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Archive for December, 2014

For Los Angeles and California, 2014 was loaded with heroes and villains.

Patty Lopez topped the heroes category by virtue of her odds-defying, virtually unfunded victory, in the 39th Assembly District over incumbent Raul Bocanegra and his deep pockets filled with cash from the usual suspects.

Had Brian Wilson written “Heroes and Villains” in 2014, the meaning of the lyrics would have been clear to all.

But she’s still dancing in the night
Unafraid of what a dude’ll do in a town full of heroes and villains

Patty’s still dancing on her feet while Raul is the dude, stewing in his own hubris and purportedly planning a rematch.

Lopez’s victory will be an inspiration and a model for average citizens willing to fight a machine politician.

Almost as spectacular was the defeat of a local favorite of bad government devotees – former Speaker of the Assembly, John Perez – in his bid for State Controller.

Perez was knocked to the mat by a tag team. Betty Yee and Ashley Swearengin, each of whom with far better credentials for the job, squeezed him out in the primary despite his overwhelming advantage in cash supplied by the public unions.

We saw two career politicians convicted of voter fraud – former City Councilman Richard Alarcon and State Senator Roderick Wright – and two indicted for felonies – State Senators Ron Calderon and Leland Yee, the latter arguably facing the most serious charges.

Another career came to an unceremonious end, although not for criminal behavior. In the course of a 12-month period, Wendy Greuel suffered two back-to-back, punishing defeats at the polls. Despite millions of dollars in campaign contributions, she crashed and burned as voters were not fooled by her deceit. Any potential donors will think twice before throwing good money after bad if she ever decides to run again.

But there are always those who shine through the darkness and provide hope.

Ron Galperin has been a lighthouse. Developing a user-friendly data set, loaded with years of history and a mere few clicks away from the public, automatically elevated him as the most technically savvy controller of a major city in the nation; maybe the world. He’s not just a numbers geek, either. Standing up to IBEW Local 18 boss Brain D’Arcy’s thuggery in the showdown over the Joint Trusts nonprofits audit is resolve rarely seen in government, especially when support from the mayor is lukewarm and completely absent from the City Council.

Ron now has his eyes on the workers compensation abuse costing us possibly millions of dollars worth of lost services and hard cash. The current system, as he told the Los Angeles Times, creates “a perverse incentive” to file more claims and extend absences. He added, “I’d like to believe that the vast majority of the people who make a claim have a legitimate basis for it, but you have to look at the numbers and wonder.”

To City Attorney Mike Feuer, quality of life is not just a catchy political slogan. He is cracking down on the many illegal medical marijuana establishments that have become a blight citywide and is the only local politician seriously supporting Ron Galperin’s fight against the IBEW Local 18’s attempt to deny transparency. Feuer has also resuscitated the Neighborhood Prosecutor Program, which expedites resolutions of grass-roots legal issues.

What about the mayor?

Let me first say that Eric Garcetti is a welcome change from Antonio Villaraigosa. The former mayor, who was once promoted as a possible gubernatorial candidate or a member of President Obama’s cabinet, has had to make due with his mug on an insipid billboard for a local bank.

But that is the fate that may await Garcetti if he stays in a bubble. Caution seems to be his watchword.

He seems to have forgotten his pledge to reform the DWP. Instead he rolled over and allowed the “compromise” over the nonprofit audits to deny his power to appoint board members to the trusts. He failed to stand behind Galperin and Feuer in the dispute and, instead, caved into a bully. He may have already squandered the political capital he earned in the mayoral election when he overcame D’Arcy’s rich support of Wendy Greuel.

He has chosen to chase feel-good issues such as a proposal to jack up the minimum wage to over $13 per hour. If he has hopes to reduce business taxes in order to improve the economy, as he pledged in his campaign, the minimum wage proposal will blow a hole in that strategy.

Going forward, he needs to rediscover his leadership potential or face irrelevance.

What will 2015 hold for us?

Will the City Council even attempt to rein in retirement benefit costs?

Will there be a strategy to deal with street repairs where everyone contributes to the cost instead of sticking the property owners with most of the bill?

Will the city pressure Governor Brown to dump the $68 billion plan for high-speed rail and instead focus on commuter rail and subways in Los Angeles, the region and the state?

No crystal ball here; just curiosity and anxiety.

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I would rather write about some upbeat news this time of year, but the unending stream of horrific events is difficult to ignore. Terrorists and warmongers do not take a holiday season break.

Vladimir Putin is calling the shots in what might be the most dangerous form of terrorism.

Although Islamic terrorists have committed the most extreme savage and inhuman acts of violence, Putin’s actions are capable of triggering total world war, one with nuclear potential. However cruel the likes of ISIL, the Taliban and Boko Haram are, they do not have nuclear arsenals, at least for now.

Russia is paying a price for Putin’s nationalistic nostalgia for the good old days of the Soviet Union. The free fall of the ruble, precipitated by a combination of Western sanctions in response to Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, along with the hit the country’s economy has suffered due to the collapse of oil prices, are clearly his fault….and his alone.

Even the thought of sanctions would never have entered anyone’s mind had he behaved responsibly in the aftermath of Ukraine’s removal of a pro-Putin/anti-EU president. By sending troops and arms into Crimea and eastern Ukraine, he violated the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, signed in 1994 by Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom. The treaty also made Ukraine a nuclear-weapons-free zone.

Putin’s leadership has spanned fifteen years, alternating between the posts of Prime Minister and President. He bet Russia’s economic future on oil and gas, a strategy that made it easy for him to reward the oligarch cronies who support his regime.

Now he’s whining and telling his people that the economic crisis they face is because the West wants to suppress Russia’s influence. He has backed himself into a corner. The only way Putin’s position will remain tenable is if he can continue to sell the public on this farce of an excuse.

By appealing to nationalistic fervor, he will exploit the Russians’ characteristic resolve to endure adversity and protect the Motherland. And what better way than by expanding its influence through a modern equivalent of the old Eastern Bloc – a network of countries dependent on Moscow, but this time the barbed-wire barriers and guard towers will be replaced by economic dominance.

Putin is not limiting his ambitions to Eastern Europe; he is looking in all directions.

And this is where it gets really dangerous.

Rather than engage in aggressive but fair economic competition in the open market, Putin is relying on extortion and preemptive maneuvers.

Years before the crisis in Ukraine, Russia was already looking north to the Arctic as an exclusive commercial corridor and strategic military asset. Russia launched an expedition to the North Pole in 2007 and planted its flag on the seabed. While that act by itself has no international standing, using the pretense of an expanded continental shelf, the Russian government has repeatedly made clear its desire to control and exploit the region beyond historical claims and legal conventions.

Recently, Russia announced the re-positioning of 6,000 military personnel to the Arctic and disclosed plans to construct air and naval outposts there. More will undoubtedly follow. The rapid melting of the polar ice cap will open up huge commercial opportunities. Mineral and energy resources in the region will become more accessible and shipping routes will be shortened. The farther out Russia extends its military assets in the Arctic, the greater leverage it will have in disputes over the rights to the region.

To the west, Putin is already meddling in Moldova’s elections and has been making provocative moves around the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. He has been acting like a drunken Cossack of late, allowing his air force to endanger commercial aviation by turning off transponders, increasing the risk of collisions. He already has the blood of the passengers from Malaysia Flight 17 on his hands.

To the south, there is already talk of Russian plans to base nuclear weapons in the Crimea peninsula. It is bad enough Ukraine’s borders as defined by the Budapest Agreement were violated; now it appears that Putin wants to trash the nuclear-free zone provision as well.

The only reason why he is not elbowing his way into the Pacific is the presence of industrial giants China and Japan, each with its own credible military capabilities, not to mention the strong presence of United States forces. Putin will play fair when he knows he can’t get his way through bullying, hence the legitimate natural gas agreement between Russia and China.

The United States and its allies must be proactive to counter Putin. He is armed and dangerous. His recklessness heightens the risk of an inadvertent, isolated release of a nuclear weapon.

NATO must position forces in all vulnerable eastern European countries. Large formations are not necessary; just enough to make Putin think twice. Let’s not forget that it was a comparatively small, vastly outnumbered and isolated garrison that protected West Berlin throughout the Cold War from the threat posed by massive Soviet and East German armies.

But if we cede the initiative to Russia, our options will shrink and become more expensive.

There is nothing we or anyone can do to force Russia to leave Crimea. Putin got the drop on the rest of the world. We can only hope to curtail further attempts by Putin to expand his control. A recent bill signed by President Obama authorizes the shipment of military aid to Ukraine . It is the only practical strategy at this stage. This assistance might enable Ukraine to eventually purge the eastern part of the country of Russian troops and insurgents, but the extensive damage to the infrastructure and social order caused by months of conflict will require a mini-Marshall Plan to fix.

Turkey is the gatekeeper of the Straits of Bosphorus under the Montreux Convention, of which Russia is a signatory. The treaty strictly limits access by naval units from countries not bordering the Black Sea. While Putin had no misgivings violating the Budapest Memorandum, he would squeal like a stuck pig if Turkey were to obstruct transit of Russia’s Black Sea fleet to and from the Mediterranean. Of course, Turkey’s reliability as a NATO partner is questionable these days. Too bad – even a symbolic gesture by Turkey would weaken Putin’s hand.

How this crisis plays out is anyone’s guess. The best resolution would be if the Russian people finally saw through their president’s lies and voted him out of office.

But what if Putin declared an emergency and suspended the Russian Constitution, voiding the election results?

What if the military lost faith in him and launched a coup? Think back to the military coup that unseated Gorbachev. It could happen again.

Putin is the proverbial loose cannon. He is the greatest threat to world peace in the lifetimes of most persons alive today. The West must be relentless with sanctions and military assistance.

Appealing directly to the Russian people is a viable strategy, too. Perhaps Radio Free Europe needs to mount an intense social media and broadcast campaign.

In the end, the Russians must step up and rid themselves and the world of this sociopath.

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I have made a tradition of posting a song suitable for the Holidays.

I try to select one that is less than well-known and by artists who may have been forgotten.

This year’s music is by the Chad Mitchell Trio. Although this song was also recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary, the Chad Mitchell Trio was the first marquee folk group to introduce it. Few people recall that the trio also beat Peter, Paul and Mary to Blowing in the Wind and Leaving on a Jet Plane. No surprise that some of their key material overlapped since both groups shared the same producer – Milt Okun.

After Chad left, he was replaced by John Denver and the group was renamed the Mithcell Trio. As before, biting political satire was their trademark, along with crisp harmony. Look them up on You Tube.

Enjoy.

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Earthquakes seem to be on the minds of many these days.

Mayor Garcetti floated a long-term plan to retrofit older multi-story and concrete buildings to withstand major quakes.  There will be a price to pay: a modest two-story structure could require around $100,000 to strengthen.  The overall cost will likely be in the low billions of dollars.

A new movie about a 9.0 earthquake on the San Andreas fault is due to be released in May 2015.  It depicts the total destruction of California.

But who needs natural disasters when the LAUSD provides a non-stop stream of catastrophes that burn through piles of money faster than the recent fire took down the massive apartment project in downtown?

Let’s look at the history.

In 2007, the LAUSD launched a new payroll system which cost $90 million.  Chaos erupted as some teachers were overpaid and others underpaid.  The system fix cost $37 million, half of which was recouped from the contractor.  Thousands of teachers had their lives turned upside down; some are still being pursued for overpayments whether or not there is support for the claims.

An audit by LAUSD’s Inspector General disclosed another payroll disaster.  The report, which was issued in January 2010, stated there had been $200 million in payments to temporary staff filling positions for which the funding had expired.  It was also unclear what services were being performed by these employees.

More recently, we have seen a string of costly failures.

There was the mismanaged rollout of IPads, a project that dipped into school construction bond money – funds that should have been dedicated to brick and mortar improvements, never mind what attracted the FBI to conduct its own investigation. Only the nuanced interpretation by the LAUSD’s internal legal minds claimed it was a legitimate use.

Maybe LAUSD was doing us a favor by diverting the construction funds considering the costly excesses attributable to the construction of the Belmont Learning Center as well as the Robert F. Kennedy complex, located on the site of the old Ambassador Hotel. The latter is the most expensive facility in the system’s history.  It was approaching $600 million as of 2010.

MiSiS (My Integrated Student Information System) is a trainwreck in process. The failure of this system is preventing some students from scheduling courses required for graduation and making it difficult, if not impossible, to release accurate academic transcripts.

The cost to fix the system could easily exceed $100 million.  It has already resulted in a hiring freeze.

To make matters worse, MiSiS was the replacement for ISIS (not related to the Syrian gang, but that’s the only good news). ISIS was considered unsatisfactory. Its sticker price was $43 million, but I am unsure how much of that was actually paid.  There was a $12 million dollar payment the LAUSD claims it made in error to Harris Education Consulting due to a contract snafu (what other type of contracting is there at LAUSD?).

What all of these failures have in common is the absence of competent management.  The ultimate responsibility rests with the Board, the members of which approve the budgets and directly or indirectly approve the hiring of executives charged with the administration of the system.

These are past and present Board Members who were around for almost all of the meltdowns (year shows when elected). If a member is not shown, he/she was elected only recently:

Monica Garcia  2006 (Still in office)
Steve Zimmer 2009 (Still in office)
Tamar Galatzan  2007 (Still in office)
Marlene Canter  2001
Yolie Flores Aguilar  2007
Julie Korenstein  1987
Richard Vladovic  2007 (Still in office)
Bennett Kaysar 2011 (Still in office)

If members are incapable of managing and controlling the performance of the highest ranking executives in the system, if they lack the ability to understand or question big-ticket project progress reports, then it is time to send them packing before they bankrupt the school system.

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Everyone knows I like to write.

But only those who are personally acquainted with me know I like to talk.

And I can talk with the best of them, which is why I have always desired to have a radio show of my own.

So when I read that KABC’s Larry Elder was leaving, my spirits picked up.

KABC is one of the few stations that focuses on local issues as much as it does on national events. For the record, I haven’t listened to Mr. Elder in a very long time, and tended to disagree with him more than not when I did.

My broadcast media experience is thin, but I handled myself well when appearing on NPR, KABC and Fox. Of the three, NPR offers the best format to make a point. Unfortunately, it doesn’t fit the model of commercial media very well. That’s not to say a hybrid approach can’t be developed that minimizes talkover by the host and discourages guests from going off on tangents.

I could also serve as a voice of moderation for the station. I am A Blue Dog Democrat and proud of it. My philosophy is simple: we can have anything we want as long as we are willing and able to pay for it. If there is a consensus to increase social spending at the expense of funding defense, so be it. But we have to pay for it, especially when our national debt is nearly equal to 100% of GDP.

Outside of fiscal issues, I support gun control, gay rights, separation of church and state, and believe that applying the brakes to population growth will be the only way to arrest climate change.

Partisan politics is the worst enemy of democracy. I refuse to watch MSNBC and Fox and annoyed when people post mindless memes on Facebook that are nothing but partisan talking points or slogans.

My favorite broadcast news source is Aljazeera America and newspapers are still my primary source for information.

As a talk show host, I would invite more Neighborhood Council activists on the show, along with other local leaders from the general public.

I have been deeply interested in international relations since fourth grade when the good Irish Christian Brothers made Time Magazine’s world section required reading. Looking back, it must have been startling for adults to listen to a bunch of nine-year-olds discuss NATO, the Soviet Union, Cuba, DeGaulle and Nasser. We probably made more sense than some of the talking heads you hear today.

If anyone from KABC is listening, please consider me. If not Elder’s time slot, another could do.

Just to be safe, I am not quitting my day job.

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