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Archive for October, 2010

KCET featured a report on the upcoming election.

The opening segment was an analysis of the Brown-Whitman race. 

The final segment was devoted to Props 20 and 27 and starts about 17 minutes into the video (please follow the link).  It is not complementary toward Howard Berman and his brother Michael, the architects behind 27’s attempt to keep redistricting in the hands of political hacks.  The brothers declined to be interviewed.

At last week’s meeting of the Neighborhood Council Valley Village, a local employee of  Congressman Berman stated that Prop 27 would prevent the use of  “Jim Crow” tactics in drawing lines (she used the term Jim Crow).

That argument  amounts to hypocrisy. As I mentioned in a previous article, and what the So Cal Connected segment reinforced, Berman orchestrated a shift of Latino voters to head off a primary challenge by a Latino candidate.  I suppose Mr. Berman must use a very narrow definition of Jim Crow.

The staffer was working from a list of arguments provided by backers of 27 and was not in a position to take questions; however, I did refute them. 

One of the other reasons on the list implied that civilians were amateurs and could not be trusted to perform redistricting.

Uh, have you seen the current district maps?  So Cal Connected did an excellent job of graphically displaying their contorted shapes – they were drawn by the pros; not amateurs. 

I’ll give the amateurs a shot.  They are more likely to be sensitive to logical community and geographic lines.

Perhaps Congressman Berman should focus more on creating jobs rather than protecting his own.  Pushing 27 while the country and region are shedding jobs adds insult to the public’s injury.

Vote NO on 27.

Vote YES on 20.

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Several members of the Neighborhood Council Valley Village met with foreign officials, academics and members of the media from the Middle East on Friday night in Valley Village.

The visitors were Dr. Othman Salman Ghilan Al-Aabudi (Deputy Director, Legal department, Council of Ministers Secretariat of Iraq), Dr. Mohammed Hamza Jarallah (Deputy Governor- Administration, Bagdad Governorate), Mr. Khaled Khalaf Al Shammari (Mayor, Ma’an Greater Municipality, Maan, Jordan), Dr. Tarik Tlaty (University Professor, School of Law, Hassan II University, Mohammedia, Morocco), Mr. Mahmoud S B Barham (Manager, Nablus TV, Palestinian Territories), Mr. Mohamed Yahya Salem Azan (General Manager of Sa’ada local radio, Yemen).

An interpreter from the U S State Department was on hand.

Representing NCVV were Jeff Walker (City Services Committee), Charles Sulahian (Business representative), Suzanne Lewis (Projects), Steven Stokes (Communications), Ginny Hatfield (Vice President and Elections) and me.

The dignitaries were visiting the United States to learn about state, local and federal government practices as part of a program sponsored by the International Visitor Leadership Program .  They had already spent time in Washington, DC and Manchester, New Hampshire.

Members of Neighborhood Council Valley Village briefed them on the grassroots aspects of the neighborhood councils, our council’s committee structure, along with the workings of city, county and state government.

I explain taxation and government finances

I explained the system of taxation and financial challenges faced at the local and state levels.

I only wish we had the entire day to meet with these gentlemen and learn more about the challenges they face.

The meeting left us with a positive impression.  So often, we are exposed to stories of discord and conflict from that part of the world, but here were six representatives who were dedicated to learn about us and our practices, in the spirit of cooperation and friendship.

That shouldn’t come as a surprise – no matter what political differences may exist among nations, the basic ongoing demands of managing governments, education and information are the same throughout most of the world.

We all benefit from grassroots contacts with our counterparts.

We hope to have further dialog with these fine people.

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Diamond Peak, Incline Village, NV, Oct 30, 2010

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Up until today, I had no interest in the campaign for the 43rd Assembly District. 

It is a contest between two unremarkable candidates: Mike Gatto and Sunder Ramani.

What got my attention today was the announcement that the Gatto campaign threatened Michael Higby’s Mayor Sam website with a lawsuit.

According to the Glendale News-Press, Gatto alleged that the popular Mayor Sam blog published “defamatory” material about him and threatened to sue the site if the posts were not taken down.

I recall glancing at the posts, written by Mayor Sam contributor Scott Johnson; they made no impression on me and I did not even consider the veracity of the content.  I am not about to speculate now.

However, the posts appeared to be no more or less credible than the typical campaign ads flooding the airways.

I don’t see any lawsuits flying back and forth over their content.

Even if Mr. Gatto’s allegations have a basis, waving the threat of a lawsuit like the proverbial bloody shirt gives him the appearance of being over-sensitive and an opponent of free speech.

Oh, there is much for him to be upset with – the posts do not paint a pretty picture – but threatening litigation at the eleventh hour comes across as an act of desperation designed to deflect allegations rather than address them head-on.

I discount almost any sensational story I read in a blog unless there is corroboration from other sources.  Most sensible people do.  Gatto ‘s concerns, then,  are misplaced.  Most politicians worth their salt would blow this stuff off, whether there was an ounce of truth or not behind it.

If anything, if he is certain that the articles are libelous, he should have plenty of material to write a categorical rebuttal and have Higby publish it.

A well-composed, scathing response can do more to win support than using the “L” word against a party unable to fund a defense.  You can cut an opponent off at the knees with words more effectively than with the threat of legal action.

If an impulsive threat of litigation is Mike Gatto’s approach to conflict resolution, then perhaps he is not the person we want in the Assembly.

Here’s my challenge to Gatto:  if you believe you were wronged, drop the lawsuit talk and write a hard-hitting rebuttal – you don’t even have to be polite.  If Johnson’s assertions are half-baked, you should have no trouble discrediting them and him.  Assuming you make a solid case, it could even mean the end of his days as a blogger.  It would also enhance your credentials.

On the other hand, hiding behind the veil of a lawsuit gives the appearance of arrogance and stonewalling.  It may cast doubt about you.

What will it be?

American author Ambrose Bierce, who wrote one of my favorite short stories, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (which also inspired a Twilight Zone episode) defined litigation as “ a machine which you go into as a pig and come out of as a sausage.”

Words to remember, Mr. Gatto.

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At tonight’s Neighborhood Council Valley Village meeting, a pro-prop 19 message was presented by a supporter of legalized marijuana.

Prior to tonight, I had not given the measure much thought. Admittedly, I was (and still am) uncomfortable with it.

I was not even going to make a public comment on the subject tonight until the presenter hit the wrong button – he claimed legalization would raise about a billion dollars in tax revenue and would help fund education, just as the lottery did.  That’s two lies in a single sentence.

I laid into him.

Raise a billion in tax revenues for a product virtually impossible to source.

Right.

The state cannot even chase down the tax revenue owed it from out-of-state sales over the internet.  And those sales have a trail!

Help fund education?  Do you really believe the legislature would channel any of the revenue to education?  Don’t forget that every new dollar to the schools from the lottery was offset by cuts.

What’s more, there is no viable plan on the table to monitor and control the distribution.

As with the revenue assumptions in the state budget, this one is built on smoke.

The presenter also claimed that local governments would assist in the collection of the taxes. 

I reminded him how reliable our local officials are on handling finances.  We can’t even collect fines owed the city.

There are other causes for concern regarding 19.  Will California become the cartels’ forward distribution center for the rest of the country?  Will we have adequate law enforcement resources to keep them out? How will we assure that the product is safe?

Prop 19 is putting the cart before the horse.

I will vote NO, not because I oppose ultimate legalization, but because of the potential for opening Pandora’s Box without a plan for dealing with the potential consequences…and there will be consequences.

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Kerry Cavanuagh of the Los Angeles Daily news wrote two excellent columns on the dire effect  public sector pensions are having on LA County and City budgets.

She hit the nail on the head in both columns, but came to the wrong conclusion on one point.  She suggested that a 401K style plan for new employees would not save as much as a reformed defined benefit plan.

She stated the rationale for her conclusion:

“The city’s pension proposals would only affect future hires, since existing employee benefits are protected under law. And that’s why pensions end up being cheaper than installing a 401(k) system. Los Angeles is still responsible for funding and bailing out the pension systems that serve existing employees and retirees. If L.A. created a separate 401(k) system for new hires, those employees would not pay into the pension system.”

“The city would have a growing liability of pension-collecting retirees, but fewer and fewer people paying into the system. The city would be responsible for ensuring the pension funds are solvent. Eventually, pensioners would die out and then the 401(k) option would realize cost savings, but that would be decades away.”

There is a term for what she described – a Ponzi scheme.  That’s where current contributions are used to cover the accrued benefits or entitlements for former participants.

Many have accused the Social Security System as being the largest Ponzi scheme in the history of the world.  While technically true, there is an important difference between Social Security and other public defined benefit plans.

Congress can amend Social Security benefit calculations and criteria without negotiating with unions. 

Yes, there would be political flack if the retirement age was raised and contributions were increased, but it seems that most Americans are resigned to that.

Consider the recent announcement that there would be no COLA for a second year in a row for SSA beneficiaries.  Sure, people were not happy with the news, but there will be little political capital lost as a result this November.

Try getting city and county unions to make meaningful concessions here.  The politicians would not chance it for fear of losing their primary source of support.  Instead, only symbolic reforms will be considered.

According to Ms. Cavanaugh’s article, the city pays almost $9,000 per year, per employee under the current defined benefit plan.  By comparison, a 401K plan for new hires would amount to $4,635 per head.

Granted, the city is not doing a lot of hiring these days and it would take decades for the defined contribution plan to yield the savings we need.  However, to use that as an excuse for not creating a new tier covered by such a plan is shortsighted.

Why?

The current system is bleeding the city to death.  It will lead to our demise if it is allowed to continue.  At some point, we will have to pay the piper big time to not only bail it out, but continue to pay in order to sustain it beyond that point.

That’s not a solution.  It’s a slow but steady death – maybe not too slow.

We need to cut our losses now and prepare to finance the unfunded liability created by the sheer momentum of the current plan participants. Even that will be painful, but we are dealing with a cancer that must not be allowed to metastasize. We will eventually reach a tipping point beyond which recovery will be impossible without bankruptcy.

According to the Segal Company study cited by Cavanaugh:

“A reformed plan would cost $2,273 per employee. Reformed, in this case, would mean increasing the retirement age to 62 and penalizing workers who retire earlier, increasing employee pension and retiree health care contributions and imposing a major cut of retiree health care subsidies.”

“… those changes would cut city liability for new employees by 75 percent. And they would increase worker contributions by 44 percent.”

We will get significant concessions from the unions when pigs fly.

Also, what was the rate of return on investments assumed by Segal – 8%, a rate considered unsustainable by many experts including Warren Buffet?  Cavanuagh does not state what rate Segal used.  I would think if it were measurably less than 8%, it would have been disclosed in the study. Segal assumed an 8% return in the last plan evaluation it submitted to the city (as of June 2009; report dated April 2010).

Unfortunately both public and private sector entities are predisposed to using the highest rate of return assumption in order to cover up the bad funding news.

The private sector could be in for a rude awakening when more conservative and realistic international pension accounting rules under consideration ultimately take effect (interesting that it is a division of Segal – Sibson Consulting – that projects the use of a 6% return rate assumption if the rules are implemented).

GASB (Government Accounting Standards Board), the body that promulgates public sector accounting rules, will undoubtedly follow suit.

Even if the city succeeded in getting any concessions now, the pressure to reinstate older, more generous defined benefits will always be present, or at least as long as City Hall panders to the unions for votes and contributions.

Given the timidity of our city government to confront their union pals, you can bet they that any givebacks today will be offset tomorrow.

In the off-chance we are going to play hardball with the unions, then go for the gold and insist on a defined contribution plan as the plan model for new employees.

Anything less will lead to failure in the long-term.

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Richmond won its homecoming game today easily- the first one ever played at Robins Stadium – 28-6 over Towson.

Towson has generally been the weakest team in the conference since its inception.  However, the Tigers have improved over the last three games.

Backup quarterback Montel White showed poise for the second game in a row, the first two games of his college career.

He completed six of ten passes, one going for a touchdown, and no interceptions.

Richmond kept to the ground for the most part.  Given the turmoil created by injuries to the first three quarterbacks, that made perfect sense.  If Corp had played, air traffic control at Richmond International would have had to go on full alert, but a freshman thrust into action with no game experience prior to last week needs time time to develop.

Speaking of Corp, I understand he required two surgeries, but the prognosis is good.  He is expected to return next season.

We all wish him well.  By all accounts, he is a model student and an asset to the school.

The Spiders face a daunting task next Saturday when they travel to Philadelphis to play Villanova,  Villanova was the FCS National Champion last year.  The Wildcats are having another strong season and stand to make the playoffs.

Richmond is still on the radar for the playoffs, but with little margin for error.

The following video is a mini-documentary of the opening game at Robins Stadium.  It was the first football game played on campus in 82 years, so the dramatic nature of the video is to be expected.

Former Spider All-Americans Brian Jordan (ex- Atlanta Braves and Atlanta Falcons) and Leland Melvin (Astronaut and former NFL player) appear briefly. There is also some good game footage including Aaron Corp in action.

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