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Archive for March, 2014

Former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg, and now candidate for State Senate (18th District), has the mindset we need to rescue Sacramento from itself.

Perhaps not a moment too soon, since it appears we are on track to see a quorum in the State Prison system rather than in the Senate chambers at the capitol.

Bob Hertzberg strikes a senatorial pose while addressing NCVV.

Bob Hertzberg strikes a senatorial pose while addressing NCVV.

The Serial Hugger has no competition to speak of, yet he has mounted a campaign. That speaks well of him – it shows he respects his opponents and does not view the race as a coronation, precisely the opposite approach taken by Antonio Villaraigosa when he ran for his second term as mayor. It is worth noting that the former mayor posted a mediocre margin of victory for an incumbent facing a poorly funded field.

Hertzberg has been making the rounds of the neighborhood councils in the 18th. He appeared at Neighborhood Council Valley Village last week. The Green Party candidate appeared the month before; the Republican candidate will probably appear at a later meeting – everyone gets a chance to face the board, make a case for their candidacies and field questions from the board and stakeholders.

After emphasizing his experience as a member of the Assembly, where he developed a reputation as someone capable of promoting bipartisanship, and his involvement in California Forward, a public policy think tank dedicated to “smart government,” the questions commenced.

NCVV does not toss softball questions.

Hertzberg was first quizzed on SB 1818, the law allowing a density bonus to developers. It trumps Valley Village’s Specific Plan.

The law was passed after Hertzberg left the legislature, so he was unfamiliar with the adverse ramifications it had on the availability of affordable housing, parking, traffic congestion, and the scale of development. Still, I sensed there was a little disappointment by members of the board over his lack of knowledge on the subject. To me it was an indication that Hertzberg had not remained involved in local issues since leaving office, preferring to focus on statewide matters instead.

While the SB 1818 feedback he received from the board was intended to educate him, the response he received about the Bullet Train was an outright argument against his position to support the controversial and costly project.

I started the questioning (as a stakeholder – I am no longer on the board).

Did he still support the project in view of costs that had doubled since the High-Speed Rail initiative passed, that the travel time between Los Angeles and San Francisco would take longer than promised*, the lack of reliable financing and the need to fund more important capital needs (i.e., water systems, seismic safety)?

*See this recent article in the Los Angeles Times concerning the speed.

Did it make any difference that Governor Brown was going to rob cap-and-trade revenue to keep the project alive even though the estimated, but questionable, environmental benefits of the train would not accrue until after 2020, the enacting legislation’s deadline for generating carbon reductions?

I also called his attention to a resolution NCVV passed in 2012 calling for a re-examination of the assumptions used to justify continued funding of the Bullet Train and insisting that alternative capital projects need to be considered first.

He admitted the final cost would exceed the $68 billion price tag.

He followed with, “All major projects face opposition at first.”

That was the extent of his justification beyond some anecdotal personal experiences with high-speed rail in other countries.

Do you think that answer would fly in any board room in either the profit or nonprofit sector with billions of dollars on the line?

It did not fly at NCVV.

At least three members challenged his rosy outlook. No one offered him a lifeline.

I heard one stakeholder say to another, “I think Bob just ran into a stone wall.”

It was apparent that Hertzberg was surprised. He could not muster a logical argument; probably because there is none.

As with most of his colleagues, Hertzberg does not seem to understand the process of capital budgeting.

Management of any organization typically consider an array of important capital funding requests. While all may have merits, only the ones that provide the best value for the investment make the cut. Debt service can last a lifetime on big-ticket items. If a major error in judgment is made and a sketchy project is allowed to proceed, monies needed for other vital projects in the future will be limited.

By contrast Assembly Member Adrin Nazarian (46th Assembly District), although a supporter of the high-speed concept, recognizes the need to apply the brakes to the Bullet Train and consider alternatives, including the development of local and intra-regional commuter rail – a subject I addressed in a widely-viewed article back in 2010.

Bob Hertzberg is the best qualified candidate for this office, but he needs more pushback from his constituents before he heads down the wrong track at full throttle.

To his credit, he listens and is capable of making adjustments to his outlook, but it appears he will need some arm-twisting to lay off Jerry Brown’s vision-inducing elixir.

Speaker Bob has the best potential to influence lawmakers in Sacramento.

But does he want to be remembered for engineering a fiscal trainwreck the equivalent of the ill-fated Cannonball Express?

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In a decision that supports transparency, Superior Court Judge James Chalfant made it clear that the accounting records of the Joint Institutes of Safety and Training are subject to a full audit by City Controller Ron Galperin.

It will be early May before the ruling truly takes effect, but the clock is now running for IBEW union boss Brian D’Arcy to cough up the records. It will be interesting to see what delaying tactics D’Arcy attempts while he contemplates an appeal.

After all, records might be difficult to recover: paper files may have been damaged when an IBEW-maintained water pipe burst, or a power surge caused by a faulty IBEW-installed circuit breaker may have fried the computer hard drives – talk about water and power! I’m sure Brian and his boys will think of something to impede the audit.

But while we wait for the big guy to play out his cards, there are other angles that need to be investigated.

For one, the DWP managers who served on the nonprofits’ boards, including Ron Nichols.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Judge Chalfant stated that the DWP managers had provided “no supervision” and “little control” over the nonprofits’ spending and therefore share the blame for the controversy.

Exactly what do they know? Did they sleep through the board meetings?

It was reported that Nichols claimed he was threatened with legal action by D’Arcy if he ever spilled the beans. But can that story be substantiated? Is Nichols trying to cover possible gross negligence on his part?

Everyone connected with the nonprofits must be questioned under oath. The sooner, the better. Otherwise key figures may become subject to selective amnesia.

It would be nice to know what the nonprofits’ boards had in store for the $11.8 million stashed in the trusts’ bank accounts – an amount that is almost triple the annual $4 million allocation they receive.

Think of it, their testimony, if received before Galperin starts his field work, could independently corroborate any audit findings pointing to a pattern of abuse. This could facilitate the filing of criminal charges.

And let’s not stop with the board members and others associated with the nonprofits.

The CPA firm who conducted the last audit should have its records and personnel subpoenaed as well. CPA firms do not have the same level of protection as lawyers do when it comes to client confidentiality.

$40 million over ten years may not sound like much to elected officials in our city, but it is indicative of a corrupt culture.

And it is our City Council members, past and present, who are the true enablers.

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Empower LA reported a major uptick in Neighborhood Council election turnout for the San Fernando Valley. Total registrations were 8,270 (that’s the actual headcount), up 59% over 2012.

Impressive.

But let’s put it in perspective.

2012 marks the low point in recent years; so to an extent, the 2014 election turnouts were bouncing off the bottom. NC board members may recall that the Los Angeles City Clerk and the City Council pulled the rug out from under the Neighborhood Councils in 2010. The City Clerk failed to deliver the support they promised to the 2010 elections, blaming a budget cut from $4 million to $1.9 million. However, that was no excuse for waiting until the eleventh hour to notify NCs that support would be curtailed. NCs scrambled to assemble an election apparatus at a time when outreach should have been the priority.

Had just half of the City Clerk’s surviving $1.9 million budget been transferred to DONE to support the election, it would have amounted to around $10,000 per NC, a level that would have allowed a robust, self-directed outreach effort. Instead, the budget was consumed by the Clerk’s over-priced and inefficient services.

The effect of the 2010 betrayal of Neighborhood Councils by the Clerk and the City Council flowed into the 2012 elections. The NC system was still in limbo about the City Clerk’s role. Had the NCs been left in uninterrupted control of the elections from the get go (with administrative support from DONE), there would have been a mature, well-honed process in place in 2012.

2012’s turnout dropped by 4.41% from 2010, in part because volunteer NC board members and stakeholders do not have the time and resources to turn on a dime. Turnover in the board ranks complicates matters, too. Therefore, disproportionate time had to be focused on re-learning procedures instead of directed at enhancements.

All that being said, the Neighborhood Councils in the Valley deserve much credit for clawing back lost participation.

Drilling down to the ground level, Valley Village had the second highest turnout in Region 4, but very likely the highest per capita turnout. From my personal observations, signage was more visible and prevalent, flyer saturation improved and there was deeper penetration by e-mail appeals for votes. There was also more candidate and stakeholder involvement. I personally covered 5 miles and the equivalent of 90 flights of stairs passing out flyers. And did I feel it the next day when I was shooting hoops at the gym.

Elections are the single largest budget item for neighborhood councils. Our one and only mailer cost $8,000 to reach all addresses in Valley Village – and we are among the smallest of councils. Adding to that, cooperative media advertising and supplies may bring the final total to around $10,000. As with other councils, we are allocated a total budget of $37,000.

One sure way to propel turnout is to have a hot issue.

That was the case during our mansionization wars in Valley Village. In two successive elections, 900 and 1,000 residents cast ballots.

It might be a good strategy for NCs to elevate issues to a hot status.

How about the DWP increases all of us will face in the years to come? That is a direct hit on almost all residents.

But if we elevate issues, we must also demonstrate to the stakeholders that their votes will have a bearing on the resolutions. That’s the hard part. It will require intense dialog among the NC boards and the elected officials in City Hall. I believe NCs are too accommodating of the electeds at times, or at least when it comes to the important stuff.

Will we be up to it?

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Round 1 to Russia.

Crimea fell with barely a shot (although there has been a reported death of a Ukrainian soldier by gunfire).

What’s next?

While it seems all eyes are focused on eastern Ukraine, the true prize is in the southwest of the country.

The seaport of Odessa lies to the west of Crimea. While Ukraine could recover from the loss of Crimea, losing Odessa would be a disaster. What’s more, the city is highly vulnerable to an invasion from the sea. It is a short hop for the Russian Black Sea fleet from its base on the peninsula. Although Odessa does not have the depth of pro-Russian sentiment Crimea has, there is enough of a base to foster infiltration of operatives loyal to Putin – and there are probably many already in place – to grease the skids for a naval and air incursion by Russian forces.

If that were to occur, Ukraine would lose its only seaborne trade route.

More importantly, Ukraine would lose access to alternative suppliers of gas. Wouldn’t Russia just love that.

An LNG facility in the vicinity of Odessa would open up opportunities for gas exports to the EU countries. One was to be constructed, but the financing fell apart.

EU financing of an LNG station could be a win-win deal for most of Europe and Ukraine. In the long-run, it would lower prices, remove a trump card from Putin’s hand and provide Ukraine with much-needed revenue.

Retired US general Wesley Clark, a former Supreme Commander of NATO forces and one-time Democratic presidential candidate, is on record as supporting the placement of NATO observers on the ground in Ukraine. I would envision having them embedded with Ukrainian forces. The observers would be vital eyes and ears and would provide reliable early warning of Russian moves. Clark is also in favor of more support for the Ukrainian military.

Russian-friendly cities in the eastern part of Ukraine will be vulnerable for takeover for years to come. So what’s the rush as far as Putin is concerned? However, the logistics to support a takeover of Odessa are more complex and expensive even considering the nearby presence of the Russian Navy…..and time is of the essence.

The window of opportunity for Russia to pull it off will narrow as the United States and NATO get their act together. Think of Boardwalk and Park Place in Monopoly. Russia just acquired Boardwalk; picking up Park Place will greatly enhance its yield. Eastern Ukraine is Marvin Gardens by comparison.

I am having doubts about President Obama’s resolve to take meaningful counter-measures. Sanctions and sending a squadron of aircraft to Poland are token steps. Putin knows that and will not be deterred. He has already outplayed Obama over Syria and called his “red line” bluff.

Vice President Biden’s visit to Poland offered little solace. Joe’s head was tilted down as he read directly from notes. He was as inspiring as a high school student ill-prepared to deliver a speech in front of a class.

President Obama should be less concerned about his NCAA bracket picks and focus more on publicizing the threat Putin’s moves have on world stability.

There is one credible response in play, but it needs an infusion of muscle – and soon.

The USS Truxton is on station in the Black Sea as part of maneuvers with the Romanian and Bulgarian navies. The exercise is a one-day affair. The president should extend it indefinitely. It will require rotating US ships since there is a 21-day limit on visits by warships to the Black Sea from nations outside of the region.

No less than two US ships should be present at any time. Combined with vessels from Bulgaria and Romania, the small flotilla could serve as a satisfactory tripwire to deter a Russian naval move on Odessa. Our ships should cruise as closely as possible to Odessa with the blessings of the government in Kiev, of course. If supported by land-based NATO aircraft in Romania, a relatively short distance away, the credibility increases.

If we wait for Russia to blockade Odessa, then forget about it. Too little, too late, but that seems to be the motto of the White House these days.

In addition, the United States absolutely needs to be in talks with Turkey, but I do not see any of Obama’s team in action with anyone from the Asia Minor peninsula.

Turkey is the gatekeeper between the Mediterranean and the Black Seas. Although the Turkish government has its share of disagreements with the United States over foreign policy, the fact remains that the country depends more on trade with the West than Russia, and it depends on the United States for significant military technology and weapons systems.

During the Cold War, Turkey maintained much closer ties with the United States. A reemerging Russian empire could give Ankara pause and warm the relations between the two, sometimes fractious, NATO members. Russia’s belligerence could dampen trade flowing through the Straits of Bosporus – that translates to a decrease in ancillary revenue Turkey earns from transiting ships. LNG shipments to Ukraine would pass free of charge.

Under The Treaty of Montreux , Turkey has the discretion to close or restrict access through the Straits. That would be a powerful card to play against Putin. I would not suggest a total shutdown, but any slowdown of Russian traffic would make it difficult for Russia to support its Mediterranean fleet, vital to its influence in the Middle East.

Any negotiations between the United States and Turkey regarding the Straits and its use during a conflict would be complex and require wrangling that would last years. But let’s face it, we are in for a long-term period of icy relations with Russia. The sooner we start talking turkey with Turkey, the better.

Dealing with the Ukrainian crisis is a multi-front exercise – diplomatic, military and economic – requiring timely coordination.

The Obama Administration’s response has been sluggish and uninspiring – not the characteristics upon which to build an effective coalition among our allies.

Whether we like it or not, the United States is the only nation capable of consolidating the resources needed to oppose a tyrant.

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I’ve been through two hotly contested elections while serving on Neighborhood Council Valley Village. Mansionization was the issue both times.

I never thought I would see more hard-fought struggles at the NC level again.

I was wrong.

The weeks leading up to the Sunland Tujunga Neighborhood Council election were filled with personal attacks and innuendos. The playing field was social media and the pages of a local community newspaper, the owner and editor of which was a candidate for council president.

It would not be appropriate to quote some of the statements and comments here.

The Foothills Paper served as the voice of David Demulle, who challenged incumbent Mark Seigel and newcomer Tom Smoker, for the top office.

Seigel and Smoker ran quiet campaigns.

Demulle came on like Putin in Crimea. On the pages of his paper, he accused certain officers of the current board for misappropriation of funds and suggested one was behind a plot benefiting Scientology. He characterized yet another officer as an Orwellian villain, complete with a caricature that exceeded even the standards of bad taste. There were times when his choice of words in these attacks was crude. When there were references to seemingly legitimate issues, his message was usually wrapped in anger.

The same bitterness flowed over to a Facebook Group devoted to the community. Here again, mixed in were some potential issues worth debating and even some levity, but many of the accusations were unsubstantiated. As a guest, I personally refuted the financial misappropriation comments since I was familiar with the accounting process followed by STNC’s recent treasurers.

One Facebook comment was completely over the top. A candidate was said to have earned Demulle’s endorsement because she would perform a certain sex act another would not.

The perverse tone was not limited to groups attacking incumbents. A blog operated by an associate of STNC mocked the Facebook Group moderator’s physical handicap in a tasteless post.

None of these antics jived with how the candidates presented themselves in a formal public setting.

I had the pleasure of moderating one of STNC’s candidate forums. Overall, it was very civil. The candidates stuck to the questions submitted by stakeholders. There were a few jabs here and there, but nothing you wouldn’t hear at any other political debate.

Just how did the bitterness affect the results?

For one thing, the turnout about doubled from the previous election. There may be truth to the adage that any publicity is good publicity. Perhaps substitute effective for good.

As ugly as the campaign was, there appear to be some positives to take home.

The increase in turnout probably included many people of goodwill who would have otherwise stayed home. These voters may become regular participants in STNC’s work. That’s good.

How many of them might there be?

Allow me to do some very raw analysis by using some of the individual results.

David Demulle received 152 votes of 622 cast for president. If you assume that the 152 were persuaded by his publication, it is also reasonable to assume that many were turned off by his highly charged, negative tone and personal attacks; therefore, cast ballots against him.

A rough estimate of this backlash could be determined by comparing Demulle’s count against an unopposed candidate for executive office. Tomi Bowling received 460 votes. Bowling was demonized by Demulle in the Foothills Paper. The difference of 308 votes between them probably includes some measure of retribution. If it was about half, then most of Demulle’s support would have been offset. In other words, for all of his bluster, he could do no more than tread water.

It is worth noting that Bonnie Corwin came close to defeating incumbent Nina Royal for Treasurer. Corwin was backed by Demulle from the get go, yet seemed unaffected by his negative campaigning, probably because she herself ran a clean campaign based on her qualifications, not personal attacks. Accordingly, the voters seemed to be able to disassociate her from Demulle. Score a big one for the voters for seeing through the flak.

The biggest loser in this campaign was the local mainstream media.

Here was an opportunity for the Times, Daily News, Weekly and even the Patch to cover grassroots politics at its best and worst. Just a single story would have been appreciated. Do you think Rick Orlov, who specializes in local political news, could have spared a few words?

The Neighborhood Council election budgets can barely cover the cost of a mass mailing and an ad in one of the major papers. A little help from the media would be appreciated. It would be nice to have some independent reporting.

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The crisis in Ukraine is more fluid than our recent wave of sopping weather in Los Angeles.hitler_putin

The other night, I listened to an interview on AlJazeera America (here is the link to the broadcast, but it only covers a small segment). The commentator discussed the roots of the Kiev uprising with two guests. While their credentials were impressive, the insight they offered was based only on recent developments and ignored the deliberate actions of the former USSR and the Russian Federation that have played out over the decades.

The guests blamed the United States, not Putin, for the unrest in Ukraine.

They based their opinion on a statement Putin made a few weeks ago that suggested he would support a course satisfactory to both the EU and Russia, one which the United States dismissed in favor of allowing self-determination by Ukrainians. In their view, American reluctance to Putin’s undefined overture opened the door to the demonstrations and violence in Kiev.

The guests clearly overlooked the fact that Putin and Russia set the stage for the confrontation.

It is easy to act like a statesman, as Putin did, when he and his predecessors have done everything possible to stack the deck in Ukraine. The combination of Stalin’s starvation of millions of Ukrainians, combined with a persistent policy of Russification by the Soviet Union designed to suppress Ukrainian culture, effectively embedded a pro-Moscow element. In August 2012, deposed president Viktor Yanukovych put the icing on the cake by allowing Russian to serve as an official language in a region if it was the native tongue of 10% of the population. Putin even supports a measure allowing dual citizenship, which would make it easier for Moscow to manipulate politics in Ukraine

It was a more effective strategy than sending in the Red Army as an occupation force, although Stalin did that as well. It set up the present ethnic division that is likely to split the nation into two….an insidious undermining of Ukraine’s sovereignty.

As a result of this demographic warfare, most of Ukraine’s GDP is in the anti-EU eastern region.

20140223_ukr_0

Knowing how Russia orchestrated this virtual attack on sovereignty does not make it easier to deal with.

Already, Russian military units are patrolling the Crimea peninsula with no credible force to oppose them. Other cities in the eastern Ukraine will probably be in a similar state before long. The Ukrainian Army cannot match their firepower. For that matter, there is no telling how many of its troops might be sympathetic to Moscow.

There are two prospects for a unified Ukraine: slim and none.

In order to stem Putin’s tide, the new government of Ukraine must position loyal troops in key western areas. Odessa, a major seaport on the Black Sea, is essential to secure. Even there, one might expect pushback from a pro-Moscow faction. Having access to the Black Sea will be critical for the economy of any region governed from Kiev.

Ukrainian troops have been ordered to protect nuclear power plants and other key installations. There have been confrontations where they have refused Russian military requests to disarm.

It is a matter of time before the Ukrainian parliament asks NATO for assistance. Russia is in clear violation of a 1994 treaty which guarantees the sovereignty of Ukraine – a treaty the United States, United Kingdom and Russia signed, so a case can be made for intervention by the NATO allies.

But what would that intervention amount to?

Sanctions are being considered, but they will have to be harsh in order to get Putin’s attention. It is interesting that he did not apply sanctions against Ukraine and immediately escalated to putting boots on the ground – or perhaps jackboots. The Ukrainian government and military were not threatening Russian-speaking citizens. It was a compulsive move consistent with the Russian objective of annexation.

No one wants to set the stage for a potential armed conflict between the superpowers. Besides, geography would make it extremely difficult to support a large operation.

A possible solution would involve embedding small contingents of NATO observers with Ukrainian forces. Although Putin is an imperialist hell-bent on controlling Ukraine, he would not want to risk a potentially costly war by allowing his forces to fire upon any formation containing elements from the western allies. The objective of the observers would be to avoid fighting and, instead, serve as a deterrent, similar to the role of the small force the Allies maintained in West Berlin during the Cold War.

Such intervention would require using Poland as a base. The Warsaw government is a strong supporter of the present government in Kiev and would be receptive to this role if NATO, particularly the United States, wholeheartedly backed it.

I would imagine Canada, which has a large ethnic Ukrainian population, would consider participation if the US were on board. The UK and France would probably join in, too.

If we allow Russia to consolidate its control over most of Ukraine, then we may as well get the hell out of Europe and allow Putin to bully all of the former Soviet satellites into submission. Lack of action by the United States, Canada and their European allies would effectively endorse Putin’s playbook for a controlling stake in world affairs.

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