Archive for April, 2015

What is it with the Los Angeles City Council?

Despite being the best paid city officials in the land, they cannot – or will not – get in front of a growing problem; not even up to speed. Do they have an aversion to doing their jobs, or are they just easily paralyzed by a challenge? It makes me wonder if the council members get tangled up in their underwear while getting dressed in the morning.

Think back – while other cities managed to regulate the growth of medical marijuana outlets, Los Angeles suffered through an explosion of thinly-veiled, illicit distribution establishments, estimated at around 1,000, before Mike Feuer stepped up and enforced the restrictions the voters approved under Measure D.

The unregulated proliferation never would have occurred had the City Council issued sensible regulations and enforced them back in 2007, and responded to neighborhood complaints. Instead, it was the wild west, with dispensaries opening up as fast as saloons did in the Deadwoods of the frontier, except there was no Wild Bill Hickock around to keep order.

Well, once again, the City Council is sitting on its hands.

This time, our officials are deliberately ignoring long-established zoning laws.

Just as medical marijuana dispensaries sprouted like mushrooms, residential units are being converted to boutique hotels across many parts of the city.

I am not talking about homes where the owners are renting out a room to a college student or a newly-landed aspiring actor – a perfectly legitimate activity. What is in play now are complete transformations of properties from single-family homes (including condos) to non-owner occupied, short-term rentals. These units are advertised on popular travel websites by the night, week, etc. Visa//MC/Amex accepted – even the Discover Card.

Full-time residents never know who might be going in and out of these “hotels”, therefore, making it difficult to determine if there is suspicious activity on their blocks. Late-night arrivals and undue noise from parties are also among the complaints. These may sound like minor problems, but who can blame the regular residents when their rights under city zoning laws are being violated and their concerns are ignored. When they purchased or leased their homes, they assumed the properties were located in residential neighborhoods, not on Airbnb Boulevard.

Short-term rentals also take apartments off the market, adding to the housing woes of local residents. The numbers are hotly debated, but there can be no doubt the transition from long-term use has the potential to push rental costs upward.

The City Council apparently has two opposing factions on this issue, both small, and some members who just do not care. There is talk of drafting an ordinance, but the problem will just spin further out of control the longer it takes….. and become even more difficult to resolve.  This is inexcusable in view of regulations passed by San Francisco and New York, which can serve as off-the-shelf models for a Los Angeles ordinance. If you follow the links and read the summaries, you will see that they are not all or nothing, but, most importantly, consider public safety as well as residents’ interests. It now appears Santa Monica is taking steps to curb the growth.

The State Assembly is in the very early stages of formulating bills, but what’s to stop the city from introducing an interim ordinance?

The owners of the short-term rental properties are becoming increasingly organized, and their enablers – firms such as Airbnb – are lobbying city officials. Airbnb has some serious money at its disposal, considering it is on the way to being valued at $20-billion.  Plenty of spare change there to buy a few council members. That can’t happen, or can it?

While the council drags its feet, one would think, at a minimum, that zoning laws would be enforced.  Many, if not most, of the short-term rentals have undergone some degree of structural modification.  Some may even lead to violations of occupancy caps or pose safety hazards.  Many are certainly not paying the city business tax, and perhaps not income tax. So, then, legitimate residents are allowing themselves to be screwed for free! We would make lousy sex workers.

The only way to counter the growing resources of the short-term rental industry and the negligence of our City Council is to bombard our officials with complaints, by mail, phone, e-mail and in person.  Next time you attend a neighborhood council or association meeting, don’t just sit back and allow your council member or his/her staff representative to reel off all the good little things they have done for your community, pin them down on this issue and others they conveniently ignore.  We pay them enough.

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In view of the recent news regarding the fallout from the LAUSD’s ill-conceived iPad program, you would think the board incumbents facing run-off elections on May 19 might have mentioned the developments in their social media posts.

A check of the Facebook pages of Tamar Galatzan and Richard Vladovic, as of Friday afternoon, found them full of rainbows and unicorns. Bennett Kaysar did not mention anything about iPads either (although there was a reference by a reader), but he was squarely and consistently against the program from the start. He owes no one an explanation for the fiasco.

Facebook posts of smiling children and celebrations help archive students’ experiences. That’s fine, but they should also inform the constituents of significant events affecting the school system.

So why is it incumbents fail to present a complete picture, one which acknowledges the failures along with the successes?

Of course, that is a rhetorical question. Nevertheless, neglecting to share important news, whether good or bad, indicates a lack of accountability, and that is a characteristic shared by Galatzan and Vladovic.

It was bad enough the iPad deal attracted an investigation by the FBI for possible criminal violations; now the SEC is evaluating it. There are enough questions regarding whether the use of bond proceeds to pay for the i-Pads and software met the disclosure requirements for the investors, an area regulated by the SEC for any public offering. It is a very technical issue, but it revolves around the definition of technology applications with respect to the bond covenants.

Too bad there will not be an investigation addressing what the voters thought they were getting when they approved a string of school construction bonds last decade, well before the advent of the iPad. That’s as contentious as the SEC issue, and even more relevant, in my opinion, since there was a $40-billion construction and modernization backlog when the i-Pad program was forced through.

I will not venture a guess what the SEC will decide.  The LAUSD’s attorneys did not have a problem, but they are hardly independent.

Regardless of the outcome from the SEC review, most who voted for the bonds probably would not have considered individual iPads as a facility improvement, at least not without thorough public scrutiny and an auditable plan with measurable benchmarks. The curriculum piece of the purchase, in particular, is at odds with any reasonable definition of a capital asset. As it is, iPads have a life much shorter than the assets such bonds would ordinarily finance and can easily “walk away” when distributed to a mobile population. It is pretty difficult to walk away with a building.

Many today now think of it as a classic scam similar to what former Mayor Villaraigosa pulled with the trash fee that was supposed to fund 1,000 new police officers back in 2006. Only 366 were hired. The rest went for ancillary public safety costs. He was chastised for it by then City Controller Laura Chick.

In the end, the iPad program was launched on a whim; a hell of a way to commit a billion-plus dollars. Obviously, with the exception of Bennett Kaysar, the board knows little about fundamental fiduciary responsibilities.  It is worse when those responsible do not publicly acknowledge major errors in judgment.

Most of the iPad supporters eventually acknowledged the program was off the rails and voted to slow it down.

But not Tamar Galatzan.  In the face of confusion, lack of security and with no meaningful tracking or custody controls, she wanted to proceed full speed ahead.

Vladovic, Galatzan and others also supported John Deasy’s decision to implement MISIS, the costly student database that crashed and burned. They ignored emphatic concerns from Bennett Kaysar of the potential for failure. To make matters worse, they insisted on pushing forward with the system even after discovering problems consistent with Kaysar’s predictions. Ramon Cortines, Deasy’s replacement, estimates the cost of fixing the mess at around $100 million.

According to an article by Howard Blume in the LA Times, Galatzan’s reaction to the MISIS crisis was, “But it might take us a little longer than we had expected or hoped to get there.”

Not a word of concern about the cost. No acknowledgement of the warnings. Is that her idea of accountability?

Both Vladovic and Galatzan have credible opponents.

Lydia Gutierrez may have a slight lead over Vladovic based on an internal poll, so take it with a grain of salt. The incumbent garnered 42.6% of the vote in the primary, only 5 points in front of Gutierrez. A close contest is expected.

Both she and Vladovic have some degree of controversy surrounding them. Gutierrez is viewed as a social conservative by some. Vladovic accused her of being against mandatory vaccinations, but she insists that is untrue. Her stated position is that caution be used if there is a reason to believe there could be an allergic reaction. That appears to leave wiggle room in favor of the voluntary route, but it does not appear to be as extreme as her opponent would like the voters to think. (Personally, I am in favor of mandatory vaccinations, but I suppose there may be rare exceptions based on sound medical advice, which does not include input from Jenny McCarthy).

Vladovic has admitted to anger management issues for which he has sought professional treatment. He was also accused of sexual harassment. The details of the LAUSD investigation into these charges were not made public due to attorney-client privilege.

Guiterrez has an otherwise clean set of credentials as far as her role as a teacher and education professional. She is also bi-lingual and active in the education sector. She also served in her local Neighborhood Council. Whether any of her social conservatism would affect her ability to serve the students in the LAUSD, or even if she would have the leverage to influence policy with respect to any of her views, is debatable and probably unlikely.

I am not endorsing either of these candidates – between Vladovic’s poor management and personal judgment, and some uncertainty as to whether Guiterrez’ social conservatism might influence policy, it is a tough choice the voters of District 7 face. However, they should not be afraid to make a change if they believe it is in the overall best interests of the students.

The key to Galatzan’s bid for re-election is whether her opponent, Scott Schmerelson, can rally the supporters for the candidates who finished out of the money in the primary for District 3. If he can, he stands an excellent chance of unseating her.

Schmerelson is a career educator with 35 years as a teacher, counselor and principal. Galatzan was part of Villaraigosa’s LAUSD reform slate that did not live up to expectations. She has never served as a teacher.

Voters should give Schmerelson a shot in view of Galatzan’s inability to comprehend the importance of evaluating major financial commitments. Her reckless approach to approving projects is draining money from the classrooms.

Bennett Kaysar is in for a fight, too. I hope the voters of District 5 re-elect him. He appears to be the only LAUSD board member with critical thinking skills.

In their hearts, all of the candidates truly care about the students, but it is the mind that converts the care into effective action. Some minds are just not suited to the task.

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Michael Higby, the founder and editor of the Mayor Sam Blogspot, passed away last night of an apparent heart attack.

His blog was among the most widely read in the city.  It was also the most widely loved or detested, depending on the subject.

When I started my blog, I did not look to Mayor Sam or any other for inspiration.  If anything, I strove to be completely different, dealing with a more narrow scope of issues and a style much closer to prose than reporting.

But I did follow Mayor Sam closely. Many officials did, too.

I recall setting off a firestorm on the blog one week when I posted comments critical of vulgar chatter that would permeate the threads.  Michael, along with some of his regular readers, were not happy with my criticism.  He and I exchanged private e-mails on the subject and dealt with it in a civil manner.

It was not long after when Michael established a new policy that blocked profane rants.  I have no idea if my pushback had anything to do with it.

I suspect not. Michael was as independent a person as you could find and was passionately on the side of unbridled free speech. It did not matter what others thought.

But Michael had a conscience and was thoughtful. It was inevitable he would have come to that conclusion, with or without external input.

The Mayor Sam blog raised the bar of blogging – not so much for content (rightly or wrongly, many challenged the accusations or characterizations in his reports), but for stimulating interest in the workings of local politics that lurked below the surface, practices largely ignored by mainstream media.

His writings were the antithesis of the glossy mailers or e-mail newsletters politicians distributed to their constituents. Michael was a role model for challenging the establishment.  I believe he did it out of love for the city.

I do not think anyone really hated the Mayor Sam blog.  Instead, readers had a love/hate relationship with it, an emotion that has been described as exciting and intoxicating because of the fine line between love and hate.

Blogging will be a little less interesting and provocative now that Michael is gone.

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Pennsylvania Avenue was mired in mud.

It was March 4, 1865. Around 25,000 to 30,000 endured the miserable conditions caused by prolonged wet weather and high winds to listen to Abraham Lincoln deliver his second inaugural address.

Unlike the atmosphere of his first inauguration, the sense of trepidation among the general public regarding Lincoln’s safety was diminished.

Although John Wilkes Booth was a short distance from where the Lincoln delivered his speech, his designs against the president were not known to anyone. At that point in time, he had contemplated kidnapping Lincoln and smuggling him to Richmond where he would be exchanged for many thousands of Confederate prisoners. Such a fanciful plot could only have been conjured by a deranged sociopath.

Over 10,000 threats had been made against the president in the course of his first term, none taken seriously by him. He even kept some threatening letters pigeon-holed in his desk as if they represented routine business. He once said, “I cannot bring myself to believe that any human being lives who would do me any harm.” But those responsible for his safety were compelled to take precautions, so sharpshooters manned the rooftops that day.

The war’s end was in sight. General Sherman had just crossed into North Carolina on his way to form an inescapable vise with General Grant’s forces in Virginia to crush General’s Lee’s weakened but resilient army.

Some in his position would have used the opportunity for self promotion – think “mission accomplished.” However, in his speech, Lincoln downplayed the seemingly inevitable victory: “The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.”

Lincoln did not think his speech was well-received. The fact that there were only four breaks for applause seemed to support his view.

I do not believe he was surprised by the less than rousing response. Lincoln knew what the public wanted to hear – an unequivocal victory speech – but he chose to be conciliatory instead: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

Why did he deliver a message of reconciliation when lives were still being lost?

Lincoln was a patient man. He endured insubordinate generals, ruthless political enemies and hostile attacks by the press. Yet he never lost his focus and conviction. That by itself does not explain why he would extend an olive branch to an enemy that launched the nation into a war costing over 600,000 lives and maiming many more; that still seemed hellbent to fight on despite a steady deterioration of fortune.

But Lincoln was also a pragmatic man – he limited the scope of the Emancipation Proclamation to the slaves held in states under the control of the Confederacy, lest he lose political support in the border states. He continued to support Grant despite the loss of 60,000 men in the latter’s Overland Campaign that led to the siege of Richmond, but failed to destroy Lee’s army. Nothing was to deter him from his primary objective of winning the war and restoring the union.

He wasn’t just concerned with winning the war; he understood the importance of how it should end. An angry defeated enemy could be dangerous. Plus, they were still Americans who would have to be reunited with the rest of the nation if there were to be a United States.

Over March 27 and 28, Lincoln, Grant and Sherman discussed the possibility of the conflict degenerating into guerrilla warfare. There was a fear that the remaining southern armies would scatter and continue the fight as irregular units, mixed in with the civilian population or from hideouts in the hills and forests.

It was a real fear based on experience. Missouri was the perverse model for the tragedy guerrilla warfare could unleash – women and children were slaughtered by rival bands of partisans

Both Grant and Sherman felt the sting of a more civil version of guerrilla operations led by the likes of General Nathan Bedford Forrest and Colonel John Singleton Mosby (ironically, the latter served in the Grant administration during Reconstruction). There were many others with the proven capability to create havoc when least expected.

What Lincoln most feared was if General Lee would disband his army and authorize his men to carry on the fight from their home states. If that were to occur, there would not be enough troops in the Union to contain, much less vanquish, the violence. The United States would cease to be a functioning nation. As it was, there were still 175,000 men under arms in various parts of the Confederate States.

It was critical, then, to deliver a message of reconciliation. It was even more important to make that clear to the most respected southern leaders, especially Robert E. Lee.

Lee was the key. In the absence of a credible government, southerners looked to him as their leader. If he surrendered, other field commanders would likely follow suit. Some of Lee’s staff encouraged him to issue an order to his men to disperse and carry on the fight.

While cornered at Appomattox, Lee received a letter from Grant indicating that the only condition of surrender would be that the men of the Army of Northern Virginia promised not to take up arms against the government. There was no mention of imprisonment or other acts of retribution. The message was consistent with Lincoln’s wishes. On the basis of the letter and the mutual professional respect between the two opponents, it was easy for Lee to dismiss suggestions of continuing the fight.

Grant’s final surrender terms on April 9 were generous, allowing the Confederates to keep their livestock and for officers to retain their sidearms. Grant also authorized the immediate distribution of rations to the surrendered troops. They could leave for their homes in peace. As Lee stated, “This will have a very happy effect on my army.”

The remaining Confederate field armies followed suit. General Joseph Johnston, who commanded perhaps the most important fighting force after Lee’s, started surrender negotiations on April 17 with Sherman in North Carolina. The final surrender took place on April 26 subject to the same terms as issued at Appomattox. It also covered some 90,000 southern troops from the Carolinas to Florida.

However, it was a dicey affair. One of Union generals mistrusted Johnston and had actually attempted to impair the negotiations, but his concerns were dismissed out of hand by Sherman. Then the news of Lincoln’s assassination reached Sherman on April 17. He swore the telegrapher to secrecy in order not to risk jeopardizing his initial meeting with Johnston. He did share the tragic news with the southern commander. Johnston was mortified. He described Lincoln’s death as “the greatest possible calamity to the South.”

Sherman informed his troops of the surrender negotiations and the news of the assassination that night. He also relayed the sad effect it had on Johnston. The Union soldiers maintained discipline and no reprisals of any significance were carried out.

Some radical Republicans wanted nothing less than retribution against the South and capital charges against the leaders of the Confederacy. Such an outcome may have precipitated an agonizingly long guerrilla war.

But even in death, Lincoln’s message of reconciliation prevailed and spared the nation a continuation of bloodshed that would have destroyed its future.

As it was, the legacy of the Civil War was painful….and still is.

In the end, it created a nation, however imperfect and misguided at times, that has done much to protect freedom throughout the world.

We can thank Lincoln for that.

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The persistent drought in California has been assumed by some to be further evidence of climate change.

It is spurious to conclude the current drought is being driven by climate change, especially in view of the long history of dry weather patterns, some lasting decades or even hundreds of years. I dare say that politics is behind the climate change/drought connection. It makes about as much sense as saying the recent harsh winters in the east are the harbinger of a new ice age.

There is a well-known saying: if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

Paraphrasing that: if there is little or no rain for a long time and few people are around, is there a drought?

It would depend on what you mean by a “few people” and a “long time.”

The Anasazi thrived in the desert southwest until a megadrought took hold in 1275. But they had survived earlier droughts, so why would they abandon their mesa villages in the wake of that one?

Archaeologists specializing in the Ancient Puebloans theorize that people had become more dependent on each other and on agriculture, in particular – more so than in previous periods of prolonged droughts – so when crops started to wither, so did their societies. You might say it was the 13th century’s version of the Dust Bowl migration.

The parallel to today’s California is sobering.

The state’s population exploded in the 20th century and agriculture’s role in the economy grew with it. Although we are not as vulnerable as the Anasazi due to technology and distribution systems that allow vital goods to flow into our homes, our quality of life is heavily dependent on water, of which agriculture consumes 80%.

A recent article in the New York Times questioned whether the Golden Sate could continue to sustain a growing population in view of the variability of the water supply.

The Times was right about questioning sustainability, but the problem isn’t so much California’s population growth. Instead, it is the world’s uncontrolled population explosion that is the root cause of our current water crisis. California is the largest single breadbasket on the planet. The demand for farm products from our irrigated fields has grown steadily. International agricultural exports were valued at $6.5 billion in 2001 and increased to $21.2 billion by 2013.

Will the farm output keep pace with growing populations in China and India?

Can other regions step up and supplement California’s food production?

Since agriculture represents only 2% of the state’s economy, a decrease in output will not be disastrous for Californians as a whole. Food prices would go up, other factors notwithstanding, but the implications could adversely affect other parts of the world. And that’s the last thing we need in this era of international chaos.

More efficient methods of irrigation must be developed, and consideration given to shifting away from certain water-hungry crops. Transitioning crops can be costly in the short-run for farmers, so the state must be prepared to offer subsidies to that effect.

Even in prolonged droughts, there are years where rainfall will be unusually heavy. We must be in a position to take full advantage of them. Water reclamation and increasing water storage have to take priority over pet projects such as high-speed rail.

Unlike the Anasazi, we have the technology to adapt. Whether our elected officials will have the wisdom to establish sensible priorities is another matter.

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At least a few City Council members are patting themselves on the back for the sidewalk repair settlement reached with groups representing the disabled. For sure, it was a landmark case, with the city pledging to spend $1.3 billion over the next thirty years to eliminate the growing backlog of deteriorated walkways. The amount includes an escalation in annual spending to adjust for increasing costs over time. The last estimate for eliminating the current sidewalk repair backlog was $1.5 billion. On paper, it looks like a pretty good match – only $200 million difference. But since the $1.3 billion commitment will be spread over 30 years, you have to apply inflation to the current $1.5 billion estimate over the same duration. Using 2% compounded over 30 years, the repair costs will grow to $2.7 billion, resulting in a gap of $1.4 billion. I also looked at it from a present value approach. Discounting the future cash flow of $1.3 billion at 2%, the result came to $963 million, well under the current estimated cost of $1.5 billion. Still quite a gap. 2% may be low considering the city authorized 46 new positions in the Department of Public Works to make repairs. I assume more will be needed. Public employees come with a high price tag, especially when you load in postretirement benefits. Regardless, the city still has to come up with the initial annual outlay of $30 million, and every year thereafter. It was a struggle just to come up with $27 million for this year. Serious consideration must be given to outsourcing much of the work in order to manage the costs. Certainly, we need to repair the sidewalks, but it is pure audacity the way certain Council Members are hailing this as a breakthrough deal, especially when it took a lawsuit to force them to do their jobs.

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