Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Beutner defends his record in City Hall...Efficiency, Accountability, Connectivity

CityWatch, Feb 28, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 17

LA MAYOR'S RACE 2013 - Austin Beutner arrived fashionably late for his AIA/LA Mayoral Candidate Forum, a conversation moderated by Bill Roschen, President of LA’s Planning Commission, and Christopher Hawthorne, Architecture Critic for the LA Times, with an audience made up of architectural and planning professionals, City Hall insiders, transportation advocates, and community activists.

Faced with an opportunity to either demonstrate his architectural chops or to defer to the professionals and commit to partnering with experts, Beutner instead chose to speak confidently but superficially, expressing common platitudes but without solutions.

When talking about transit, Beutner pointed at the folly of a Green Line that doesn’t get to the Airport but failed to offer a solution or to comment on other struggling options such as the Flyaway.

Beutner took the time to point out that the Subway to the Sea doesn’t actually go to the sea but failed to address solutions or to demonstrate an understanding of the transit planning process or to even simply acknowledge that there is a difference between the Metro and the Metrolink.

Both Roschen and Hawthorne went to great lengths to establish the connectivity between land use, urban design, and mobility but Beutner failed to position himself as someone who could get LA moving.

“I wasn’t prepared to be so disappointed,” exclaimed the Transit Coalition’s Bart Reed, “but this guy has no idea how mass transit works or how it’s funded!”

Beutner riffed on Downtown’s Broadway Streetcar (it’s about managing resources), Leimert Park’s Train Station (it’s about good choices), High Speed Rail (it’s about priorities), and light rail down freeways (it’s about common sense).

Along the way he fumbled by referring to Streetcar/Leimert Park funding as fungible, by missing the recent developments in High Speed Rail planning, and by failing to recognize that light rail down freeways is typically disconnected from walkable communities.

While Beutner’s transit cred left his potential audience scratching their collective heads, his low-key style is likable, as are his anecdotes that come close to positioning him as the guy next door.

Beutner refers to himself as a simple guy who washed dishes, drove a truck, went to college, worked hard and gave proof to the validity of the American Dream by creating a company that went public and made him comfortably rich.

When asked about his four kids (aged 8 to 15) and if any of them had expressed an interest in becoming architects, he answered “They’re in their deconstruction phase.” This prompted an audience member to declare “Perfect for an LA architect!”

While telling a story of his early days, Beutner is quietly charming as he refers to himself as the original Twitterer, driving a floral delivery truck and sharing gossip from one customer to the next.

Along the way, his folksy tone fails him. His commentary on governmental absurdities is the equivalent of having a nutritionist point out that hot dogs come in packages of ten while buns come in packages of eight. It’s true but hardly a significant observation and completely irrelevant unless it comes with a plan for action.

“The City of LA has custom built trash trucks,” he notes, failing to point out the relevance, his solution or how this relates to the recent developments in commercial trash hauling in Los Angeles.

“Chicago’s Mayor Daley simply took bulldozers and did the work in the middle of the night,” he pointed out admiringly, while failing to make it clear if he was that kind of “get it done” candidate for Mayor.

“The City of LA owns loads of prime real estate that should be park space,” he observes, while failing to address how he would facilitate the transfer of property or fund the development and maintenance of parks or if he would simply well it off to balance the budget.

“Our sidewalks and our streets are collapsing,” he notes, drawing the audience in for an empathetic embrace, then leaving them hanging as he passes on the opportunity to present a plan for funding, for repairing, or for invoking the spirit of Daley in declaring himself as the guy who will get it done.

Granted, the AIA/LA is a tough audience, seasoned veterans of LA’s urban design battlefield who are well versed in community plans, zoning code, funding obstacles, and the democratization of land use policy and implementation.

But the AIA/LA crowd are also optimists, die-hard visionaries who still believe in transformation and winning them could have been as simple as invoking the skyline that must be protected but when challenged as to the identity of those buildings that must be protected, he came up empty.

Given another chance for historic preservation redemption, he again came up empty when asked what buildings we have lost that should have been protected.

Beutner spent 15 months inside City Hall, reportedly running the city for all practical purposes, an experience that armed him with enough anecdotes to fill the typical Candidate’s Forum and this was no exception.

When asked about the Planning department, he told a story about the LAPD.

When asked about the streamling City Hall, he told a story about homelessness.

When asked about appointing General Managers, he told a story about how many city departments it takes to change a light bulb.

When asked about the role of architecture in our community, he told a story about the ability of the Broad Museum to draw in the community and the world.

Austin Beutner has a fairly unique vantage point in the Mayoral race, with three City Hall insiders to one side and a grassroots outsider on the other. It is up to him to clearly identify himself as the candidate who brings charismatic presence to the role, or as the candidate who is incredibly aware of the intricacies of City Hall, or as the candidate who can tap into the world’s experts and manage them as they run the city or any of a number of combinations but he simply fell short.

He failed to work the room and to demonstrate the ability to charm individuals or read an audience.

He failed to demonstrate a mastery of the details of land use, urban design, planning policy, and mobility issues or to communicate, leaving the audience wondering if this is the candidate who can connect LA, literally and figuratively.

He relied on information from handlers and briefers that was superficial if not incorrect, leaving the audience to question his judgment and his ability to tap into LA’s pool of experts.

He referenced Great Cities from around the world, all of them led by charismatic characters who charm the masses or municipal powerhouses who fund and execute visions or great coaches who wrangle the best performances from teams of geniuses.

Beutner’s opportunity was to communicate that he was one of these three styles of leader and his performance fell short. Granted, he is a significantly successful man who is quite comfortable in many arenas and he speaks confidently and assertively.

He tells a story of his first days as Deputy Mayor, when he picked up the phone and called Steve Samples of USC and Gen Block of UCLA. The point of the story is to illustrate his wisdom in calling the two largest employers in LA as well as to ask for their help. “Nobody had ever called them before,” Buetner points out, “and this is where the expertise is found.”

Missing from this anecdote is the fact that two thirds of LA’s local economy are small businesses and the opportunity for Austin Beutner the Mayoral Candidate is for him to connect with individual operators, either as the charming charismatic candidate, or the municipal expert, or as the local guy who can lead professionals in the delivery of city services.

The LA chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA/LA) is committed to promoting the role of Architecture in LA’s municipal battlefield as the public grapples with urban design, planning, mobility, and land use policy issues.

The AIA/LA believes that the Mayoral race of 2013 is an important opportunity to engage the candidates in a conversation that allows the architectural community to communicate its priorities and the candidate to present their architectural street cred.

To this end, the AIA/LA is hosting a five part weekly series that allows each of the five leading Mayoral candidates to engage in a conversation about urban design, mobility, architecture, and LA’s built environment.

There are three more AIA/LA Mayoral Candidate Forums taking place over the next four Friday evenings. Kevin James is scheduled for Friday, March 2, followed by Wendy Greuel on Friday, March 9.

Visit City Watch LA for video of the evening as well as for highlights that feature Beutner’s comments on his role in City Hall and the need to address overlaps between city departments.

For more information on future AIA/LA Mayoral Candidate Forums, visit the AIA/LA website.

(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at: Stephen@thirdeyecreative.net. You can also find him on Twitter and on Facebook.)

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

“Mr. Brown” Takes His Act to City Hall

RETHINKING LA - This past Tuesday, “Mr. Brown” headed over to LA’s City Hall in order to attend the City Council’s regularly scheduled public meeting. He never made it.

Mr. Brown knew that parking opportunities downtown were expensive and limited so he took the Metro, arriving at the Civic Center station and walking east, pausing to admire the impressive architecture of the Times building, the LAPD Headquarters, and the Caltrans building.

As Mr. Brown followed his map to 200 N. Spring Street, he turned north and stood across the street from City Hall, a building so awe inspiring, he found himself simply standing and looking up at the world’s tallest base isolated structure. This was were he committed his first mistake of the day.

Mr. Brown crossed the street, using a crosswalk decorated with the LA City Seal and a peace dove, and walked up the granite steps, through the huge arches and into the Romanesque forecourt.

He paused to read the inscription over the doorway, “Righteousness Exalteth a People,” and emboldened by the words of Solomon he continued walking toward the front door of LA’s City Hall.

Again he paused, this time to examine the bronze bas relief carvings that memorialize half a dozen key events in LA’s history, including one with Commodore Robert Field Stockton and Major John Charles Fremont saluting the flag in “American Occupation 1846.”

Mr. Brown opened the door and took a couple of steps, pausing to allow his eyes to adjust to the sudden shift from the sunlight to the dimly lit atrium. He was greeted by a man in uniform, complete with a badge and a gun, who stood in his way.

“You can’t come in here.” said the uniformed greeter.

“I’m here to attend a public meeting.” explained Mr. Brown.

“You have to exit, go around the building, and enter through the back of the building. The front entrance is only for City of LA staff and officials.” said the doorman as if he was guarding LA’s most exclusive club.

“But I’m a member of the public here to attend a public meeting.” repeated Mr. Brown.

“Back up, go around the building, and use the back door.” repeated the officer from LA’s Office of Public Safety, this time a tad more gruffly than the first time.

Mr. Brown exited and circled the building, and entered through the back door where he was greeted by a full contingent of OPS officers who were operating screening equipment.

He placed his personal belongings on the conveyor belt and waited while a little old man was repeatedly sent through the screening machine, each time eliciting a beep that prompted the OPS officer to repeat the instruction “remove all metal objects.” The little old man would shift his cane from one hand to the other as he patted his pockets and searched for the offending security violation, coming up empty each time.

Eventually, the OPS officer and his partner noticed that the little old man was wearing suspenders, an oversight that prompted them to give him a lecture on the need to declare his suspenders in the future.

Mr. Brown was screened with no problems, and as he followed the little old man with the cane, another OPS officer bellowed “Come back here, I need to see your ID.”

“I’m here to attend a public meeting.” explained Mr. Brown.

“I need to see your ID.” repeated the OPS officer from behind the counter.

“Am I being detained?” asked Mr. Brown.

“No, you just need to show me your ID so I can give you this sticker.” said the OPS officer who was responsible for a clipboard filled with names and a sheet of stickers.

“Then you don’t need my ID, I’m here to attend a public meeting.”

“Oh!” said the OPS officer, “You’re using the Brown Act. You need to tell me that you’re using the Brown Act.”

“Actually, there are no magic words or passwords or special phrases needed in order to attend a public meeting under the Brown Act,” explained Mr. Brown, “One does not need to know the specifics of the Brown Act in order to be covered by the Brown Act. I’m here to attend a public meeting, you know it is covered by the Brown Act, and it is your legal obligation and sworn duty to allow me to attend without demanding ID.”

“Why are you giving me a hard time?” the OPS officer said, apparently a rhetorical question that was certainly beneath her role as a Sergeant with LA’s Office of Public Safety.

“Actually, it is you who is giving a member of the public a hard time,’ responded Mr. Brown, “first by ‘demanding’ identification from a member of the public who is simply trying to attend a public meeting and then by requiring a ‘magic phrase’ in order to invoke the Brown Act. You’re not only giving me a hard time, you’re committing a misdemeanor in the presence of law enforcement officers.”

Mr. Brown took his sticker from Sgt. “M” and began to walk toward the elevators when he thought twice and decided to talk to a supervisor. He asked a different OPS officer (budget constraints be damned, there were six OPS officers in the lobby of City Hall) and a radio request went out for the Watch Commander.

The Lieutenant on duty sent over a Sergeant, a large man who would definitely benefit from a few days in charm school. His disdain for Mr. Brown was palpable and his interest in the Brown Act guarantees was minimal, if any existed at all.

“I’m sure that if we were doing something wrong, the City Attorney would tell us.” Sgt. “L” explained, turning as if his confidence in the status quo was sufficient to end the conversation.

“But your officers seem to think that a demand for ID is acceptable and it isn’t.” explained Mr. Brown. “Further, they seem to think that there is a Brown Act password that must be exercised in order to invoke the Brown Act. That’s also not true.

“I’ not sure of any of the details of the Brown Act,’ Sgt. “L” explained, casting doubts on the efficacy of OPS supervision, “But the City Attorney tells us what to do and we do it. I’m sure if the City Attorney has a policy, it’s a legal policy.”

Mr. Brown realized that conversation with Sgt. “L” was going nowhere so he asked if he could file a complaint. Sgt ”L” said he had to go to his car for the form, a trip that took 20 minutes, resulting in the return of an empty-handed Sgt “L” who explained that he would have to go to Headquarters for the form. (OPS HQ is across the street)

In light of the time it took Sgt. “L” to simply get to his car which was parked at the curb, Mr. Brown considered how long it would take Sgt. “L” to actually cross the street and chose to visit OPS HQ himself. He crossed the street, entered the underground mall and found the OPS HQ, just past the Togo’s and to the right.

The OPS Watch Commander listened attentively with just a hint of fatigue and acknowledged that the City Attorney had performed Brown Act training, that the OPS request for ID is just a request, that there is no “magic phrase” that invokes the Brown Act, and that the City Attorney had distributed training materials to the OPS officers.

Mr. Brown asked for a copy of the Brown Act training materials, a request that brought a look of pain to the Watch Commander’s face. He shuffled a few stacks of documents and asked a Sergeant at the front desk if there was a copy of the Brown Act training procedures anywhere in the office. There was none.

After a bit of a search, he offered a substitute, a one-inch thick OPS Policies and Procedures Manual, complete with bright red cover that surely signified its importance.

Mr. Brown scanned through the manual and quickly located the section of the manual that addressed visitors who “either do no (sic) have identification or refuse to present identification upon request. Officers should not deny access to any person as long as they have been properly screened and their bags inspected (Refer to Chapter 6 Section XX-D).”

It was immediately apparent that nobody had actually read the manual because the manual directed the reader to Chapter 6 Section XX-D that is entitled “Dangerous Animal Escape and Response.”

This explains the look on the face of Sgt. “L” as he parked his car curbside and entered LA’s City Hall. He was apparently prepared for an encounter with a “Dangerous Animal Escape.”

While the line between “members of the public” and “dangerous animal escape” may be extremely thin in the eyes of City Hall’s security detail, California’s Brown Act still prevails and the public has the right to attend public meetings without fear of being treed, tranquilized, or chased by Animal Control.

Mr. Brown took the time to point out the typos in the OPS Manual, including the fact that OPS officers are told to give a Blue sticker to people who show their ID and Red stickers to the other members of the public, then offering contradictory instructions.

First “Officers who then observe a person wearing a red visitor badge should be cognizant of the reasons why it was issued.”

Then “However, officers should not treat the wearer with any unwarranted suspicion.”

The OPS Manual concludes by instructing “Officer must be mindful that City Hall is a public building, and therefore balance the duty to provide for the safety of the occupants with the duty to protect the rights of those wishing to attend public meetings.

Mr. Brown thanked the Watch Commander for his time and sent a request to the City Attorney for a copy of the Brown Act training materials that are used to instruct the Office of Public Safety officers. The request has so far been ignored.

As for the City Council meeting that Mr. Brown wanted to attend, he returned to City Hall but the doors to Council Chambers were locked and LA’s part-time City Council was gone for the day.

Mr. Brown has been taken to task by those who contend that asking for ID at the front counter of City Hall is such a small injustice, one that doesn’t warrant such a stubborn demand for adherence to the Brown Act.

Mr. Brown explains “If the City of LA doesn’t know enough about the Brown Act to allow the public to simply enter the building legally, then it is certain they are not aware of the other provisions of the Brown Act such as proper notification, informative agendas, making materials available to the public, and allowing appropriate public comment.”

It has been 59 years since the Ralph M. Brown Act was passed by the California State Legislature and it guarantees the public’s right to attend and participate in meetings of local legislative bodies.

When the Brown Act was originally introduced, the Sacramento Bee wrote “A law to prohibit secret meetings of official bodies, save under the most exceptional circumstances, should not be necessary. Public officers above all other persons should be imbued with the truth that their business is the public’s business and they should be the last to tolerate any attempt to keep the people from being fully informed as to what is going on in official agencies. Unfortunately, however, that is not always the case. Instances are many in which officials have contrived, deliberately and shamefully, to operate in a vacuum of secrecy.”

Those words are as true now as they have ever been.

(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at: Stephen@thirdeyecreative.net. You can also find him on Twitter and on Facebook.)

Monday, February 20, 2012

LA: City Where the Buck Never Stops

CityWatch, Feb 21, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 15

NO ONE IN LA EVER TAKES THE BLAME - Mayor Villaraigosa, the 11% Mayor who could balance the budget with his frequent flyer miles, has a long tradition of empowering a rotating cast of Deputy Mayors and General Managers in an effort to distance himself from his legacy of non-performance.

The City Council, completely impotent in its ability to direct city staff, resorts to motions ordering studies and reports as tools of coercion and then settles for the City of LA tradition of dividing the spoils by 15, regardless of need or relevance.

Commissioners, appointed by the Mayor, posture and pontificate, sometimes with acknowledged irrelevance and sometimes with significant political power but most often with Mayoral direction and benign neglect. Claims of significance are often challenged by reality.

General Managers, also appointed by the Mayor, find themselves caught between a term-limit restricted Mayor and a Civil Service hard place. Critics claim that they often serve as simple cannon fodder and Mayoral expeditors.

Navigating the treacherous press conference waters of LA’s City Hall operations are the “clients” who make the city run, the developers, builders, architects, engineers, transportation specialists, land use lawyers and consultants who advise the Mayor and his team.

Consider the latest dust-up at LA’s Department of Building & Safety (LADBS).

First, a local community member games the LADBS and initiates almost 200 Fence Height complaints against his neighbors, resulting in fees, fines, and penalties that then draw threats of garnishment, liens, and other legal action.

Then Council President Eric Garcetti intervenes and introduces a Council Motion that proposes solutions. He also sends a letter to LADBS General Manager Bud Ovrom “asking” him to hold all cases in abeyance while the issue is resolved in City Council.

Four months later, Bud Ovrom finds himself in hot water when Code Enforcement Bureau Chief Dr. Grace Harper, a 33 year veteran of LA’s civil service, simply rejects Garcetti’s request without notifying him, responding with an explanation, or even acknowledging receipt.

“It’s simply illegal for our department to hold code enforcement cases in one area in abeyance while still pursuing cases in the rest of the city,” Harper explained, “because that would result in charges of selective prosecution.”

While the irony of responding to charges that complaint driven code enforcement results in selective prosecution was lost on Harper, she defended her department’s actions by referring to their legal mandate to investigate all complaints but could not identify any statute or code that supports her position.

As for Ovrom, formerly the Deputy Mayor responsible for two of the city departments currently under Federal investigation, he finds himself navigating tough political waters. He has the Mayor on one side who simply needs to get to the end of his term, he has a City Councilman on the other side who needs to show the world that he is a credible candidate for Mayor, he has the Feds behind him investigating his department, and he has a retaining wall of civil service protected lifers in front of him that know he will soon be gone and it will be business as usual.

Off to the side are the “customers” who are the “business as usual” and they are known as the Development Industry Advisory Committee (DIAC). From Latham and Watkins to Gensler to California Home Builders to Englander, Knobe & Allen, these are the folks who meet regularly with Deputy Mayor Matt Karatz and GM Bud Ovrom to steer the ship.

Meanwhile, Councilman Eric Garcetti has tendered a City Council President-to-General Manager request that flatly gets ignored, he has trusted Council District staff who reassure him that all is well, and he has dismissed complaints from the community because he naively thinks the system is working.

It isn’t.

The Mayor’s office accepts no responsibility for the upside-down priorities that classify the developers and consultants as the “customers” while balancing the budget on the backs of the people who invest in homes and businesses in the community.

The Commissioners are hardly representative of the public, serving at the Mayor’s pleasure (and sometimes at his displeasure), typically handling consent agendas filled with fodder for press releases.

The City Council is tolerated by Departments that still divide the city into 15 regions, assigning a “handler” to each Council District to keep the politicos at bay by dispensing constituent treats equally. These buckets of asphalt and hot-spot support activities keep City Council incumbents seated and sated.

The General Manager is a political hire, serving at the Mayor’s pleasure. Sometimes the Mayor sends in a Deputy Manager to take over as GM to calm the troops in the wake of a disaster or Federal corruption investigation. Deputy Mayor Jaime de la Vega left City Hall and walked across the street to take over the LADOT and Deputy Mayor Bud Ovrom left City Hall to “handle” Villaraigosa’s attempt to “build our way out of this recession!”

Councilwoman Jan Perry looks at the revolving door of political impotence and complains that the problems stem from term limits. She points out that it is impossible to have a long term vision for the City of LA if all the work must be done in two mayoral terms.

Perry notes that term limits destroy any institutional memory and empowers lobbyists who have been around for a long time, elevating their insight and guidance in value.

Meanwhile, LA’s Code Enforcement is a General Fund activity, one that is subject to the Mayor’s cost recovery mandate, resulting in a predatory relationship with the people the City of LA is supposed to serve.

It is against LA’s municipal buck-passing landscape that the public must ask some tough questions:

Why is the LADBS rejecting requests from the public to participate on the LADBS and Planning advisory committees while Primestor Development, KPFF Engineering, California Home Builders, and RA Build Commercial LL enjoy unfettered access?

It’s because they see the developers as the client and the public as an obstacle.

Why won’t LA Deputy Mayor Matt Karatz and General Manager Bud Ovrom find the time to meet with the public, the residents of Los Angeles, the nearly four million people who are the reason for City Hall?

It’s because they know that there is no penalty for ignoring the public.

How does Eric Garcetti hope to position himself as a credible candidate for Mayor if he can’t get the GM of LADBS to acknowledge his communications, if he can’t get LADBS to accommodate his request for an abeyance, if he can’t get his staff to keep him informed of the reality on the streets, and if he can’t solve a simple Code Enforcement problem in his district.

He can’t, because he is unable to establish himself as LA’s “The Buck Stops Here!” candidate.

(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at: Stephen@thirdeyecreative.net. You can also find him on Twitter and on Facebook.)

Sunday, February 19, 2012

LA Mayor’s Race 2012: Perry Sticks with Her Campaign Playbook … Jobs, Homes, Mobility, Families

CityWatch, Feb 18, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 14

AIA CANDIDATE FORUM - Christopher Hawthorne, Architectural Critic for the LA Times, is referred to as LA’s “design conscience,” an honor that must be a burden to him as he looks at the empty field to the SW of City Hall or the blighted building to the NW of City Hall or the homeless encampment to the NE of City Hall or the surface parking lots to the SE of City Hall.

LA’s Mayor holds court in a pillar of isolation that is surrounded by the work of agencies and authorities that have no respect for LA’s design aesthetic or LA’s architectural ambitions or LA’s land use standards.

The largest developers in Los Angeles operate independently and with complete disregard for LA’s standards because they have diplomatic immunity. They are the LAUSD, the Metro, the County, the State, and the Federal Government.

The AIA/LA is convinced that there is an opportunity on the horizon, one that requires a Mayor who can bring unity to the many agencies and authorities who have a piece of the city, uniting them in an urban design commitment so that LA’s architectural community can deliver on their mandate to make our city more beautiful, livable, and economically robust.

Bill Roschen, President of LA’s Planning Commission, joined Hawthorne in moderating the first of five Mayoral Candidate Forums this past Friday night, taking Councilwoman Jan Perry through a series of topics that included civic engagement, mobility, mega-projects, the demise of the CRA and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s legacy.

Perry artfully navigated the discussion that included third-rail topics such as parking maximums, density bonuses, High Speed Rail, and Streetcar assessments. In a room full of New Urbanists and Shoupistas, it would have been easy to play to the crowd but Perry stayed true to her playbook, holding up her record as evidence of her commitment to livable communities.

Perry was challenged to articulate her vision and her plan for making it happen and she didn’t skip a beat, stating confidently “I put people to work, I produce homes they can afford, I give them mobility options, I create neighborhoods where they can raise families, where their kids can attend good schools, and where they can enjoy the quality of life they deserve.”

In lieu of offering a plan for making it happen, Perry simply pointed at her track record, from her days as a Planning and Land Use Deputy early in her public service career to her recent accomplishments funding large projects and building parkletts.

The audience was equal parts professional architects, city staffers, and community activists. Roschen and Hawthorne spent the bulk of the time leading Perry through a series of architecture, urban design, and land use policy questions that allowed her to position her legacy as evidence of her architectural street cred.

In a clear demonstration that lofty architectural philosophy and vision get lost in the curbside details, the first “question” from the audience came from architectural icon Dion Neutra who simply couldn’t get over the fact that the LAPD’s Deaton Hall was built without any vehicle parking. He is a colorful character and his rant was entertaining, but it also seriously gave proof to the simple fact that lofty visions don’t resonate with the community when people live in neighborhoods that don’t work.

The next speaker also had a non-question related to a specific affordable housing project being developed with public funds in a community that didn’t want it on a street that couldn’t hold it and an economic environment that couldn’t sustain it. Another colorful character with an entertaining rant, offering more evidence that the people of LA can’t follow the vision if they feel they’re being misled.

In spite of the large number of credentialed professionals in the audience, the questions continued to nail the topics that prevent visions from soaring; “Dude, where’s my green space?” followed by “I see tons of dogs but no place to pee!” leading to “Seriously, what’s up with Pershing Square?”

From high altitude goals of architectural beauty to wonky land use policy to walkable streets that simply feel good, the AIA/LA Mayoral Candidate Forums promise to demonstrate that for all the talk, the walk starts with a simple conversation about LA and how it looks and how it feels!

There are four more AIA/LA Mayoral Candidate Forums taking place over the next four Friday evenings. Austin Beutner is scheduled for Friday, February 24, followed by Kevin James on March 2.

Watch the entire Jan Perry forum here & continue here. Or, check out highlights that feature Perry’s comments on the demise of the CRA and the potential of Neighborhood Councils.

For more information on future AIA/LA Mayoral Candidate Forums, visit the AIA/LA website.

(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at: Stephen@thirdeyecreative.net. You can also find him on Twitter and on Facebook.)

Thursday, February 16, 2012

LA’s City Hall: The Great Pabulum and Placebo Dispenser

CityWatch, Feb 17, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 14

RETHINKING LA - LA’s leadership has a knack for dispensing with the restless residents who periodically take up pitchforks and torches, storming City Hall with demands for accountability in the delivery of city services.

The first step is to feign interest in the opinions of the public in the hopes that the noise will stop.
“Please, take my survey and tell me what you think!” says the Mayor as he engages in the annual charade of concern that precedes the charter mandated submission of the Mayor’s Proposed Budget for the City of LA.

”Please, fill out a comment card and sit for a few hours, then we will ignore you while you fumble through your two minutes of commentary!” say the members of various committees, commissions and advisory boards as they tolerate the public on their way to preordained conclusions and actions.

The City of LA is acutely sensitive to the legal minimum standard for public commentary as city leadership engages in the business of the people because it spends the bulk of its time focused on doing only what is required, not what would be effective or meaningful.

From Brown Act violations at the entrance of City Hall to First Amendment violations in Council Chambers, it is clear that City Hall tolerates public comment because it has to, not because it reflects the will and wishes of the people.

The second step is to feign interest in a movement in the hopes that the crowd will go away.

“Please, stay as long as you need to!” said City Council President Eric Garcetti to the Occupy LA protesters as Councilman Bill Rosendahl stood by his side.

Those who mistakenly assumed that the words of the City Council President had value were quickly disappointed when the Mayor ordered the LAPD to engage in a military style action that removed the protesters.

The cement barrier that currently surrounds City Hall is a glaring reminder that the verbal assurances of the City Council President aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.

The third step is to nod somberly and to demand reports from city departments in the hope that the public will accept this as a victory.

The City Attorney’s ACE program keeps reappearing in City Council Committees, resembling that gopher game at the arcade where participants bang on the gopher’s head with a mallet as it pops up in different locations.

The ACE program has popped up all over town but the public has been able to bang on its head with the mallet of common sense, sending it back to the City Attorney’s office for more reports and adjustments and tweaks.

Eventually the public will swing and miss and the ACE program will fly through to City Council approval, just another rigged arcade game that promises much but delivers little.

Most city departments have a staff member who monitors City Hall and generates reports as ordered, knowing that this is all it takes to keep the elected officials at bay. Most of the reports never see the light of day, some get debated, and a few even turn into motions, which then get ignored.

The fourth step is to call for a moratorium while the subject is studied and debated and terms of office run out.

From medical marijuana to fast food to code harassment, LA is the Capital of Moratoriums, demonstrating that there is nothing as attractive as the opportunity to kick an issue down the road and to leave it for the next round of elected officials.

Those who work in the city departments that delivery city services are on to this game and they yawn as they ignore the moratoriums with complete confidence that there is no penalty or punishment. After all, three decades of civil service trumps the temporary leadership at City Hall.

Garcetti’s most recent promise of a moratorium on over height fence code enforcement in Hollywood was rejected by the upper management of Building and Safety, not with an official response, not with a reasoned discussion or a public hearing, but with the most stinging blow of all options, it was simply ignored.

This demonstrates the charade of City Hall, elected officials who must dance carefully to avoid allowing the public to discover that they are impotent, Emperors with no clothing, photo-op captains at the helm of a ship with no rudder.

The fifth step is to issue a resolution in support of a position, one that is suitable for framing, hoping that this will drive the pesky members of the public to Aaron Brothers where they can revel in the victory while the City of LA engages in business as usual.

Cyclists were empowered when the City Council endorsed the Cyclists’ Bill of Rights, issuing a resolution that called on City Planning and Transportation to embrace it as an element of the City’s Bike Plan.

Staffers simply refused, arguing that it was redundant and unnecessary and not within the City of LA’s purview. The penalty for noncompliance? There is none.

The final step is to simply run for a different office with a platform of reform, one that attacks the performance of the prior office-holders as if they aren’t the same gang of misfits.

City Controller Wendy Greuel is now auditing the same departments that she dealt with when she served as a City Councilwoman for District #2. Nothing has changed other than her perspective and degree of accountability.

As Chair of the City Council’s Transportation Committee, she had years to engage in oversight of the Department of Transportation yet it didn’t happen. Now, she’s racing to beat the feds in uncovering the indiscretions that took place on her watch.

Councilman Dennis Zine is busy campaigning for City Controller, a position that will allow him to ask the hard questions that he should be asking now in his position as Chair of the Audits and Governmental Efficiency Committee. Again, he is currently responsible for oversight of departments that are currently under federal investigation. How can he run on this record of failure?

Councilman Garcetti is running for Mayor on a platform of reform but how does he propose to change a city family that is currently ignoring his requests, motions, actions, and directives?

The people of LA have the right to demand a City that works, one that delivers city services as if it is the primary purpose of the City. It is incumbent on the current roster of elected officials to take charge of this city and to offer results, not more promises and distractions.

The veneer is wearing thin and it is becoming obvious to the public that City Hall is busy massaging the status quo by delivering memorandums-of-understanding and audits and resolutions, none of which mean anything other than to pay homage to the blue beads of past deceptions.

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

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

LA Neighborhood Councils: The Evolution of the Revolution

CityWatch, Feb 14, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 13

TURNING THE POWER ON - Several blind men are asked by their King to examine an elephant and then to describe its appearance.

The blind man who feels a leg says the elephant is like a pillar; the one who feels the tail says the elephant is like a rope; the one who feels the trunk says the elephant is like a tree branch; the one who feels the ear says the elephant is like a giant fan; the one who feels the belly says the elephant is like a wall; and the one who feels the tusk says the elephant is like a solid pipe.

The King, in his infinite wisdom, informed the blind men that they were all correct in their evaluations, although their observations were limited to their individual experiences.

Those same blind men, if asked to visit different neighborhood councils, would probably come back with a wide variety of experiences, all of them true but typically limited in accuracy.

The first man might experience a social group, one that is focused on creating community. The second man might discover a local enforcement authority, intent on upholding codes and laws in the neighborhood. The third man might experience a de facto planning commission, focused on land use issues and parking requirements. The fourth man might find himself in the midst of a beautification society, focused on landscaping and gardens. The fifth man might find himself in an empty room, victim of bad outreach and erratic scheduling.

The last blind man might find himself in the midst of a crowd, surrounded by empowered neighbors who were united in their commitment to monitor the deliver of city services, to meet with city leadership, to advise the Mayor and City Council, and to involve the community in the civic engagement process.

The King, in his infinite wisdom, might acknowledge the truthfulness of each man’s experience, but if he was a fan of Charter Reform, he would take note of the sixth man’s experience and ask the crowded neighborhood council how it was that they were able to keep focused on civic engagement and neighborhood empowerment.

It has been ten years since the first neighborhood councils were certified and the last decade has been a series of uphill battles for relevance, many of which take place as if the City Charter wasn’t clear on their purpose.

The purpose of neighborhood councils, as defined in the City Charter, is “To promote more citizen participation in government and make government more responsive to local needs.”

The Charter goes on to explain that, “Neighborhood councils shall include representatives of the many diverse interests in communities and shall have an advisory role on issues of concern to the neighborhood.”

Lest there be any confusion over priorities, the Charter identifies and prioritizes two areas of responsibility, the city’s budget and the delivery of city services.

As the City of LA prepares to engage in another round of budget triage, calling into question each department’s function and performance, it is imperative that neighborhood councils get in touch with their City Charter mandate and evaluate themselves accordingly.

For the neighborhood councils who wish to enhance their ability to engage their community and make their government more responsive to local needs, help is on the way.

On Thursday the 23rd of February, the Center for Non-Profit Management will be partnering with Empower LA in a dynamic training workshop that will focus on strategies and techniques for effective neighborhood council advocacy.

Participants will leave with a plan for turning their Neighborhood Council board into a powerful advocate when dealing with City of LA agencies, departments, committees, commissions and elected officials.

Community leaders will:

• Learn ways to achieving goals as a group
• Discuss a plan of action around your top priorities
• Hear success stories from Neighborhood Councils who are making an impact

Thursday, February 23, 2012


Center for Nonprofit Management - California Endowment Building
1000 N Alameda Street,
Los Angeles, CA 90012

5:30-6:00pm - Registration, Refreshments
(Dinner available for purchase - $10)
6:00-8:30pm - Program and Panel

Reserve your seat today at:

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

Saturday, February 11, 2012

City Hall: All Motions, No Action

CityWatch, Feb 10, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 12

RETHINKING LA - Several years ago, LA’s City Council committed to developing a Citywide Transportation Strategic Plan that would include a vision with goals and an action plan that clearly communicated to the city family the initiatives, priority projects and programs that the City should undertake. This plan would include performance goals for the city departments and strategies for implementation.

An all-day City Council session that focused on Transportation took place, resulting in a flurry of motions that called for reports, lots of them, on ideas such as getting Transportation and Planning to work together and getting our funding strategies in order.

The final list of motions, 25 in all, contained some ambitious references to innovations in transportation engineering as well as acknowledgements that business as usual in LA had to change.

In the months that followed, the General Managers of Transportation and Planning appeared before the City Council to report on their progress, but they have since left the city, one under duress, the other in disgust.

As for the Citywide Transportation Strategic Plan, it has been four years since the City Council dusted its hands of any responsibility for actually embracing a vision, instead commissioning another journey [link] that resulted in a report that states the obvious and avoids a commitment to change.

Against a background of gridlocked traffic, busted streets and broken sidewalks, unhealthy air quality, and streets that are unsafe at any speed, Vision Los Angeles released a report last year that declared “Los Angeles County is one of the world’s most diverse and creative regions. Its transportation system should reflect this. We need a system that supports a vibrant and world-leading regional economy, clean air, minimal greenhouse gas emissions and access to safe, efficient and abundant transportation choices for all.”

This regional report from the Environmental Defense Fund and the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation came with 15 recommendations and serves as the substitute for the City of LA’s short-lived commitment to a Transportation Strategic Plan.

The Vision LA report is quite nicely written and it identifies air quality, transportation, land use, employment, and housing as related elements. This is hardly a controversial position but it is also not a vision document for the City of LA.

It is a statement of the obvious and an opportunity to dilute responsibility or any commitment to action.

Three of the current Mayoral candidates were at the all-day City Council session that focused on the development of LA’s Transportation Strategic Plan.

As they currently navigate the potholes on the campaign trail, as they adjust their schedules to avoid traffic congestion and delays, and as they address voters who pay housing and transportation costs that are among the highest in the nation, the question that must be answered is this:

Where is LA’s Transportation Strategic Plan and what have you done to change the way the City of LA secures transportation funding, repairs and maintains its streets, rebuilds its broken sidewalks, supports innovations in traffic controls, improves safety on the streets, and pursues innovations in transportation?

Eric Garcetti was the City Council President, Wendy Greuel was Chair of the Transportation Committee, and Jan Perry was Chair of the Energy and Environment Committee when the City Council committed to a strategic plan that would “enhance air quality, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, facilitate transportation mobility and improve the economic and environmental foundation and future.”

Under Eric Garcetti’s watch, the promised Bike Hubs at two Transit Oriented Developments never materialized, the rooms still sit empty as evidence of undelivered promises. Developers continue to make and break local hire and local delivery service agreements with the community.

Under Wendy Greuel’s watch, communities struggle to make their streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists while the LADOT continues to fumble Safe Routes to School funding. The voters approved Measure R and the LADOT promptly went to work using bad math to inflate administrative costs and moving project funds to cover staffing costs. As the budget crisis continues, the LADOT continues to offer bonuses “because it’s permitted.”

Under Jan Perry’s watch, a funded PediCab proposal died for lack of support, not from the community or from those who volunteered to make it happen, but from the Council office. The opportunity to turn LA’s transportation crisis into an environmental issue slipped by, demonstrating a clear commitment to business as usual.

These are small examples of a larger problem.

The three mayoral candidates have avoided stepping on each other’s toes and they have sidestepped opportunities to rock the boat, calling into question their individual abilities to serve as a change agent capable of moving LA forward.

From addressing air quality on trucking corridors to reducing traffic congestion with regional valet services, the opportunity to change the current third world conditions of LA’s streets and sidewalks requires a commitment to the future.

LA’s Transportation Strategic Plan was that promise but it turned into a busy agenda of motions that did not translate into any actions.

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

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Time to Implement a Competency Test for City Hall

CityWatch, Feb 7, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 11

RETHINKING LA - The City of LA is preparing to engage in another round of budget triage, an annual charade that more closely resembles Three Card Monte than an actual commitment to accountability, performance, and delivery of city services. As the Mayor’s cost recovery mandate continues to reward departmental gouging of the public, the issue of competent performance continues to fall by the wayside. In fact, it appears that competency has been defined as the ability to generate revenue and justify staff positions, not to actually improve the quality of life in LA or deliver services more efficiently.

I offer a few examples.

1. As communities vie for Safe Routes to School funding, federal and state money that is meant to improve our communities so that it is safer for kids to walk and ride to school, the LADOT staff responsible for the process is unaware of the actual laws governing the process of crossing the street on foot.

To hear LADOT transportation engineers repeat jaywalking mythology while demonstrating a complete lack of knowledge for the law is confirmation that the people in charge do not have the necessary competency to perform their duties.

2. As bond money is spent building police and fire stations throughout the city, those in positions of oversight have deep pockets and a commitment to job security, priorities that are at odds with efficient and effective management of the building programs.

To hear BOE engineers defend their building code violations by referring to their “Cliff Notes” summary version of the building code is confirmation that those in charge are comfortable with their limited knowledge of the code and an expensive “do over” approach to construction and code enforcement.

3. As transportation funds are spent repairing our streets, the Bureau of Street Services and the Department of Transportation continue to trip over each other, first striping the streets and then covering them with a slurry seal, demonstrating a systemic inability to manage multi-departmental projects.

To hear LADOT and BSS staff explain their Tower of Babel approach to squandering public funds while undoing each other’s work is to hear a strong case for departmental consolidation and a commitment to competent leadership that is judged based on results.

4. As the debate over fences disrupts neighborhoods, an appeal to the General Manager of City Planning elicited a feeble sidestepping that included a plea of ignorance, “short of changing the LAMC, I cannot waive the fence requirements.”

To hear a veteran zoning professional profess ignorance of a decade old provision for Over Height Fence Districts is to hear a claim of incompetence, especially disturbing because it came in response to a plea for help from a group of community members.

5. As our elected officials take the oath of office, they swear to uphold the law of the land, apparently unaware that the oath includes federal and state law.

To hear the City Attorney advise the City Council that local legislation trumps state law is to witness a defense of incompetency as a substitute for upholding the law of the land.

The people of LA deserve a City Hall that is committed to competent performance but there is no process for evaluating outcomes or challenging performance.

As the Mayor engages the public in the budget survey process, asking for feedback on the delivery of city services, it is incumbent on him to demonstrate how he will evaluate performance.

Most importantly, especially in light of the rumor that these evaluations have already taken place and are simply gathering dust, the Mayor must produce a plan for separating the wheat from the chaff, the performers from the incompetent, the people who are moving LA forward from those who are obstacles to progress.

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

Friday, February 03, 2012

LA’s Secret Meeting Habit: Contempt and Arrogance or Just Bureaucratic Malpractice?

CityWatch, Feb 3, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 10

RETHINKING LA - We, the people, have the right to attend and participate in meetings of local legislative bodies yet our elected officials regularly violate this right, creating obstacles to public attendance, participation, and free speech.

This behavior may be due to simple ignorance, although it is hard to believe that elected officials, some having been in public service for more than three decades, are still unaware of the Bill of Rights or the Brown Act.
Two days ago, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum Commission was taken to task for convening the body without proper notice to the public of the meeting or its agenda, a violation of California’s Brown Act, also known as the Open Meeting Law.

The meeting was cancelled abruptly, prompting Commissioner Bernard Parks to chastise the Coliseum Interim General Manager John Sandbrook for allowing the meeting to take place without letting the Commission know that simply participating in the meeting could be a violation of the law.

One might suggest that the Brown Act violation is the least of the Commission’s worries, coming on the heels of charges that the Commission has been engaged in secret sessions that address a proposal to give operational control of the financially floundering stadium to USC.

This casualness with the law comes on the heels of the recent revelation that Coliseum officials have given over a million dollars in cash to a union official who was then responsible for the wages of the Coliseum stagehands, all with no oversight and accountability for appropriate taxes, insurance, and benefits.

As the US Labor Department and the District Attorney investigate this and other operational and financial irregularities, the Commissioners fall back on the favorite legal defense of elected officials, “I had no idea!”

LA County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky exclaimed "I was never made privy to, nor informed of, financial statements of any kind that documented any cash payments to anyone."


Zev was recently in the news for his attempt, in his new role as the Chair of the LA County Board of Supervisors, to limit public comment during Board sessions, a move that violates the Brown Act and demonstrates his contempt for public participation and free speech.

Keep in mind that Coliseum audits tend to follow media inquiries, demonstrating the value of public participation in the process and transparency in the management of public assets.

As for the Board of Supervisors, Zev recently introduced a motion to revise the rules in order to “improve the way Board meetings are conducted.” If approved, the new rules of order would mean simply participating in the Board meetings could be a violation of the law.

Open Meeting advocates, from the League of Women Voters to Bob Blue, pointed out that the public can’t be limited to general comments but have the right to comment on agenda items as they come up. They also pointed out that the proposed requirement to require speakers to provide their names and addresses also violates the law.

The open and transparent attempt to violate the Brown Act can only be attributed to contempt of the public, arrogant hubris, or complete and thorough ignorance of the law.

Whatever the explanation, it speaks volumes for the environment of neglect that has allowed the Coliseum to flounder while management paid their own companies to provide services and collected compensation from other Coliseum vendors, all while delivering suitcases of cash to the local union.

Typically, when officials such as the LA County Board of Supervisors or LA’s City Council are sworn in, the oath of office starts with a commitment to uphold the law of the land. Yet when it includes allowing the public to criticize them or to watch them engage in the public’s business, this oath falls by the wayside.

Miki Jackson and John Walsh recently went to LA’s City Council to speak during public comment on the demise of the CRA, an occasion that drew speakers from all perspectives and offered the City of LA an opportunity to participate in a violation of the 1st Amendment.

The City Council’s Sgt. at Arms, a sworn peace officer in uniform and armed with a gun, informed Jackson and Walsh that they couldn’t hold a sign while they were speaking nor could they even sit in chambers while in possession of the sign.

This violation of the 1st Amendment took place and as Jackson and Walsh left chambers, a member of the City Attorney’s office chased them down and urged them to return, demonstrating that somebody in chambers was familiar with the Bill of Rights guarantee of Free Speech and the Brown Act guarantee that criticism is a form of public comment.

This isn’t the first time that the City Attorney’s office has jumped to protect its client from violating the law.

Simply attending Council, Committee, and Commission meetings typically includes a demand for identification in violation of the Brown Act which guarantees open meetings and the right to participate without identification restrictions. (for those who worry about security issues, go visit the state capital. There is still security screening, they simply don’t require you to identify yourself)

The DWP Commission was well into its agenda when a member of the public entered to announce that the meeting was talking place in violation of the Brown Act because security was restricting access. The City Attorney’s representative jumped to his feet and acknowledged that the DWP’s policy of requiring identification was a violation of State law.

For those that question the significance of a simple ID violation, consider that the public agencies and authorities who are cavalier about such specifics are demonstrating a casualness with the law that typically reflects additional and deeper inappropriate or illegal behavior.

A member of City Planning recently stood next to a member of City Hall’s General Services Police Department and blocked entrance to a meeting of a Brown Act governed body to anyone who didn’t show identification. The city employee assured the public that they were trained in Brown Act rules and city staff reiterated their refusal to allow members of the public to attend or participate in the meeting until they produced identification.

This obstinate behavior, even when confronted by the law, speaks volumes to the uphill battle that the public faces when challenging plans, proposals, policies, codes, laws, and other actions that our elected officials and public employees advance on our behalf without our participation or approval.

The City Planning employee committed a misdemeanor, prosecutable because it took place in the presence of a sworn law enforcement officer. Typically, Brown Act violations require a claim of violation and a “demand for cure” which amounts to a do-over of the meeting or agenda item in question.

LA’s Police Commission also demonstrates a cavalier attitude to the Brown Act, either out of ignorance or arrogance, either way a bad sign for the body that purports to have oversight and accountability for the LAPD as it engages in the business of upholding the law.

Whether it’s your 1st Amendment fight to free speech or your Brown Act right to receive notice of meetings, speak in public, review documents before they are acted on, and simply witness the proceedings without hassle, the City of LA and the County of LA are far from a tradition of compliance.

Whether or not you care about the inner machinations of Coliseum management or the demise of the CRA or the details of Brown Act guarantees to open meetings, it’s important that you stand up for those that do.

Whether or not you care about access to City Planning or the DWP Commission or the Police Commission or any of the bodies that act on your behalf, it’s important that you stand up for those that do.

If you care about accountability in our government, it is imperative that you demand that those who are conducting the people’s business abide by the law, in everything they do.

When our elected officials violate the Bill of Rights and California State Law, they have violated their oath of office and clearly demonstrated that they are unfit to serve.

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

County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky talks back

Gadfly Arnold Sachs says he likes to "annoy the board"
by speaking on every agenda item. Photo by Daily News
A public comment of my own

January 24, 2012

For the past several weeks, a lot has been said and written about my proposal to modify the amount of time each member of the public is allotted for comment during our weekly Board of Supervisors meetings.

Unfortunately, much of that discussion has lacked balance, context and, at times, accuracy, thus serving mostly to misinform people about what I’d hoped to achieve upon becoming the board’s chairman in December. As a result, the prevailing narrative has become this: we on the Board of Supervisors believe that when it comes to our meetings, the public should be neither seen nor heard.

The most recent example of this was a lengthy story in Saturday’s Los Angeles Times. Appearing on the front page, it flatly and wrongly asserted that I think “members of the public talk too much” and mischaracterized fundamental elements of the proposal. Inexplicably, I was never asked for my comment, even though the piece was aimed squarely at me. Had I been asked to do so, readers would have come away with a fuller understanding of the issue.

The truth is I wish we had more public engagement. Our huge hearing room is often empty, despite the breadth and enormity of matters the board confronts every week. In this regard, we are not alone. Visit City Hall and you’ll find much the same. Recent coverage would have you believe that we want to yank the microphone on a public that’s clamoring to be heard. This is not the case.

Most weeks, the same tiny cadre of individuals speak on a multitude of agenda items—sometimes dozens of them in a single meeting. Under the current practice, they’re allowed to talk for two minutes on each item and then can speak for an additional three minutes at the end of the meeting on non-agenda matters. One of these so-called gadflies admitted to a Daily News reporter recently that he had signed up to talk on every agenda item simply to “annoy the board.”

Of course, this is his right—as it is the right of another of our regular speakers to participate in this weekly spectacle by repeatedly delivering the same racially-tinged diatribe against undocumented immigrants and reciting the names and addresses of those she alleges, without evidence, of being “gangbangers.”

But under California’s Ralph M. Brown Act, it’s also the right of government bodies to impose reasonable limits on public comment as a way to ensure a healthy balance among all stakeholders in the meeting process. All our local legislative bodies have rules to this effect, including the Los Angeles City Council. In this spirit, and at the suggestion of our County Counsel, I proposed that our rules be modified to give speakers a three-minute block to discuss their agenda items—rather than two minutes for each one—and two minutes at the end of the meeting for general comment.

While this might be a tight squeeze for the small number of gadflies bent on testifying about virtually every matter before us each week, we considered it a fair policy for the vast majority of people who, in good faith, take time out of their days to travel downtown and speak on the one or two issues that directly affect their lives.

Now, we’ve put the proposed changes on hold so that our county attorneys have time to correct misperceptions and explain the board’s motivation to concerned stakeholders as we move forward.
For those of you who’ve followed my time in public life, you know that I’ve been a consistently strong advocate of government transparency—a record that includes, among other things, my successful push to make board meetings available to a wider audience by having them webcast, televised and posted online with transcripts. As some of you may also remember, I authored Los Angeles’ first freedom of information act while serving on the City Council.

So I encourage you to join me at a Tuesday Board of Supervisors meeting and see for yourself what all the controversy is about. You be the judge. Take it from me, you can’t trust everything you read.

Posted 1/24/12