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Archive for December, 2012

You will hear it at every candidate forum:  City Controller and mayoral candidate Wendy Greuel claims she has uncovered $160 million in savings during her term as Los Angeles City Controller.

Can you believe her?

Only if the results speak for themselves.

It should be a one-stop process to confirm the claim, but there is no such thing as a one-stop process in Los Angeles.

Greuel’s audit scorecard and division performance reports on the City Controller web site would be a logical place to find the answer.  They cover audits conducted since September 2009 (shortly after she took office) and what the status is of each; the performance reports summarize potential lost revenue or avoidable costs associated with the recommendations.

But none of these reports indicate if actual savings have been realized. Nor are they clear as to whether potential savings are annual or one-time. 

Greuel’s reports would not cut the ice in the real world.  Any CEO would ask what the proven bottom-line impact is and the latest projection for the rest.  Unless you have too much time on your hands, and can read each and every report, your chances of even estimating the potential benefits of implementing the audit recommendations are slim and none.

I have a feeling Greuel likes it that way.  She, like other career politicians with no practical business operations experience (despite her claims to the contrary), does not want to deal with proven facts.  Like a poorly refereed football game, she awards points or possession without verification that the ball was in play or crossed the goal line.

Given that the city has faced an unbroken series of deficits in the hundreds of millions of dollars, I have serious doubts as to whether any meaningful savings have been realized.

More so than any other elected position, the mayor of a city is a business manager.  Feel-good measures, avoiding long-term solutions and paying homage to public unions are a disservice to the residents.  A mayor has to lay out the facts in a way the public can understand the significance – good and bad.  The Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) is issued way too late and in a format that does not lend itself to general consumption.

There is no attempt by the mayor or controller to educate the public about the real financial condition of the city.  To be fair, there never has been.

Don’t expect any improvement in transparency if you vote for Greuel (or, for that matter, Zine for controller).  Neither are technically qualified to manage any operation…and our city needs a CEO to guide us to a sustainable path.

You are better off considering new blood.  Candidates such as Cary Brazeman (Controller) or Kevin James (Mayor) are worth a look.  They have been on the outside looking in and are in a better position to view matters through unfiltered lenses. You may find other candidates to your liking – rest assured, almost anyone would be a better choice over Greuel and Zine.

Going into the March elections, the most important step you can take is to discount the puffery of the established politicians.  They have had at least eight years to deal with the serious financial deficits facing the city and can show no results.

Go with me on this.

For the record, I am a registered Democrat – a Blue Dog who believes officials must manage finances responsibly, especially at the local level.  That has not been the case in Los Angeles. You are the only ones who can force a change. March is your opportunity.

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Anyone with an ounce of decency is outraged and willing to take action to help prevent a repeat of Newtown. The President and other leaders have expressed their sentiments appropriately. All of the candidates at last night’s LA Mayoral Forum on KABC-7 made thoughtful comments and expressed a commitment to do something about the problem of easy access to dangerous weapons. However, candidate Wendy Greuel may have taken things a bit too far with her e-mail distribution. The content was fine until it morphed into a campaign spiel. Also, her message going out under her campaign masthead amounted to a juxtaposition in poor taste.
 

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Fredericksburg, Virginia is in the heart of one of the most historic regions in the Old Dominion. Its quaint old town section  is ideal for walking. Museums, stores, cozy restaurants and a couple of excellent taverns are within several blocks of each other.

In early December, the town sponsors a Christmas parade. It is one of the most enjoyable and colorful of any I have seen; the streets are tastefully decorated for the season. It is Christmas as it should be.

150 years ago this month there was no Christmas cheer in Fredericksburg as two mighty armies converged on either side of the Rappahannock River and prepared for a battle that would cut through the town itself.

The Union Army of the Potomac commanded by General Ambrose Burnside, numbering 110,000 men, took aim at the Army of Northern Virginia, 70,000 strong, led by General Robert E. Lee, a scion of Virginia.  Lee had already succeeded in becoming a legend in the five months since he took command of  the largest force the South had in the field. His victories had already forced Lincoln to relieve two of his generals.  Burnside should have filled out his retirement papers prior to the battle.

Mismanaged logistics, unclear orders and just generally poor leadership by Burnside delayed the river crossing, allowing Lee time to prepare his line.

On December 13, 1862, after an artillery bombardment and street-to-street fighting in the town the day before, a charge up Marye’s Heights by federal troops was launched against the best defense Lee could organize.

The attack was one of the worst tactical decisions of the war, even bloodier than Pickett’s Charge. Most Union troops never made it near the top.

Thousands of Union casualties lay on the field in the freezing night and through the next day following the attack.  It seemed fitting the Aurora Borealis was visible that far south on the night of the 14th creating a ghostly veil over the dead and the wounded, many of whom would also die later beyond the reach of  medical assistance. The cries for water from the wounded prompted one private from a South Carolina regiment to crawl past his lines and tend to the thirsty.

Many Union dead were stripped of warm clothing during the night by poorly clad Confederate soldiers. Lines of white, naked corpses could be seen the next day. It may have been the most ghastly scene in a war that had no shortage of ghastly scenes.

Bad weather on December 15th allowed Burnside’s force to retreat back across the river to safety.

General Lee witnessed the slaughter on December 13th from a position on the heights. He remarked, “It is well that war is so terrible; we should grow too fond of it.”

150 years later,  many are still too fond of it……and there is no end in sight.

Casualty of war, Petersburg, VA (Library of Congress)

Casualty of war (Library of Congress)

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The results of a survey taken at the conclusion of the CD5 Homeowners Association forum found that over half of the 75 attendees said they would vote for Kevin James for mayor of Los Angeles.  That’s a far cry from an exit poll taken on Election Day where Garcetti and Greuel dominated the tally.

Why two disparate sets of numbers?

One can only speculate, but a reasonable conclusion could be that when voters receive meaningful information through a neutral, well-managed event, they are in a better position to assess frankness, independence, command of the facts and sincerity – in other words, four traits candidate James seems to have in abundance. They are difficult to convey in mailers and scripted TV ads, which is too bad for the former Assistant US Attorney and radio host.

Voters need to drill down beneath the superficial media messages to make informed decisions. If the sole source of campaign information came from personal appearances where candidates faced tough questions in front of the public, the city’s voters might actually elect a handful of capable leaders instead of ones who pander to select constituencies.

There will never be enough forums, much less forums that challenge the candidates to respond to questions covering performance. Thirty-second sound bites, name recognition and glossy mailers from the candidates and their supporters are still the gold standard of influence.  It will remain that way until the media provides in-depth, front-page, top of the hour coverage of debates and forums.

An example of how not to cover a candidate event is Wesley Lowery’s article in the Los Angeles Times about a forum in South Los Angeles.  The dearth of details is embarrassing.  We are fortunate Mr. Lowery was not around to cover the Lincoln-Douglas debates.  Citing Jan Perry’s desire to become a pilates instructor if she loses the election is indicative of a reporter reaching to fill space rather than relate substance.

If James does benefit from super pac support, he would be wise to channel some of it into a compilation of his forum appearances.  Voters will be impressed by his composure, vision and conversance of the issues.

For sure, Greuel and Garcetti will use their public union and other vested support to run negative ads in an end run around explaining their failure to manage the city.

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Now that former Mayor Riordan’s proposed pension reform charter amendment has fallen off the pension cliff, who will carry the banner and make it and other financial challenges a real issue in the Los Angeles mayoral race?

If you watch the video of the candidate forum sponsored by the CD5 Homeowners’ Association you can’t help but come to the conclusion that former US Attorney and radio commentator Kevin James is the only major candidate who takes seriously the threat of adverse financial consequences associated with the city’s failure to deal with its structural deficit.

Kudos to CD5 HOA President Marcia Selz and Ron Kaye for conducting a real forum, unlike many others where the questions are the equivalent of throwing softballs to Barry Bonds. 

Throughout the forum, the most overused word coming from the mouths of the three candidates who currently serve as elected officials – Garcetti, Greuel and Perry – was “looking”, as in looking for solutions.

The three have each served multiple terms on the City Council; Gracetti was also the Council President and Greuel rose to  City Controller.  Perry serves as current Council President Wesson’s personification of Hester Prynne, relegated to endure his wrath for defying the social order he imposes.  They have had plenty of time to look for solutions for the ever-growing fiscal hole caused by employee benefits and deferred costs (such as unused LAPD overtime and neglect of basic infrastructure). 

Whatever they were looking for over the years has not produced results.  Retirement benefits alone will absorb 50% of the city’s general fund in a few short years, according to Chief Administrative Officer Miguel Santana.  I guess that prospect is not compelling enough to motivate the three seasoned politicians to take the bull by the horns and enter into serious labor contract negotiations with the city’s unions, as James suggests.

Jan Perry at least alluded to bankruptcy without using the actual term when she pointed to the dangers of relying on a judge to solve the pension mess. Eric Garcetti all but admitted we faced bankruptcy when the Council raided special funds to prop up core city services. Yet they have not posed any substantive solutions to the city’s chronic deficits. Raising the retirement age for new employees (Garcetti crowed about that change) and nominal increases in contributions will not make a dent for decades. Net revenue estimates from the elimination of the business tax are unproven estimates, even if they attract enough new business to a city that can’t even fix sidewalks or maintain the streets.

Greuel constantly reminded the audience that she is the City Controller.  It reminded me of Richard Nixon’s “I am the President” assertions that help launch David Frye’s career.  Some of her responses were more along the line of “I’m not a crook”. She denied having any responsibility for the special fund raid simply because she was not on the City Council when it occurred. Note to Greuel: as controller you are supposed to know about these things and take action to protect the assets of the city.  At least Garcetti and Perry apologized for condoning the misappropriation.

Greuel’s standard response in the forum was “I have identified $150 million in waste, fraud and abuse.”  Another note to Greuel: identification counts for zero unless you take the City Council to task for not implementing recommendations either timely or, for that matter, at all.  Instead, she’s pretty chummy with them. She doesn’t want to risk making waves for fear of losing political capital; that’s about the only capital she cares for.

So, voters, “look” twice before you commit to candidates who represent the status quo.

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