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Archive for the ‘General Interest’ Category

I had a firsthand look of the chaos bestowed on the population by the passage of Prop 47. As almost all of you know, the measure raised the threshold of a felony and led to the early release of many career criminals.

A neighbor’s house was ransacked and robbed last night.  The family was on an errand for a period of less than two hours, not a long time by most measures, but far more than enough time for criminals to do their deed.

I talked with the LAPD officers who were investigating.  When I mentioned there has been a steady increase of property crimes in the community since the passage of Prop 47, the officer piped right up, “We are seeing an influx of thieves from other states. They know the odds of going to jail are slim.”

There have been steady reports posted to Nextdoor about burglaries in Valley Village.  As president of the homeowners’ association, I am acutely aware of this growing problem, which effects many communities in Los Angeles.  I have lived here since 1986 and have never before seen such a spike in crimes.

Many of the crimes are brazen – carried out in broad daylight.  Thieves have walked all the way up driveways to break into cars, not simply satisfied to target those parked on the street. That takes some cajones…and desperation, a combination that is dangerously explosive and could indicate a propensity for violence by the perpetrators.

It is bad enough that thousands of professional burglars have flooded the streets after early release; we have also become a magnet for out-of-state talent, as the LAPD officer related.

The people of California voted for Prop 47. It was supported by the top elected officials in the state.  It even had the support of New Gingrich!

It is time for the state’s voters to reverse this truly misguided policy.  It will require a new ballot measure, and, in the short run, legislation mitigating the impact of 47.

It is also time to build new prisons.  Instead of selling bonds to construct an extraordinarily expensive  high-speed train, let’s invest in state-of-the-art prisons which have the facilities for addressing and correcting the causes of recidivism. There will always be those who do not respond to intervention – they will ultimately require a lifetime of incarceration, so the capacity must be in place to deal with them as well.

Opponents to this would claim we cannot incarcerate ourselves out of a growing, statewide crime wave.  The converse for that argument is more grounded in reality – we cannot reduce crime by rapidly increasing the supply of criminals, as Prop 47 has done.

 

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Increased TV and film location shooting in Los Angeles is a good thing, but can it cross a line?

Some residents in a very quiet neighborhood Valley Village think so….and they have good reason. They support local filming, but a certain production has turned their block into a studio backlot extension for too many days.

Five times in two years, to be exact, for multiple days per event – all at the same residence. The permits cover 3-5 days each, although there is usually an added day at the front or back end for prep and breakdown. The hours run from 6AM to 10PM. However, the crews start arriving at 5AM. Overall, this quiet residential street has been a commercial zone for approximately 25 days within the last two years (with more to come), with 10-ton trucks, trailers, canteen vehicles and porta-johns lining both sides of the street. There are no ex-LAPD officers on hand.

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Aside from noise, difficulties backing out of driveways, lack of parking or inadequate access for emergency vehicles – concerns which can be mostly overlooked if they occurred a couple of times per year – the conversion of a residential street for commercial use on a semi-regular frequency is contrary to the right to enjoy one’s property.

There are no restrictions as to how often a specific block or residence can be used as a shooting location.

There are restrictions on yard sales, however.

The owners of the residence who allowed their home to be used are gone during the filming and do not have to put up with the inconvenience. There must certainly be some form of compensation involved. If so, I hope they report it on their tax returns. According to the residents I spoke with, they have not been responsive to appeals from the neighbors.

It would seem there should be a reasonable restriction on location filming in residential neighborhoods, including limits on the number and size of vehicles, the frontage occupied, the hours and days per shoot and minimum requirements for a permit approvals from the affected residents in accordance with the nature and scope of the shoot.

The zoning laws of our city are increasingly being ignored at the expense of the residents.

In this instance, the production company may be enjoying a tax credit for filming locally, but the residents receive little or nothing, only congestion, the aroma of the honey wagons, and noise late into the night.

Not a good deal.

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As the Wells Fargo scandal unfolded, in the back of my mind was just how the requirements of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, enacted in 2002 in response to the Enron and Worldcom debacles, did not protect the investors, general public and the bank’s employees.

Sarbanes-Oxley is referred to as SOX. It did not create much in the way of new regulations, but it did formalize how publicly traded companies implemented and enforced internal control policies and procedures. It also raised the stakes for key corporate managers – including the Board of Directors, CEO, CFO and in-house attorneys – as far as their individual roles in assuring that the controls governing financial and ethical performance were observed. For example, corporate attorneys must report suspicions of fraudulent acts to their company’s chief legal counsel and CEO. They can go to the audit committee if there appears to be insufficient effort to investigate.

SOX also created the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB), or Peekaboo, as it is known by industry finance, auditing and accounting professionals. Peekaboo oversees the external auditors’ work, which had been largely self-regulated. Audit firms are now subject to inspections by the Board.

Violating any SOX regulation could be worthy of criminal charges, yet few executives have faced charges, much less been convicted, under its umbrella. It is seemingly stupefying considering key executives must sign certifications as to the accuracy of the financial statements, but understandable when CEOs are shielded by sub-certifications their companies make lower-level managers sign, creating buffers. It is reminiscent of a scene from Godfather 2, where a lieutenant of the Corleone Family tells a Senate Committee how the Godfather had layers of people between himself and those who took care of the actual dirty work.

There’s an excellent article which emphasizes how the additional layers obfuscates a CEO’s involvement.

But the impact on Wells Fargo’s financial statements was minimal, only $2.4 million. By itself, that would not create any stir on Wall Street, certainly not enough to push the stock price upwards.

And probably not enough to subject John Stumph to criminal charges, much less convicted, for deliberate misstatement of the financial statements. Just think – the DOJ did not bother pursuing a criminal action against Countrywide’s Angelo Mozilo, so why would it start now?

However, the phony accounts did create an illusion of long-term customer loyalty. One could argue that shareholders would be inclined to hold the stock longer than they otherwise would. Think of it as contrived price support.

Regardless, it was fraud.

It is almost certain that some of the sub-certifiers who knew of the scheme would gladly cooperate with the Feds and help prosecutors construct a trail to Stumph and his key people. Call it buffer-busting.

The DOJ should also look to what SOX refers to as Entity Level controls. Also known as “the tone at the top,” these cover the corporate culture and how it affects the risk of circumventing the activity controls directly related to financial reporting. So, an overly aggressive marketing program, similar to the one used by Wells Fargo, may create an atmosphere of fear among the sales staff and lead to fraudulent actions. A definite red flag which should have caused the SOX auditors to dig deeper at Wells Fargo.

In the end, why do we have SOX if it is not used to help bring down unscrupulous executives?

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The Next LAvia

There have been WalkLAvia and CicLAvia.

The objectives of these two events were to encourage alternate transportation and open streets, making them pedestrian-friendly.

Whether they will change the culture of car-centric Los Angeles remains to be seen, but even their harshest critics would have to admit these people-oriented events are effective tools for making a point. So much so, it has inspired another group to adapt the concept – developers.

Without a doubt, developers are the movers and shakers of the city. Their money rivals that of the public unions when it comes to influencing City Hall.

To many, developers are greedy and out to destroy the character of our neighborhoods. The biggest ones have long struggled to change that image, but it is a challenge to put a smiley face on their activities. How can they connect with the residents on a human scale? Shopping centers and high-rises do not exactly provide a warm and fuzzy image.

Several of the largest developers quietly engaged the services of a marketing consulting firm to tackle the image problem.

The firm appears to have identified a commonality that all Angelenos are intimately familiar with and is associated with development.

The lowly porta-john, those blue booths of relief, are a required element of any project, from a major remodel of a single-family home to an office tower. No porta-john, no project. A recent study by Johns Hopkins University proved a tight correlation exists between porta-john rentals and construction activity.

Those same potties are the very ones we see at any major street fair, carnival or CicLAvia. They are familiar and comforting to us. It makes sense that they could help form a bond between developers and residents.

With that in mind, the mayor’s office authorized JohnLAvia to honor the development community.

A stretch of Magnolia Boulevard in Valley Village will be closed to motor vehicle traffic at a date yet to be determined. No parking will be permitted in order to line both sides of the street with porta-johns.

There will be entertainment, featuring Olivia Newton John. Food will be donated by Jons.

Popular carnival rides will be adapted to fit the theme. Can you imagine the thrill of spinning wildly on a tilt-a-whirl while strapped in a porta-john?

To raise funds for developer political campaign donations, kissing booths will be established in some of the johns where guests can pay to lock lips with whomever is on the other side of the door. You might call it a crap shoot.

Traditional family games will be offered as well – bobbing for apples is sure to be popular.

Unlike other crowded outdoor venues, no waiting in line when nature calls.

However, a concern has been raised that might kill the event. Some local residents believe such a large street party could attract prostitution. The LAPD quelled the concern by assuring officers will be ready to crack down on johns and bust all of them.

“That’s a deal-breaker,” exclaimed the organizers in response.

I’ll stay on top of this developing story.

Remember – you heard it here first….and maybe last.

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Have you tried to schedule an appointment for a license renewal lately?

I received a renewal reminder in mid-January. The expiration of my license is March 18th.

Within a week after receiving it, I attempted to schedule an appointment at the DMV.  I tried several offices in the area – the earliest appointments were in early to mid-April.  Does me a lot of good.

I called Assemblyman Adrin Nazarian’s office for assistance.  The field rep confirmed my suspicion that the lack of timely appointments was due to the surge of applicants caused by the passage of AB 60, the bill authorizing the licensing of illegal immigrants.

Put aside the divisive politics for a moment.  When the legislature passes a bill that creates a reasonably predictable response – and certainly anyone in Sacramento could have figured AB 60 would send people flocking to the DMV – would it not make sense to staff offices accordingly, even extend hours into the evening?

Better yet, why not grant automatic 30-day extensions to those of us with the misfortune to have their renewals fall in this timeframe?

I suggested that to Nazarian’s field representative.  He doubted anything could be done.

“Why not executive action,” I asked.  Once again, he could not see that happening.

I guess Governor Brown is too preoccupied with laying track for HSR.

The rep did say he would pass along my suggestion to the Assembly Member.

My next stop – State Senator Hertzberg.

I will keep you posted.

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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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