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Archive for January, 2011

Almost everything that Governor Brown said tonight had been telegraphed to the public in the preceding weeks.

He was smart not to demand specific actions – that would have only painted himself in a corner.

Instead he kept the challenge sufficiently broad.  Given the partisan composition of the legislature, that’s about all you can do without creating an unbreachable divide.

Perhaps the most cogent point of the speech was this remark:

“From the time I first proposed what I believe to be a balanced approach to our budget deficit – both cuts and a temporary extension of current taxes – dozens of groups affected by one or another of the proposed cuts have said we should cut somewhere else instead. Still others say we should not extend the current taxes but let them go away. So far, however, these same people have failed to offer even one alternative solution.”

A great example of this was the mayors fighting to protect the community redevelopment agencies from the axe.

For what it is worth, here is my suggestion for dealing with the long-term structural deficit problem:

Go ahead and place an initiative on the ballot to extend the taxes; but it must be accompanied by a measure that reforms the state employee pension and benefits programs.

The measure would require all new employees to be covered by a defined contribution plan (401-K style) and pay for at least one-third of their health insurance costs.

Furthermore, as each existing union contract comes up for renegotiation, the state must insist that employee pension contributions for the defined benefit plan cover half the costs.  That provision would be non negotiable. That would shield the taxpayers from much of the market risk they bear today.

Current employees would have to pay the same health insurance premiums as new hires – eqaul to one-third the cost.

Finally, the tax extension measure could only pass if the pension and benefit reform initiative was approved.

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Let me just say that there are far worse alleys and streets elsewhere in Los Angeles.  So why should I point out this one in Valley Village?

It is one of many canaries in the coal mine popping up in what were otherwise problem-free areas in the Valley.  That’s why.

I won’t mention the specific location out of respect for the privacy of the adjacent residents.

The alley is a little over fifty yards long, but in recent weeks, an old sofa and a used tire have been dumped – none of which belongs to the neighbors.  One of the impacted residents called 311 to no avail.

 

 

I’ve tried calling but gave up after listening to prerecorded music for fifteen minutes.  That’s not the first time I have experienced such a wait.

To add to the mess, one resident decided to commission students to paint graffiti on her fence, apparently in protest of her neighbor’s building addition.  The addition is another story – it has been stalled for about two years.  There is no telling what damage the December rains did to the exposed structure.

Art or graffiti?

It may be that the city will not be able to  classify the “mural” as graffiti since it was done with the owner’s permission.  Councilman Krekorian’s office is looking into it.

If that’s not enough, another house on the alley has been abandoned for at least two years.  The owners took a perfectly beautiful Spanish style cottage and turned it into a tasteless two-story structure.  It gives new meaning to curb appeal – as in gutter.

The house has already attracted graffiti and the property is weed-infested.

The worst part is that people are giving up  trying to get resolutions for problems like these.  I can’t say I blame them.  Frustration wears you down. I sense that more and more of us are accepting third world standards as the norm.

That has to change.

We need to insist that the city deals with the structural deficit that is dragging our quality of life down.  Neither the City Council nor the mayor want to deal with renegotiating benefit-laden union contracts that suck up more of the general fund as each year passes.

Apathy is our worst enemy.  Unless we repeatedly call our elected officials to complain, the deterioration will continue. I fear that too many residents will not  until the streets turn to dust, tree limbs fall like rain and used furniture piles up on the curbs.

I’m sure our officials would like that.  It makes their overpaid jobs easier.

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In World War II, Eisenhower, MacArthur, Nimitz and Marshall held key positions from the start to the finish.

There was no such continuity in the American Civil War.  Leadership evolved, especially during the first two years of the conflict.

Considering the U S Army in 1860 numbered  only 16,000 men, many of them spread across the continent, few officers commanded formations larger than a company or regiment.

Hundreds of thousands of troops were mustered in short order after the firing on Fort Sumter (by the end of 1861 it is estimated that the around 500,000 Union troops were present for duty; half that for the South).  Men who commanded companies were now in charge of regiments or even brigades.  Some officers returned to duty after years in civilian life, their last combat experience coming in the Mexican War. In most cases, officers were amateurs, some of whom never even served in local militias.

They were being called upon to assume responsibilities far greater than they ever could have imagined.

It is no wonder that many were not up to the task; but for every one who failed to live up to his potential, others stepped up admirably, including many with no prior military training.

The two men who would become giants in the conflict – Grant and Lee – were among the two most underutilized officers in their respective armies in 1861.

Grant raised a company of volunteers in Illinois and was promoted to colonel by the Governor to train recruits.  He demonstrated his competence by turning a regiment of ill-disciplined ruffians into a reasonably cohesive unit worthy of taking the field. His success in this role led to a promotion to the rank of brigadier general.  It helped that his mentor Congressman Elihu Washburne recommended him.

As late as spring 1862 the only thing Lee commanded was a desk in Richmond, Virginia, after mostly non combat responsibilities involving coastal defence improvements and raising troops.  His only combat assignment was small and took place in the western part of Virginia (later West Virginia).  It was a total failure.

All of this had to be disappointing for someone who turned down command of the entire Union Army only months earlier.

One can speculate that Lee may not have been the Union’s first choice had Texas not seceded in February 1861.  Albert Sydney Johnston, a brigadier general in the prewar army and who commanded the vast Department of the Pacific from his headquarters at the Presidio in San Francisco, might have been in the running.  However, Johnston resigned his commission  April 10, 1861 after learning his home state of Texas had seceded.

Johnston, along with Lee, was one of five men to be appointed to Lieutenant General, the highest rank in the Confederate Army.  He was put in command of the western theatre with the primary responsibility for protecting Tennessee and Mississippi. He was not involved in major action until early 1862.

Unlike Johnston, Lee never had broad command responsibility.  He was a colonel in charge of a  cavalry regiment in Texas prior to that state’s secession, but he was considered the finest officer in the Army by his mentor, then Chief of Staff General Winfield Scott.

Lee resigned on April 20, 1861, three days after his home state of Virginia seceded and two days after discussing the offer of command with Francis Preston Blair, Sr., who represented Lincoln and the Secretary of War (the meeting took place at the historically significant Blair House across from the White House).

Grant did not get off to a fast start either. He suffered a defeat in his first battle at Belmont, Missouri in November, 1861. However, it was not a disaster. He organized an orderly retreat despite panic that spread among some of his direct subordinates when the tide turned against the Union forces.

The campaign required close coordination with Navy gunboats and river transports.  Grant clearly demonstrated an aptitude for combined operations, a tactic he would exploit again and again.  Perhaps it was his mathematical training that contributed to his mastery of joint Army-Navy movements.

He also narrowly escaped death twice.  His reputation for coolness under fire and mastery of logistics was born as a result of this campaign.

John C. Fremont, the legendary explorer of the Western United States, a key figure in winning California’s independence from Mexico, and who finished a close second in the 1856 presidential race, commanded Union forces in the western theatre.  He was Grant’s superior.

Fremont was an abolitionist and took it upon himself to authorize the emancipation of slaves in Missouri, then a neutral state.  Lincoln feared Fremont’s unauthorized action would compel Missouri to side with the South. In November 1861, he removed Fremont and revoked the emancipation order.  The Pathfinder was reassigned to a much smaller role in Virginia and left the Army in 1862 in a dispute over his seniority.

Months before the battle of Belmont and Lee’s failure in Western Virginia, forces were building in Northern Virginia and Washington City (as DC was known at that time).

Irwin McDowell commanded the gathering Union force.  The story behind General McDowell’s assignment to command a field army was fairly typical for the time.  He was politically connected to Salmon Chase, a member of Lincoln’s cabinet.  Politics was as important – if not more so – as experience when it came to appointments.

McDowell’s opposite number was General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, an accomplished career soldier and engineer.  His poetic name alone bestowed a romantic aura upon him.  Aside from being commissioned as  the first officer to earn the rank of general in the Confederate States Army, he was in charge of the batteries that shelled Fort Sumter.  On the receiving end of his barrage was Major Robert Anderson, Beauregard’s artillery instructor at West Point.

Both generals faced the same problem – turning green troops into organized units.  McDowell urged Lincoln to hold off sending his army against the Confederates.  He had little confidence in his troops’ readiness.

McDowell’s warning was perhaps the only sound judgment he exercised in the entire war, but Lincoln demurred, the President stating that the rebels were equally unprepared to fight.  The public’s cry of “on to Richmond” also fed the urge to attack.

So, on July 16, 1861, McDowell led his army south to Manassas, a bedroom community of DC today.  He developed an ambitious plan to outflank Beauregard, sound in principle, but beyond the capabilities of his poorly trained troops commanded by mostly inexperienced officers at the company and regimental levels.

On July 21, the two opposing forces made contact and the battle of Bull Run was fought – the largest battle ever fought on American soil up until that time ….and a disaster for the Union.

A foreign military observer described the engagement as a fight between two armed mobs. 

The South’s victory can be attributed to better initiative demonstrated by a handful of  officers.  General Thomas Jackson’s tenacious defense on the flank broke a poorly executed Union attack.  It contributed to a breakdown in McDowell’s command and control.  His conduct in the battle earned Jackson the nickname “Stonewall.”

The Confederate counter-attack that followed was able to break the Union line and send the federals fleeing back to Washington in disorder, leaving much equipment and many men behind.

The repulse of the Union attack and the successful counterattack would not have been possible without heads-up generalship by Joseph E. Johnston (yes, another Johnston).  Johnston’s small army started the campaign to the west of Manassas in the Shenandoah Valley.  He successfully evaded the covering force assigned to block him from assisting Beauregard, boarded his troops on trains and arrived at Bull Run in the nick of time to crush the Union flank attack and deliver the fatal blow to the federals. 

Johnston’s skill and initiative also ended the career of the general in charge of the covering force – a veteran commander of the Mexican War Robert Patterson.  The removal of General Patterson was probably the quickest dismissal of any general in the course of the war by either side.

Union gains by year

Overall, 1861 saw many changes in the Union’s general officer ranks:  Patterson was dismissed, McDowell’s and Fremont’s responsibilities were downgraded, but Grant’s stock was rising.

The command structure for the CSA was relatively stable, but 1862 would bring major changes.

Still, Lee was on the bench for all practical purposes – an utter waste of talent from the South’s perspective.  He could have been assisting Albert Johnston in the west with strategy, logistics, organization and training.  The Virginia front was already in the competent hands of Joseph Johnston, not to mention the command structure and quality of the opposing Union forces was in disarray.

As we will see later in the series, the west would be the critical front for the first half of 1862.  Lee could have made a difference.

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Maybe developers and property owners can get away with running roughshod over building codes in Los Angeles, but it is another story in the Lake Tahoe basin.

One man learned the hard way and faces a $120,000 fine.

http://www.tahoebonanza.com/article/20110127/NEWS/110129935/1061&ParentProfile=1050

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The format at NCVV’s candidate forum was much different from the VANC event two weeks earlier.  Tonight, the candidates appeared at different times and answered different questions – neither one in the presence of the other.

It was a relaxed setting and it resembled more of a conversation with the stakeholders than a Q&A.

Galatzan appeared right after the beginning of the meeting.

She opened by describing an experience from her first campaign.  She was approached by a parent who told her about funds the LAUSD had received from Microsoft for the purchase of computers – about $30 million.  These funds were set to expire in the near future if not used. In fact, they had not been touched.

She promised the parent that she would do something about it.

After her election, she did just that, but it required prodding and poking people in the LAUSD’s bureaucracy to find who was responsible for the fund and in charge of making the purchases before the dollars were lost.

With the assistance of the parent, her efforts were successful and every school in the district received new computers.

The point of the story was that there are amazing parents (also teachers and principals) with the energy and the motivation to help the schools.   But there are also school employees who would rather pass the buck and not do the work necessary to provide for students. 

From this experience, she learned you have to personally intercede to make things happen.

Galatzan moved on to the challenges faced by the LAUSD.  Sacramento cut $1.5 billion from the budget; another billion dollar cut is expected.

Despite cuts, important strides were made.  Community partners can bid on struggling schools, and teacher evaluation tools are being re-drafted to include test scores as part of the process.  One reason why the latter is important is so layoffs will not disproportionately fall on the newer teachers – and, she emphasized, layoffs will be necessary.

Galatzan clarified the use of test scores in response to a question from an NCVV board member – progress will be considered along with scores.  So, for example, if a third grade student was reading at a first grade level, but the teacher succeeded in raising the child’s proficiency to second grade, the improvement would be an important factor in the evaluation.

Asked about the dropout rate, she responded it was between 30%-40%, but due to the movement of students in and out of the district, it is difficult to get an accurate fix on the problem,  The state was supposed to fund a tracking program, but the funds were cut.  All districts are on their own.

In response to a question about the availability of shop classes and music, she said  the funding for those programs was cut by the state.  Parents are paying for them in some schools.  The cost of equipment and suitable facilities to support non academic programs is high.  However, the district has been partnering with community colleges who do have the equipment and facilities.

She commented briefly on the vigorous campaign involving the award to manage the new Granada Hills High School, saying it was every bit as intense as a race for public office.  Galatzan did not believe a new school should opt out of the district in favor of a community partner, but she fully understood why non title 1 schools should.  Without federal dollars, those schools cannot afford basic supplies, so it is only natural they follow the charter path.  She succeeded in getting $85,000 for each non title 1 school in the district.

I asked about the article in the Daily News which reported the future health care costs for the LAUSD’s employees will run $10 billion. Galatzan said the article should have stated it was the pension plan, although she did say the cost of health benefits for this year was $1 billion.  A task force is being formed to address the cost of benefits.  Some of the members will not be affiliated with the district.

Another Board member asked if teachers were ever told that their pension and healthcare benefits were in lieu of raises, and could they earn social security.  The answer was yes concerning benefits in lieu of a raise and no to earning social security.  Even prior social security credits earned in another profession are wiped out for each year spent as a teacher.  Legislation correcting this unfairness was introduced in Congress but has not progressed.

Overall, Galatzan did not sugarcoat the LAUSD’s dire situation.  Her message appeared to be one of toughing it out. Under the grim circumstances, that course might be the only strategy.

Louis Pugliese arrived later.

He emphasized his career in education, including years of teaching at the elementary school level.  His current job as a professor at CSUN involves instructing teachers.  He majored in elementary education for his undergraduate degree and has a master’s in educational psychology.

Pugliese said the LAUSD  needs to be to be more of a board of education as opposed to a school board.  Its role is to set education policy, not just administration.

He believes in being hands-on with curriculum and instruction.  Through his work at CSUN, he has used interns to visit LAUSD classrooms and report their observations as to what works and what doesn’t.  As a result, he claims he as become a repository of what is good and bad at our schools. He wants to become the voice that guides the board in what is happening in the classroom.

Pugliese said he would like to see curriculum audits.  He suspects that there is duplication of efforts.  For example, the district hires outside services to prepare content assessments which are already included in text books.  Other major districts have already conducted these audits.

I asked him about the $10 billion benefit liability.  He said we have to find a way to pay for it, although he believes health care costs will peak down the line , then start to decrease.

He wants more equity between arts curriculum and academic subjects. 

 Class size is critical. The district is going to need adjunct support in the form of volunteers and interns to assist teachers in a large classroom environment.

In response to a question, Pugliese said if he is elected, he will take a leave of absence from his CSUN position to devote his full attention to LAUSD board duties. He criticized current board members for absences.

He emphasized the importance of offering curriculum the students can identify with.  We have dropouts who are knowledgeable in non academic areas, but they are abandoned by the school system.

Compared to Galatzan, Pugliese was more philosophical with less emphasis on the economic issues facing the schools.

There is a clear difference between the two candidates.  The voters will have to discern which one is better suited for the rough turbulence ahead.

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Calpers is re-examining its real estate investment strategy, according to the Wall Street Journal. 

After absorbing $10 billion in losses from the aggressive strategy it used prior to the bubble bursting – a strategy that produced illusory expectations and propped up the fiction of an 8% annual return – the giant pension fund will depend less on value appreciation and more on income-producing properties.

That’s a sensible move.

But shouldn’t it be accompanied by a reduction to the rate of return assumption for the fund’s assets?  A more conservative policy cries out for a less aggressive assumption.

I’m betting against common sense because the state will face an even higher official unfunded liability level, leading to even more pressure to demand concessions from the unions.  The state’s liability for its plans could easily grow closer to the $500 billion projected by a Stanford University study if the return assumption was scaled back to 4-6% instead of 7.75% used today.

It is unlikey that our elected officials would want to deal with the negative publicity associated with  that news.

The rate was being reconsidered several months ago, but I have not read of any final decision to change it.

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Big Dunk

Richmond Spider junior Darius Garrett does not get many opportunities to show off his offensive skills.  He is far better known as a shot blocker.  He has probably blocked as many shots as he has dunked the ball in his role as a reserve.

Playing thirteen minutes per game, he averages almost two blocks in that time.

When he does break loose on offense, he makes the most of it, as he did against Dayton in front of 13,000 fans at the Dayton Arena in an important road win for the Spiders.

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