Monday, August 29, 2011

The Politics of Inertia

CityWatch, Aug 26, 2011
Vol 9 Issue 68

RETHINKING LA - One of the most important City Hall survival skills is the artful dance of inertia, the ability to steer clear of any responsibility for progress while maintaining the appearance of support.

For the City Councilmembers, this skill is best demonstrated by their enthusiastic response to literally any proposal or proposition when it’s introduced. Then the Politics of Inertia takes over and departmental reports are ordered, cost impacts are studied, staffing requirements are analyzed, and eventually any good idea dies of old age in a dusty stack of council committee droppings.

For the departmental staffers, this skill requires the artful avoidance of “yes” and “no” answers, all while maintaining a flurry of activity that includes scurrying from meeting to meeting with the obligatory beleaguered look on the face and an armload of reports and charts as evidence that an important mission is underway.

Staffers typically invoke three specific tools of inertia in their commitment to avoiding progress; budget impacts, security concerns, issues of liability.

As for budget concerns, we get it. The real question is “Does City Hall get it?” The public knows that things have costs, that everything has an impact on the budget. Yet when it comes to establishing priorities and engaging in oversight and accountability, the crickets chirp. Until the public asks for something and then the first line of defense is “Well, you know, we’re in a budget crisis!”

Security is a concern to everybody but it also turns into an obstacle that is used to restrict access, not facilitate public participation. It’s easier to for the public to get into Sacramento’s Capital Building than into LA’s City Hall, as if it’s the public that should be feared. Meanwhile, the most recent murders on city property have been at the hands of city employees and the most recent acts of sabotage were city staff labor actions directed at the LADOT.

The City of LA has armed guards in charge of dispensing visitor stickers, demonstrating that the illusion of Security trumps the limits of Budget at the “Department of No!”

Liability is the last line of defense, used when all else fails as a way to avoid progress and now synonymous with the “ability to lie.” Community members advocating for progress find it hard to overcome the “liability” objection, after all, it sounds so “responsible.”

If liability was really a concern, the City of LA would stop rejecting transportation innovations requested by the public and start restricting the actions of the Mayor, the City Council, and the LAPD.

LA’s City Council just got taken to task in the California Court of Appeal for exceeding its authority, resulting in a court reversal and the Judge's opinion that “the City Council abused its discretion by failing to proceed in the manner required by law.”

The LAPD was taken to task by U.S. District Judge Dean Pregerson who ruled that the “Superheroes” on Hollywood Boulevard had a First Amendment and Fourth Amendment right to remain on the public sidewalk free from LAPD persecution.

As for the Mayor, the City Attorney failed to impress on him the danger in accepting free tickets from companies with lobbyists in City Hall or contracts with the City. While the public clearly understands the liability involved when one attends a taping of American Idol or a Spice Girls concert, the Mayor didn’t and it resulted in California's political watchdog recommending the largest combined ethics fine in the agency's history.

Pound for pound and dollar for dollar, objections of liability are typically the line of defense as City Hall defends the status quo and fights to avoid progress.

Professionals in all endeavors must contend with the limitations of budgets, with obligations to provide a safe and secure environment, and requirements to conduct business legally and responsibly so that there are no issues of liability. But at City Hall, they’re not standards for performance, they’re tools for avoiding responsibility and sidestepping progress.

The Mayor rises above the fray with a unique strategy that trumps the simple bureaucratic tools of those in City Hall’s hamster wheel, he employs the most powerful weapon of inertia, “Press Conference!”

Villaraigosa’s twist on Burnham’s “Make Big Plans!” directive is to make really big plans, plans so big that the responsibility for actually delivering on them will fall on those in the next generation.

Villaraigosa has bounced from promise to promise, assuring Angelenos that LA is the Greenest Big City, the land of Sustainable Industry, home to a million trees, and just recently he discovered the entertainment industry and now he has a plan for supporting film production!

You can’t turn a ship that isn’t moving and Villaraigosa is currently at the helm of the Capital of Inertia, a city so stuck in the quagmire of bureaucracy that even with his muscle behind a Mayoral Directive, simply implementing LA’s Bike Plan with paint on the street won’t be complete until he’s 93 years old. Of course, that’s only if it doesn’t run into budget restraints, security and safety concerns, and liability issues.

LA’s future belongs to the bold, to those who are willing to confront mediocrity and to challenge the veracity of the objections that get thrown at the feet of progress. It’s up to the public to reject false obstacles and to demand progress.

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

Should Austin Beutner Serve as Mayor Again?

CityWatch, Aug 23, 2011
Vol 9 Issue 67

RETHINKING LA - Austin Beutner is a relative newcomer to LA’s political landscape but he has probably spent more time acting as Mayor than any of the other declared and potential candidates, having served as the de facto Mayor during Villaraigosa’s tour of distraction.
Beutner’s official title was First Deputy Mayor and Chief Executive for Economic and Business Policy, a role that paid $1 per year and came with the added responsibility of reinvigorating the Mayor’s office, if not the Mayor.

Operating just below political radar levels, Beutner has avoided the minefields of City Hall while collecting insider victories that balance out his candidate’s resume, creating just enough contradiction to maintain his status as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”

As the Interim GM for the DWP, Beutner stated boldly that hiring insiders was what got LA into trouble, that it was time to go national and to hire an industry professional, which he did when he hired Ron Nichols.

But when it came time to hire a GM for the Department of Planning, Beutner saw no need to look further than City Hall where Michael LoGrande stood in the wings, an insider who was coronated by Beutner and showered with accolades that included “He’ll speed things up!” Critics referred to this move as “out with the planner, in with the expeditor.”

Claiming kinship with LA’s small business operators, Beutner maintains a straight face as he points to his 30 years of experience in the private sector, first in Smith Barney’s Mergers and Acquisitions group, then as a partner in The Blackstone Group, and more recently as the co-founder of the investment banking firm Evercore Partners. His clients at Evercore included other “small businesses” such as General Motors and AT&T.

While his professional accomplishments are memorialized with significant personal wealth, it is his track record in City Hall that he holds up as evidence of his street cred. In addition to initiating a three-year business-tax holiday for firms that move to LA, Beutner makes much of his ability to tackle bureaucracy, pointing to his success in cutting in half the time it takes to permit a restaurant.

This claim to both ends of the economic spectrum, from macro to micro, is tempered by reality, one that sees LA’s practical unemployment hover in the high teens while the cafe in my neighborhood gets cited for having outdoor tables. Not because they block the public right-of-way or because they violate some ADA standard, but because the restaurant owner can’t afford the city permit.

It’s here that Beutner pushes back, pointing out that while he accomplished a great deal in his time on the inside of City Hall as a change agent, his short term on the inside was no match for a generation of bad practice and a culture of regulation at the expense of the people.

When pushed on the topic of Transportation, Beutner falls back when confronted with Complete Streets legislation, Bike Plan implementation, and other insider-speak, claiming that he looks at results not policy. “When I worked at City Hall, I sometimes commuted by bike from the Westside and the simple truth is, it doesn’t work.”

Beutner points at Santa Monica Boulevard and the bike lanes that end at the on-ramp to the 405 as evidence of a City that lacks a long term transportation strategy, not just for implementation of transportation innovations but for the missed opportunities to position transportation as economic drivers.

But as a bike commuter with an acute sensitivity to the streets, Beutner misses the opportunity to address the policies necessary to move LA forward, instead simply dismissing LA’s abysmal track record in supporting cyclists on the streets as “a terrible way to run a community.”

For a bike guy who actually refers to LA’s economy as a community of small business owners, Beutner gets macro quite quickly, positioning Metro’s sourcing of electric buses and the DWP’s sourcing of wind turbines as an opportunity for LA to take a leadership role in sustainable industries.

Tempering this big-picture claim to the sustainable high-road is the recent story of a small business operator in Hollywood who failed to secure permission from the city to install electric charging stations for his proposed electric car share program. At one point, a representative from the Mayor’s office suggested that the businessman simply go to work for ZipCar.

To be fair, Beutner was only in City Hall for a little over a year and the failings of City Hall and the Mayor are tough to pin on anybody other than the voting public who continues to tolerate mediocrity.

Beutner claims that his skill set was developed in the private sector, talents that his critics dismiss as more appropriate for the predatory environment of Wall Street than the delivery of City Services to Main Street. He responds by stating emphatically that “City Hall exists to serve the needs of the constituency!” and his ability to bandy insider details of City Hall covers for his shortcomings when discussing legislation and policy.

Pointing at the DWP’s antiquated COBOL-based billing system as evidence that any talk of a smart grid is just talk unless the City of LA starts at the foundation with a citywide commitment to integrated communication and management of information. He continues by pointing to the absurdity of LA’s departmental autonomy, resulting in systemic disconnect and a failure to standardize systems for the city as a whole.

When it comes to neighborhood councils, Beutner is diplomatic, saying “They can and should play a vital role in our government. It’s time to take stock and to see what would improve the system.” While this is hardly a vote of endorsement, he gets credit from local community leaders for engaging them in the creation of a Rate Payers Advocate committee where they found him “articulate, intelligent and willing to consider innovative solutions.”

He also proved to be diplomatic, maintaining peace with the IBEW’s Brian D’Arcy, a move that may have avoided a Pyrrhic battle but one that also failed to demonstrate his hand-to-hand skills as a political “change agent” capable of reforming City Hall.

Again, to be fair, Beutner had a boss when he served at City Hall, and while he claims that it is the role of City Hall’s leadership to ask the people of LA “How can I help?” the reality is this, the Mayor has bosses too. The question is, if elected who will Beutner serve?

As a cyclist who rides with Velo la Grange and who claims street cred as a bike commuter, Beutner’s time in the saddle has failed to resonate in a loyalty to his fellow wheelmen or in any support for last year’s CicLAvia. Demonstrating the continued dichotomy of his candidacy, Beutner’s claim to fame as a rainmaker in LA includes bringing a Chrysler dealership to downtown and a BMW dealership (also a campaign contributor) to town and a partnership with the Felix auto dealership that provides LA Trade Tech students with paid internships. So much for his talk of sustainable transportation and a shift from an automobile-centric bias.

Austin Beutner attributes his journey from the private sector to his current role in public service to his experience after sustaining a serious injury while riding a bike. As he lay in the trauma ward, he contemplated his epitaph and decided he didn’t want it to say “This guy made a lot of money and had a lot of success on Wall Street.” Beutner decided then that he had something to give and he changed his course, heading to City Hall and now campaigning as a candidate for Mayor.

Herein lies the rub. Can Beutner relate to the people of LA?

Los Angeles is filled with average people who, if they found themselves in similar circumstances and woke up in a trauma ward, wouldn’t spend much time contemplating the meaning of life but would instead be focused on financial pressures. One of the most common causes of bankruptcy is the crushing burden of medical bills and one of the most significant challenges to public health is the expense of medical care.

Austin Beutner has demonstrated that he gets the machinations of City Hall, that he recognizes the deceptions of the budget alchemists, that he understands the need for strong leadership, that he knows the local economy is depressed, that unemployment is unacceptably high, and that he is a change agent of incredible optimism.

His challenge is that he needs to demonstrate to the people of Los Angeles that he understands them, that they are the bosses, that they are the reason for City Hall, and that he will be serving them if elected as Mayor of Los Angeles.

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

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

LA’s Shadow Government

CityWatch, Aug 19, 2011
Vol 9 Issue 66

RETHINKING LA - 45 years ago, Mayor Sam Yorty’s Charter Reform Commission presented a draft of a new City Charter which included the creation of a system of elected neighborhood councils with advisory powers, a proposal that was summarily rejected by the Los Angeles City Council.

30 years later, the State of California eliminated the Los Angeles City Council’s power to veto secession measures and City Hall suddenly found itself motivated to embrace a vision of a responsive government that delivers city services efficiently and with oversight and accountability.

In 1999 the voters approved a new City Charter which declared “We the people of the City of Los Angeles, in order to establish a responsive, effective and accountable government through which all voices in our diverse society can be heard; to provide fair representation and distribution of government resources and a safe, harmonious environment based on principles of liberty and equality, do enact this Charter.”

The new City Charter’s Article IX provided for the creation of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment and a citywide system of neighborhood councils in order to “promote more citizen participation in government and make government more responsive to local needs.”

It took the threat of secession and the will of the people but this simple mandate has resulted in a current roster of 95 neighborhood councils, including Wilmington and Coastal San Pedro which are approaching their 10th birthdays on December 11, 2011.

Along the way, neighborhood councils have struggled to find their place in a city that has a track record for rejecting oversight and advice. Some neighborhood councils floundered, some prevailed, and some raised the bar so significantly they may have even threatened the status quo at City Hall.

In fact, in many cases, neighborhood councils have taken on the role of shadow government, filling the gaps that come from the uneven distribution of city services.

The Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council has gone beyond simply advocating and advising on issues that include sustainability, open space and homelessness. They have taken a lead position on developing a Complete Streets standard for downtown, assuming the role of the Transportation Department in embracing a policy that comes with both federal and state mandate.

The Woodland Hills-Warner Center Neighborhood Council has gone beyond simply commenting on city council motions and advising the council office on traffic, utility rates, and parking. They have taken a lead position on engaging the community in the development and implementation of the Warner Center Specific Plan, complete with outreach that includes mailers and town halls.

They have assumed the role of the Planning Department and they offer the public a better opportunity for public participation than City Hall.

The Mar Vista Community Council has gone beyond simply posting Community Impact Statements on City Council motions that include City Hall Google accounts and Arizona boycotts. Their Green Committee has set a standard for sustainability that could serve as the blueprint for the Mayor if he were to get serious about his commitment to making LA the Greenest big-city.

They’ve assumed the role of Environmental Affairs and their record of accomplishment ranges from the Wise Water Expo to the Green Gardens Tour to campaigns to ban plastic bags and styrofoam.

Along the way, neighborhood councils around the city have defined themselves within the parameters of the Charter mandate, some are highly specialized and formal, some are looser and more social.

Some are highly functional and some struggle to overcome organizational challenges. In many ways they are completely unique and yet they have much in common.

One thing neighborhood councils share is the judgment that critics levy on the group of 95 councils based on the actions or inactions of the few.

While the LAPD administers its billion dollar annual budget amidst City Controller charges that its “business functions are stuck in the 1950s," the City Council can still find time to debate the intricacies of managing a neighborhood councils $40,500 annual budget and the implications of purchase orders vs. debit cards.

While the LADOT is taken to task by the City Controller for losing track of its arsenal of 36,000 parking meters, resulting in a lack of oversight on the collection and depositing of meter revenue, the City Council can still find time to pontificate on the proper inventory control procedures for neighborhood council office equipment.

While the City Council gets taken to task in the California Court of Appeal for exceeding its authority, resulting in a reversal and the conclusion that “the City Council abused its discretion by failing to proceed in the manner required by law,” the City Attorney [link] finds time to audit neighborhood council elections and ponder the impact of the City Council created “factual based stakeholder” designation.

Neighborhood councils have been taken to task for their failure to aggressively engage the public and in many cases that’s a fair charge. But volunteers working with a limited budget can’t be expected to exceed the performance of City Hall and its $6.9 billion budget and yet they do.

Neighborhood councils have been criticized for keeping sloppy books and in many cases that’s an accurate appraisal. But volunteers, picking up where another volunteer left off, sometimes lose receipts yet their record exceeds the LAPD which was found to be missing receipts in 56 percent of audited transactions totaling $2.6 million.

Neighborhood councils have been taken to task for failing to demonstrate a comprehensive proficiency of Ethics laws, Brown Act requirements, and California Public Records Act standards yet City Hall allows the individual departments to post their unique interpretations of the law on their websites, demonstrating that the real need for training is at City Hall, not in the community.

Through it all, neighborhood councils continue to plod along, contributing money to the Department of Transportation for Sharrows, to Rec and Parks for events and maintenance, to the LAPD for tactical gear and somehow that meager budget continues to generate the attention of City Departments who can’t manage to get by on their own budgets.

While the merits of neighborhood councils giving their money to other city departments continues to draw great debate, the real work of neighborhood councils has shifted from simple advice and oversight, now taking on the role of Shadow Government.

Neighborhood Councils are the Planning Departments, they are the Transportation Departments, they are the Rec and Parks Departments, and they are the Sanitation Departments to their communities. They have become the de facto City Hall in a city that sees the delivery of city services as an optional benefit when it should be the purpose of City Hall.

The discussion over the purpose of neighborhood councils and the role of volunteers in the future of LA is sure to ruffle feathers, but that’s an indicator of the importance of this debate.

One of the greatest opportunities to engage in this great dialogue is on September 24th when the 2011 LA Congress of Neighborhoods takes place at City Hall. There will be 21 workshops, all designed by community leaders, ranging from basic topics for new board members to advanced sessions for experienced members.

The LA Congress of Neighborhoods is free, it’s open to the public, and it includes breakfast and lunch! Register and then make plans to join community leaders from all over the city in planning for the future of our city.

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

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Can Wendy Greuel Run on Her Record?

CityWatch, Aug 16, 2011
Vol 9 Issue 65

RETHINKING LA - LA’s 2013 Mayoral Race is barely underway and already City Controller Wendy Greuel has declared herself the leader of the pack based on her ability to raise campaign funds.

Of the declared candidates, Greuel has surged ahead with a war chest of $518,000 while City Councilwoman Jan Perry has collected $457,000, investment banker and former Deputy Mayor Austin Beutner reports $405,000, and attorney and conservative radio talk show host Kevin James has amassed $91,000.
Given the City of LA’s dire budgetary straits, the ability to raise money is a valuable skill, one that would certainly demonstrate Mayoral chops, but only if consideration were given to the source of the money and the obligations that come with it. To that end, Kevin James ( ) claims the high road, pointing out that his money comes from small donors, not the traditional power brokers, special interests, consultants and developers.

With County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, City Council President Eric Garcetti, and Developer Rick Caruso still on the sidelines, the promise of a hotly contested Mayoral race means that candidates will work overtime to control the conversation, shifting the topics to areas of comfort.

All Mayoral candidates will need to make their case as change agents, establishing a vision for the city, influencing the culture of City Hall, and wrangling the three dozen city departments together in the efficient delivery of city services.

For Greuel, this means avoiding at all costs a discussion of the LADOT and its performance under her oversight, first in her role as the Chair of the City Council’s Transportation Committee and more recently in her role as the City Controller.

Greuel will have to explain the LADOT’s track record for failure on Grant proposals, something that has been addressed in Metro Call for Projects, in Safe Routes to School Funding, in Highway Safety Improvement Project funding, and in its last-minute and unambitious approach to transportation engineering.

Several years ago, Greuel actually introduced a motion to the City Council directing the LADOT to communicate with the City Council on transportation funding, demonstrating her inability to overcome the LADOT’s culture of arrogance when it comes to working with others. Funding cycle after funding cycle, the LADOT would wait until the last minute and then release the proposals, using the impending deadline as an excuse for rejecting feedback and requests.

At another point in Greuel’s tenure, she discovered that the City of LA had no Strategic Transportation Plan, a structural deficiency that explained the LADOT’s lack of vision and proactive work. Much was made of the need for a Strategic Transportation Plan and its potential positive impact on funding, on implementation, and on efficiencies.

Greuel went so far as to schedule an all-day, one-topic City Council session to grapple with the need for a Strategic Transportation Plan, eventually funding a scheme the put consultants to work and the audience to sleep. Since then, the public tosses and turns but not much has changed.

During Greuel’s tour of duty as the Transportation Committee Chair, the City of LA raised speed limits with such regularity, local advocates were worn out protesting the semi-monthly hearings. Greuel’s Committee relied on a 50-year-old transportation philosophy and failed to utter even a whimper as speed limits were raised over and over again.

While LA was raising speed limits, Federal and State laws were going into effect that supported Complete Streets, engineered for pedestrians, cyclists, mass transit and motorists. Greuel could have embraced this shift in transportation philosophy, but she didn’t. Instead, the City of LA gets dragged, kicking and screaming, toward the future while the LADOT argues for its limitations.

There are three levels of City Departments in LA, the Proprietary Departments (Harbor, Airports, DWP), the Charter Departments (Police, Fire, Public Works, Library, Rec & Parks, Planning, DONE...), and the Ordinance Departments (Transportation, Building & Safety, Animal Services, Zoo, General Services, etc).

The Proprietary Departments typically have their own revenue, budgets, law enforcement and gravitational pull. Any potential Mayoral candidate will need to demonstrate the power to control these departments.

The Charter Departments were created by City Charter and their existence is codified by law, amendable by referendum, and sometimes funded by mandated budgets. They exist to deliver city services to the people of LA and any strong Mayoral candidate will need to demonstrate the power to support efficient performance.

The Ordinance Departments were created by City Council action, put into existence to perform a specific function, and they cease to exist with the same simple process. The LADOT was created in 1979 to coordinate “the City’s various ground transportation and ground transportation-related activities.”

The LADOT is Greuel’s Achilles heel, the Ordinance Department that has defied her leadership and maintained its course, even when she moved from the City Council and was elected as LA’s City Controller.

Armed with a completely new level of authority, Greuel now had the opportunity to move from Transportation philosophy and into oversight of the LADOT’s budget. This should have been a smooth transition, after all, Greuel had served on the City Council’s Budget & Finance Committee, giving her a unique insight into the machinations of the city departments when it comes to protecting budgets and headcounts while avoiding accountability and charges of double-dipping.

Unfortunately, Greuel’s performance was limited to press conference audits that chipped at the tip of the iceberg but that failed to address the larger pattern of contempt and misconduct.

As the City of LA put a freeze on staff travel, the LADOT continued to export PowerPoint presentations to communities far and wide, as if the city with the worst traffic congestion is in a position to advise others on transportation. Did Greuel catch it?

When one of the largest funding streams of the generation, Measure R, came into play, the LADOT presented a budget for LA’s “Local Benefit” share of the Countywide half-cent sales tax revenue, taking a little extra from the cyclists and pedestrians and shifting it over to LADOT administration. LADOT proposed $10.8 million for bike and ped projects instead of $18.1 million, a “mistake” of $7.3 million. Did Greuel catch it?

As the LADOT took its turn before the City Council’s Budget & Finance Committee earlier this year, Bernard Parks took the Department to task for spending Measure R money on staff instead of projects. As the people of LA ask “Where are our Measure R ‘Local Benefit’ projects?” the LADOT is busy spending the money on staff. Did Greuel catch it?

Most recently, the LADOT went to City Hall to ask for overtime pay in order to implement the Bike Lanes and Sharrows that are part of the Mayor’s commitment to making LA a great place to ride. How can it take overtime to do the work? If it were extra work, perhaps it would require extra staffing, but the City of LA has been collecting millions of dollars for Bikeway projects for years. Where did the money go? Did Greuel catch it?

To be fair, Greuel has audited the LADOT and she has come up with some pretty damning reports.

The LADOT is charged with wasting $855,000 outright while going over budget by nearly $2.5 million on a contract to equip parking enforcement vehicles with GPS systems, of course, the LADOT argued that it took place under previous management.

The LADOT is charged with failing to collect on parking tickets, a pattern of casualness that costs the City of LA $5.4 million in revenue, according to Greuel.

The LADOT is charged with a failure to maintain an inventory of parking meters, a problem that makes it impossible to evaluate the LADOT’s performance. Greuel contends that the City of LA owns 36,000 parking meters but that the LADOT must put “controls in place to adequately ensure collections are being made from all parking meters, and those meter payments are being deposited directly into the city’s bank accounts.”

Greuel also took the LADOT to task for its Gold Card Desk, a program that fixed tickets for City Hall insiders. Of course that audit backfired when Greuel’s Council office was accused by the Mayor’s office as being a participant, a charge that was denied by Greuel. Either way, it turned out to be a tough row to hoe, either the Gold Card Desk existed and functioned as an insider ticket fixing program and Greuel was ignorant or it existed and Greuel was a participant.

The audits are a sign of activity, but it’s important that Greuel do more than stand by and yell “Fire!”

The LADOT is still on course, moving forward in its traditional cavalier manner. It continues to fumble outreach, it remains focused on staff levels while avoiding performance standards, and it continues to reject neighborhood council requests, using the classic “Contact the Mayor's office and Council office. This is due to the budget that has been adopted by them.”

Wendy Greuel is an energetic campaigner and her track record for raising funds speaks volumes to her ability to connect with her audiences.

But if she wants to be taken seriously as a change agent, a Mayoral candidate that possesses the ability to turn a city around, it is imperative that she start right now by following through with the department that has been her responsibility for almost a decade, the Los Angeles Department of Transportation.

For Mayoral Candidate Wendy Greuel, the LADOT is where the rubber hits the road.

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

Thursday, August 11, 2011

A Tale of Two Friends, Justice and Mercy

CityWatch, Aug 12, 2011
Vol 9 Issue 64

CITY ATTORNEY’S SELECTIVE PROSECUTION - My good friend Jenny is a cyclist, an intrepid citywide commuter who relies on her bike as her primary form of transportation, complementing it with mass transit for long journeys. In some communities, this behavior would be referred to as a traffic congestion solution.

Earlier this year Jenny was in the North Valley, riding downhill on a busy street in traffic when a tow truck loaded with two vehicles came from behind, began passing on the left and then turned into Jenny and another cyclist, Piero, forcing them off the road. Jenny felt that the tow truck driver’s behavior was aggressive, even road rage worthy. But mostly she felt thankful to be alive.

Jenny and Piero continued down the road, through fairly significant traffic congestion, the type that sometimes bottlenecks and slows down large tow trucks. This was bad for the tow truck operator and even worse for the cyclists.

Over the next half mile the tow truck operator came up on the cyclists again, again, and again. Four times he “buzzed” them, forcing them to give up their position on the road by pulling alongside and then turning toward them.

Jenny photographed the tow truck operator and his truck from the sidewalk. She then called the police, only to realize that they were standing outside the local LAPD station. Jenny and Piero filed a report and they went on their way.

Months went by and a detective from Foothill Division called. The interview went well and Jenny was encouraged. More months went by and Jenny was called in to identify the suspect in a line-up. Jenny was really encouraged.

Then the day of reckoning came and Jenny was called in for a meeting with the City Attorney’s Hearing Officer, Ben Lovato, who interviewed the suspect and the victims and decided that this was a “no harm, no foul” case that was not worth prosecuting.

In other words, when a tow truck operator engaged in the City of LA’s business uses a heavy truck laden with two more vehicles to repeatedly threaten the lives of two cyclists, the City Attorney doesn’t see any reason to prosecute for Assault with a Deadly Weapon. After all, the victims are still riding!

Justice denied.

I have another good friend, Maria, a homeowner who invested in a residential property in East Hollywood, a densely populated park-poor community that is low-income and high-crime. Her home is well-maintained, as are the other 19 homes on her street, 15 of which have front yard fences that are a few inches over the city’s 3 foot 6 inch limit.

Earlier this year, Maria was cited by the City of LA’s Building & Safety Department for her fence. She was singled out because a resident of LA complained. Building & Safety reports that they are bound by code to investigate every time there is a complaint.

On a street where 80% of the residents have over-in-height fences, the inspector only cited the homes that were subjects of complaints, in essence empowering the complaining party to decide where the City of LA’s code would be enforced.

Maria and her husband were given a choice: either remove the offending fence (masonry pilasters with wrought iron panels, approximately 4 feet 6 inches tall) at a cost of thousands or keep the fence and pay for a variance that costs $4800.

The citation came with a $336 penalty and a demand for compliance within 30 days and a notice that failure to pay the non-compliance fee within 30 days of the mailing could result in a late charge of 200% plus a 50% collection fee.

The ubiquitous nature of front yard fences throughout the City of LA made it hard for Maria to understand why her fence had attracted the interest of City officials, especially in light of the fact that her fence did not create a public safety issue. In fact, it’s Maria’s contention that her fence is consistent with the overall style of the homes on her street and that it enhances public safety.

Regardless, Maria didn’t find an audience for her position, nor did she navigate the City Hall bureaucratic maze successfully. She failed to find relief and she failed to demolish her fence resulting in a whole new level of city oversight.

Maria’s order to comply ended up in the City Attorney’s office which is the third largest government legal office in California, behind the Attorney General’s office and the LA County District Attorney’s office. 500 lawyers are supported by 500 staffers and in Maria’s case, it was a staffer from the finance department who ended up in control of her case.

The City Attorney’s office sent Maria a Final Notification that threatened punitive actions including “seizing property, attaching wages, and additional legal actions.”

Mercy denied!

So much for the “no harm, no foul” strategy that the City Attorney employs when somebody’s life is threatened. A tow truck operator who spends his days impounding cars (another revenue opportunity for the City of LA) can’t be taken off the road simply for using his vehicle as a weapon. After all, a man has to work!

But when a homeowner builds a front yard fence to protect their proerty, their home and their family, it's perceived as a challenge to the authority of the City of LA, and that is a crime that will get a City Attorney response.

There are two relevant twists in this “Tale of Two Friends” and they both speak to the City Attorney’s choices, failing to prosecute in assault case and aggressively pursuing in the fence case.

A couple of years ago, Dr. Christopher Thompson was sent to jail for his road rage violence against two cyclists in Mandeville Canyon. During the trial, it came out that this wasn’t the first complaint against him, it was simply the first incident prosecuted. Dr. Thompson, just like the tow truck operator, had been accused of running cyclists off the road in the past but the City Attorney declined to prosecute. It took the County’s Deputy Attorney to bring Dr. Thompson to justice.

24 years ago, the City Attorney’s office was in court with an over-in-height fence case that was subsequently dropped when the City Attorney explained that such walls have become common in the city. At that time, the City Attorney’s office indicated that it will only prosecute “emergency situations” involving privately owned fences that are public-safety hazards.

Deputy City Attorney Theodore Heyck, in the 1987 Rubicant case, noted the prevalence of over-in-height fences and stated "If we file against her, we file against everyone in the neighborhood. Does the city wish to proceed against an entire neighborhood? Against a large segment of the city?"

City Prosecutors went on to call for an overhaul of the enforcement of current fence-height regulations by the city's Department of Building and Safety, a sentiment that was echoed by Van Nuys Municipal Judge Kenneth Lee Chotiner who heard the Fabricant case and noted the need to review the standards that guide prosecution.

It’s 2011 and City Attorney Carmen Trutanich has argued long and loud that the City’s budget cuts have eviscerated his department, making it hard for him to prosecute criminals while fulfilling his City Charter mandate of advising the Mayor, the City Council, and all boards, departments, and officers in the City of Los Angeles.

And yet...the City Attorney can find the time to pursue over-in-height fence citations.

That was then and this is now.

All Jenny wanted was some justice but the City Attorney has failed her.

All Maria wants is some mercy but the City Attorney has failed her.

Apparently, when the focus is on revenue, there’s no room for either justice or mercy.

That’s no way to run a Great City!

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

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

City Hall’s Parasitic Cost-Recovery Scheme

CityWatch, Aug 9, 2011
Vol 9 Issue 63

RETHINKING LA - LA’s recent Red-Light Camera debacle had nothing to do with traffic control and everything to do with a municipal government that has a track record for exceeding its authority and for levying fees, fines, and judgments on its residents that exceed the law.

The City of LA’s Police Commission and City Attorney have both acknowledged that Red-Light Camera enforcement of traffic violations fails to meet the legal standard for prosecution, but in a clear demonstration of the simple fact that they don’t get it, the City Council debated the issue based on the profitability of the program.

LA’s Red-Light Camera scheme was responsible for generating 180,000 tickets over the last seven years but, as CM Englander bemoaned, 65,000 of those tickets went unpaid. CM Rosendahl continued down the wrong path when he pointed out that the program cost the City of LA $1.5 million per year.

Missing from the debate was a simple discussion of LA’s right to cite and penalize in excess of law.

While opponents of the Red-Light Camera program are celebrating its demise, it should be noted that this cost-recovery scheme is not an exception but is the rule, part of a larger pattern that sees the City of LA prey on its residents as sources of income.

A couple of years ago, the City of LA’s right to collect a 10% communications tax on cell phones was challenged and with good merit. Laws written during the age of telegrams and rotary phones were being used to justify a tax on Angelenos that resulted in $270 million per year, quite a heavy return for such light legal authority.

Realizing that the pending legal challenge to the 10% tax could spell financial doom for the City, its leaders embarked on a PR campaign and offered the people of LA Prop S which would “reduce” the tax to 9%, also rewriting the code so that it included any device or technology used to place calls, thus anticipating any technological advances in the future.

The City’s PR campaign worked and the voters approved a 9% tax on communications, selecting a “reduced tax” over an “illegal tax” and demonstrating that City Hall can still spin ‘em! Whew! Financial crisis averted!

During the controversy over the Red-Light Camera program, City Hall did what was best for their pocket book, preening and posturing as if they were doing what was right when the decision was simply based on what was most cost-effective.

With the Communications Tax, City Hall again did what was best for their pocket book, positioning a 9% legal tax over a 10% illegal tax as a benefit to the people when they were actually legitimizing an illegal tax.

LA’s liability for any tickets written under the illegal Red-Light Camera program hasn’t been challenged yet but there’s a court battle being fought over the Cell Phone tax collected by LA prior to the passage of Prop S, one that could cost the City of LA hundreds of millions of dollars.

There’s no doubt that LA has to pay its bills and that LA’s residents are obligated to pay for the services that it receives. But at no time does this simple relationship result in a carte blanche for City Departments to levy fees, fines, and penalties that exceed their authority under the law.

Consider the Department of Transportation’s track record for entering the private property of an East Hollywood property owner during the middle of the night to cite motor vehicles parked on a cement parking space. These citations took place over the course of several years and it was only the tenacious resistance of the property owner that resulted in the LADOT acknowledging that it had no jurisdiction.

The LADOT churned out two tickets per visit on a single resident, forcing the property owner to spend an inordinate amount of time fighting a Pyrrhic battle that consumed incredible amounts of time, demonstrating the flaw in a cost-recovery system that rewards complaint-driven City Departments that generate revenue, not justice.

Consider the Department of Building & Safety and its track record for uneven application of the law, one that is selective in its enforcement and loose with citations, fees, and penalties. Claiming the protection of a complaint-driven process, Building & Safety is able to justify its myopic application of code, one that underscores all that is wrong with the City Attorney’s ACE program. Selective enforcement is not justice, its revenue enhancement.

Consider the Department of City Planning and its claim to fame as a department that is almost fully funded through cost-recovery measures, a Mayoral mandate that is responsible for turning departments into predatory parasites that consume the host.

City Planning sells variances; it’s as simple as that. When Building & Safety cites a resident, it levies an initial fee for the experience, approximately $350. As the resident embarks on the bureaucratic journey, the next fee is $550 that is levied when they take too long to successfully navigate City Hall. Eventually, they are told to pay $4800 to City Planning for a variance and all is forgiven. This is the simple complaint-driven collection of tolls and it has nothing to do with public safety, just revenue enhancement.

Consider the Los Angeles Housing Department and its creative approach to the generation of revenue. Upon receiving a complaint, they conduct an investigation and charge the property owner a complaint inspection fee of $169 plus a processing fee of $32.50 and then levy an additional penalty of $503.75 if the bill isn’t paid within 30 days. Harsh!

The LAHD then charges $128 for an appeal and has a track record for cyclical behavior that requires the property owner to meet with inspectors and hearing officers, all while generating inspection fees, processing fees, and late fees, regardless of the outcome. A property owner may prevail if they are willing to invest the time but it’s a lose-lose proposition. Pay the fees and move along, there’s no justice here!

Consider the Bureau of Engineering and its authority to issue permits that are then overseen by the Department of Building & Safety and can require a variance from City Planning and are inspected by LAHD if they are for rental properties and then incur the wrath of the LADOT if there is an opportunity to cite vehicles, all resulting in a bureaucratic maze that charges the property owner every time they pass “Sorry, that’s not within our jurisdiction!”

Consider LA's Office of Finance and its heavy handed approach to revenue collection. Entertainment Industry professionals are often paid as independent contractors, a process that is documented with a 1099 form. The City of LA tracks those forms and then assumes that anyone receiving one is conducting a business. (Typically, they're day-players who are working but without the benefits that come with getting paid as employee) The business license is free, but there are penalties and interest if you file after Feb 28, something that people don't discover until they file their taxes, due April 1.

Imagine their surprise when they get blindsided by the City of LA with a fine for filing late for a license that they didn't know they needed, a $4000 surprise. Of course, that notice is void if the person is simply an employee getting paid as a contractor but the $4000 bill assumes otherwise and leaves it up to the employee to figure out.

Consider the City Attorney, defender of the cost-recovery scheme and proponent of an even leaner, meaner complaint-driven Administrative Citation Enforcement (ACE) program that would speed up selective enforcement and revenue generation at the expense of justice.

While the City Attorney’s office refines its ACE program and embarks on its PR tour of neighborhood councils, it also continues to support the City Hall toll collectors by issuing its own threats that come with a penalty of $1,925 and warn that non-compliance can result actions that include “Seizing property, Attaching wages, Additional court actions.”

A resident of LA shouldn’t have to hire a lawyer just to deal with City Hall and a property owner in LA shouldn’t have to fight city departments for years in order to protect their investment.

There are enough threats to the quality of life in Los Angeles without having municipal cost-recovery predators levying fees and fines that exceed their authority under the law.

LA’s bureaucratic machine argues jurisdictional limitations when it’s time to perform but then duplicates the fees and penalties when it’s feeding time.

Mayor Villaraigosa’s cost-recovery mandate is not only limited by law, it is limited by common sense. Departments that dispense city services based on the potential for cost recovery will favor those who can afford the fee, will penalize those who fear the fee, and will break the backs of those who play by the rules.

This is no way to run a Great City.

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

LADOT Turns Mean in Pursuit of the Absurd … and Your Money

CityWatch, Aug 5, 2011
Vol 9 Issue 62

RETHINKING LA - The LA Department of Transportation has weathered the recent stormy days of employee misbehavior, administrative misconduct, budgetary misappropriations, and outreach miscommunications, resulting in a leaner, meaner department that is poised to take care of business. That’s Good News.

The LADOT is passing up on opportunities to engage the community in traffic congestion solutions, parking solutions, complete streets solutions, and standards driven enforcement, resulting in a much meaner department that is willing to enter private property to cite vehicles parked in residential driveways. That’s Bad News.

These citations aren’t given to that guy who runs an informal auto repair shop in the driveway of his home, subjecting the neighborhood to toxic waste, to visual blight, and to industrial quality traffic that is forbidden in residential communities. No, not him.

The citations don’t go to the guy who parks his semi-trailer rig in his driveway, turning a local community street into an industrial truck stop, complete with an engine that idles at all hours as he tunes up for the next delivery of Barbie Dolls or Broccoli Spears to the Midwest. Again, not him.

The citations certainly don’t end up on the windshields of the personal vehicles of residents who park in driveways and block the sidewalk, making it impossible for the disabled to enjoy local neighborhood mobility. In fact, the LADOT is working to legitimize motorists who park their cars on public sidewalks, after all, it’s a parking solution!

No, the citations end up on the windshield of a car owned by “Sun,” a woman who bought a four-unit property several years ago and then applied to the City of LA for a class "A" permit that would allow her to install driveway curb cuts, creating access to off-street parking. Permit in hand, she upgraded her property (built in 1921) and proceeded to park two vehicles on paved parking spaces that are behind her well-maintained required front yard set-back.

During the permitting process, BOE asked "Where do you plan to park?" Sun responded "In front of the building but behind the front yard setback." Then BOE wrote on the actual permit "per B&S OK to park behind setback line."

The LADOT initially engaged in a relentless onslaught of citations at this two-space property in 2007 when it averaged four citations a week in the month of January. “Sun” appealed to the LADOT and the wave of citations were reversed by the local LADOT’s Parking Enforcement Captain. The issue appeared to be resolved.

Then the LA Housing Department took over and began issuing notices to the property owner that “conditions may compromise the health and safety of the occupants and/or the integrity of your rental property.”

These notices started in early 2007 and came with an inspection fee that started at $169 plus $32.50 processing fee and then quickly escalated to $705.25 if unpaid within 30 days. The owner appealed to the LAHD and by mid-2008 the notices to comply were reversed, the fees and penalties were waived, and the LAHD agreed that the issue “is not under the jurisdiction of the Housing Department.”

Again, the issue appeared to be resolved.

The Bureau of Engineering then got involved and reversed its original position, deciding that the owner who followed the rules, pulled the necessary permit, and paid the required fees was now out of compliance. In spite of protests from the local neighborhood council, neighbors, and community advocates, the BOE reversed its position and left Sun adrift in a morass of jurisdictional contradictions.

The law is specific, and Sun responded specifically by researching and complying with the City of LA’s rules, regulations, codes, and laws. She was even charged for the appeals process in spite of her victory.

The bureaucratic maze is complicated and the BOE sent the case to Street Services for enforcement, then Sun was sent to Building & Safety where she met friendly folks who most recently explained “We have no jurisdiction over this issue.”

Sun has spent more than four years navigating a journey that has meandered through City Planning, the Bureau of Engineering, the Bureau of Street Services, the Department of Transportation, Building & Safety, the Council Office, two neighborhood councils, all without resolution or relief.

Meanwhile, scofflaws ignore the LADOT with such impunity that the City Controller recently released an audit detailing the millions of dollars in lost revenue due to the LADOT’s failure to address vehicles illegally parked on the streets of Los Angeles.

As for the property owners who are committed to playing by the rules, abiding by the code, adhering to the process, and respecting the system, the reward is punishment, ongoing and relentless punishment that errs in favor of citation and penalty, even charging for the right to appeal.

Sun, who saved her money and invested in the community by purchasing property that is now her home, has been taken on a fatiguing ride that would cause most people to simply give up. But they picked the wrong property owner.

The City of LA has spent over four years engaging in an assault on Sun's use of her private property, in spite of her permits, her receipts, and her ongoing compliance and adherence to LA’s Municipal Code. There was a lull in activity from the Bureau of Engineering, from Building & Safety, from the Housing Department, and from the LADOT's Parking Enforcement, lasting until last month when...they're back!

The LADOT has once again taken to entering private property during the late hours of night to enforce rules that its management acknowledges it has no business enforcing.

This relentless pursuit of the absurd demonstrates three significant flaws in the current delivery of city services:

First, forgoing a standards-driven enforcement process in favor of a complaint-driven system rewards complaints, enforces the law unevenly, and starts the fee/penalty clock based on complaints, regardless of their merit.

Second, the Mayor’s cost-recovery mandate drives departments to gouge the law-abiding members of the community and to ignore the scofflaws, focusing on revenue instead of standards-driven compliance.

Third, when a property owner has to deal with several departments, none of whom can resolve the issue but all of whom can levy fees, fines and charges, it’s evident that the purpose of City Hall is to consume and to staff, but not to perform.

The City of Los Angeles, from the Mayor to the local LADOT Parking Enforcement Officer, exist to serve the public, not to persecute, punish, and penalize those who invest in their community and call LA their home.

It’s time for the LADOT to step off the private property and to get out of the way. It’s time for the city departments to stop looking at the people of LA as revenue opportunities. And it’s time for Mayor Villaraigosa to get the city machine in order and to start delivering city services to the people of LA, after all, that’s his job.

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