Wednesday, July 25, 2012

My First Nurse-In and the Right to Breastfeed in Public Places

CityWatch, July 24, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 59

RETHINKING LA - My wife Enci and I have marched in the streets, we’ve turned out with signs and picketed, we've Stormed the Bastille, ridden Critical Mass, and filibustered public meetings from the public speaker’s podium. We’ve gone to Sacramento, we’ve spoken Truth to Power, and along the way we’ve sat-in, stood-up and even laid-down in a die-in.

But this weekend was a first for us. We joined dozens of nursing moms and their families at a local restaurant for a Nurse-In, all in response to a recent incident when a nursing mom was asked to feed her child in the bathroom.
The original incident and the resulting Nurse-In both took place at Scarantino’s, a small family-owned and operated restaurant with a 45 year legacy that includes this mission statement; “We want our service to be such that every customer feels as welcomed guests in our home.”

A woman joined her family for a celebratory dinner and began nursing her child at the table. Another guest complained and an employee of the restaurant asked the nursing mom to leave the dining room for the more intimate bathroom.

Personally, I’ve never asked a guest in my home to eat in the bathroom and I can’t imagine how a nursing mom would consider herself a welcomed guest when banished from the dining room.

But of course, my opinion is simply my opinion.

More importantly, it’s the law and nursing moms have California Civil Code, Section 43.3, on their side. "Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a mother may breastfeed her child in any location, public or private, except the private home or residence of another, where the mother and the child are otherwise authorized to be present."

It takes two kinds of ignorance to ban a nursing mom from a public place. The first is simple ignorance of the law. The second is a far deeper form of ignorance, one that stigmatizes a natural and healthy practice that has been around a lot longer than the hang-ups that might motivate someone to complain when they see a mother nurse a child.

Nursing moms have been in the news a great deal of late, typically involved in incidents where an employee or security guard seizes that rare moment of power where they get to say “No! Put that Boob away!”

Denny’s was the subject of Nurse-Ins over the weekend, all in response to a mom who dared to nurse her child at the table with the rest of the family. LACMA recently incurred the wrath of LA’s increasingly larger community of nursing moms when a security guard asked a nursing mom to get a shroud or leave the public place.

Time magazine took on the subject and took the provocative route less traveled when it posted a nursing mom on the cover along with her three-year old son.

The decision to nurse a child is a huge commitment that includes positioning a growing child’s nutritional needs as the driving force that determines schedules and nursing activity.

Nursing moms experience a formula-centric environment that views the lactating breast as an affront to all that is perfect about our upside-down prioritized culture.

When Enci and I made our first visit to the Pediatrician, we were given a lovely gift bag that turned out to be filled with formula and formula accessories. Liquid formula, powdered formula, small bottles, flat bottles, large bottles, bottle warmers, bottle coolers, bottle insulators, and it all matched.

Missing from this generous bag of support was a list of foods that encourage a lactating mom and a list of foods that interfere with lactation.

It wasn’t until we did our own research that we discovered that Enci should be eating more oats, ginger, avocado, dates, and coconut milk. We navigated the course on our own as we uncovered all of the “anti-plactagogues” that are common in our diet, including parsley, peppermint, spearmint, and sage.

Imagine that! So many foods that interfere with lactation and not a word from our corporate sponsored Pediatrician.

As for Scarantino’s, the Nurse-In took place on the sidewalk and in the restaurant.

The sidewalk was covered with playmats and families made themselves at home with children, toys, and nursing moms and happy babies. On such a busy street, the sidewalk took on a festive mood not typical of protest actions. There were protest signs and the mom who suffered the original insult was there, refusing to spend another dime at Scarantino’s until she received an apology.

Inside the busy restaurant, the tables were full, and nursing moms were the dominant force in the noisy dining room.

Three elderly guests who arrived in the middle of the Nurse-In sat down next to us with a grumble, advising the manager that perhaps it was time to call the police on those who blocked the sidewalk. They quickly dropped the subject when it came time to order and proceeded to grill the waiter on the ingredients of dishes, explaining that they all had very specific dietary restrictions.

I couldn’t help but wonder how long it will be before waiters are as sensitive to the diet of lactating moms as they are to the dietary restrictions of seniors, but that is for another day.

Baby Sydney charmed our geriatric neighbors and we enjoyed a very delightful and delicious dinner, complemented by excellent service, and not an eyebrow was raised as nursing children throughout the dining room enjoyed their meals along with their families and strangers alike.

To quote a mom, “It was a delicious protest!”

It was also much more. It was successful.

The manager involved in the initial incident admitted that he didn’t know the law and acknowledged that he broke the law. He added that he didn’t want litigation. He stepped outside and approached the mom who was originally asked to use the bathroom when nursing her child and he apologized, getting a hug in return and earning a great deal of respect from those who watched him swallow his pride and treat the moms as if they were welcomed guests in his home.

Enci enjoyed the community of nursing moms and found the protest to be an uplifting and positive experience. Sydney made some new friends and left his first protest happy and well-fed. As for me, I was thrilled to participate in civil disobedience that revolved around a dining table, one that was loaded with such a delicious Italian meal.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Rumors of the Brown Act’s Demise are Greatly Exaggerated

CityWatch, July 17, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 57

NEIGHBORHOODS LA - California’s financial woes resulted in a state budget that failed to fund the Brown Act mandate that specifies 72 hour posting of agendas, resulting in a statute that lacks enforcement teeth. This passive suspension of the Brown Act posting requirement has caused many to wonder if the City Council and the Neighborhood Councils were now permitted to conduct the people’s business without notifying the public. The answer is “No.”

LA’s City Council is bound by many levels of authority, from Federal to State to local, and when all else fails, it is their own rules that specify: Rule #76 - The Agenda for each regular meeting of a Council Committee shall be posted at least 72 hours before the meeting. It shall contain a brief general description of each item of business to be transacted or discussed at the meeting. (This rule can’t be suspended by the City Council)

LA’s Neighborhood Councils are also bound by many levels of authority and when all else falls short or fails to address an issue, it is the bylaws that govern the actions of the Council.

This past Friday, a Neighborhood Council President magnanimously declared that in spite of California’s suspension of the Brown Act requirement to post agendas 72 hours in advance of a meeting, the Council would continue to honor the Brown Act provisions out of a commitment “to serving our stakeholders in a transparent, open and inclusive manner.”

The press release failed to note that the Council’s bylaws require the Council to exceed the Brown Act’s requirements for posting agendas, demonstrating that the Brown Act is just one of many layers of authority that govern the actions of Neighborhood Councils.

California’s Brown act amounted to just 686 words when it was introduced to the California Legislature by Ralph M. Brown in 1953. Since then it has grown significantly and along the way, California passed 2004’s Prop 1A, known as Protection of Local Government Revenues, which required the State of California to pay the cost of all mandated requirements at the local level “or suspend their operation.”

Before Brown Act foes jump too high with joy, 2004 also saw the passage of Prop 59 which requires “right of access to information” with regard to government actions.

The brouhaha over the Brown Act and the actions of some local agencies that sent invoices to the State of California for actions that they would have already taken, specifically preparing agendas and then posting them, is simply a tempest in a teapot.

It has been said that “"Our character is what we do when we think no one is looking.”

In the case of LA’s City Council and Neighborhood Councils, our collective character is revealed by the fact that the debate is typically over what is the legal minimum rather than what is the maximum possible.

Terry Francke of CalAware has much more to say on the subject of California’s Brown Act suspension, including this “Good News, Bad News” prognosis.

“The good news is that the worst of the anxieties result from a hugely exaggerated understanding of what has happened and what the result might be.  The bad news is that the path to a permanent end to such crises is vulnerable to the same species of dubious economy trigger that caused the crises in the first place.   And an Assembly committee is using that trigger to make sure that the public gets no chance to end such situations.”

Francke points out that this isn’t the first time that an unfunded mandate resulted in the suspension of enforcement activity, but that the entire scenario has a solution that only requires the actions of some of LA’s local Assembly members, including Blumenfield, Gatto, Fuentes, Davis, Hall, Mitchell, and PĂ©rez.

The current dialogue on the Brown Act has turned out to be a character revealing exercise for the City Council and the neighborhood Councils, and most importantly, for the California Assembly members who have a simple solution in their hands, one that would result in a simple constitutional requirement: “Each public body shall provide public notice of its meetings and shall publicly disclose any action taken.”

LAPD Chalks Its Rubber Bullet Behavior Up to Vandalism

CityWatch, July 17, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 57

HOW LA’S DOWNTOWN ARTWALK BECAME A CRIME SCENE - When Lance Armstrong came to Los Angeles for a bike ride with 700 of his closest friends, the streets ran yellow with chalked messages of hope and encouragement. Mayor Villaraigosa and then City Council President Eric Garcetti stood in the middle of a heavily chalked Sunset Boulevard to welcome Lance to Hollywood and then the LAPD arrived, not to arrest the chalkers, but to escort the cyclists down Sunset and up Vine to the Ricardo Montalban Theatre.

Waiting inside were Ben Stiller, Ben Harper, Shepard Fairey, LiveStrong CEO Doug Ulman and Nike CEO Mark Parker. It was a night that celebrated the power of Art, Culture, and Sports in changing the world.

For the hundreds of people who couldn’t get inside the Theatre for the program, the streets were their canvas and they spent the evening leaving their mark with yellow chalk provided by LiveStrong.

The LAPD never objected. In fact their supportive presence lent an air of legitimacy to the activity, after all, it was just chalk.

About a month later, Jesus Castillo was riding his bike home from work when he was run down from behind by a drunk driver who pinned him against a parked car, backed up, and then drove away leaving Jesus to die on Glendale Boulevard in Echo Park.

Cyclists descended on the scene with a Ghost Bike and boxes of chalk, memorializing the tragic incident with a die-in ceremony and with chalked messages that filled Glendale Boulevard.

The LAPD were there in force, standing by as the press covered the event, under the watchful eye of Eric Garcetti’s Deputy.

The streets were yellow, the LAPD were mellow, and eventually everyone rode off into the night.

Chalking the streets is one of the most non-invasive mechanisms of communication available to the masses, it’s quiet, cheap, temporary, and it’s actually quite fun.

Doubters only have to look at events such as Park(ing)Day LA, ArtCycle, and the Olive Festival where children are thrilled to fill the streets with chalked artwork and adults marvel at the skills of the internationally recognized chalk artists who come from around the world to ply their trade, street chalking.

It’s against this backdrop that the LAPD’s actions of last week must be examined.

According to reports, OccupyLA protesters took up arms, in this case pastel chalk wrapped in paper with notes explaining their position, and the seeds of discontent were sown on the streets of Los Angeles during Downtown LA’s monthly Art Walk.

The LAPD responded, there was an acceleration of tension, a tactical alert was called, and the LAPD arrived from all over the city armed with less-than-lethal weapons which they unleashed on the crowd.

The LAPD Commander on the scene gave the command and LAPD officers fired rubber bullets, bean bags, and tear gas at the Art Walk crowd, many of whom claim they were caught in the midst of an action that came with no warning and no opportunity to evacuate.

As the debate over how a non-violent pastel chalk protest turned into a violent melee continues, a petition is circulating calling for an investigation into the LAPD’s heavy-handed handling of the incident.

At the heart of the matter is this simple question. How did the LAPD allow itself to be so easily goaded into less-than-lethal violence in the middle of a crowded public event?

When participants in an advertised Chalk Walk during a crowded Art Walk can so easily draw a violent response from the LAPD, it’s time to evaluate the performance of the professional peace officers responsible for the largest city in the most populated state in the most powerful country in the world.

As one chalker wrote: “Thanks for tainting the justice system.”

We really do deserve better!

Saturday, July 14, 2012

What NCs Learn from City Council: Some Good, Some Bad, Some Illegal

CityWatch, July 13, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 56

RETHINKING LA - Neighborhood Councils learn much from watching LA’s City Council in action, some of it good, some of it bad, and some of it illegal. For example, when the City Council doesn’t have a quorum of members present, it can’t start the meeting, setting up a charming situation where the City Council President twiddles his thumbs while the public grows restless. It has become tradition, in the City Council and subsequently in Neighborhood Councils, to fill this non-meeting time with announcements and public comment.

There are a few problems with this scenario.

The first is that the professionals who run the largest city in the most populated state in the most powerful country in the world can’t show up on time, leaving the public to watch as the City Council President send assistants to call Councilmembers, urging them to get to Council Chambers so that the City Council can convene the meeting.

There’s no greater insult to the public than to run the meetings with a stopwatch as a tool for controlling the public but as the same time forgive tardiness from the members. It’s an unacceptable double-standard.

The second is that the presiding officer has a charming habit of filling that non-quorum dead-air with announcements, public comment, and other “noise.” This may fill the dead air, but it also sends a clear message to those who have shown up to participate in the people’s business that their public comment won’t even make it to the traditional deaf ears, it will simply be directed at empty seats.

The third problem is that the City Council considers the “noise” that takes place as they scramble for a quorum as sufficient public comment to satisfy their Brown Act requirement to provide the public the opportunity to address the body during the meeting for public comment. It doesn’t.

This is where Neighborhood Councils find themselves imitating the City Council and then breaking the law.

The City Council and the Neighborhood Councils alike are required to agendize their meetings with four minimum elements that include public comment on items not on the agenda.

It’s not optional or suggested it’s required. When the Council finally reaches quorum is when the public gets its opportunity to speak, even if they’ve spoken before the meeting started.

If the Council finds itself pressed for time, that’s a limitation that is the responsibility of the Council, not the public and it is not justification for the Council to dispense with their mandate to provide the public with the opportunity to address the Council with public comment.

As for that “dead-air” time that takes place as the Council waits for a quorum, one way to deal with it would be to spend that time searching for members of the public who would like to occupy those empty seats. That would be a much better use of time, it would address the cavalier behavior of the non-quorum councils, and it would motivate tardy members to show up on time.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Want Better Press? Be Better Press

CityWatch, July 10, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 55

NEIGHBORHOOD COUNCILS - Jim Newton’s recent editorial in the LA Times paid tribute to a decade of Neighborhood Council struggle and stirred two responses from those embroiled in LA’s civic engagement battle.

Some folks were tickled to find LA’s Neighborhood Council system given a nod by Newton, a longtime observer of LA’s Charter reform movement and LA’s grassroots efforts to activate its “95 neighborhoods in search of a city.” Others were quick to criticize Newton, exclaiming “A column on NCs and no perspective from any one on an NC? Really?”

There are a couple of kinds of complaints that are common when it comes to coverage from the local press, “How come we can’t get any press?” and “You call that good coverage?”

When Newton takes a look at Neighborhood Councils and the last decade of civic engagement, he opines “they have yet to prove either as revolutionary as their backers hoped or as obstructionist as their opponents feared.”

He might have added that Neighborhood Councils are simply not good press.

One critic of Newton’s editorial takes him to task saying “To be blunt, I understand that rolodex reporting, strawmen conflicts, and he said/she said commentary is part and parcel of daily journalism; it is also why paid circulation of dailies has crashed.”

I would contend that if Neighborhood Councils want better press, they need to be better press and here are three ways to make that happen.

First, be available. A journalist with a deadline is hard pressed to quote Neighborhood Council leaders if they don’t take phone calls. Granted, there are typically email contacts on each Neighborhood Council website but print media works a little faster and anyone with a story to tell has a spokesperson who will take calls and forward information.

Neighborhood Councils that want great press need to be available.

Second, be quotable. Journalists, even the “he said/she said” variety, simply need quotes that want to be read. Neighborhood Commissioner Douglas Epperhart has been quoted more than a few times on many topics and he attributes it to his ability to speak in full sentences that include an interesting word. “It was great!” is not a newsworthy but “They were feisty and opinionated!” will turn up in print.

Neighborhood Councils that want great press need to be quotable.

Finally, be good press. Journalists love great stories, ones that feature a hero, a struggle, the risk of failure, and an against-all-odds outcome. If Neighborhood Councils want great press, they have to be great press. Be the story, tell the story, and cultivate a relationship with local journalists so that they call you when they are digging for information, when they need a quote, and when they are in search of the next big story.

In other words, some stories write themselves and if Neighborhood Councils want to get credit for their hard work, it is imperative that they become great press instead of simply standing by and wondering why they get left out.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Tweeting, Texting, Liking and Other Weapons of Mass Distraction

CityWatch, July 6, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 54

RETHINKING LA’S NC’S - If a group of Neighborhood Council leaders got together at the local library to discuss public business without inviting the public, it would constitute a violation of the Brown Act but it would hardly be grounds for closing the library. After all, the library wasn’t party to the crime, it was merely the scene of the crime.

The more appropriate action would be to address the people who engaged in the public’s business without posting agendas, inviting the public and adhering to the requirements of California’s Open Meeting law.

Imagine the same group of Neighborhood Council leaders getting together to celebrate Independence Day at a community BBQ where the conversation drifts into a discussion of business on the agenda for their upcoming Board meeting.

The actions of the community leaders would constitute a violation of the Brown Act but it would hardly justify a ban on BBQs or Independence Day parties. Again, the celebration wasn’t a party to the crime, it was just the reason for the gathering at which the crime was committed.

In both cases the Brown Act violations should be addressed by focusing on the people who are engaged in the illegal behavior, not on the library or BBQ where the acts took place.

When it comes to physical places, this seems like common sense, yet when the conversation shifts to the digital arena, common sense is not so common.

When Neighborhood Council leaders engage in digital violations of the Brown Act by participating in a Yahoo Group or a Google Group where they discuss Board business, it is not Yahoo or Google that is responsible for the crime, it is the participants.

And yet, Neighborhood Councils find themselves closing Yahoo Groups and Google Groups for fear that an illegal act will break out on their digital property, a fearful response that is the equivalent of closing libraries and banning celebrations to stop bad behavior.

Terry Francke of CalAware writes “The only concern of the Brown Act is that physical congregations or digital linkups, online or otherwise, not be used to build majority consensus about something the members should be reserving to meetings.”

Some of the best tools for engaging the public are in the digital arena but ignorance of the Brown Act and fear of violating the law have immobilized Neighborhood Council leaders to the point of absurdity, immobilizing outreach efforts in debates that are reminiscent of Morse Code vs Semaphore debates.

It’s not the tools that turn actions or inactions into Brown Act violations, it is the process of engaging in the people’s business without including the public. It’s that simple.

Francke points out that “Small rural school and special district boards all over the state, with not much if any more resources than a Neighborhood Council find they can get business done without violating the law.  I think it's a matter of adequate training and coaching by those who know about the Brown Act and care about the viability of NCs.”

Neighborhood Councils are engaged in an uphill battle to engage the public and now, more than ever, it is imperative that all the tools are available for communicating and publicizing agendas, meetings, and opportunities to get involved.

From word-of-mouth to flyers to online forums to social media, Neighborhood Councils need to employ the full quiver of communication tools if they are to fulfill their city charter mandate to “To promote more citizen participation in government and make government more responsive to local needs.”

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

LA Municipal Election Field Flooded with Neighborhood Council Veterans

CityWatch, July 3, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 53

RETHINKING LA - Jim Newton, Editor at Large of the LA Times, contends that Neighborhood Councils “have yet to prove either as revolutionary as their backers hoped or as obstructionist as their opponents feared.”

Newton’s editorial offers his perspective as a journalist who covered the Charter Reform Commission during the days when Neighborhood Councils were in equal parts - City Hall threat and grassroots appeasement. Since those days of promise, Neighborhood Councils have struggled for their identity, for their survival, and for their relevance.

City Hall and the media seem to have a common approach to judging the success of Neighborhood Councils, one that has existed since the beginning and is based on the impact of their advisory role.

This focus on the original purpose of Neighborhood Councils has interfered with an appraisal of Neighborhood Councils based on an unintended outcome, one with greater ramifications and potential impact than the Charter Commission anticipated or predicted.

LA’s municipal elections are scheduled for March 5, 2013 and the field is flush with Neighborhood Council veterans, people who cut their political teeth fighting in the local trenches.

Cary Brazeman of Mid City West Community Council and Ron Galperin of Bel Air Beverly Crest Neighborhood Council are vying for the City Controller’s office, both armed with experience they picked up as local advocates fighting to engage their community and hold government accountable.

Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council has fielded two candidates for City Council with William Morrison running for CD1 and Manuel Aldana Jr. running for CD9.

The West Valley’s Council District 3 is well represented by candidates that mastered the City Hall ropes in their roles as Neighborhood Council Presidents. Cary Iaccino, Chairman of the Reseda Neighborhood Council, and Joyce Pearson, former President of the Woodland Hills Warner Center Neighborhood Council, both reached a point where they claim that the only option was to run for office.

Council District 13, Mayoral Candidate Eric Garcetti’s home for the last 12 years, is a hotbed of Neighborhood Council candidates, running in the most crowded field of the eight City Council seats up for election.

Jose Sigala, President of Greater Echo Park Elysian Neighborhood Council, Scott Crawford of the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council, Rueben Martinez of the Atwater Village Neighborhood Council, and Sam Kbyshyan of the East Hollywood Neighborhood Council are all running in a clear demonstration that the Neighborhood Councils have gone beyond the original mandate.

Adding gravitas to the CD13 race is performance of Alexander Cruz De Ocampo of Greater Griffith Park Neighborhood Council who was the first to raise $50,000 and the appearance of BongHwan “BH” Kim, General Manager of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, in the race.

Neighborhood Councils may still struggle with the Brown Act, with agendas, and with Community Impact Statements, but perhaps that floundering activity has had a refining impact on the participants, honing the rough edges and preparing them for City Hall and the opportunity to put their local sensitivities to work on larger issues that median strip cleanups and budget recommendations.

City Hall insiders have long learned that courting Neighborhood Councils is essential to moving forward and now that election season is underway, it’s hard not to find Assembly, Senate, Mayoral and Council candidates on the Neighborhood Council trail, swearing their allegiance to local leadership and promising eternal connectivity and access.

The crowded Mayoral race includes perennial candidate YJ Draiman of the Northridge East Neighborhood Council and Kevin James who spent years partnering with Neighborhood Councils on issues such as Measure B and Budget LA and giving them a voice on his radio show.

As the critics ponder the future of Neighborhood Councils and contemplate their relevance, the fact that they have given birth to so many candidates for municipal office that bears witness to their true potential and capacity for shaping the dialogue and bringing the neighborhoods to City Hall.