Sat, May

Say ‘No’ to HHH: Homeless Ballot Initiative is Just ‘Bad Math’

SKID ROW- “Bad math,” “bad leadership” and “bad direction” or “BBB” is how Angelenos should respond to Measure HHH. 

“Bad math” because with Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority’s Homeless Count of almost 50,000 homeless individuals in LA County, why would voters generate 1.2 billion dollars to house only 10,000, leaving a whopping 40,000 all over our streets and still visibly present throughout our communities? Over a billion dollars to support a so-called solution that only accounts for one fifth of all the homeless, leaving four fifths stranded on the street? All this with no follow-up solutions in place? Wow. 

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Profile: It’s No Longer Your Grandfather’s Metrolink, Thanks to the Good Work of CEO Art Leahy

THE PLANNING REPORT-“Metrolink moves a lot of folks in Southern California -- 60 percent of them across county lines.” -- Art Leahy 

In April 2015, Arthur Leahy assumed leadership of Metrolink, Southern California's second-busiest transit provider based on passenger miles. Leahy, a longtime regional public transportation leader, took the reigns of an agency with serious issues of declining ridership and financial transparency. Speaking to the Transit Coalition in late August, Leahy provided an overview of his priorities at Metrolink as he looks to lead the regional transportation agency into a new era of ridership. He spoke about his efforts to recruit young talent, find common-sense solutions to fiscal and organizational hurdles, and rebrand Metrolink as the region’s most effective way to cut freeway congestion. 

TPR is pleased to present an excerpt of Leahy's remarks.  

Art Leahy: “When I came to Metrolink, not only did we have a board that was ready to break up, but within the management staff, we had a culture of avoidance, deferral, and concealment or denial. 

“Let me tell a few anecdotes to illustrate the culture in the organization at that time. 

“I remember once, the then-CFO wrote a board report that was devoid of content. When I asked him why he didn’t include more real content, his answer was: ‘If we do, they’ll just ask more questions.’ 

“That’s exactly backward. Another time, shortly after I arrived, we were about to rehab a bunch of old locomotives. I realized that in the long run, it would be cheaper to buy new ones that had better fuel economy, higher horsepower, and lower emissions. On every dimension, it made more sense to buy new ones.  

“But when I went to fellow who had made the decision and said, ‘It makes more sense to buy new ones,’ he said, ‘I know -- but the advisory committee said not to.’ I said to him, ‘We must make the business case. We must talk about dollars and cents and outcomes and results. We cannot make recommendations based on this person liking it and that person not liking it.’ In a matter of a couple months, we had all five counties in line to buy new locomotives. 

“Now, we’re rebuilding the organization for the future. We have a new deputy CEO, new deputy COO, new communications director, new chief financial officer, new government affairs manager, and other new leaders. These folks are all very smart and very committed, and we’re going to focus on the classic values of safety and service.  

“We’re very pleased to be among the first in the country to have positive train control (PTC), which we’ve had in effect for about 14 months. We’re working closely with the Federal Railroad Administration on that. We’re also among the first in the world to have Tier 4 locomotives. We recently got our first one; it’s in testing. I look forward to beginning to release the rest in a month or two. We’ve done a great deal of work on our locomotives, and the old ones are in the process of being replaced over the next year or two. 

“In the 16 months I’ve been here, one of our tasks has been to rebuild our relationships with the five counties. In the past, we were not forthcoming with them. But they are the stockholders; they pay the bills. And if we’re not honest with them, they’re not going to trust us. It’s okay to make a mistake, but we have to confront it, we have to tell the counties and the Board, and we have to fix it. A year and a half ago, we could not give our county stakeholders any financial reports on expenditures, accounts receivable, accounts payable, etc. You can imagine the level of distrust that this created. 

“Now, we’re doing regular financials. Our new CFO talks to the county CFOs and the technical advisory committee. Our financial situation has improved significantly, including our reserves. There’s no rocket science here: We’re talking to the stakeholders about our status and accomplishments.

The JPA with the counties is now much stronger. We still have some issues to work out, but we’re not in crisis; we’re making progress on it. 

“Another area where we’ve had big issues in making progress is project delivery and keeping projects on schedule. Metro, our major funder, has had a great deal of concern about this. They wanted to know: “Why are we giving you more money for projects when you haven’t delivered the old projects?” Fair enough; it’s hard to argue with that. But I’m pleased to say that we’re making some progress, and have also become more forthright in communicating with the Metro Board. 

“I do want to comment on the Raymer to Bernson Double Track -- a double-tracking project in the San Fernando Valley. Everything that was said is accurate about a small group of people blocking the track. I think the messaging done by Metro was perhaps more. Metro’s justification for the project was that it would allow them to carry additional trains. The neighborhood’s not crazy about that. The bulk of the area along that line going out to Chatsworth is industrial and commercial. There’s one short segment that’s residential. If there’s one area that might be sensitive, it’s right there. Now, we’re going back to Metro and trying to figure out how to reinvigorate this discussion. We’re having a parallel discussion on the San Bernardino line. Much of that line is single-track. As a consequence, the on-time performance is not very good. 

“We’re not trying to do double-tracking in order to increase capacity. We want to do it so that we can reduce the time that trains have to stand idly while they’re waiting for another train to pass. In this case, there is a community benefit to double-tracking. And if we link double-tracking to quiet zones, and maybe sound walls, we can begin to put together a partnership among Metro, Metrolink, and the host cities. 

“We had an issue with the joint powers authority with the Los Angeles-San Diego-San Luis Obispo Rail Corridor (LOSSAN). I was back in Orange County 12 or 13 years ago when the idea of empowering the LOSSAN board occurred to me. I was in Oceanside, and I saw a Metrolink train and a COASTER train standing right next to each other, both waiting to depart with their engines running. As I’m sure you know, buses, trains, and airplanes cost money by the minute. To have two trains standing there while they reverse directions is just not a good use of public resources. The real charge of LOSSAN should be to generate synergy among Metrolink, Amtrak, and COASTER commuter trains. 

“Citizens could care less about the difference between Metrolink and Amtrak. All they want to do is get where they’re going. To have institutional rivalries between two organizations is not productive from the taxpayer’s point of view. 

“This is particularly acute because the taxpayers of California pay for the Amtrak services, and the taxpayers of Southern California pay for the Metrolink service. In other words, it’s the same people. We ought to be creating synergy among one another, not rivalry and competition. That synergy manifests itself in our customer experience. For example, I think our Metrolink service shuts down way too early. Here we are, the second biggest city in the country, with plays and concerts, and the train shuts down so early you can’t even go to a Dodger game. I hope to work with LOSSAN and the counties to get later-night train service. 

“I was COO when Metro opened the Blue Line back in 1990, and I learned a good lesson about later-night train service. Because construction was not yet done when the line opened, the last southbound departure was at around 7:00 in the evening. That train was always dead, but all the trains before it were very busy. When we added an 8:00 train, it was dead -- but the 7:00 pm train got busy. And when we opened up the 9:00 train, the 8:00 train got busy. The lesson is this: The last train is the insurance train. If we open later-night service, we’ll get more riders on the earlier trains. 

“We have an issue with maintenance of our track.  

“There are significant segments of the track that have not been maintained properly. There are ties that are rotting, there is some track that is worn on curves that needs to be replaced, and there are some short bridges that need some work. We’re redoing our messaging to the counties so that we can show in detail what we need.  

“At the moment, our engineers will come forward and say, ‘We need to place some ties between Milepost 12 and Milepost 19 on the Antelope Valley line.’ As accurate as it may be, it sounds like these areas are distant and irrelevant to daily life. 

“I’m telling them, ‘Say something like: Between Burbank Airport and Van Nuys, the ties are no good! Show them photographs and take them out there to look at it, tell them what you’re going to do, and tell them what it’s going to cost. You have to put some meat on the bones. “Milepost 12” doesn’t mean a thing to anybody except us.’ I’m critical of our overall messaging as well -- how we’ve described our role and our benefit to the region, and how we’re positioned in the market. 

“For example, we say, ‘We carry 403,000 people a day.’ Metro says, ‘Well, we carry a million and a half.’ It’s easy to see that Metrolink’s ridership is very small. Now, we’re trying to re-message that. We’re positioning Metrolink in the region to show why it’s a good investment and what the benefits are. Our conclusion is that Metrolink is the best investment to reduce traffic and clean the air. 

“It’s true that in boardings, our ridership is small. But our trip length is 10-15 times longer than other agencies. In terms of passenger miles, we’re one of the busiest carriers in SoCal -- after Metro, but ahead of Riverside and Orange Co. combined. Metrolink moves a lot of folks in SoCal -- 60 percent across county lines. 

“Another benefit is that Metrolink takes cars off the road. The demographics of Metrolink riders are different from bus riders or Metro train riders: Their per capita income is higher. While many Metro and CTA riders are transit-dependent, Metrolink riders, more often than not, have access to cars. What this means is that almost on a one-to-one basis, a Metrolink passenger is a car off the freeway. 

“Metrolink relieves the 5, the 91, the 60, the 10, the 134, the Hollywood, and more. Our fare-box return is higher than other transit agencies in the area, at about 43 percent. Metro’s is 25 percent -- and dropping -- and so is OCTA’s. This is powerful: Because our fares are high, and our trips are long, our subsidy per passenger mile is the second lowest of any carriers in Southern California. It’s cheaper by far than Metro’s or OCTA’s. (AVTA runs express buses on the freeway, so theirs is very low.) In other words, Metrolink is the best investment. 

“I’ll close by talking about the need for new people at Metrolink. I’m seeking to hire people who are very intense, very intelligent, and very willing to learn and understand the railroad business, as well as Southern California. I very strongly hope that, in a few years, somebody who works at Metrolink will succeed me, so that they understand the service area, the service requirements, and the politics and the complex issues that we have to deal with. At Metrolink, in addition to addressing the right-now problems of budgets and maintenance and things like that, we’re building an organization.” 

Audience Question: “Driverless technology is developing much more rapidly than analysts expected. Uber is going to have a fleet of driverless cars in the next few months. Elon Musk says he’ll have them by 2019. That’s going to be quite a disruptive new element to public transportation, given that a lot of these will be cars on-demand. Do you figure this eventuality into your strategies?” 

Art Leahy: “We are working on agreements with Lyft and Uber. Union Station is a major destination for people taking Lyft -- and they’re coming to take Metrolink or Amtrak. They won’t take Lyft or Uber 80 miles, but they’ll take it five miles to get to the train station, which can take them 80 miles for a fraction of the cost. I think the disruption will be a bigger issue for shorter-distance carriers; it’s a market niche. We had some objections on the Metrolink Board to such an agreement, but I think we’ll get past them. These things are happening; we’ve got to get used to it. Our executive staff needs to understand the business. The business is not in the headquarters building; the business is out in the field. And you’ve got to get out there and see it. That’s why about once a month, Metrolink has an executive staff meeting on a train.  

“That happens to be fun, but there’s a dismal aspect to this, as well: I’ve told our deputy CEO that she must visit some scenes of fatal accidents. I said, ‘I’m sorry for saying that to you, but you have to understand that safety is not just a technical or financial issue. When you see what happens -- the awful consequences of one moment of bad decision-making -- you become a believer in safety.’ The first fatal I had to go to was in 1981 -- 35 years ago -- off of York and Armadale in Highland Park. I can still see it. But if you’re going to be in transit, you’ve got to understand profoundly how committed you must be to safety.” 

(The Planning Report is published by Abel and Associates. This piece appeared in the September 2016 issue.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.


Measure ‘M’ Stands for Moving Forward and Making Amends … Together

ELECTION 2016--After seeing the last presidential debate and witnessing the last 48 hours of insanity and hypocrisy take over the nation with respect to "who owes whom an apology", it struck me that--in a different but very real way--this traffic-plagued, overtaxed County of the Angels has been harmed not only by past misdeeds but by the need to dwell on them.

I won't get into any presidential politics (not now, at least), but I will say that there are times to talk, and to debate, and to apologize, and then there are times to ACT:

1) There are a few reasons why, until recently, I was on the fence for Measure M--but no longer.  In a nutshell, the ultimate factor in my decision was the amazingly popular response and increase in ridership from the far-flung Westside and San Gabriel Valley regions, which now each have their own light rail lines.

2) The openings of these lines were followed by a loud outcry from the San Fernando Valley and South Bay Cities about how long it would take for them to get an Orange Busway-to-Rail Line conversion and a South Bay Green Line Extension.

3) And I learned from attending key Eastside Light Rail meetings that those regions wanted inclusion into the Metro Rail Network.  Apparently, ditto for the Southeast Los Angeles Cities.

It is certainly easier (and tempting!) to tell the civic leaders of the San Fernando Valley, South Bay, and Southeast Cities that they OWE their own constituents and the rest of the county a bevy of apologies for their misbehavior:

1) After  witnessing the cowardice of the political leaders of the San Fernando Valley fail to repeal the Robbins Bill, and allow the Orange Line to be built as a light rail the first time, it would be tempting--yet self-defeating--to tell that region to go pound sand.

2) After witnessing how a few small-minded South Bay leaders (and they know who they are!) obstruct and prevent the South Bay Green Line Extension from being prioritized for years, it would be tempting--yet self-defeating--to "punish" and tell that region to wait.

3) Aftering witnessing how a few conflicted Southeast/Gateway Cities leaders (conflicted as in ambivalent, while others were conflicted as in conflicts of interest) led their region on a quixotic quest to make the Santa Ana Rail Right of Way a MagLev high speed rail line, it would also be tempting--yet self-defeating--to "punish" that region and making them wait.

Because it's the old adage of "when you point one finger at someone else, there are three fingers pointing back at you".  

Because there is plenty of baggage and bad history with the Expo Line and Gold Line Construction Authorities...and their leaders are so guilty of past bad behavior that whether it's human nature, the nature of politics, or just dumb luck that the Mid-City, Westside, and San Fernando Valley got their rail lines first, it's pointless to trot out old regional missteps.

Because we have a Metro Long Range Transportation Plan that ranks the different rail lines (and freeway projects, too!!!) in terms of cost-effectiveness, and that is only tangentially related to Measure M, the half-cent sales tax which extends funding for transportation for decades to come.

If Measure M is to be passed Tuesday, November 8th, then it is entirely reasonable and appropriate to demand that certain battles and changes take place on Wednesday, November 9th:

1) For example, I very much DO want the Orange Line Busway to be converted into a light rail...and sooner, not later.  And I am not alone.

2) I very much DO want a South Bay Green Line Extension to Torrance, with a Major Investment Study, to boot, of linking the Green Line to San Pedro and the Blue Line.  And I am not alone.

3) I very much DO want a Southeast/Gateway Cities rail line to connect that portion of the county with the Green Line and Union Station, with a Major Investment Study, to boot, of revisiting the Green Line Eastern Extension to the Norwalk Metrolink Station. And I am not alone.

In my last CityWatch article, I mentioned a "domino effect" of regions wanting "in" to the budding county passenger rail network that would be established once Metro Rail connected to LAX, and once the MetroRail system became a logical network with the Downtown Light Rail Connector.

Well, that's going to happen by 2022-24.  Perhaps it's the Olympics bid, perhaps it's a host of other factors, but that's going to happen.

But the system established by the Metro Long Range Transportation Plan requires a hard, tough prioritizing of projects that forces the regions of our large and balkanized county to work together.  In other words, if YOU want something for YOUR region, you had better be prepared to put up your dukes for the other regions' projects.

Because until those higher-ranked projects have to be paid for before YOUR project will be properly funded and constructed.

Right now we've got major parts of the county (particularly from the south and east) who want their own rail lines, and their major complaint about Measure M is that it doesn't go FAR enough to guarantee and expedite each region's rail lines.

Which sounds like there are quite a few battles and changes to be made on November 9th...but they can ONLY be fought until Measure M passes!

So while it would certainly be a fine and timely idea to have Mayor Garcetti, Westside Councilmember Mike Bonin, and other Metro leaders demand an expedited South Bay Cities Green Line, and an expedited Southeast Cities Light Rail Line ...

... and while it would certainly be a fine and timely idea to make those two rail lines a major talking point in the Hahn/Napolitano county supervisor race...

... it behooves our county to pass Measure M and let old screwups remain in the irrelevant dustbin of past failed ideas and misguided efforts.

... and on the day AFTER a passed Measure M, we can ALL put up our dukes together to demand federal and state matching grants to build the rest of our countywide rail network, after we've shown Washington,DC and Sacramento that we're willing to put our money where our collective mouth is.


(Ken Alpern is a Westside Village Zone Director and Board member of the Mar Vista Community Council (MVCC), previously co-chaired its Planning and Outreach Committees, and currently is Co-Chair of its MVCC Transportation/Infrastructure Committee. He is co-chair of the CD11Transportation Advisory Committee and chairs the nonprofit Transit Coalition, and can be reached at  [email protected]. He also co-chairs the grassroots Friends of the Green Line at www.fogl.us. The views expressed in this article are solely those of Mr. Alpern.)











Is California’s New Accountability Plan "Gobbledygook"?

EDUCATION POLITICS-Joe Mathews of KCRW's Zocalo thinks so. I listened to Mathews complain about California's new accountability plan today on Los Angeles' NPR affiliate. He said the new program, which gives feedback on multiple measures rather than API, is confusing and lacks coherence. 

He's missing the purpose of this shift. 

“People want simplicity (that test scores provide) but simplicity hasn’t gotten us very far,” said former State Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig, in an Edsource interview.  “We really have to look at the breadth of what is going on.” 

If we encourage parents to choose a school based on a Yelp-like rating, we're encouraging a superficial look -- usually based on test scores. 

The new accountability plan aims to give parents a picture of many aspects of a school. That's important, because more and more research shows that test scores are a result of a lot that is beyond a school's control. 

Encouraging parents to look at the many aspects of the school is a good thing. 

Through most of the years of my children's education, schools were reduced to a single number. That meant that schools that were well-resourced, with students who were well supported at home and easy to teach, scored high, while those schools that served needier students scored lower.

Should I look only at schools with one type of student? No. Diversity is better than division.

Walgrove Elementary school in my neighborhood of Venice has had a stellar special education program whose families are embraced by the whole school community. It's a large part of the culture of the school. Consequently, special ed students come from all over. But this impacted the school's overall test scores for a while, making it look like there was a problem. One parent tried repeatedly to get the rating website GreatSchools.org to broaden its criteria, to no avail. I told LA Times columnist Steve Lopez about it, hoping he'd write about it. But he found it hard to believe that many parents really picked schools based on online ratings. (Isn't that almost sweet?) 

The new accountability plan gives a school like this a better chance of continuing to do its good work because it provides some context to parents. 

There's another reason the broader focus is better. The obsession with test scores pushed too many schools to narrow class offerings to what is tested. 

We want to help parents navigate, but we don't want to be overly simplistic. It's important we get it right, too. 

"All across the country people are paying attention to what California is doing,” Stanford's Linda Darling-Hammond recently said. 

What do you think? You can leave comments on Joe Mathew's story here: KCRW Zocalo


(Karen Wolfe is a public school parent, the Executive Director of PS Connect and an occasional contributor to CityWatch.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

Herb Wesson: The Man Who Would be Mayor

THE VIEW FROM MID CITY--Herb Wesson, the man who would be king, recently appointed himself Councilman of District 7 in the San Fernando Valley (17 miles north of his home in CD10) after Councilman Felipe Fuentes stepped down to become a lobbyist for the Associated General Contractors of California. Wesson loves to bend rules but may have gone too far with this one. 

A CityWatch article by Eric and Joshua Preven reports that "according to Section 407, [of the City Charter] only individuals who live in the district are eligible to fill the seat. The Charter also makes clear that appointments are not made by the Mayor or Council President but by the Council as a whole." 

Typically someone from the chief legislative analysts office would step in to run things until the March election but ever mindful of what it takes to "move on up" Herb grabbed control of the district rather than follow the City Charter requirements. Why? Doesn't he have enough responsibilities handling Council District 10 AND Council President? 

One scenario has it that when and if Garcetti is re-elected he may leave midterm in 2018 to run for Governor. In this case, the Council President (Wesson) steps in to complete the term. Becoming mayor in this easy slide to power puts him in a very favorable position to run for re-election as an incumbent mayor. Incumbents are typically difficult to unseat. Herb is very good at avoiding truly competitive elections. So this little power grab is seen by some as a way to ingratiate himself with the valley folk in preparation for an eventual run at Mayor when he fights for a second term. Why else would he want the job? Well ... maybe it's because he needs the money. 

Daniel Guss writes in CityWatch about Wesson's inability to meet his mortgage obligations many times over. The article clearly exposes a critical weakness in Wesson's thinking and a financial management style that raises serious concerns about his ability to control the city. 

With one of the top government salaries in the country and income from rental property why can't he make his mortgages? Why does he keep defaulting and more importantly, who keeps bailing him out? 

It appears as if one of his favorite political strategies has been the concept of being “beholding”. If he is considered a top power player in our city, isn't it important for us to know if he is beholding to anyone? 

Even better why not just start playing by the rules and follow the City Charter and let a new leader be legally appointed, take a step back and start focusing on his own district.   He could start by visiting small local businesses and asking what he could do to help. Something he hasn't done in 8 years in the district.


(Dianne V. Lawrence Is publisher and editor of THE NEIGHBORHOOD NEWS … founded in 2008 to cover the events, people, history, politics and historic architecture of communities throughout the Mid-City and West Adams area in Los Angeles Council District 10. She is an important voice in her community and will soon help launch a new online section in CityWatch: Neighborhood Politics.)




Did LA Council President Wesson Vote Illegally for More than 11 Years?

@THE GUSS REPORT-According to voter registration records, Herb Wesson, the current Los Angeles City Council president, may have voted illegally for up to 11½ years between November 1993 and June 2005 by providing false address information -- and confirming that false information -- each time he voted. Whether the LA County District Attorney Jackie Lacey’s Public Integrity Division gives him a James Comey/Hillary Clinton free pass remains to be seen.

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Curb Big Pharma’s Price Gauging: Vote ‘Yes’ on CA Prop. 61

RX FOR DRUG PRICES-Despite all the disgust with pharmaceutical price gouging and the public shaming of CEOs like Heather Bresch of EpiPen infamy and “pharma bro” Martin Shkreli, we’ve yet to see any concrete steps to actually cut drug prices. 

Now California voters can take matters, and their health, into their own hands – and set a national model by passing Proposition 61 in November. 

"Since 2008, the price of brand name drugs has risen by 164 percent." 

Writing for the industry website PharmExec.com Tom Norton branded California “Ground Zero” for their perennial war to protect their windfall profits. The initiative, he frets, “would establish an incredibly deep, mandatory discount … for the public purchase of prescription drugs in America’s largest state.” 

That could happen through a simple approach taken by Prop. 61 – adapting a price cut to the one public agency that has full federal authority to demand lower prices, the Department of Veteran Affairs. 

Prop. 61 would direct California to pay no more for medications for patients it covers through state health programs than the prices paid by the DVA, which could cut prices for those patients by up to 40 percent – and save the state billions of dollars in drug purchases. 

To head off that nightmare for the drug profiteers, the industry is pouring money up to $100 million into California to flood the airways and social media with a misleading campaign of deceit and scare tactics. 

At the heart of the fear mongering, and their brass knuckles campaign, is a threat that drug prices for veterans will jump if Prop. 61 passes. 

Steve Dunwoody for Vote Vets- Yes on Prop 61 from National Nurses United on Vimeo. 

Except for one fact. Federal law requires substantial discounts in drugs sold to the VA, and the drug companies will not be able to increase out of pocket costs for veterans no matter how much they try to retaliate for Prop. 61.  

“People need to see beyond the deception of those saying it will hurt veterans, it won’t,” says Iraq war veteran Steve Dunwoody. 

What the industry and those held in its thrall refuse to acknowledge is the crisis that nurses and patients see every day as a result of skyrocketing drug prices. 

"Why are our elected leaders unwilling to act?" 

Families who say they can’t afford the co-pays for the medications their children need to continue treatment for illnesses like leukemia and face becoming homeless or giving up other basic necessities to care for their child.  While the price of a drug like Gleevac, for leukemia patients, has shot up from $26,400 for an annual treatment regimen in 2001 to $120,000 today. 

Diabetic patients admitted to the hospital with elevated blood glucose levels because they couldn’t fill their medications while insulin prices have doubled and tripled in price. A diabetic who rations insulin can suffer organ damage, blindness, loss of limbs, heart attacks or strokes. 

Coronary patients with heart stents who can’t afford the follow up drugs to prevent blood clots in the new stent who come back to the ER with chest pain, if they don’t die from a heart attack or stroke before getting back to the hospital. 

Opponents of Prop. 61 suggest waiting until lawmakers in Washington or Sacramento set limits on the drug pirates. We might as well wait until the sun sets in the east. 

Congress has repeatedly blocked legislation to permit Medicare to negotiate bulk discounts, the way virtually every other country uses the power of government to curb the price gouging, or to allow patients to buy cheaper drugs from Canada. 

Why are our elected leaders unwilling to act? 

Since 1998, the pharmaceutical industry has spent $3.4 billion in federal lobbying, nearly twice as much as even that other behemoth the oil and gas industry. In 2015 alone, the pharmaceutical industry employed 1,400 federal lobbyists, nearly enough to assign three lobbyists to every member of Congress. 

The drug giants are also lavish spenders in elections. Since 1990, it has handed out $340 million in campaign cash to candidates for Congress. 

In California, even with substantial Democratic majorities, pharmaceutical lobbyists successfully buried two bills this year, SB 1010 and AB 463, both of which would have just provided more transparency on charges without even cutting prices. 

Big Pharma spends big in California to intimidate lawmakers as well, $75 million on lobbying and $17 million on contributions for candidates to state offices since 2000. 

The result of all this influence peddling has been a green light for the industry to charge whatever it wants. Since 2008, the price of brand name drugs has risen by 164 percent.  

Bernie Says Yes on California's Prop. 61 from National Nurses United on Vimeo.  

Everyone has heard of EpiPen, with its 500 percent increase for a two pack of a longtime family staple to deliver epinephrine to block potentially fatal allergic reactions to peanuts, shellfish or bee stings. 

But EpiPen is hardly an outlier. 

One of the most notorious is Sovaldi, the breakthrough drug for people struggling with hepatitis C. But maker Gilead charges $1,000 a pill or $84,000 for a 12-week treatment course, so much that it has threatened to bankrupt public programs which now commonly ration the drug. 

Those who don’t get Sovaldi “can die some of the worse deaths I’ve ever seen,” New Mexico nurse practitioner Laura Bush told The Atlantic last September. 

Today one in 10 Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control, don’t take their prescribed medications, while the world’s top 50 drug companies made $1.6 trillion in profits the past 20 years.

If you think all that wealth is being put back into developing cures for cancer or vaccines for the latest epidemics, think again. 

Nearly all drug companies spend more, usually far more, on marketing than research, much of it funded by taxpayers and conducted at public universities. 

Consider the current race to find a vaccine for the Zika virus. The biggest obstacle is how much profits Big Pharma can make from a vaccine. The French firm Sanofi SA jumped in, but only after getting $43 million in funding from the U.S. government, aka us taxpayers. Did Sanofi really need the help? It made $4.6 billion in profits in 2015 alone, and $83 billion in profits the past 20 years. 

It doesn’t have to be this way. In Egypt, Gilead sells the Sovaldi for just $900 for the same 12-weeks of care for which it charges $84,000 in the U.S. Overall, prices for the world’s top 20 selling meds are three times higher in the U.S. than in Britain, six times higher than in Brazil. 

The Big Pharma drug cartel, which would make a credible stand-in for the next season of Netflix’ show “Narcos,” certainly knows what’s at stake. 

“Adoption of VA pricing by the State of California,” Norton warns in PharmExec.com, “would be a pricing disaster for the entire U.S. drug industry” and “would shake the rafters of every single public state drug program in the nation.” 

Good. Let’s stop rewarding the arrogance of this out of control industry, and take real steps to cut drug prices, beginning in California by voting Yes on Prop. 61.


(Deborah Burger is a registered nurse and a co-president of National Nurses United. This piece first appeared in CommonDreams.org.) Photo: National Nurses United. Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

California’s New Education Architecture Is Already Failing

EDUCATION POLITICS--Is California abandoning its poorest students? That question would be dismissed as absurd by our state’s education leaders, especially Gov. Jerry Brown and the State Board of Education. For years, they have been building a new educational architecture they say will do more for the poorest kids in the poorest schools. 

But as the many elements of this architecture are put in place slowly—and I do mean slowly—they have begun to look like a Winchester Mystery House, so full of complicated rooms that the structure doesn’t fit together coherently. On its current path, the emerging educational architecture of California seems likely to undermine public accountability, resist meaningful parent and community engagement, and make it difficult to figure out whether disadvantaged students and the schools they attend are benefiting. 

The new architecture is built on a foundation known as Local Control Funding Formula, a multi-piece formula that is designed to give more money and authority to local school districts, especially those with concentrated poverty. That formula was approved in combination with the establishment of new Local Control and Accountability Plans, intended to give parents and communities more say in how money is spent. The state also adopted Common Core standards for math and English that emphasize critical thinking, and combined the standards with a computer-based testing system to better track individual students. 

And last month, the state wrapped all of these elements together in a new accountability system to track the progress of schools and students on new measures that go far beyond test scores.

The governing theory is that all these new educational structures—in concert with social programs to raise the wages, improve the health care, and provide more social services to poor Californians—will make it easier for a greater number of disadvantaged students to prepare for college and careers.

But examining the pieces in detail, the architecture is so hollow and unsteady that it’s hard to understand how students will benefit. 

Consider the new accountability system, approved by the State Board of Education in September. The board passed it in a meeting that was heavy on self-congratulation, and light on detail. 

The system introduces six indicators for measuring schools (such as college and career readiness, and the progress of English language learners) as well as local factors, like parental engagement and school climate. This was hailed as an improvement on a previous system that the board abandoned three years ago and had not replaced, leaving Californians in the dark about how their schools were doing. 

But, at least for now, this new approach to accountability offers more clouds than sunshine. It could be years before data for some of the new measures exists. There are also real questions about how you could reliably measure parental engagement and school climate, or whether the effort would be worthwhile, given all the other demands on California districts. 

Even worse, the board resisted urgent calls from many education and child advocacy groups to boil down this new system into something that the public might be able to understand. Instead, the board, defiantly, released a sprawling draft built around a confounding color-coded grid that deserves immediate induction, without the customary five-year waiting period, into the Hall of Fame for Bureaucratic Idiocy. “Making sense of it is practically impossible…” the Los Angeles Times editorialized, “… the Local Control and Accountability Plans required by the new formula are like the Holy Roman Empire—they aren’t local, they don’t really provide control or accountability, and they aren’t even plans.” 

Fixing this accountability system isn’t just a matter of redesign, which the board is saying it will do next year. The trouble is that the accountability system is built upon the other pieces of the new architecture, and those are similarly confusing. The new local control formula encompasses eight priorities, many of them hard to measure, and myriad sub-priorities and different grant formulas under those. And the Local Control and Accountability Plans required by the new formula are like the Holy Roman Empire—they aren’t local, they don’t really provide control or accountability, and they aren’t even plans. They are longwinded, technical answers to longwinded, technical questions required by a state template. School districts, naturally, have struggled to get parents and community members to participate in drafting these documents, which in many cases run to hundreds of pages. 

And if all that doesn’t give you a headache, the new system could soon get even more complicated. The federal government is in the process of developing its own plan to help the worst-off schools, under the new Every Student Succeeds Act, the successor to No Child Left Behind. 

The federal law requires states to identify the bottom five percent of schools and figure out ways to improve them. California’s emerging architecture doesn’t provide any easy way to identify those schools. Instead, state leaders are lobbying against the new federal system, and continue to design the state’s system in ways that are at odds with the federal law. Last week, Gov. Brown vetoed a bill, overwhelmingly passed in the legislature, to require the California system to align with the federal one. 

In the end, it’s possible there will be not one but two accountability systems for California schools—one answerable to Sacramento, the other to Washington. 

In watching this process, I can’t help but wonder if all the confusion isn’t cynically deliberate. Throughout, the state has followed the advice of its powerful teachers union, the California Teachers Association, which has opposed any system that offers coherent ratings, and thus meaningful comparisons, of schools. The union prefers to have as much evaluation as possible done at the local level, where they are most powerful. By enacting a state system that no one can manage or understand, California may effectively leave things in the hands of the locals. 

What does that mean for making sure poor kids are actually making progress? It may mean that we never know. Gov. Brown gave the game away in an interview with CALmatters earlier this year when he questioned whether the achievement gaps between disadvantaged and other students can be closed, even with the help of his Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF). 

“The gap has been pretty persistent,” he said, “so I don’t want to set up what hasn’t been done ever as the test of whether the LCFF is a success or failure. I don’t know why you would go there.” Closing achievement gaps is “pretty hard to do,” he added. 

The defenses of the emerging system are equally lame. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson has argued that the complexity of the new system is a virtue—since education, and life for that matter, is complex. 

The State Board of Education president Michael Kirst, a Stanford scholar whose writing on educational systems is distinguished by its clarity, has in this instance taken to issuing uncharacteristically foggy pleas for patience and delay. We’re still ironing out the kinks and the whole system will evolve continuously, he argues. “Concluding now that the system is too complex,” he wrote for the website EdSource, “would be no different than arguing that people would not be able to use a smart phone based on the engineering specifications when the device is still in development.” 

Professor Kirst is right about the need for patience, in a way. It will take at least until 2019, when California finally gets a new governor, before Californians will have any chance to stop construction on this incomprehensible mess, and to focus coherently on our poorest students. 

(Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square, where this piece originally appeared. Primary Editor: Andrés Martinez. Secondary Editor: Sara Catan.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

Deadly Sixth Street May have to Wait for Safety Upgrades

BEVERLY PRESS FOLLOWUP—(Editor’s Note: As Richard Risemberg reported in CityWatch Sixth Street in the Miracle Mile neighborhood has become deadly. Lives have been lost.

Some of the neighbors and Councilman Ryu’s office have a busy calendar these days however and safety doesn’t seem to be in the cards of this community any time soon. Too busy with incoming Metro stations, LACMA construction, etc. A hard cop out to buy if you’re one of the families impacted by hurt or death … or worried about the next deadly crash.

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What about Accountability? MTA Measure M has it ‘Bass Ackwards’

PERSPECTIVE-Would you agree to guarantee a contractor a virtually unlimited amount of funds to build a house? If the answer is “yes,” then there are some business people in Nigeria who would like to talk to you. 

The MTA board may as well relocate its office to Lagos. 

By an 11-2 vote, the board approved a permanent sales tax which is estimated to raise $860 million per year in today’s dollars. Theoretically, forever. 

Proponents of the measure argue that the voters can always rescind it down the line if they are not happy with the results. 

What would be the odds of success? Average citizens would have to not only organize a grassroots movement, but raise many millions of dollars to fight proponents backed by the deep pockets and logistics of developers.

We do need to raise many billions of dollars for transportation projects, but there must be accountability. An unlimited stream of cash will not incentivize the MTA and its contractors to manage budgets. Only the sobering reality of losing future funding offers a chance of ensuring financial discipline. It’s a fact of life – MTA board members will come and go. They will not have to live up to long-term promises. 

The Measure attempts to assuage the concerns of the residents with the formation of oversight committees and independent audits, but there are no legal requirements for the MTA to implement recommendations or fix audit findings. 

The only way to control the effective use of funds is by requiring the MTA board to re-approach the voters periodically – say in 20 years initially, then every 5-10 years thereafter, to up the level of funding. If they want to exceed the 40-year horizon of the proposed wave of projects, they must earn our support first by demonstrating cost-effective and timely progress. 

Putting the onus on the passengers of a train to prevent a trainwreck, rather than insisting that the engineer apply the brakes before one occurs, is “bass ackwards.” 

But that is essentially what Measure M will do by almost certainly assuring unlimited funding.


(Paul Hatfield is a CPA and serves as President of the Valley Village Homeowners Association. He blogs at Village to Village and contributes to CityWatch. The views presented are those of Mr. Hatfield and his alone and do not represent the opinions of Valley Village Homeowners Association or CityWatch. He can be reached at: [email protected].) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

Warning! We Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet: California Faces Decades-Long Megadroughts

CLIMATE POLITICS--"Megadroughts" that last for decades are threatening to strike already parched California and other western U.S. states by the end of the century, a new study finds, with one model predicting that a drought lasting about 35 years may be a "near certainty."

A megadrought would bring back the devastating dustbowl conditions of the 1930s to California, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, and Colorado, but would last for a much longer period of time, according to the study published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances. 

"Using a combination of temperature and precipitation models," the Guardian reports, "the study predicts a 70 percent chance of a megadrought by the end of the century, should rainfall levels remain the same, with a 90 percent chance of an elongated drought should rainfall decrease, as most climate models forecast."

"We can't rule out there could be a 99.9 percent chance of a megadrought, which makes it virtually certain," Toby Ault, a scientist at Cornell University and lead author of the study, told the Guardian.

"Historically, megadroughts were extremely rare phenomena occurring only once or twice per millennium," the study observes. "According to our analysis of modeled responses to increased [greenhouse gas emissions], these events could become commonplace if climate change goes unabated."

A map shows the rising risk of megadraughts corresponding to varying increases in global temperatures. (Image: Science Advances)

"With 4 degrees of warming, which is the rate the planet is currently heading for, megadroughts are almost a certainty," EcoWatch notes.

"A megadrought occurring again in the (California and the) Southwest in the coming decades would impose unprecedented stresses on water resources of the region, and recent studies have shown that they are far more likely to occur this century because of climate change compared to past centuries," write the study authors, scientists from Cornell University, the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, and the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

Indeed, California's six-year-long drought has already changed the landscape, according to the Guardian: "Areas of the Sierras have burned a few times and the forests aren't recruiting back, they are turning into grasslands and bush lands," Mark Schwartz, professor of environmental science at the University of California, told the newspaper.  

"Water availability is a deep issue for people living in the arid south-west," Schwartz added. "Megadroughts have the ability to dry up Lake Mead [which supplies water to Las Vegas] and hamper crops in southern California. We are doing a relatively poor job of allocating water efficiently. We need to get better at that."

"The new report does proffer a crumb of hope," the Guardian writes, "if greenhouse gas emissions are radically cut then the risk of megadrought will reduce by half, giving a roughly 50:50 chance that a multi-decade stretch of below-average rainfall would occur this century. But the research found that the emissions cuts would have to be far steeper than those agreed to by nations in Paris last year, where a 2C limit on warming was pledged."

"We would need a much more aggressive approach than proposed at Paris," Ault told the newspaper. "It's not too late to do this but the train is leaving the station as we speak."

(Nika Knight writes for Common Dreams … where this report was first posted.) Photo: Shever/flickr/cc


This Is Not About Donald Trump!

GUEST WORDS--This is not about Donald Trump. And I mean it.

From the moment the first scribe etched a paean of praise to Nebuchadnezzar into a stone tablet, it’s reasonable to conclude that never in history has the media covered a single human being as it has Donald Trump.

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The Z-Man Sues the City and LAPD Chief Beck for $6 Million … and, Other Good Stuff

RANTZ & RAVEZ--While I am always on the lookout for good RaveZ to bring to your attention, I find very few in dealing with our City, County, State and Federal Governments. When I do find something of significance, I bring it to your attention. Well, I have three for you this week. 

  1. I begin with the DWP Air Conditioner Optimization Program. The Program deals with a FREE service of your Air Conditioner System by a Professional Air Conditioning Company contracted by the DWP. A professional technician from Mediterranean Heating and Air Conditioning inspected my home. In addition to a full 2-hour inspection, I received a new state of the art Nest Thermostat to control my air/heating system. This FREE program was sponsored by LA City Councilman Bob Blumenfield and approved by the City Council to soften the impact of the multi-year increase in the DWP rates. All costs of the program are paid for by the DWP. The program is scheduled to run for three years at a cost of $4.5 million a year to the DWP. 

If interested in this TOTALLY FREE service, contact the DWP A/C Optimization Program at (877) 427-0418. 

  1. Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer slams Wells Fargo for ripping off huge numbers of customers and over 450 United States Military Personnel. The San Francisco based Wells Fargo Bank was accused of ripping off thousands of customers by opening over 2 million fake accounts with bogus fees, and the repossession of private vehicles owned by United States Military Personnel. The company fired over 5,000 employees involved in these unethical actions and owes the following amounts of money to various organizations and individuals. In total, the amount is well over $200 Million. The specifics: 
  1. $100 Million to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. 
  2. The City and County of Los Angeles are due $50 million. This is the largest fine ever levied against a financial institution by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. 
  3. $35 million to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and untold figures owed to affected customers. 
  4. In addition, $10,000 to each of the military personnel that had their vehicles illegally reposed by Wells Fargo. 
  5. This story is not over and additional fines and sanctions are in the making on many levels from state and federal authorities. They say image is everything when it comes to consumers and products and services. What will the ultimate consequences be for Wells Fargo? Only time will tell. 

Congratulations to Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer and his staff for protecting the Los Angeles consumers. The next question is how many other banks utilized the Wells Fargo tactics to meet goals and earn bonuses. Time and future investigations will bring about the truth of this and related matters. I am sure we have not heard the last of this procedure by various banks. 

I can see Mike Feuer running for Los Angeles Mayor in the future. 

  1. A $6 Million lawsuit was filed in the Superior Court of the State of California for the County of Los Angeles, Central District with the author of RantZ and RaveZ, Dennis P. Zine (photo above left), and resident James Bibeau as Plaintiffs vs the City of Los Angeles and Charles Beck (photo at top right), Chief of Police vs the City of Los Angeles. This RaveZ concerns all Los Angeles taxpayers and has the impact of over $6 Million for the next three years. Being a former LAPD Supervisor, City Councilman, LA City Resident and local taxpayer, I found fault with the Rams Football Team receiving FREE LAPD security services for all home games. 

Within days of filing my lawsuit against the City of LA and Chief Beck, the Rams came forward and agreed to pay for security and related services at all home games played at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. 

With the shortage of LAPD Officers and great demand on police services, it was proper to implement legal action against the City of LA and Rams Football Team. If the city leaders were truly concerned about the taxpayers and public safety, they would have resolved this matter before agreeing to have the Rams return to Los Angeles. 

Remember that the Rams Football team is only going to be playing football at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the next three seasons. After that time, the Rams will be moving to Inglewood and will play all home games at the new Inglewood $3 Billion Stadium. In the future, the City of Inglewood will be providing all public safety and related services to the Ram’s Football Team. With all the services provided by Inglewood, the tax revenues and related income will all benefit the City of Inglewood. 

There you go. Three cases of RaveZ for your consideration.




If you have a RaveZ that you would like to share with our readers, please email the information to me at [email protected].  The most recent report showed that over 400,000 people reviewed my RantZ and RaveZ column. That is impact and a great opportunity to spread the word.




With all the media focus and talk about the November Presidential Election, and the many ballot measures that are so confusing to most of us, who do you turn to where we can find the truth of the matter. Who is going to give you the straight facts, and nothing but the facts, on the various ballot measures. There is one source that is accurate and honest and to the point. That one reliable and trusting is none other then the RantZ and RaveZ. Recommendations coming in future editions as we approach the November Election.

(Dennis P. Zine is a 33-year member of the Los Angeles Police Department and former Vice-Chairman of the Elected Los Angeles City Charter Reform Commission, a 12-year member of the Los Angeles City Council and a current LAPD Reserve Officer who serves as a member of the Fugitive Warrant Detail assigned out of Gang and Narcotics Division. Disclosure: Zine was a candidate for City Controller last city election. He writes RantZ & RaveZ for CityWatch. You can contact him at [email protected]. Mr. Zine’s views are his own and do not reflect the views of CityWatch.)


Pan Am Equities: LA River Megadeveloper Gets Caught Lying to Atwater Village

OVER-DEVELOPMENT ONSLAUGHT-Billionaire Manhattan developers are proposing a surprise 419-unit apartment mega-project on the Los Angeles River -- next to a long-promised state park -- and recently explained themselves to the local community. They ended up showing quite a bit of contempt for Atwater Village and Glassell Park, the communities they seek to gentrify. 

The mega-development, dubbed “2800 Casitas” after the dead-end riverside street where the sprawling luxury housing would be shoe-horned, would radically remake the Glassell Park/Atwater Village community. As envisioned by developer Pan Am Equities, the massive project would dramatically impact a scenic and woodsy stretch of the LA River bird flyway, near a laid-back art-scene locale along the river, called the Bowtie. (Photo above.) 

Pan Am’s is among a frenzy of proposals that would shoulder aside LA’s lively civic discussions about re-greening the Los Angeles River, supplanting that public debate with developers’ private plans for dense, luxury “waterfront” housing in what are now working-class areas. 

Pan Am, owned by the billionaire Manocherian family, which owns 85 buildings in Manhattan alone, was drawn to LA by growing word that you can buy Los Angeles land, get the local land zoning tossed out in a backroom deal at City Hall, and then build as big -- and as inappropriately -- as you want. 

Having already held backroom meetings with City Hall leaders, Pan Am Equities was trying hard to win over the Atwater Village Neighborhood Council’s Environmental and Land-use Committee, by sending a local, Atwater Village architect, Mark Motonaga, to speak at its September meeting at Christ’s Church. 

Motonaga is a principal with Rios Clementi Hale Studios, the mega-project’s designer. Because Motonaga was filling in for the Manhattan developer, he had to repeatedly turn to Pan Am representative Reed Garwood -- sitting in the third pew of the chapel -- to answer questions.

And that’s when Garwood told the ugly fib, that Pan Am Equities’ plan was purely preliminary.

In fact, Garwood blithely assured Atwater Village and Glassell Park residents that Pan Am hadn’t even filed an application for a land zoning change. 

That wasn’t even close to the truth. 

Atwater area resident Cheryll Roberts held up Pan Am’s detailed, 90-page, land-rezoning application submitted to the city and chimed in, “Yeah, you did. I have it right here.” 

Ninety pages long -- hard for a developer to deny they’d already filed it with Los Angeles City officials. 

Pan Am wants to jack up the zoning from a furniture storage and shipping building to a far more intensive and river-impacting round-the-clock use: several hundred humans and their several hundred vehicles, wedged next to a supposedly coming public river park. 

The Coalition to Preserve LA is sponsoring the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative on the March 7, 2017 ballot to protect communities like Atwater Village and Glassell Park from wildly inappropriate land-zoning changes known as “spot zoning.” 

The once-denigrated LA River, one of the nation’s most important bird flyways and a rare natural resource for the entire Los Angeles public, is now among the most-threatened land in LA.

The Coalition has pressed Mayor Eric Garcetti to end ex parte (backroom) meetings between developers and City Hall politicians that cater to developer greed and terrible planning like 2800 Casitas. 

Nobody disputes that by the time residents in places like Atwater Village hear of a project such as 2800 Casitas, backroom deals have already been made between the developer, local LA City Council members and planning officials. The public is cut out entirely, until far down the road.

At the meeting, residents from Atwater and nearby were shown a slide presentation and artists’ renditions of buildings soaring as high as 85 feet, prompting them to question how this out-of-character-development on the banks of the Los Angeles River could possibly represent smart planning. 

Everyone questioned the tall boxes along the river and near charming old neighborhoods of architecturally interesting one- and two-story homes. At more than 60 housing units per acre, on 5.7 acres, 2800 Casitas would set a major precedent, encouraging a luxury housing stampede of developers demanding zoning riverfront changes from the local LA City Council members. 

Pan Am’s big buildings “look like a fortress,” as one community member remarked, while others questioned the intelligence of creating a giant community on a small dead-end road. 

“Have you talked to the fire department about this?” Committee Chairman Larry Hafetz asked. “There generally has to be two outlets.” 

With a nod to the nearby active Hollywood Earthquake Fault that travels along Los Feliz Boulevard and runs deep into Atwater Village, resident Diahanne Payne said: “What if the 2 Freeway (on the proposed mega-project’s north border) collapses? People would be trapped. I’ve got a problem with that. 419 units means 840 cars or so. That’s an access problem. God help the poor suckers who live on Casitas Street.” 

And the proposed buildings, Payne said, “Look like tenement buildings, no matter how much green you add to the walls.” She meant the developer’s plan to somehow mask the huge structures with vines. 

Larry Hafetz cited two other communities now fighting the gridlock and neighborhood destruction brought on by LA’s City-Hall encouraged luxury housing frenzy. According to warnings by the city’s housing department, the overdevelopment has left a huge 15% vacancy rate in all LA luxury housing built in the past decade. 

Hafetz said: “The community needs to be preserved. This is not Hollywood or Silver Lake. Our community is the river. Density is going to be a hard sell.” 

(David Futch writes for 2PreserveLA.org. Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

Orwellian Logic: When Illegal Signs are Really Legal

BILLBOARD WATCH-In April of this year, the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety issued a permit for temporary construction fence signs at the site of a church on Lincoln Blvd. in Venice. Those signs have since advertised movies, TV shows, and Airbnb to an audience of motorists on one of the most gridlocked thoroughfares on the west side of the city. 

Lincoln Blvd. is also a Community Design Overlay (CDO) District, with standards and regulations that include a ban on new billboards and off-site signs. Since none of the signs plastered on some 200 ft. of plywood attached to a chain link fence at the edge of the church property have advertised products or activities available at the church, they’re clearly off-site signs and thus prohibited by the CDO. 

So why would the building department issue a permit for those signs? Before that permit was handed to the sign company, the City Planning Department had to provide a “clearance” attesting to the fact that the signs wouldn’t conflict with any zoning regulations. So one might think that the CDO’s ban on off-site signs would have prompted a thumbs down on the permit. 

But no. The planning department issued the clearance on the grounds that the off-site sign ban in the citywide sign ordinance contains an exception for temporary signs, and that this exception applies to the Lincoln Blvd. CDO.

This makes sense only if facts are ignored and logic twisted. One, the sign permits were issued under a special ordinance allowing advertising signs on fences surrounding construction sites and vacant lots. These signs at construction sites can remain for the duration of the site’s building permit or two years, whichever is less, and there are specific limits on their size, number, and spacing. 

In contrast, signs permitted under the citywide sign code’s temporary sign exception can only remain for 30 days at a time, with a cumulative annual limit of 90 days. There are also size limits that are proportional to the street frontage of the property. 

The total square footage of the signs at the church property on Lincoln Blvd is considerably greater than that allowed under the temporary signs provision of the citywide sign code. And the signs have violated both the 30-day limit and the 90-day annual limit. Yet the building department has declined to cite those violations because the signs comply with the provisions of the permit issued under the ordinance that allows signs on construction walls. 

Confused yet? 

The signs violate the CDO’s ban on off-site signs and they violate the size and time limits of the temporary sign regulations, yet the two responsible city agencies regard them as legal. 

In other words, black is white and up is down. 

To add insult to injury, the Lincoln Blvd. CDO also has design standards stating that fences and walls should not front Lincoln Blvd., and any such fences required by code should be no more than 42 inches high. These provisions are intended to enhance the visual quality and the pedestrian friendliness of the boulevard. 

The plywood wall that provides the backing for the church property signs is eight feet high

Furthermore, there is no sign of any construction activity at the site, which includes the church, a separate auditorium building, and a parking lot.


(Dennis Hathaway is the president of the Ban Billboard Blight Coalition and a CityWatch contributor. He can be reached at: [email protected].) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

Measure M and the Beneficial Domino Effect

ALPERN AT LARGE--In my last CityWatch article, I recommended a "NO" vote for just about every tax measure this November based on the fact that the new funds would be poorly spent.  The big exception, of course, is Measure M--because the money and projects are well-defined, and well-vetted by the taxpayers of LA County. 

We do NOT want to "feed the beast" of unsustainable pension/benefits of public sector officials and workers who perform vital jobs but are being reimbursed and pensioned at a level we just can't continue to fund.  After all, are California (particularly LA County) residents paying less or MORE than the rest of the nation? 

And are we getting a good "bang for our buck" with respect to what our taxes pay for? 

But the reason why the schools and "general fund" taxes and bonds should be rejected is that we don't know where the money is going, while the opposite is true for Measure M. 

Opponents of Measure M are people who, for the most part, should be listened to and worked with for years to come.  Metro's come a long way since the crazy-spending of the 1990's, and there are a lot of good reasons why Caltrans let Metro take over and/or finish local freeway projects--in short, Metro typically spends their money well, and is a model for adhering to its budget. 

A model that school districts, water districts, and other public sector/sphere jurisdictions would do well to emulate. 

But with Measure M--as with the previously-passed Measure R in 2008--there will be a domino effect of MORE money coming into LA County from Sacramento and Washington. 

LA is no longer last but among the first when it comes to federal and state eyes and wallets opening to support a county "that has its act together".  And, of course, a county willing to put its money where its mouth is. 

The "Friends of the Green Line" project that started shortly after 9/11 found that the critical LAX/Metro Rail connection now funded by Metro with a 2024 due date (LINK: ) will happen faster if Measure M passes … call it the Measure M Domino Effect: 

1) South Bay residents would want "in" to the Green Line/LAX connection 

2) Increased interest in a Norwalk Green Line/Metrolink connection would occur that might bring in dollars from both Orange and Riverside counties 

3) Westsiders and Downtowners would want better access to the LAX/Metro Rail connection as well, facilitating interest in extensions via Lincoln and Sepulveda Blvds. 

Similarly, there would be a Domino Effect for the Foothill Gold Line, which would be funded by Measure M not only to Claremont (the eastern edge of L.A. County in the Inland Empire) but to Montclair in San Bernardino County.  That brings that county on board, particularly if the line were to be advocated for extension to Ontario Airport, and/or with more Metrolink connections. 

Would there be an increased effort to connect Orange County with any Santa Ana Pacific Electric Rail Right of Way to the Southeast LA County cities and the Green Line?  Probably--the 405 freeway isn't getting any lighter with respect to traffic, and Orange County residents would certainly want a better way to access Downtown. 

So enter another Domino Effect

And the more these projects get promoted, the more that federal and state matching funds could be achieved, allowing Metro to work their way down the list to build these projects (including Metro projects in the South Bay, Southeast LA County Cities, the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys, and the like) to fulfill the needs of ALL LA County residents. 

Domino Effects are usually negative, and not desired, by taxpayers...yet it does appear that Measure M has the strong potential (and strong likelihood, based on our experience with Measure R in 2008) to create a positive and favorable Domino Effect

Hence Measure M deserves our consideration, and our vote, come this November. 

And if Measure M passes this November, any work done to expedite transportation improvements throughout the county, and/or to fine tune Metro's priorities, could begin in earnest the very next day.


(Ken Alpern is a Westside Village Zone Director and Board member of the Mar Vista Community Council (MVCC), previously co-chaired its Planning and Outreach Committees, and currently is Co-Chair of its MVCC Transportation/Infrastructure Committee. He is co-chair of the CD11Transportation Advisory Committee and chairs the nonprofit Transit Coalition, and can be reached at  [email protected]. He also co-chairs the grassroots Friends of the Green Line at www.fogl.us. The views expressed in this article are solely those of Mr. Alpern.)






Kamala vs. Loretta: The Worst Debate in History

ELECTION 2016--Despite her self-regarding belief, Barbara Boxer has not exactly been a paragon of political achievement in the U.S. Senate — but c’mon is this really the best a state of 39 million people can do in finding a replacement?

Not since the tap dancing George Murphy and the tam o’shanter-styling S.I. Hayakawa squatted in California’s seats in the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body have there been two Mickey Mouse lightweights as insubstantial as 2016 Senate wannabes Kamala Harris and Loretta Sanchez.

So we guess it was appropriate that the one and only faceoff between the Democratic dynamic duo Wednesday night was the lamest so-called debate in memory, Or at least since the 2016 vice-presidential contenders parleyed the night before.

A dilettante’s delight: The ABC7-produced event in LA was, and let us put this as politely as possible, a bloody muddle: a panel of three, amateur-night questioners competed for time with a batch of pre-recorded Real People (some of whom could not be heard by the rivals in the studio) to pose the most insipid inquiries possible, while OCD-stricken moderator Marc Brown continuously refused to let the candidates finish sentences, apparently concerned there wouldn’t be time left for the crucial performance of a troupe of trapeze artists waiting in the wings.

At one point, one of the three panelists (we omit Janis Hirohama’s name to spare her family embarrassment) actually asked Harris and Sanchez “what committees would you like to serve on?” Yuck.

In the end, sigh, Harris’s banalities and clichés trumped Rep. Sanchez’s squeaky prattling and saccharine babbling, and Kamala was the only one on the stage who at least had the poise and appearance of a U.S. Senator.

Three key takeaways:

Where were Willon, Cadelago and Marinucci? Egghead Raphael Sonenshein of the (all rise) Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State LA; League of Women Voters goo-goo Hirohama and ABC7 general assignment reporter Adrienne Alpert all are, no doubt, very nice people who are routinely kind to dogs and curtain crawlers. Not one, alas, is a professional political reporter who is actually, um, covering the Senate race.

So instead of benefiting from beat reporters who know what they’re talking about, and who might have asked at least one – one, for the love of God, one! – follow-up question, we were subjected to this trio of worthies earnestly reading her or his list of shallow questions conscientiously prepared in study hall. That’s not to mention moderator Brown, who seemed to think the 12 people who actually tuned into the affair did so to hear him bellow “your time is up,” any time either Kamala or Loretta came close to expressing a complete thought. Secret memo to Marc: the fans don’t come to the game to watch the umpires.

Queen of the platitude: Harris was alternately arrogant, condescending, weak-kneed and pandering. Some examples of her soaring rhetoric: On water: “We must have a conversation around this” (A conversation? Really? Hint, hint: California’s been having a “conversation” on water since before the Bear Flag Republic. No word yet on any progress). On fighting terrorism: “We have to be smart and tough” (now don’t get too far out on a limb there, General). On U.S.-Russia relations: (“I believe that Russia poses a serious threat to our country” (Ooh). Also: we hereby demand a moratorium on using the word “unpack” unless you’re talking about removing the contents of a suitcase. Big upside: she speaks in complete sentences.

Word salad Sanchez: For her part, Sanchez was smarmy, scatterbrained, snarling and sarcastic. At least her self-dramatic digressions were long-winded. To her credit, she did roll out an entertaining series of creative gestures to distract from her semi-coherent verbal frolics, at one point forming a little hand puppet mouth while saying that Kamala was all talk and no action, and, at another, shooing the air in her foe’s direction, like a fairy princess dismissing the wicked witch from her kingdom. Sadly for Sanchez, Harris totally clobbered her on her truly lousy House attendance record.

Bottom line: Neither candidate did anything that will change a race now shaped as a Harris win. As a practical matter, it wouldn’t matter anyway, since either of them would fill the Boxer space in the Senate of predictable, reflexive support and fist-shaking on behalf of every liberal Democratic interest group in the state. Good times, CTA, trial lawyers and SEIU!

What a pair.

Full disclosure: we watched this horror show with one eye focused on the Giants memorable wild card win over the Mets. However: the most recent PPIC poll reported that a fourth of likely voters said they might not cast ballots in this one. And, despite our long and impeccable citizenship records – we’re the only two people in California who actually show up for jury duty – we’re tempted to join them.

(Jerry Roberts and Phil Trounstine … long time journalists … publish the award-winning CalBuzz.com


Harris vs. Sanchez: Ethnicity Shouldn’t Matter When CA Picks a Senator

LATINO PERSPECTIVE--We have all been so busy and preoccupied with the Presidential election this fall but did you know that there is also an important Senate election to replace Senator Barbara Boxer who is not running for re-election? 

Very few people are paying attention to this election. Both Senate candidates -- state Attorney General Kamala Harris and Orange County Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez -- are Democrats and female and come from diverse backgrounds. Whoever wins in the November general election will make history for California and the nation. 

Harris, whose mother is of South Asian descent and whose father grew up in Jamaica, would be the second black woman elected to the Senate; Sanchez would be among the first Latinas elected senator. 

Following on the heels of Barbara Boxer's retirement announcement, the election will fill the state's first open Senate seat in two and a half decades. 

Besides the lack of knowledge on the part of many voters about these two candidates, what’s really interesting is the lukewarm support the Latino community has for Congresswoman Sanchez. 

Last May, Rep. Filemon Vela (D-Texas) blasted the California Democratic Party for backing Attorney General Kamala Harris over Rep. Loretta Sanchez in the primary for U.S. Senate. Vela, in a statement to the Washington Post, said the party’s active support of Harris “is insulting to Latinos all across this country.” 

“Congresswoman Sanchez has served her Party and her state in an exemplary fashion for over 20 years,” he also said in the statement. 

“Surely, grassroots California Democrats will recognize that such disgraceful treatment of Congresswoman Sanchez will only lead the party in a foolish direction.” 

Asked why he criticized the state party’s endorsement, Vela said via email to The Post that Democratic organizations should not endorse in primaries: “The establishment should be available to help ALL Democratic candidates equally.” 

“How can the Party claim to be supportive of the Latino community and at the same time alienate a qualified candidate in a historic election?” he wrote. “I hope this statement encourages Democratic leadership across this country to recognize that the Latino community should not be taken for granted. 

California is the most populated state in the country, with the largest number of Latinos than any other state in the country. The California Democratic Party has no business taking a position against Loretta Sanchez,” who, according to Congressman Vela is the “most experienced candidate in this race.” 

“Not one single Democratic Latina has ever been in the United States Senate, and the California Democratic Party’s position is a disrespectful example of wayward institutional leadership which on the one hand ‘wants our vote’ but on the other hand wants to ‘spit us out,’ ” Vela said. 

But the reality is that the Democratic Party endorses in elections all the times where there are two or more Democrats competing against each other; I believe the Republican Party does the same. 

I disagree with Congressman Vela for saying that Latinos should support Sanchez just because she’s Latina. Being Latino or Latina shouldn’t be the only reason to back a candidate. It’s irresponsible to vote for someone or support a candidate solely based on race. 

Vela’s statement that the Party’s active support of Harris is insulting to Latinos all across this country is not true at all. Latinos are smarter than that; we are going to vote for the best qualified candidate. If that candidate happens to be Latino or Latina, then even better. 

At the end of the day it doesn’t matter what the position of the party is. What matters is the position of the voters. Political parties are political institutions and make political decisions. Congressman Vela should know better. It’s just politics!


(Fred Mariscal came to Los Angeles from Mexico City in 1992 to study at the University of Southern California and has been in LA ever since. He is a community leader and was a candidate for Los Angeles City Council in District 4. Fred writes Latino Perspective for CityWatch and can be reached at: [email protected].) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

Fact Checking ‘News’ Articles that Shill for Real Estate Speculation in LA

PLATKIN ON PLANNING--By now we have all encountered news services, like Politico, that fact check politicians during the election campaign. Well, this week I am offering a similar service to CityWatch readers. I have fact checked three recent “news” articles that sing the praises of extravagant real estate speculation in Los Angeles.

Hopefully, my fact checking will help you critically assess the constant stream of quasi-journalistic falsehoods that spin the virtues of illegal real state projects that rely on special, parcel level City Council ordinances to become legal. 

More specifically on my blog I have posted my extended corrections to these three articles: 

  • “In Cranes’ Shadows, Los Angeles Strains to See a Future with Less Sprawl,” New York Times, September 21, 2016. 
  • “Tall v. Sprawl – Build Better LA Proposition Will Determine Our City’s Future,” LA Weekly, September 27, 2016. 
  • “LA Community Developer Caruso Struggle with Caruso’s ‘Dream Project’,” City Watch LA, September 26, 2016.                                                                                                                          

While I certainly invite you to go to the link for my blog, Plan-It Los Angeles, here is the abbreviated version of what you will find there.  

In their efforts to celebrate real estate speculation, all three articles rely on a journalistic form to candy-coat private commercial interests trying to game the land use system. This is why I call these articles info-journalism. They are the print version of an infomercial, those mock late night TV ads that mimic news stories, but are really nothing more than an extended commercial touting a specific product, such as a Veg-O-Matic kitchen utensil. 

In addition to their faux journalistic form, all three articles fail to mention the following: 

  1. The mega-projects in the sights of the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative are all illegal. The adopted laws of the City of Los Angeles bar their construction because they conflict with the City’s adopted General Plan and the zoning code that implements the General Plan. 
  1. In order for these otherwise illegal projects to be constructed, the City Council must adopt a special law for their underlying parcel that, essentially, exempts the project from the City’s General Plan and from the zoning laws that implement the General Plan. If this looks like “Pay to Play” to you, I suggest you trust your intuition. 
  1. All of these large mega-projects require a full Environmental Impact Report (EIR), and all of these EIRs identify an environmentally superior alternative, such as a modification of the existing structure or a replacement structure that could be built by-right because it already conforms to General Plan and the Zoning Code. 

At the request of the investor, however, the City Planning Commission and the City Council never opt for the environmentally superior alternative. Instead, they support the most environmentally damaging alternative. In doing so, they always adopt a Statement of Overriding Considerations, and these Statements always rely on the developers’ claims that that his or her project will generate jobs and/or transit ridership. None of these claims are ever subsequently monitored and verified, and there are no consequences, such as the revocation of a building permit, if the purported benefits fail to appear. 

  1. Even though all of these “illustrious” projects are substantially higher and larger than nearby legal buildings, the City Planning Commission and the City Council gloss over the General Plan’s clear principle that new development must be consistent with the character and scale of existing development.   Despite obvious design clashes, the City Planning Commission and the City Council never reject a project on design criteria, even though the General Plan Framework Element has an entire chapter and three appendices solely focused on neighborhood and building design. 
  1. The General Plan is also clear that new development must have sufficient supportive public infrastructure and public services for deviations to proceed. Yet, none of these articles mention that LA’s infrastructure is strapped and often failing, that the city is headed for natural disasters that will compound underinvested infrastructure and services, and that the City has not properly monitored its own infrastructure and public services in nearly two decades. 
  1. The General Plan Amendments, Zone Changes, and Height District Changes that the City Council dishes out to its cronies dramatically increase the value of the underlying land. Yet, none of this added value comes back to the City as additional property taxes because of Proposition 13’s giant loopholes. This is because the title does not change, and the only benefit to the city and state is from sales taxes generated by on-site businesses. 

Now, some special fact checking for each of these articles. 

The New York Times article presents current land use disputes in Los Angeles as a disagreement in esthetics and values between those who want a slowly growing, dispersed city versus those who want a concentrated city with rapid growth that also addresses its housing crisis. This is an entirely false distinction. The opponents of the mega-projects are not fans of suburbanization or slow growth. They simply want a city that prepares, adopts, implements, and then monitors an up-to-date General Plan. These plans designate many areas where density and height are allowed, and they ensure through careful planning and monitoring that the city’s infrastructure and services are up to the task. This position is not pro-sprawl, pro-suburbanization, pro-slow growth, and pro-a housing affordability crisis. These ridiculous claims are nothing more than the unquoted repetition of the desperate arguments of anxious business interests whose latest business ventures are real estate projects, not to Kruggerands, cotton futures, and high tech start-ups. 

The LA Weekly article is even worse than the New York Times article when it comes to false distinctions in order to convince its readers that speculation in otherwise illegal real estate projects is just what the doctor ordered for an ailing Los Angeles. On one side the Weekly presents a modern urbanist faction that yearns for an LA that should be tall, dense, served by mass transit, bike lanes, and pedestrian-friendly streets. Their preservationist opponents are those who want a Los Angeles that is supposedly wide, sprawling, car-oriented, and dominated by single-family homes. This imaginary distinction, too, is utter nonsense. 

The real dichotomy is between those who advocate for a city that is properly planned and monitored, versus those who implicitly call for a city that grows willy-nilly, based on short-term profit maximization, oblivious to existing zones, plans, public services, public infrastructure, neighborhood scale, and neighborhood character. But, support of good planning is independent from the pace of growth, single-family homes, mass transit, bicycle lanes, and creating a pedestrian environment. In fact, as anyone who has reads my weekly CityWatch columns knows, these features are all part of a properly planned city, and this is the best way to ensure that these vital infrastructure components appear. 

The CityWatch article was largely a sympathetic interview with the head of a company, Caruso Affiliated, that wants to build a 240-foot high luxury high rise project at the site of the recently closed, three-story Loehman’s store near the Beverly Center. Because the developer made a last minute change to his list of required discretionary actions by adding an SB 1818 Density Bonus option, the article presents the developer as a billionaire populist who is trying to create a model of egalitarian life style in Los Angeles. 

While few hired publicists would go overboard like this, the article unsurprisingly fails to mention that the only objective change in the project is converting 8 of its 145 luxury ($10,000 to 20,000 monthly rents) to affordable units whose actual rents are not yet known. The article also fails to mention that many other developers of market housing, including high-end housing like this project, have taken similar advantage of SB 1818. They, just like Caruso Affiliated, have been able to bust through zoning laws, by converting 5 percent of their units to affordable apartments (that are never subsequently field inspected by the City of Los Angeles). 

Furthermore, the developer’s boast that the 8 tenants of the affordable units will have access to the same amenities of the 137 global one-percenters paying full fair is not even optional. It is a legal requirement to treat al tenants the same. 

Finally, by opting for the 5 percent SB 1818 option now, the developer may be able to shield himself from the 15 percent requirement of the Build Better LA Initiative on the November 2016 ballot. He may also insulate himself from the City’s pending 20 percent affordable inclusionary housing requirement contained in the Value Capture Ordinance now worming its way through the City’s lumbering preparation and adopting processes. 

Readers, hopefully my fact checking has come in handy, and if you encounter any more info-journalism promoting mega-projects that you want debunked, my email is below.


(Dick Platkin is a former Los Angeles City Planner who reports on local planning issues for CityWatch. Please submit any comments or corrections to [email protected].)



LAUSD: No Meaningful Reform without Meaningful Information

GUEST COMMENTARY-The continuing generational fraud, the purposeful failing of predominantly Latino and African American students at the over 90% de facto segregated LAUSD, is accomplished by never addressing these minority students' subjective academic levels and needs. Such an open fraud could never take place without the collusion of the commercial and public media, which scrupulously refuse to report what is actually going on academically at LAUSD that the system makes no attempt to hide. 

In just the latest example of the media parroting of the disingenuous LAUSD party line ideas like "LAUSD board pushes for 100% graduation rate" by Los Angeles Times Reporter Sonali Kohli -- without any real reporter examination of such a goal in light of easily discoverable facts attainable through Public Records Requests  -- reporters continue to never address whether this pie in the sky LAUSD administration goal of 100% graduation has any real possibility of coming to fruition -- it doesn't as long as the truth as to what is going on at LAUSD is never reported. 

How much real reporting would it take for reporters like Sonali Kohli (photo above) to uncover the following publicly accessible facts showing:


LAUSD Cumulative Enrollment Counts




Student Truancy Counts




And then, might she ask those like Supt. Michelle King and the LAUSD Board members who have the gall to talk about “100% graduation” the following questions: 

How can you honestly expect to increase graduation rates if half of your enrolled students are chronically truant? 

This question might then lead to another question: Why are so many students truant, while LAUSD administration does nothing about it? 

Could it have anything to do with the fact that LAUSD policy has been to coerce teachers into giving passing grades and socially promoting all students -- whether or not they have mastered prior grade-level standards and are capable of doing the next grade-level's work – and that LAUSD administration has pushed them into in complete derogation of their actual academic ability? 

If Sonali Kohli, Howard Blume, and all the other reporters who are too afraid of losing their jobs were given free rein to do as Deep Throat advised Woodward and Bernstein to do in All the President's Men -- "follow the money" -- they might also then ask some of the following questions: 

How many students that are habitually truant are still reported as present for purposes of collecting Average Daily Attendance money from the state and other financing from the federal government like Title I? 

Does this amount to defrauding both the state and federal governments? 

If LAUSD's official 2016 graduation rate of 75% is anything but a made up number, why doesn't it align with either attendance figures or subsequent LAUSD student failure rates at community colleges, where 70% of incoming freshman are taking remedial and not college-level courses, because their high school diplomas aren't worth the paper they are printed on? 

Doesn't such post-LAUSD graduation academic failure also point to the knowing fraud in present high school credit recovery courses, given the widespread post high school failure and high incarceration rates of the large numbers of LAUSD high school graduates? 

It's not like Supt. King and the LAUSD Board members don't know the truth -- nobody's hiding it. Just go into almost any LAUSD school and you see the failed academic reality that their plan scrupulously ignores. 

This purposefully unaddressed failed reality of LAUSD schools is given a different insider's meaning by ex-school principal and now LAUSD board member George McKenna's comment regarding the 100% graduation rate: "It's a wonderful slogan," he says, but he has seen too much of LAUSD school reality to believe it. 

It is criminal that these “usual suspects” continue to mouth platitudes they know have no chance of succeeding without first addressing the abysmal, easily verifiable academic reality at LAUSD. How long will they be allowed to get away with this?

(Leonard Isenberg is a Los Angeles observer and a contributor to CityWatch. He was a second generation teacher at LAUSD and blogs at perdaily.com. Leonard can be reached at [email protected]) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

Too Much Information Can Be Hazardous to a Voter’s Health

GELFAND’S WORLD-It's that time of year when your television screen fills up with ads attacking ballot propositions. But have you noticed that the political ads almost never tell you what the propositions would actually do? Instead, the screen is filled with young women running through fields of daisies or, in one recent approach, the TV screen is filled with spokesmen wearing military paraphernalia who are swearing that Proposition 61 is unfair to veterans (photo above). There is an opposing ad that has a spokesman -- also dressed up in military paraphernalia -- explaining that Prop 61 won't hurt vets. 

Nobody tries to inform us what Prop 61 would actually do. 

Or there is Prop 56. We get a mom and her young child, with the mom asking us to help prevent her child from someday taking up smoking. What we don't get is a simple description saying that Prop 56 raises the tax on a pack of cigarettes by two dollars. 

Funny thing about these commercials. In the anti-Prop 61 ads, the final screen showing the names of the major funders flicks on and off so fast that you can't quite follow. You have time to read the first few words, but they are generic made-up titles for organizations that don't sound genuine. We could make up our own organization and call it something like Proud Americans for Preserving Veterans' Rights and Freedom, and stick it on the end of one of these commercials, and who would know that it was created by a giant pharmaceutical company, or at least by the advertising agency that was hired to carry water for that company? But if you look closely (don't blink), you can find the names of some pretty heavy hitters in the drug industry near the bottom of the screen. 

Shouldn't the television stations provide an explanation for what each proposition does? Isn't this part of the news? This is a major failure on the part of commercial broadcast television in its ostensible duty to serve the public interest. 

But there is the Official Voter Information Guide sent out by the office of the Secretary of State. You probably got it in your mail a few days ago. May I point you to what is called the Analysis by the legislative analyst. It's on the first page of each Initiative section, right below the Official Title and Summary. For Prop 61, the explanation begins on page 72. 

Here is the first paragraph of the summary for Prop 61: 

Prohibits state agencies from buying any prescription drug from a drug manufacturer at any price over the lowest price paid for the same drug by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, except as may be required by federal law. 

There is one little exception that the opponents are attacking, but fundamentally, the law is ostensibly an attempt to allow California to take advantage of how the VA achieves discounts based on bulk purchasing. 

That doesn't seem like such a complicated idea. Whatever the VA pays, the state pays. No more and no less. It's no more because that is what the law would require. It's no less because the drug companies aren't likely to accept anything less from California than what they already are getting from the VA. 

So what's the beef? From the standpoint of the drug companies, it's potentially a very big beef. If California can enforce this standard for drug pricing, then what's to stop any other state from doing the same? In an era of the $600 epipen, there are a lot of individual consumers and state purchasing agents who would like to see a more balanced approach to drug pricing. The remedy for monopoly pricing is either more aggressive antitrust enforcement or collective bargaining on the part of consumers. 

For most of us, the collective bargaining is done by Blue Cross and Blue Shield. For VA patients, the collective bargaining is done by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Apparently the VA does pretty well in its negotiations. One reason for this is that the VA has traditionally been willing to remove a drug from its formulary if the administration feels that it is overpriced and that there are alternative drugs available. Now the state of California would like to take advantage of the system of price negotiations that already exists. 

You can see how the pharmaceutical industry would feel endangered by the most populous state trying to reduce its drug spending this way. If California has been paying $100 for some prescription drug and the VA is getting it for $70, what is the manufacturer to do? 

Well, one strategy would be for the drug company to start charging the VA the same $100 as California (and most everybody else) has been paying. That seems to be what the anti-Prop 61 ads are implying. The ballot arguments in the voter guide say pretty much the same thing. What's missing from this argument is that the VA has been enforcing its price strategy pretty well, and isn't likely to back down. 

There is a simpler argument against Prop 61 based on public policy considerations. We need a better method for negotiating drug pricing that is national in scope and is enforced at the federal antitrust level. The problem is that drug company money keeps the congress in check, so we aren't likely to see such legislation anytime soon. California voters are left with this alternative. It's imperfect, but it's something.


(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for City Watch. He can be reached at [email protected]) 


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