Veterans Live in Safer Neighborhoods in Los Angeles

veteransNational statistics on veterans are grim. As of November 2014, an average of 550 veterans return every day (that is 200,000 troops each year). They have a hard time readjusting. The unemployment rate of veterans since the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is higher (11.1 percent) than non-veterans (around 8.6 percent). Twenty percent of veterans between 18 and 24 years old are unemployed. That is so even with the aggressive recruitment by federal agencies, where almost half of all new employees come from the services. It’s estimated that 1.4 million veterans are living below the poverty line.

All of the difficulties take a physical and social toll. Mental illness and substance abuse are widely reported. As of June 2011, 20 percent of all suicides nationally are veterans. Almost 20 percent of homeless people are veterans. As of November 2015, more than 10 percent of the death row are veterans.

There is cause for optimism. Looking at data from the L.A. Mapping Project, compiled by the Los Angeles Times, one can generalize that veterans who live in America’s second largest city tend to live in fairly safe neighborhoods. More so than those who live in neighborhoods with fewer veterans. For example, the three neighborhoods identified as having the highest proportion of veterans – Green Valley (19.5 percent), Elizabeth Lake (18.4 percent) and Lake Hughes (18.4 percent) – have no incidences of violent crime in 2017.

The three neighborhoods accounted for the lowest percentage of veterans – Central-Alameda (1.8 percent), Chinatown (1.3 percent) and University Park (1.0 percent) – have moderate levels of per capita violent crime (61.4, 18.4, and 38.1 incidences per 1,000 residents, respectively). The average violate crime rate in the 207 neighborhoods is 27.7 incidences per capita. Eight neighborhoods have over 100 incidences of violent crime per capita. Vermont Vista (155.1 incidences per capita and 6.6 percent veterans population) has the highest violent crime crate.

Creating a model using the data, one can observe that the more veterans there are living in a neighborhood in L.A., the lower the violent crime rate. More specifically, for every 1 percent increase in the percentage of veterans living in a neighborhood, there is a decrease of 2.6 incidences of violent crimes.

For example, 101 veterans currently live in Chinatown, the fitted model predicts that 7.1 percent of the neighborhood’s population need to be veterans (an increase of 448 veterans) for the violent crime rate to be eliminated. Gramercy Park, which has 115.5 incidences of violent crimes, needs 44.4 percent of its population to be veterans (3,179 veterans, or an increase of 2,240) to eradicate violent crimes. If Hancock Park (violent crime rate 27.2 incidences per capita, close to the city mean), wants to eradicate violent crime, the municipal government would have to see that 10.4 percent of it residents come from the veteran population. That is 822 veterans, or a 326 increase from the current 496 veterans living in the neighborhood.

But a note of caution. The causation of the two variables can run in either direction, or in both ways. A neighborhood’s violent crime rate may change because veterans moved into the neighborhood (street gangs, murderers, etc., may withhold their crime sprees out of fear of the veterans), or veterans moved into a neighborhood because they saw that it had a low violent crime rate and that it was safe. As with many social phenomena, both scenarios are possible.

This has policy implications. Veterans, like all people, prefer to live in safe neighborhoods. In L.A., neighborhoods with no recorded violent crimes in 2017 have at least 9.6 percent veterans in their populations. It is good incentive for the municipal government to lower crime rates, for example through gentrification, to create safer homes for veterans readjusting to civilian life.

Another implication is attracting veterans to neighborhoods with higher crime rates, if it is true that veterans thwart off violent criminals. The municipal government can experiment with tax breaks for veterans who move to neighborhoods that are traditionally plagued with violent crimes – for example, choosing those neighborhoods above the mean crime rate.

As with most prescriptions in public policy, introducing veterans into a neighborhood to reduce crimes should not be seen as a silver bullet solution. Crime control requires a blend of preventative measures (e.g., education, public campaigns), police mobilization and deterrence in conjunction with the criminal justice system. Veterans, by playing a part in affecting on all three factors, should be rewarded for it.

Gary Lai was the founder and director for ten years of the anti-poverty campaign TKO Poverty.

L.A. County Illegally Spending Taxpayer Money on Measure H Ads

Photo courtesy of channone, flickr

Photo courtesy of channone, flickr

Today, Los Angeles County voters will decide Measure H, a proposed sales tax increase to pay for homeless programs. This tax increase will be in addition to the property tax increase to pay for bonds for homeless programs just enacted by the city of Los Angeles last November with Measure HHH.

If you are wondering why Angelinos should tax themselves even more, you’re asking the right question. California is one of the most heavily taxed states in America with the highest income tax rate, the highest state sales tax and nearly the highest gas costs due to both the high excise tax on each gallon sold plus the additional costs embedded as a result of environmental regulations. And even with Proposition 13, California ranks in the top third among all states in per capita property taxes collected.

The inability of our political leaders to prioritize spending is driving both the state and our major cities into insolvency. If massive spending on homeless programs — assuming it does any good at all — is what the county wants to do, then it should reduce spending on other programs of a lower priority.

To read the entire column, please click here.

Elon Musk’s Tunnel to Nowhere

los-angeles-freewaysElon Musk is tired of Los Angeles traffic, so, he says, he’s going to build his own tunnel. The fact that anyone takes this statement seriously points up what’s wrong with the relationship between tech entrepreneurs and civic planners. Cities have problems, but the solutions require gradual fixes. The right approach isn’t radical revolt; it’s small-c conservatism.

Fifteen years ago, Musk made his fortune selling the PayPal money-transfer platform to eBay. He’s now busy with several other ventures. His Tesla electric-car company has plowed billions of investor dollars and government clean-energy tax credits into battery and automated-driving technology, contributing to the advancement of each. His SolarCity solar-panel manufacturing experiment in Buffalo, New York, on the other hand, depends entirely on a $750 million subsidy from Empire State taxpayers. Tesla and SolarCity merged last year. Musk’s commercial-space venture, SpaceX, suffered a severe setback last year when one of its rockets exploded, destroying a $200 million Facebook satellite.

That’s life as an entrepreneur. You win some; more often you lose some. Investors should be smart enough to know the risks. Musk’s tunnel project, though, isn’t a matter of experimenting with investor and taxpayer money. Instead, if taken literally, it’s civic anarchy. In December, Musk tweeted: “Traffic is driving me nuts. Am going to build a tunnel boring machine and just start digging . … I am actually going to do this.” Last week, he reported, “Exciting progress on the tunnel front. Plan to start digging in a month or so.” He said that he’d start near his office in Hawthorne, a city in Los Angeles County. Wired.com has reported that Musk is already experimenting on his company’s own property.

Whether you’re a billionaire, a Twitter crank, or both, there are several good reasons why you can’t build your own tunnel beneath broader Los Angeles. Musk may be trying to point out the idiocy of laws and regulations that make it hard to build infrastructure, but he’s actually doing the opposite: reminding us why we adopted our laws and regulations in the first place. Building a tunnel disrupts traffic above it. Who would be responsible for the years-long traffic diversions? Tunnels require entrance-and-exit points. If Musk plans a tunnel for cars, not trains, how would smaller surface roads handle all the traffic going into and coming out of a fast-moving underground thoroughfare? If he plans a tunnel for trains, where will people enter and exit above ground, and how will the city keep all these new pedestrians safe from traffic? What if Musk miscalculates his tunnel’s ability to withstand an earthquake, as his staff miscalculated the safety of his rocket? It’s OK to blow up your own (and your customers’) equipment. It’s not OK to take the same risks with a city.

Extra road capacity often attracts more drivers. Despite the recent widening of L.A.’s 405 freeway, “congestion is as bad — even worse — during the busiest rush hours,” the New York Times reported last month. The way to reduce road congestion in the long term is to do what Los Angeles has been doing for nearly 30 years: build subways and light rail. Musk himself tweeted recently that Los Angeles’s subway is “lame, but getting better.”

Finally, if Musk can build a tunnel from his office to wherever he wants to go, why couldn’t every Angeleno with some money and an ego try the same? We live in a democracy, and democratic processes — particularly local ones — are important. Los Angeles residents may want a new tunnel built, or they may not. They may prefer a different tunnel to the one Musk proposes. They may prefer to live more densely than they do already, meaning more rail, or less densely, meaning more road construction. But the people do — and should — have a say.

USA Today reporter Nathan Bomey took Musk’s tunnel tweets seriously, noting that the entrepreneur is “one of the few people who is just rich, powerful and inventive enough to actually do something about the legendary traffic congestion in Los Angeles.” This is misplaced enthusiasm. Elon Musk may be a dreamer, but surely he realizes tunneling beneath Los Angeles without permission would get him arrested — and rightly so.

Tech entrepreneurs would do better to help improve government rather than bypass it. It takes too long, and is too expensive, to build any kind of infrastructure. City planners and private-sector contractors could benefit from outside review of their work processes; automating repetitive construction work, for example, could cut costs. Unfortunately, the tech industry hasn’t shown much expertise at this in the past. Tech billionaire Michael Bloomberg was a good mayor, but he didn’t cut New York City’s personnel costs during his tenure; in fact, such costs grew significantly. Nor did he make the city operate more efficiently or build its large-scale physical infrastructure more efficiently.

Running a tech business is not the same as running a government, and it never will be. Depending on a single heroic billionaire to rescue you from the result of city-planning decisions made by millions of people over many years is the wrong way to go about basic governance.

L.A.’s Unfunded Pension Liability Explodes to $15 Billion. Leadership Nowhere To Be Found

Photo courtesy of channone, flickr

Photo courtesy of channone, flickr

LA WATCHDOG — Our enlightened elite who occupy Los Angeles City Hall tell us that pension reform is not necessary. After all, the recent actuarial report for the Fire and Police Pension Plan indicated that its $19 billion retirement plan was 94% funded as of June 30, 2016.

But as we all know, figures never lie, but liars figure, especially when it involves the finances of the city of Los Angeles.

The city will say that a pension plan that has assets equal to 80% of its future pension obligations is in good shape.  Baloney! Pension plans should aim to be 100% funded, especially in down markets. And in today’s bull market, where the Dow Jones Industrial Average is hitting record highs, the pension plan should be 120% funded so that it can withstand another bear market.

Even at the 94% funded ratio, the unfunded pension liability for the retirement plan is pushing $1.2 billion, not exactly chump change when compared to the projected payroll of $1.4 billion for the 12,800 active cops and firefighters.

But there is more bad news that is buried in the opaque actuarial reports that, when pieced together and analyzed, reveals that the overall Fire and Police Pension Plan is over $6 billion in the red and that only 75% of its future obligations are funded.

The Fire and Police Pension Plans are also responsible for Other Post-employment Benefits (“OPEB”) which covers medical benefits for retirees. But the $3 billion of OPEB obligations are less than 50% funded, resulting in an additional $1.6 billion in unfunded liabilities.

The city is also cooking the books by “smoothing” the actual gains and losses in its investment portfolio over a seven year period. This little trick is covering up a $600 million hit to its investment portfolio.

Finally, if the newly calculated liability (that includes adjustments for OPEB and smoothing) of $3.4 billion (85% funded) is adjusted to reflect the more realistic investment rate assumption of 6.5% (as recommended by Warren Buffett), the unfunded pension liability soars to $6.25 billion and the funded ratio plummets to 75%.

When combined with the $9 billion liability of the Los Angeles Employees’ Retirement System, the city’s total unfunded pension liability exceeds $15 billion. And this liability is expected to double over the next ten years based on realistic rates of return that are in the range of 6% to 6.5%.

But what are Mayor Eric Garcetti, City Council President Herb Wesson, Budget and Finance Chair Paul Krekorian, and Personnel Chair Paul Koretz doing to address the single most important financial issue facing the city?

Nothing! Absolutely nothing other than put their heads in a potato sack and hope that a robust stock market will make the $15 billion problem go away.

They have ignored the recommendations of the LA 2020 Commission to form a Committee on Retirement Security to review and analyze the city’s two pension plans and develop proposals to “achieve equilibrium on retirement costs by 2020.”

Krekorian and Koretz made the bone headed suggestion to raise the investment rate assumption to 8% so that the city would be able to lower its annual required pension contributions to the underfunded pension plans, allowing more money for union raises.

Wesson has not even created a Council File for the pension and budget recommendations of the LA 2020 Commission.

But the real culprit is Garcetti who has refused to address the pension mess that will eventually become a crisis. He has not asked his political appointees on the two pension boards to initiate a study of the pension plans and the city’s ever increasing contributions that now devour 20% of the city’s General Fund budget.  He has refused to contest the State’s Supreme Court “California Rule” which does not allow the city to reform the pension plans by lowering future, yet to be earned benefits.

Rather than look out for the best interests of the city and all Angelenos, he continues to kiss the rings of the campaign funding union leaders who are vital to his political ambitions.

The city’s lack of openness and transparency and its unwillingness to address its ever growing, unsustainable $15 billion pension liability can only be categorized as a major league cover up that should be front and center in the upcoming March election.

Where’s Eric?

Jack Humphreville writes LA Watchdog for CityWatch. He is the President of the DWP Advocacy Committee and is the Budget and DWP representative for the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council.  He is a Neighborhood Council Budget Advocate.  Jack is affiliated with Recycler Classifieds — www.recycler.com.  He can be reached at:  lajack@gmail.com.

This piece was originally published by CityWatchLA

Charters Under Attack – California’s Teachers Unions Go On The Offensive

ULTA protestFor years, teachers’ unions have tried to kill charter schools — but only on odd-numbered days. On even-numbered days, they tried to organize them. Things lately have become very odd, at least in California; the unions are in full-assault mode.

United Teachers of Los Angeles president Alex Caputo-Pearl has long groused about how charter schools don’t play by the rules. Teachers’ union talking points effortlessly roll off his tongue — billionaires this, accountability that. But on May 4, despite pleas by charter school parents, UTLA, in concert with the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools — a union front group — planned a major protest outside schools where charters share a campus with traditional public schools. “We will stand with Los Angeles parents, educators, students, administrators, and community members for fully funded public schools and call on corporate charter schools to pay their fair share to the district,” AROS said in a statement. Of course, charters are public schools, not “corporate.” And charters are the ones that aren’t fully funded, which is why they frequently have to share facilities. But UTLA and AROS don’t bother with those minor details. The rally mostly fizzled, so school kids were thankfully spared the sight and sound of angry protesters marching and chanting.

UTLA wasn’t finished. In what it thought would be a coup de grâce, the union released the results of a “study” it commissioned, which, among other things, asserted that the Los Angeles Unified School District “lost more than $591 million dollars to unmitigated charter school growth this year alone.” The school district countered by pointing out that it actually makes money due to the existence of charter schools. Undaunted, Caputo-Pearl was at it again in August. “With our contract expiring in June 2017, the likely attack on our health benefits in the fall of 2017, the race for governor heating up in 2018, and the unequivocal need for state legislation that addresses inadequate funding and increased regulation of charters, with all of these things, the next year-and-a-half must be founded upon building our capacity to strike, and our capacity to create a state crisis, in early 2018,” he told the annual UTLA leadership conference in July. “There simply may be no other way to protect our health benefits and to shock the system into investing in the civic institution of public education.”

In late August, just weeks after Caputo-Pearl’s tantrum, UTLA hit the streets with a media campaign. Empowered by a massive dues increase, the union began spreading its venom via billboards, bus benches, and the media. The timing was particularly bad, as the just-released 2016 state standardized-test results showed that charters outperformed traditional public schools in both English and math. Los Angeles, where one in six students is enrolled in a charter, saw 46 percent of its independent charter-school students meeting or exceeding the standard on the English Language Arts test, versus 37 percent for students in traditional public schools. On the math test, the difference was smaller: 30 percent versus 26 percent. Despite the unions’ perpetual “cherry-picking” mantra, 82 percent of charter students qualify as low-income compared with 80 percent for traditional schools. Charters also match up closely in areas of ethnicity, English-language learners, and disabled students.

The California Teachers Association jumped into the act on August 31 by unleashing “Kids Not Profits,” an “awareness” campaign calling for more “accountability and transparency of California charter schools and exposing the coordinated agenda by a group of billionaires to divert money from California’s neighborhood public schools to privately managed charter schools. These same billionaires are spending record amounts of money to influence local legislative and school board elections across the state.” In a press release announcing the launch of the campaign, the union quotes from its new radio ad, which claims to lay out the “billionaires’ coordinated agenda”:

  1. Divert money out of California’s neighborhood public schools to fund privately run charter schools, without accountability or transparency to parents and taxpayers.
  2. Cherry-pick the students who get to attend charter schools—weeding out and turning down students with special needs.
  3. Spend millions trying to influence local legislative and school board elections across California.

While Numbers One and Two are outright lies, there is some truth to Number Three. CTA has become fat and happy. It is by far California’s biggest political spender. It drives the union elite crazy that philanthropists are pouring unprecedented amounts of money into edu-politics in an attempt to balance the playing field. The union is finally facing some stiff competition in Sacramento, as well as in some local school board races.

Second only to its obsession with billionaires is the union’s incessant harping about accountability. “It’s time to hold charter schools and their private operators accountable to some of the same standards as traditional public schools,” CTA president Eric Heins says. This is laughable. Charter schools operate in accordance with all state and federal laws. They must meet rigorous academic goals, engage in ethical business practices, and be proactive in their efforts to stay open. If a school doesn’t successfully educate its students according to its charter, parents will pull their kids out and send them elsewhere. After a specified period—usually five years—the school’s charter is revoked. A failing traditional public school, by contrast, rarely closes. Union-mandated “permanence” laws ensure that tenured teachers, no matter how incompetent they may be, almost never lose their jobs.

The CTA and other unions can’t deal with the fact that non-unionized charters typically do a better job of educating poor and minority students than do traditional public schools. So they lie and create distractions in order to preserve their dominion. But all the yammering about charters “siphoning money from public schools,” grousing about billionaires “pushing their profit-driven agenda,” and bogus cries for “accountability” simply expose the unions as monopolists who can’t abide competition. But that’s just what children, their parents, and taxpayers deserve—less union meddling and more competition and choice.

Teachers Union Assault on Charter Schools

school education studentsWith the increasing popularity of charter schools in California, special-interest opposition to them has grown, primarily among those most threatened by their success: the state’s powerful teachers unions.

With more than 1,200 charter schools in California and with an estimated 580,000 students attending charter schools in the 2015-16 school year, the state boasts more charter schools and charter school students than any other in the country. According to the California Charter Schools Association, approximately 158,000 students are on wait lists hoping to attend such schools.

Clearly, they are popular and there is public demand for them. Perhaps it’s the flexibility and accountability of the schools. Maybe it’s to avoid the poor performance of the typical public school, which protects some underperforming teachers with tenure and other rules. Whatever it is that attracts so many parents to charter schools, something about them is upsetting to the state’s teachers unions.

On August 31, the California Teachers Association announced it was launching the “Kids Not Profits” campaign. The stated goal of their efforts is to garner “more accountability and transparency of California charter schools.” But that’s not all. The campaign further aims to expose “the coordinated agenda by a group of billionaires to divert money from California’s neighborhood public schools to privately-managed charter schools.” And that is where the misdirection, deception and political chicanery begin.

For those without expertise in the charter school movement, keep one thing in mind: Charter schools are public schools. They just approach teaching and kids’ learning differently than the neighborhood public schools that are overburdened by political limitations and bureaucracy, much of which has been perpetuated and sustained by union leaders.

The idea that billionaires are trying to enrich themselves by taking away money from local schools is not only false but an inflammatory scare tactic meant to denigrate the good work philanthropists are doing in charter schools to help repair the broken, status quo public school system that other special interests, like the unions, prefer.

The Kids Not Profits website tries to demonize these efforts by pointing out that charter school advocates spent over $11 million in the June 6 primary to influence state legislative races and school board elections, because they “want private corporations to be able to profit from public education.” Their claims are patently false and not grounded in fact.

Take, for example, one of the state’s — and nation’s — chief advocates for charter schools, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings. In January, Hastings announced a $100 million fund to help improve access to quality education. He is giving money to schools — not trying to “profit” or take money from public education.

On the other hand, what CTA neglects to mention in its campaign is that it has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into political campaigns over the past couple of decades, including $4.2 million from January through the end of June this year via its Issues PAC, plus more than $1 million through the Association for Better Citizenship to influence local races. Then there’s the nearly $1 million spent by the California Federation of Teachers to support candidates and ballot initiatives. And that doesn’t take into account the millions they will spend on other political fights in November.

It’s also important to understand how much “profit” the unions take out of California schools. In 2009 alone, the CTA’s “income was more than $186 million, all of it tax-exempt,” according to an analysis of public records by Troy Senik, writing for City Journal. The income the union collects year after year comes directly from taxpayer-funded teachers’ paychecks. Imagine if that money could stay with good teachers or was spent directly in the classroom for students.

There’s nothing wrong with donating to political campaigns. What matters is whether the outcomes they seek are reasonable. Unfortunately, the outcomes desired by the teachers unions just happen to be a status quo where their interests are catered to, regardless of their effects on students. And that’s why they are threatened by charter schools — because they lose revenue for their political agendas

In the past month, local unions like United Teachers Los Angeles, which is best remembered for threatening to strike in 2014 if its members didn’t receive a 17.6 percent raise, have also gone on the offensive against the education reform community.

UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl announced in August that the union was launching an ad campaign carrying “messages that billionaires should not be driving the public school agenda.”

“This is a major intervention in shaping the public narrative,” Caputo-Pearl told members at the union’s 2016 conference, which featured repeated attacks on charter schools and those who fund some of them.

The dishonest narrative the unions want to present is that they are the ones standing up against sinister billionaires who just want to make money. The problem is, it is just not true.

Never mind that teachers unions in California get more than their fair share of the multibillion-dollar education budget in the state, and have considerable leverage in how education funds are allocated and what policies govern public schools. They have had control of public education for a long time, so it is they, the union leaders, who should be held responsible for the deterioration of California public schools — a public school system where more than half the students lack proficiency in math and English. It’s indefensible.

Attempting to shift the blame for shortcomings in our education system on reformers and charter school advocates is purely diversionary. It isn’t charter school proponents who are undermining education. Nor is the current state of affairs the fault of the average teacher who works hard every day to educate the children of our state.

Behind the façade of “kids not profits” — and whatever public narrative unions are trying to spin — the unions’ goals are fundamentally about one thing, and that is political power. This is what thwarts progress in our education system. Instead of embracing innovation and progress to help students, the union bosses have chosen to stifle any form of competition and reform. Their latest campaign is just another sad and frustrating attempt to deceive the public and maintain political power.

Brian Calle is the opinion editor for the Southern California News Group and Sal Rodriguez is a staff columnist.

This piece was originally published by the Orange County Register and the Southern California News Group.

L.A. Community College District Seeks Billions More for Buildings

L.A. Community CollegeIn May, the Los Angeles Community College District put out the word that it wanted to hire a public relations firm.

A website called Everything-PR.com reported that the “scope of the work” included developing “a communications strategy” to “help the district explore the feasibility of a district-wide bond measure.”

That means the PR firm will have to explain to voters who already approved nearly $6 billion in borrowed money that the district has spent it all and wants $3.3 billion more. The publicists should get hazard pay.

The Los Angeles Community College District has nine campuses with about 135,000 students enrolled. In the San Fernando Valley, the LACCD schools are Pierce College in Woodland Hills, Mission College in Sylmar, and Valley College in Valley Glen.

Sixteen years ago, California voters approved Proposition 39 to allow education bonds to pass more easily, requiring only 55 percent voter approval instead of two-thirds. The next year, local voters approved Proposition A, authorizing the Los Angeles Community College District to borrow $1.2 billion by selling bonds to investors.

Two years later, the district persuaded voters to approve Proposition AA for almost $1 billion more.

By 2008, the money had run out and the district came back to the voters for an additional $3.5 billion, bringing the total to $5.7 billion of borrowed money – about $11 billion including interest – that’s paid back to investors by raising property taxes. It shows up as an extra charge on the bill, for decades.

What did all that money buy?

Bond money can’t legally be used for the salaries of faculty, staff or administrators. It can’t be used for operations or general expenses. It can only be used for facilities – mostly for renovating and constructing buildings.

In 2011, investigations by the Los Angeles Times and the State Controller’s office uncovered massive waste, fraud, and mismanagement in the bond program. …

Click here to read the full story from the L.A. Daily News

Why Los Angeles Urban Planners Are Wrong to Restrict Parking

ParkingJust before the backers of the anti-development Neighborhood Integrity Initiative submitted more than enough signatures to put the measure before the voters, they met with L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti.

If the city would come up with its own plan to limit oversized developments, the group said, they would not go forward with the initiative.

Mayor Garcetti made a concession. He offered to notify the public of closed-door meetings between city officials and developers.

That wasn’t nearly enough for the initiative backers, who think closed-door meetings should be banned altogether, and it’s hard to argue with that.

Demolition of the buildings on the historic former Rocketdyne site in Canoga Park is now underway in preparation for what the developer is calling a “sustainable urban village” of about 4,000 housing units. As recently as June, City Councilmember Bob Blumenfield addressed public concerns about an excessively large development at the site by saying, “nothing has been submitted to the city for this location.”

Has Councilmember Blumenfield or other city officials held closed-door meetings with the developer or lobbyists and consultants about the Rocketdyne site? The public lacks even the right to know.

The Neighborhood Integrity Initiative is aimed at stopping the out-of-control “spot zoning” that allows oversized developments to be approved in places where they otherwise would be prohibited.

One purpose of zoning and community plans is to provide consistency over time, so that when people buy property, whether for a home or business, they know what they’re buying. A home on a quiet street of single-family residences won’t suddenly have a strip mall or hotel as a next-door neighbor.

“Spot zoning” to allow more height and density can have an extremely negative impact on the surrounding neighborhoods, especially if the minimum requirements for parking are waived. And this is increasingly what some urban planners are recommending.

Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at UCLA and author of the influential 2005 book, “The High Cost of Free Parking,” says “minimum parking requirements subsidize cars, increase traffic congestion and carbon emissions, pollute the air and water, encourage sprawl, raise housing costs, exclude poor people, degrade urban design, reduce walkability and damage the economy.”

But eliminating minimum parking requirements risks turning neighboring residential streets into a scene that resembles the parking lot of Dodger Stadium when the Giants are in town.

Housing policy in California has discouraged the development of new single-family houses in outlying areas in favor of what planners call “infill,” the construction of high-density housing on vacant land in built-up areas. State law also speeds approval of “transit-oriented development,” mega-projects located within a half-mile of a train station or a bus stop with frequent service during peak hours.

Urban planners have a vision that …

Click here to read the full story from the Daily News

Lawmaker’s Word Games Could Send Your Money Down the Storm Drain

StormwaterYou might remember that about three years ago, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors proposed a new tax on property owners to pay for stormwater capture and cleanup.

There was supposed to be a mail-only election to approve the stormwater parcel tax, but it never happened.

Homeowners, businesses and school districts opposed the tax. Then there was public outrage over a deceptive mailing that so resembled junk mail that many people threw it away, not realizing the junky-looking flyer was their official notification of the proposed tax, or that it contained a form they needed to protest the tax hike.

People were just enraged, and the county supervisors dropped the matter. They didn’t even mail out the ballots.

Ever since Proposition 13 was passed overwhelmingly by fed-up taxpayers in 1978, local governments have been looking for ways around its ironclad requirement that new taxes must be approved by two-thirds of voters.

Some local governments renamed their new taxes “fees.” Voters tried to put a stop to that in 1996 by passing Proposition 218, the “Right to Vote on Taxes Act.” Then some local governments overcharged for services and used the extra money for other expenses. Voters fought back in 2010 by passing Proposition 26, the “Stop Hidden Taxes Initiative.”

But now in Sacramento, there’s a new deception in the works. It ought to be called the “Dictionary Gambit.”

A bill by Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Sherman Oaks, would simply change the definition of “sewer service” so stormwater is included in it. That would allow local governments to charge property owners for stormwater management projects without voter approval.

The bill, SB 1298, is on the verge of passing in the state Assembly. It’s possible that in a matter of days it could be on its way to Gov. Jerry Brown for his signature.

The city of Glendora has already written a letter to the governor asking him to veto the bill if it reaches his desk.

“We oppose SB 1298 because we strongly believe it violates the intent of Prop 218,” wrote Glendora mayor Gene Murabito, speaking for a unanimous City Council. “Citizens clearly voted to have the right to vote on taxes, charges, fees and assessments.”

California voters almost had a chance to vote on a proposal like Hertzberg’s bill. In December, groups representing cities, counties and water agencies filed a ballot initiative that would have amended the state constitution to allow new fees for stormwater management to be imposed without a vote of the people.

Guess what happened to it.

“The proponents of the initiative declined to move forward after doing polling research,” says the official Assembly analysis of SB 1298. But “this bill seeks to address with a majority vote bill” what the proposed constitutional amendment could only have accomplished with the approval of the voters.

Why is this even legal?

Certainly stormwater management is important for the environment and for the local water supply. It’s also expensive. One estimate put the cost at $20 billion over the next 20 years for L.A. County and the cities within it. …

In April, the L.A. County supervisors discussed paying for stormwater projects by asking developers to pay extra fees, or by asking voters to approve a new tax.

But if SB 1298 is signed into law, they won’t have to ask. Billions of dollars for stormwater management projects will be magically redefined into fees for sewer service. Property owners will have no choice but to pay those fees or sell their property. Taxpayers will have no opportunity to vote on it.

According to Hertzberg’s statement in the Assembly analysis of the bill, SB 1298 adds “missing definitions and direction on the interpretation of Proposition 218 while maintaining transparency and accountability.”

That’s not the way Glendora’s Murabito sees it. As he explained in his letter to Brown, “Proposition 218 was adopted by the voters of the state and any carve-out of services or areas from its oversight can only be done by the voters themselves and not through legislative process.”

That’s a definition of the principle of government by consent of the governed.

If you don’t consent to the redefining of billion-dollar stormwater projects as “sewer service,” this would be a good time to call your state representatives and the governor to let them know. The governor’s office can be reached by phone at 916-445-2841 or by fax at 916-558-3160, or look up your representatives at findyourrep.legislature.ca.gov.

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Local Corruption Plagues Los Angeles County

Photo courtesy of channone, flickr

Photo courtesy of channone, flickr

California doesn’t have nearly the reputation of, say, New Jersey or Maryland when it comes to a history of public corruption. Studies that measure corruption with metrics tend to give most corrupt honors to less populated, poorer southern states like Louisiana and Mississippi or big, relatively wealthy Midwest and Eastern states like Illinois and Pennsylvania.

But when it comes to the most corrupt counties, few if any can top the recent run that Los Angeles County is on — specifically, the cities and agencies in south and central L.A. County.

The latest example came last week when Luis Aguinaga resigned as mayor of South El Monte after admitting to taking bribes for seven years from a contractor paid by the city for engineering and construction services.

A Nexis search of stories by the Southern California News Group, the Los Angeles Times and Southern California Public Radio shows Aguinaga has plenty of corrupt company in neighboring communities.

Bell

In 2010, a  Los Angeles Times investigation found that the city was being run like a criminal enterprise to the benefit of city officials and City Council members who received huge salaries and relied on illegal taxes and deceptive accounting. Former City Manager Robert Rizzo was found guilty of 69 corruption charges. Five City Council members also were convicted over city schemes.

Carson

Mayor Al Robles is now under siege from Los Angeles County prosecutors for simultaneously serving on the board of the Water Replenishment District of Southern California and as Carson mayor. He faced a county grand jury rebuke over the water board’s move to pay his legal bills. He has also faced years of campaign finance allegations over his water board and Carson election campaigns.

Central Basin Municipal Water District

Political and legal fallout continues from a scandal involving an alleged $2.75 million slush fund created by the district to pay politically connected consultants such as former Assemblyman Tom Calderon, D-Montebello. Central Basin board member Art Chacon was allowed to collect car allowance and mileage reimbursements from the district from 2006 to 2014, an eight-year span in which he didn’t have a driver’s license. To avoid a potentially huge payout at trial, in 2014, the district settled sexual harassment allegations made by a female contractor against district Director Robert Apodaca for $670,000.

City of Commerce

In 2012, Councilman Robert Fierro resigned after he pleaded guilty to a felony conspiracy charge related to his attempts to dupe investigators looking into the financing of his 2005 campaign. In 2010, Councilman Hugo Argumedo resigned after he pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice. Argumedo concocted evidence to help an attorney sue his city for allegedly unpaid legal fees.

Cudahy

In 2012, City Manager Angel Perales, Mayor David Silva and Councilman Osvaldo Conde were arrested by the FBI after being caught seeking bribes from the owner of a marijuana dispensary. In 2014, then-state Controller John Chiang released a scathing report about city finances that found city credit cards were used improperly for meals, travel and entertainment; pay raises were awarded without explanation or justification; and that employees regularly received paid leave that they were not entitled to get.

Lynwood

In 2012, former City Council members Louis Byrd and Fernando Pedroza were convicted of illegally boosting their pay — by $330,000 and $160,000, respectively — by taking stipends for working on city commissions without any responsibilities, a crime with parallels to what happened in Bell. There were also reports that city officials used city credit cards to pay for entertainment, including “a $1,500 night out at a Guadalajara strip club, where dancers allegedly performed sexual favors” for two city officials, the Los Angeles Times reported. In 2007, Mayor Paul H. Richards II received a 16-year sentence for a long-running embezzlement scheme.

Maywood

County prosecutor are now investigating alleged illegal collusion to get around state open-government laws that may be related to questionable zoning changes made without proper scrutiny. There are also reports that the FBI is investigating possible bribery in the awarding of city contracts.

Montebello

In 2011, state Controller John Chiang issued a report showing that officials had improperly spent more than $31 million, helping prompt a city budget crisis. Redevelopment funds were used for many non-government purposes, including meals in Las Vegas.

South Gate

Former city councilman, city manager, mayor and treasurer Albert Robles was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison in 2005 for public corruption, money laundering and bribery. Though several of the convictions were thrown out in 2013, Robles’ sentence was not reduced because of the seriousness of the bribery counts that remained.

Vernon

The tax-rich industrial city which long controlled who voted in the city by controlling who stayed in its very limited housing was nearly disbanded by the Legislature in 2011 after Donal O’Callaghan became the third city administrator since 2006 to face criminal charges. Mayor Leonis Malburg and his wife Dominica were convicted of voter fraud and conspiracy in 2009. The Malburgs lied for years about living in Vernon while actually residing at a Hancock Park mansion.

This piece was originally published by CalWatchdog.com