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2016 will offer some local drama to Los Angeles complementing the spectacle of the national elections.

In what may be the most far-reaching ballot measure of this century, the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative will affect how the city does business with developers. The backers have targeted the November ballot.

I sat down with Jill Stewart last Saturday to get some insight and clarity on the measure (follow the link to the text). She is the campaign manager for the initiative.  She felt the objectives were important enough for the good of the city that she resigned as managing editor of the LA Weekly to lead the effort.

It is an understatement to say anything to do with land use is a very technical subject; therefore, this article is only a start in understanding the complexities.  I hope to discuss it further with Stewart and others.

In her view, spot general plan amendments are creating congestion and reducing affordable housing.

Today, such amendments are granted on a piecemeal (spot) basis. They could lead to spurious, disjointed development.

She explained that this approach favored the financial return to a developer over the needs of the residents.  Contiguous areas generally lose their character as a hodgepodge of architectural styles and transformation of demographics replace the harmonious nature of established neighborhoods, which is what happens when the current residents and businesses are banished. The high-density nature of these one-off projects almost assures congestion.  Even when situated close to a major transit route, the occupants are unlikely to give up their cars in numbers sufficient to reduce traffic. If anything, there will be more cars as the neighborhood population increases.

In addition, the number of affordable units are low in relation to the total.

From my own experience, I have witnessed the displacement of middle-class residents as a result of projects with density bonuses granted under SB1818.  The bonus is in return for the developer setting aside a few units as affordable.  Unfortunately, the buildings which were replaced contained far more affordable units.  For the record, the affordable units that were destroyed in my community were not substandard. They lacked the bells and whistles of newer units, but they were very livable and within reach of most budgets. Recently passed AB2222 closed the gap somewhat, but projects built under spot amendments are another matter.

She emphasized the importance of “significant areas” in determining how and if a general plan amendment could be approved. Amendments must encompass an area which, as defined in the measure, has significant social, economic or physical identity. That translates to an entire community, district plan or specific plan area, an entire neighborhood council, or an area not less than 15 acres.

Stewart believes this allows ample leverage to address blighted areas. Carefully planned amendments could offer a coordinated revitalization process over wide swaths (as opposed to disparate projects).

One controversial action if the measure is approved involves an up to two-year moratorium on amendments (unless required by the Department of Building and Safety). A staff person for a Council Member expressed concern if this should happen. He told me it would probably kill a major deal that’s in the early stages.

According to Stewart, the moratorium is designed to allow a systematic review the General Plan (this review will be performed periodically as a requirement under Section 5 of the proposal). It appears to me that this would amount to an undertaking which would likely attract the attention of every conceivable interest group with a stake in the city. The review could be as important as passing the measure itself

She indicated that the city’s current approach to development has pushed the working class farther out, created a boom-or-bust construction economy, and replaced industrial zones with gentrified communities.

Developers or their agents will not be allowed to prepare Environmental Impact Reports (EIR) under the measure’s rules.  This will eliminate a blatant conflict of interest. Only the public’s lead agency can prepare the report, recovering the cost from the applicant.

As I see it, the current system invites widespread corruption. There are simply insufficient checks and balances. Spot amendments can serve as the liquid currency of municipal political quid pro quo and create temptation some officials find irresistible. This is one reason why former mayor Richard Riordan is supporting the initiative.

Council Members trade amendments for contributions.  According to Stewart (and consistent with Riordan’s observations), the net result of these deals are higher rents. So-called affordable units are priced starting at $3,000 per month.

Stewart plans to develop a web of supporters representing a diverse cross-section of residents and interest groups to educate the public, collect signatures and otherwise promote the initiative.  Her background as a journalist for a widely-read publication seems well-suited for reaching out to the many component groups of Los Angeles. She anticipates the full-court challenge the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative will face from elected officials and their allies.

So much needs to be shared with the public. Case studies providing clear examples of what to expect would be most helpful.

There will be much more to come on this subject, from any number of sources.

Reform is needed; the initiative could be a catalyst to that end. It deserves our attention.

The Ratepayer Advocate is supposed to be in the vanguard of DWP reform efforts.

Fred Pickel can’t even find the rear.

To make matters worse, a proposal for substantial reforms is coming from an unlikely source – Felipe Fuentes, a council member whose motive to eschew reelection is the subject of speculation.

Fuentes is proposing a ballot measure that would change the structure and practices of the DWP: replacing the volunteer Board of Commissioners, currently appointed by the mayor, with a full-time professional board comprised of industry experts; capping the surplus transfer to the city’s general fund, possibly making it a source for capital improvements and maintenance; eliminating the civil service protections enjoyed by DWP employees.

The new Board of Commissioners would have the power to hire and fire general managers as well as approve rate hikes.

These are reforms Pickel should have been publicly advocating from day one.

On the surface, this is all very good, but we need to know more about the selection process for board members and a clear definition of their powers vs. the roles of the City Council and mayor.

It is possible that Pickel may have had some input in Fuentes’ proposed changes, but I doubt he was the driving force behind it. He is simply not an advocate for change.

As always, the devil is in the details. For one thing, there is no mention of the utility tax, particularly as to whether it is applied to rate increases.

If Fuentes’ measure truly creates a utility relatively free of political tampering, where the board can get rid of under-performing GMs and hire ones who can rid the management ranks of incompetents, where independent analysis is the norm, then perhaps the position of Ratepayer Advocate can be eliminated, not that we ever had one.

 

 

Benedict Arnold betrayed our nation, but at least he accomplished significant good before he strayed down the dark path of treachery. He saved the Continental Army from certain defeat during the retreat from the failed invasion of Canada, skillfully parrying British efforts to destroy it. His leadership at Saratoga led to the most important strategic victory for the colonists and was a major factor in drawing France into the conflict. French assistance was vital in George Washington’s overwhelming victory over the British at Yorktown.

Ratepayer Advocate Fred Pickel sold the ratepayers and stakeholders of the DWP up the Yazoo without so much as contributing to the public’s awareness of just why rates must be increased. 

His statement declaring DWP’s proposed series of rate increases as “fair and reasonable” has provided the DWP and its GM, Marcie Edwards, with a public relations windfall. 

The following press release was issued by the DWP on January 15:

We are pleased that the Ratepayer Advocate has found that the power rate request to be “just and reasonable,” as it will invest in replacing aging infrastructure, which is critical to providing reliable electric service to our customers. If the Board of Water and Power Commissioners and the City Council approve the rate request, it  will allow us to continue the transformation of our power system to a clean energy future that protects the environment, while complying with regulatory mandates.

We have included key performance metrics and regular public reporting of our progress in the proposed power rate ordinance as recommended by the Ratepayer Advocate, and we are pleased that his report recognized that this will increase transparency and accountability by linking rates to the progress and performance of key programs. We are also grateful that the Ratepayer Advocate recognized that the Department has been instrumental in supporting the design and inclusion of the reporting mechanisms in the rate ordinances, referring to LADWP’s support and actions as, “unprecedented and a reflection of a more mature and sustainable management practices.”

Dr. Pickel’s independent review of the rate request is valuable, and we are reviewing his additional recommendations. We look forward to consideration of the power rate action by the Board of Water & Power Commissioners next Tuesday (January 19) and consideration of both water and power rates proposals by the City Council and Mayor thereafter.

Fred Pickel has never bothered to reach out to the media and the public about the need for reform at the utility. The hundreds of millions of dollars siphoned to the city’s poorly managed general fund at the expense of ignoring much needed capital improvements and maintenance to our water and power system should have been at the top of his agenda.

He should have been battling the City Council over the continuation of this backdoor tax and publicly disclosed how much it has diverted from the primary task of maintaining infrastructure.

He should have raised a giant red flag about the conflict of interest evident in DWP labor negotiations.  As long as the IBEW and its members can contribute to city election campaigns, the ratepayers will never have fair representation.

He should have emphasized the steady increases DWP employees received during the recession when the residents were taking pay cuts. 

He can analyze the numbers all he wants – and that is a job that must be performed – but the results lack meaning when taken out of context of the bigger issue of reform. In his report issued January 15th, the same date as the DWP press release, he attempted to couch his characterization of the increases as “fair and reasonable” in officialdom-speak:

Reasonableness is an opinion held by rate-setting public officials performing a specialized duty to the public interest. The essence of this opinion is whether the rates charged are equitable to the many competing interests facing a monopoly utility.”

Nice to know how public officials interpret the meaning, but how about the public’s perspective?

Edwards wasted no time in using Pickel words to promote the city’s objectives. She should have paid him. Endorsements like that are worth money.

Pickel can redeem himself if he counters the DWP’s press release with a very public and unambiguous statement criticizing Marcie Edwards and her masters for leveraging his ill-conceived, and apparently nuanced, “fair and reasonable” characterization of the rate increases.

If not, it is time for the Neighborhood Councils to issue a statement of “no confidence” in Doctor Pickel’s ability to represent the public.

 

 

There is no debate that dealing with homelessness will cost big money.

For Los Angeles, either a bond measure or tax would be required, but a super-majority of voters would have to approve it.

According to Council Member Mike Bonin, as reported in the LA Times, “I think if we can show that we have an actual strategy, they’d be willing to invest in it.”

That’s an understatement.

There would be plenty of sentiment in favor of providing shelter and services for the homeless in our city.  Arguably, it is the largest segment of its kind in the nation – and growing.  The problem is no longer confined to freeway underpasses and rundown industrial corridors. People are camping in city parks and near public buildings in full view of all.

Closer to my home, the vicinity of North Hollywood Park, near the Amelia Earhart Regional Library, has become a magnet for RVs and blue tarps. This was not the case, at least the current scale of habitation, not that many years ago.

But what strategy should be implemented?

Voters will not be in the mood to throw $2 billion at the crisis without safeguards guaranteeing the funds will be applied effectively, with the most bang for the bucks.

The most important objective is recognizing the limits of such a financial commitment.  Not everyone in the homeless population will benefit.  A strategy that attempts to address all segments will fail.

Just as emergency medical responders employ triaging in dealing with victims of a disaster, housing and other assistance will have to  initially target those who can benefit the most; others will have to wait or acquiesce to scaled down support.

On the lowest rung of the homeless ladder are those who do not wish to leave the street life behind.  They include the mentally ill, substance abusers and just the hard core who want to be left alone. Unless laws are passed making forced institutionalization possible, some persons will always choose life on the sidewalks.  Even with institutionalization, we would need the facilities, not to mention the staff and medical services to operate them. $2 billion would barely make a dent. Sadly, this is not a practical option.

The priority must be to rescue the ones who can – and want to be helped.

They amount to a very diverse group, in various levels of need. A one-size-fits-all solution will not work.

Traditional affordable or subsidized apartments are not for everyone.  Only those who are responsible enough to care for their accommodations should be eligible to occupy them.

Dormitories could be an option for those who will need acclimation to a structured life.  Supervision, security, education and medical services will be essential.  Underutilized city or county properties might be good choices for constructing dorms or repurposing existing facilities.

Lastly, we could consider tried-and-true campgrounds as short-term solutions.  The National Guard could design and construct camps. If we can house military personnel in tent cities in war zones, we can certainly create livable encampments in the greater metropolitan area.

The more realistic a plan the city can offer, the more likely the voters will support it.

The city must also consider offsetting the cost to some degree.  The most sizable piece of the general fund is compensation.  Retirement benefits have grown from 10% of the general fund to 20% in just 10 years.  That trend must be reversed, more so now in view of helping the homeless without disproportionately burdening the taxpayers.

 

 

 

 

The issues of utility rate increases, homelessness, street paving and sidewalk repairs dominated 2015 on our local scene.

Has anyone seen reform at the DWP?

Mayor Garcetti was swept into office over two years ago, in part because of the blatant support for his opponent by Bryan D’Arcy, boss of  the DWP’s powerful IBEW Local 18 union.

His election raised hope for long-overdue reform at the largest municipal utility in the nation, one that has been so badly managed by City Hall appointees and corrupted by D’Arcy’s grip on elected officials.

It was false hope. His pick for the DWP’s GM, Marcie Edwards, did nothing to institute change; no one was fired for the IT atrocities that caused so much woe for many ratepayers – and has still not been resolved. She also sided with Bryan D’Arcy in the non profit audit controversy, showing contempt and disrespect for City Controller Ron Galperin, the only one in the city who has shown resolve in dealing with the incompetence and corruption at the utility.

Galperin has received no support from other elected officials.

Dr. Fred Pickel, the Ratepayer Advocate has been no help at all.  The only advocating he has done has been on behalf of DWP’s management.

Rates are going up, but cost control is absent.  Compensation at DWP should be frozen and the surplus transfer to the city should be ended, until infrastructure is upgraded.

It won’t happen because the City Council will bend to D’Arcy in the next round of wage negotiations.

Homelessness is much talked about, but the city only knows about promising big dollars to address the spreading crisis.  The number of homeless has grown by 12% since Garcetti took office.

A $100 million commitment for 2016’s budget will not go far if Garcetti and company pursue their pro-developer strategy that reduces affordable housing.  For every new unit created, there will likely be one eliminated. That’s not progress.

There is no commitment to attracting employers who offer middle-class jobs.  It’s all well and good to attract high-tech jobs, but most do not have the skills to fill those positions.  They are likely to employ as many outside the city as they do residents.

A lack of middle-class jobs will shift more people into the working class poor category.  These people will require rent subsidies to survive in an increasingly hot rental market, further undermining efforts to deal with homelessness.

The city finally made a commitment to repair streets and sidewalks, but it took a lawsuit. The settlement requires the city to invest $1.4 billion over the next 30 years to cover repairs.  That’s not as robust as it seems since costs will escalate over that span of time, due in part to contract awards that will likely favor well-connected labor unions. That’s business as usual in LA.

Only when all of these problems boil over and directly affect the everyday lives of a majority of residents will you see pushback and a voter revolt. Even then, I wonder if that will be enough to break the cycle of apathy that passes for participation.

 

 

 

 

 

America’s Putin

Russian premier Vladimir Putin recently lavished praise on Donald Trump.

It came as no surprise to most.  Loose canons stick together.

There are some looser than these two, but I would be hard-pressed to name a more dangerous duo with the potential of controlling the two mightiest military powers in the world.

In a way, it does not seem logical for Putin to warm up to Trump.  Trump’s tough talk about making our rivals fear us should create tension between Russia and the US, especially when the former desires to reclaim its old glory.  Both nations would seem to be on a collision course with both of them in power.

So what is the nascent bond between them all about?

Plain and simple – hatred of President Obama.

Policies built on hate never end well.  Just look at  Germany in World War 2.

Perhaps only Bernie Sanders or Dr. Ben Carson would make an equally disturbing pairing with Vlad the Sociopath. The two of them rank near the top of the most-clueless-in-foreign-policy poll with the Donald.

There is a difference, though.  Carson and Sanders are passive-clueless.  That is, they would tend to not take decisive action in the international arena when  necessary.  Trump is active-clueless.  He would take action when none was called for. Either way, the results would not be pretty.

However, it’s a moot point.

None of the three will earn their party’s nomination.

They will continue to make noise, though, until either the money runs out or the public tires of them.

And Vlad will still find himself isolated and without a buddy.

 

 

The so-called Ratepayer Advocate, the one charged with watching the backs of the LADWP’s captive customers, just announced that the utility’s proposed water rate increases are “fair and reasonable.”

No one doubts that billions of dollars in capital improvements and for developing processes will be necessary to maintain a reliable source of water and an efficient distribution system.  Taken out of context, we could nod our heads in agreement with that prospect and move on.

 

If Doctor Pickel were a true ratepayer advocate, he would have qualified his “just and reasonable” assessment.

Anyone can crunch numbers – and Pickel, if nothing else, is a good number cruncher, not to mention a subject matter expert in the field.

As an advocate, he had an obligation to emphasize what the utility has failed to do, which contributed to where we are today.

The Daily News reported that  DWP’s average monthly residential water bill was the fifth most expensive out of 13 peer utilities in California and Arizona, and the residential electric bill was the sixth most expensive out of nine agencies.

That’s squarely in the top half.

What do we have to show for it but aging infrastructure, Stone Age IT systems that create customer service havoc and a work force that is the highest paid in the city and 25% higher than peers in both public and private utilities.

Of course there is also the transfer of surplus electric power revenue from the DWP to the city’s general fund – running around $250 million per year. That’s money that could defray the rate increase.

In response to the recently released study of the DWP by Navigant Consulting, City Controller Ron Galperin criticized the utility about its lack of transparency and accountability, not to mention its politicization.

I would extend that criticism to Pickel.  He did not address the underlying reasons for why infrastructure investment has languished. He is fully aware of the points outlined earlier in this article.  To bless the rate increase while avoiding past and current practices that divert or reduce sources of funds is negligent.

He is clearly a deer in the headlights when facing City Hall.

No one ever said being a public advocate of any sort is easy.  Speaking frankly will subject you to the ire of officials.  It might even result in the loss of your appointment.

That’s the risk an advocate must take if the public’s interest  is to be served. If you are risk-averse, it is not the right career choice.

Pickel does not get it. He should offer to take a cut in pay and work for a real advocate, one who can energize the public.

Without public pressure, the status quo at the DWP will continue.

 

 

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