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Archive for October, 2011

Demonstrations are an expression of free speech and protected under the Constitution.

Occupations represent seizure of public or private property without permission or right.

Demonstrations can go on indefinitely, and rightfully so.

But camping on property without a permit and not taking responsibility for the wear and tear it creates is not only unfair to other citizens, it is a selfish act.

The Los Angeles occupation risks losing whatever sympathy it earned from the general community the longer it drags on, causing damage to property and draining the budget of the LAPD. The message concerning certain corporate excesses is getting lost amidst the circus atmosphere.  It is also being overshadowed by extremist elements mindlessly railing against capitalism.

The gathering will eventually be dispersed. Mayor Villaraigosa hinted that the encampment on the trampled lawn of City Hall cannot go on indefinitely.

If it comes down to the LAPD moving in to evict the occupiers things could get ugly, as they have in other cities.

Complicating matters is the City Council’s unanimous resolution in support of the occupation . Council President Eric Garcetti added the participants could “stay as long as they need to.” The organizers might legally challenge any attempt to break up the encampment in the absence of the City Council reversing its position.  Even if that were to occur, many people may not go peacefully after weeks of coddling by our city fathers.

Maybe Garcetti is not concerned with costly damage to the lawn because Council Member Dennis Zine said he could repair it for far less than the estimated $400,000.  Good – Zine should give up the race for City Controller, the responsibilities for which he is ill-prepared to handle, and become the city’s groundskeeper instead.

But this is not just about the cost of lawn repairs and police overtime, both of which will require diverting funds from other services.

It is about a movement that lost its focus and is misdirecting its energies.

People should be demonstrating (not occupying) in front the White House, Congress, the Department of Justice and the SEC.  After all, the CEOs behind abusive lending were partners with our own government.  No one of significance went to jail for the greed that crippled the economy.

Demonstrating in front of  Rupert Murdoch’s home is not the answer.  Whatever you might think of him, neither Fox nor its media competitors were responsible for the real estate bubble and lending abuses.

Why not target some of the executives who contributed to the collapse of the housing market?  People like Angelo Mozilo, the former CEO of Countrywide, who got off with a $67 million civil settlement (Bank of America will pay all but $22 million of it), probably still enjoy the good life.

And why not turn up the heat on Los Angeles City Council members and other elected officials who are partners with giant corporations and public employee unions who are draining our pockets?

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I looked at the calendar today. 

It was October 27; not April 1.

You could have fooled me after I read Wendy Greuel’s latest campaign e-mail.

You see, she claimed to be a job creator in private industry.  According to her bio, the only private experience is in government and community relations with Dreamworks.  Corporate staff members do not create jobs – executive management does by running profitable operations.  Even then, hiring is closely monitored and compared against the budget. For Wendy to suggest she was a job creator is so much campaign puffery – and I am being nice.

Greuel claims to know what it takes to improve our schools.  A hint would be nice.  At least Mayor Villaraigosa had a plan, as it turned out it wasn’t a very good one, but it provided a semblance of a benchmark against which the public could evaluate him.

And how will she deal with the LAUSD’s bureaucracy and teachers’ union, two of the most formidable obstacles to a quality education?

She wraps it up with this catch-all: “As Mayor, I’ll make our city a top destination for tourism, small businesses, and entrepreneurial job creators. And, I’ll cut bloated and unnecessary wasteful government spending, so that we can invest in the things that matter, like rebuilding and fixing our schools.”

She’s had several years to cut bloated and unnecessary spending.  As a member of the Budget and Finance Committee, she, along with Bernard Parks, allowed spending to ramp up even when there were signs of instability on the horizon. 

“Rebuilding and fixing our schools” stands out as perhaps the most exaggerated of all her promises.  Think about it – with what?  The city cannot fix the sidewalks and the roads and she is going to raise cash for the LAUSD, an organization teetering on bankruptcy? 

Greuel should leave politics and pursue a career writing fiction.

Let’s make sure she does.

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Nothing scares politicians in the City of Los Angeles more than the thought of confronting public labor unions with the reality of retirement benefit costs and facing up to the structural impact they have on the budget.

It comes as no surprise, then, that Mayor Villaraigosa, Eric Garcetti, Jan Perry, Paul Koretz and Bernard Parks pleaded with the LACERS Retirement Board to delay or lower a decrease in the retirement fund’s earning rate  assumption from 8% to 7.75%.

A quarter of a point decrease may not sound like much, but it represents $22 million in additional contributions the city would have to make next year.

The sad truth is that the decrease should be much greater – say to around 6.5% to reflect reality. Such a decrease would easily add more than $200 million to the city’s bill.

The five esteemed elected leaders offered as the reason for their request that the city could not deal with the higher contribution when a $250 million deficit is already looming.

LACERS approved the .25% cut but agreed to phase it in over five years, similar to the smoothing it uses for most adverse developments, such as the cost of the ERIP program.  In other words, the bad news is pushed out to future fiscal years. 

What’s even worse than City Hall failing to deal with the problem in the current year is that there is no plan to deal with it in subsequent years.  It is like the owner of a home ignoring termite infestation hoping that the hungry insects will just go away. Our electeds are hoping for a robust economic recovery to bail them out, but the financial damage will compound with each and every year they defer…and there is no robust recovery on the horizon.  Modest growth is expected at best for years to come.

Budget Day is this Saturday. The Neighborhood Council representatives should make the following proposal:

The city must negotiate for higher pension contributions from employees.  It is unfair to rely on further staff reductions and cuts to core services to plug the hole.

Without this proposal, and the will to fight for it, the budget process will continue to be a charade.

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While on a late afternoon walk around the Virginia Highlands Park in Arlington, VA, I came across this simple memorial dedicated to the firefighters of Arlington County who were among the first responders to the Pentagon on the morning of 9-11-01 (the link takes you to an excellent chronicle of the events at the Pentagon).

Arlington County Fire 9-11 Memorial

Units were already in the vicinity when the plane struck. They were responding to an alarm in nearby Rosslyn.  One cannot be certain if the precious minutes gained by the close proximity of the units saved lives.  I would like to think they did.

The girder from the World Trade Center was presented in a ceremony at Fire Station #5 held back in August 2010 (number 5 is the closest county station to the Pentagon).

The story of the bravery and professionalism of the county firefighters is sometimes overshadowed by the heroic reaction of the FDNY at the World Trade Towers.  Let’s not forget what they did.  Certainly, the FDNY remembered.

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Regulators trusted Bernie Madoff’s explanations as to how he was able to offer high returns; you see where that got us.

City Controller Wendy Greuel stated in response to the recent instances of fraud in the Los Angeles Housing Authority: “In order for my staff to guard taxpayer dollars, departments must be required to report any and all instances of fraud, waste and abuse so that I can closely monitor the city’s resources to stop these egregious acts.”

No, Wendy. Depending on others to report irregularities is woefully inadequate.

You need audit programs designed to uncover fraud to detect it. 

Even then, there is no guarantee you will smoke it out, but by applying resources to areas that have the potential for illegal quid pro quo, the chances of exposing fraudulent activity are greater.

But Greuel would rather roll out the simple performance audit reports, the results of which look great on paper but are worthless unless the city is prepared to act on them.  What else would you expect from someone with the management judgment of Dilbert’s pointy-haired boss?

Auditing is about judgment and setting priorities.  There is enough history to suggest that those charged with accounting and controlling the financial resources in Los Angeles are generally incapable of protecting the interests of the citizens.  They are incapable of collecting money timely, spending money without evaluating the cost vs benefits and identifying the most obvious misappropriation of funds.

Knowing this, a savvy auditor would prioritize limited resources and allocate them to protect the assets and integrity of the city. Performance audits would be largely unnecessary if the city evaluated its general managers on cost control and service.  There is no incentive for the typical GM to beat expectations, if indeed there are any expectations to begin with.

Greuel is neither an auditor nor savvy. She does not know how to evaluate risk and refuses to pressure the City Council to insist on holding department managers’ feet to the fire.  Merely issuing reports and moving on to the next performance audit on the list does not produce results; it generates paper and fifteen minutes of news coverage that too many people will misinterpret as action. As I have stated before, Greuel is the epitome of form over substance.

I can only hope voters see through her phoniness and consider one of the other candidates for mayor in 2013.

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Sherman Oaks Neighborhood Council staged a unique form of outreach: a lottery where the stakeholders could decide what was the worst pothole in the community.  The winning hole would be filled; funding provided from the NC’s budget.

I have to credit SONC for imagination.  There are few problems in this city that appear to get the more attention from stakeholders than potholes. So why not turn lemons into lemonade by transforming this pervasive icon of LA’s mismanagement into a marketing concept?  The idea rivals any concocted by Don Draper and the advertising whiz kids of Sterling Cooper.

There are bigger problems than potholes, for sure, but few people seem to care. A lottery to decide how much of NC funds should be used to offset LA’s pension liability for Council Member and Controller wannabe Dennis Zine’s double-dipping benefits package would probably garner little interest. 

While the lottery was a brilliant plan, it sends the wrong message: it’s OK to hand out NC funds to pay for core services.

NC Valley Village has provided assistance to local government entities, too.  Recipients included Colfax Charter School, the LAPD NoHo station, the fire department’s Community Emergency Response Training (CERT) program and the NoHo Public Library. However, the funds were for unbudgeted discretionary programs or purchases and reflected our community’s appreciation for the direct positive impact these organizations have had on the quality of life in our part of the city.

But forking over NC funds for a core service that should be provided by the city on an ongoing basis is setting an undesirable precedent.

Department of Public Works commissioner Andrea Alarcón said in a press release:

“We commend the Sherman Oaks Neighborhood Council for its leadership and for taking ownership of its neighborhood and streets.”

“We encourage other Neighborhood Councils to do the same.”

I’m sure Ms. Alarcon and the city would welcome such participation. 

It’s another way to strip neighborhood councils of some of their $40,500 allocations (which are 20% less than the $50,000 granted three years ago) and to reward the city for reckless mismanagement of its spending. 

City Council Member Paul Koretz was on hand for the news conference announcing the lottery results.

He should have expressed remorse for the policies of the mayor and City Council that have allowed LA to develop the structural financial hole it is in today – and that’s the biggest pothole around.

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Street banners are popular marketing tools for events and organizations.

In Los Angeles they are controlled by permit and must be replaced periodically in the case of long-term installations.

I hate to see old banners go to waste, so why not find alternative uses?

My wife and I placed two prior versions of the NCVV banner on the side of our garage in our other village – Incline Village, NV, a small community on the north shore of Lake Tahoe.

Ginny Hatfield, NCVV Vice president, and Pete Sanchez, President of the Valley Village Homeowners Association, pose alongside old NCVV banners
Our Los Angeles guests will now have a visual reminder of Neighborhood Councils 445 miles from Valley Village.

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