.

Jaime de la Vega has the loyalty of the Mayor because of the success of Measure R and the 30/10 plan, now rebranded as America Fast Forward. The Mayor’s exit strategy at this point seems to consist of working to get $40 billion in anticipated tax revenue fronted by the Feds so that 30 years of mass transit projects can be completed in 10 years.

Bold, audacious and a great Swan Song for Mayor Villaraigosa.

If only the LADOT can avoid getting busted for double-dipping on federal funding, if only the LADOT can avoid getting busted for moving Measure R funds from projects to staffing, if only the LADOT can avoid getting kicked out of any more funding pools, if only the LADOT can avoid breaking any more State Laws.

So, it falls on Jaime de la Vega to bring the LADOT in line, an odd assignment since he’s been in charge all along and should be as culpable for the misdeeds of the LADOT over the past 6 years.

Perhaps the Mayor recognizes this and de la Vega’s tour of duty as the GM of the LADOT is his punishment.

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

Tower of Pisa and LA Similar: Both Tilted the Wrong Way for Years

CityWatch, June 7, 2011
Vol 9 Issue 45

RETHINKING LA - The Leaning Tower of Pisa tilted to one side for more than 800 years, slowly settling in the soft subsoil to the point that it was in danger of toppling over. In 1964, the government of Italy requested aid, resulting in a multinational task force of engineers and mathematicians who spent over two decades on stabilization studies that failed to solve the problem. Along came a gardener who looked at the tower and recognized that the problem was similar to the planting of a large tree. “You don’t raise the low side” the gardener explained, “the trick is to lower the high side, allowing the tower to settle into the ground.”

The Leaning Tower of Pisa was saved and for the first time in its history, it stopped moving, demonstrating the power of a fresh perspective and the value of new thinking when working on old problems.

More recently, a company in the business of making things stick produced a glue that simply didn’t work. An exasperated boss applied the adhesive to two pieces of paper and then pulled them apart saying to his staff “What am I going to do with a glue that doesn’t stick?”

A staffer innocently commented “Sometimes I prefer a glue that doesn’t stick forever.” That fresh perspective resulted in the invention of the Post-It.

Life as we know it is filled with examples of accidental discoveries that demonstrate the nature of genius as the ability to look at things differently and to recognize opportunity when faced with defeat.

Alexander Fleming, a Scottish bacteriologist, returned from vacation to discover mold growing on the bacteria cultures he had left exposed in his laboratory. His curiosity exceeded his cleanliness, resulting in the discovery of penicillin.

Alfred Nobel was working with nitroglycerin, a highly unstable explosive, when he dropped some on the ground, but it didn’t explode. His clumsiness resulted in a discovery that led him to develop dynamite.

Life as we know it is filled with inventions and innovations that are the result of happy accidents.

From potato chips and Corn Flakes to pacemakers and anesthetics, we’re surrounded by the results of average folks challenging the status quo and simply asking “What if?”

Even humor has the power to transform as was demonstrated when Dr. Palmer heard a joke so funny he slapped the back of the deaf man next to him, restoring the man’s hearing, and leading to the development of Chiropractic medicine.

This is America, it was discovered by accident. It’s our heritage to celebrate the unexpected and to make the best of the opportunities that often come disguised as problems or failures.

There’s no reason, short of rampant timidity, that we should be an entire generation behind in traffic control innovations or in communications technology.

There’s no reason, short of fear of failure, that we be so far behind in the development of more efficient, effective, economical, and environmentally sensitive energy producing strategies.

There’s no reason, short of institutional mythology, that we should be held hostage as individuals, as communities, and as a city by those who avoid change by arguing “That’s not how it’s done!” and avoid action by claiming “We’ll get sued!”

The City of Los Angeles is in the midst of a crisis and the Mayor has two years to turn around the failures of the Housing, Building & Safety, Planning, Transportation and Water & Power Departments.

Based on results, often harsh but always fair, it’s going to take a fresh perspective, one that rejects the inertia of the past in favor of seizing this moment as an opportunity for new thinking.

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

Thursday, June 02, 2011

CityWatchLA - The Timidity of Neighborhood Council Bureaucracy

CityWatch, June 3, 2011
Vol 9 Issue 44

RETHINKING LA - On May 25, 1961 President John F. Kennedy stood before a special joint session of Congress and challenged America to join him in his dramatic and ambitious vision, to send an American safely to the Moon and back, before the end of the decade.

That moment of clear vision and a specific deadline brought out the best in America.

Fifty years later, Neighborhood Council Valley Village celebrated the audacious power of a strong vision coupled with an absolute deadline by rejecting the Sierra Club’s request for a resolution calling on the City of Los Angeles to get off coal by the year 2020.

Treasurer Paul Hatfield, in his City Watch article, explained that a resolution of support “on an issue so complex, with cost ramifications that could strain an already financially challenged municipality, was disrespectful of the deliberative process NCs should follow.“

That moment of caution and the commitment to deliberation is what has brought out the worst in Los Angeles.

Neighborhood Councils were created with a very simple purpose, “to promote more citizen participation in government and make government more responsive to local needs.”

They exist to engage the public in raising the bar, in challenging City Hall to get it done and to define “it” so that the professionals get a clear message of what the community expects.

It is not the responsibility of neighborhood councils to balance the books, to gas the trucks, to audit payroll, to clean the streets, or to buy equipment for city departments.

It’s to set a vision for greatness, including Public Safety, Public Works, Public Health, Public Education, and Public Service, on the Mayor and the City Council and to hold them accountable as they spend $6.9 billion of Public Money getting it done.

Albert Einstein said "Imagination is more important than knowledge." I believe that it’s the imagination of the public that should lay the foundation for the future of Los Angeles, even if we don’t possess the road-map or solutions in advance of the commitment to act.

Einstein also said that problems are created with one level of thinking while the solutions to those problems require a different level of thinking.

Of course, he never sat on a neighborhood council board and considered resolutions calling on the Mayor and City Council to support the members of the community as they pursued happiness.

Imagine if Steve Jobs had stood before a Community Council and offered up his vision of “A computer in every home!”

“Has this vision been vetted by committee? Has the applicant ever done this before? What are the economic ramifications of this vision and will it benefit the community? What are the qualifications of the visionary?”

Jobs didn’t ask for permission and he didn’t qualify the vision, in fact he revised it and refined it and raised the stakes when times got tough, bringing out the best in himself and in his team.

He worked with people who embraced the vision, reality be damned, and he held the vision aloft while one partner built the prototype and a third developed the business plan.

The Jobs vision was always in the forefront of the company and the people who joined the company understood and lived the vision. Not the spreadsheet, not the forecasts, not the schematics and not the inventory controls.

Since then, not only has Jobs seen his vision of a computer in every home come true, it’s safe to say that he played a significant role in the revolution that has put a computer in every pocket, on every desk, in every phone, and they’re all being used in ways that Jobs never imagined.

Such is the power of a bold vision.

Of course, Einstein is surely a genius and Jobs is probably up there, but what about the common folk. What can the hoi polloi hope to accomplish, simply by setting a goal and then embarking on a journey without funds and skills and backing and a track record of success?

25 years ago, the Rotary Club demonstrated the power of a simple vision when they took on Polio, historically the world’s greatest cause of disability. In spite of the fact that there is no known cure, they stepped up and declared their vision as “The complete eradication of Polio.”

As of this past year, polio cases have been reduced by 99% and Rotary has been joined by Bill and Melinda Gates in the struggle to focus all of the innovation and creativity they can muster on the last 1%, the hardest 1%.

As the Gates family makes the worldwide eradication of Polio the priority of the Gates Foundation, it’s important to remember that Microsoft was just four years old when the Rotary Club looked at the world, imagined a better place, and committed to a bold vision.

Neighborhood councils are well within their place to stand up and issue declarations calling on City Hall to act professionally and to deliver on its obligations.

After all, without feedback, the Mayor and City Council can hardly be responsive to local needs.

Daniel H. Burnham, architect and urban planner, is quoted as saying “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably will themselves not be realized.”

Los Angeles is fast becoming a DIY city, one where the people of LA are more and more responsible for charting the course.

I challenge the neighborhood councils of Los Angeles to make big plans, to speak loudly and clearly, and to fulfill their destiny by embracing a vision for clean energy, a green economy, new technologies, and healthy communities.

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