Saturday, September 19, 2009

If a Big-Wig Can’t Get the City of Los Angeles to Do Anything, Then Who Can? Why Would Residents Invest Their Lives Trying to do Any Projects With the City of Los Angeles? Sink Holes Become a Menace and Benches and Trails a Bureaucratic Nightmare

Diana L. Chapman

Several years back, I was talking to a remarkably high-ranking city official in the overly-beefed up, top administration of Los Angeles Recreation and Parks, and was disheartened by his story.

His service club, he explained, had raised about $45,000 to revamp an ailing city park trail and had initially been eager to get it off the ground. But after a tremendous amount of haggling, phone calls, loop holes—and a million and one reasons the city didn’t want the overhaul – the project collapsed – and never did get launched. Mind you, this guy was a top gun and was unable to make this gift to the residents happen.

Sadly, citizens and their families probably would have loved to tread upon a refurbished trail.

Not long after, in my own community of San Pedro, I learned that a project to clean up and refurbish our ancient Peck Park pool came with $1 million agreement to revamp the seasonal pool and turn it to a year-round facility.

The only trouble: the city failed to budget the pool with a year round staff, so immediate problems ensued once it opened. No one had put the longer days and hours in the budget!

Now, there are sinkholes. Big, ugly, scary sinkholes eating up city fire trucks and breaking pipelines, flooding neighborhoods. We had one several years ago in San Pedro that was so ugly, it swallowed a friend of a friend’s car, along with the driver and her son. By some miracle, the two were not injured. And for some reason, city officials and other jurisdictions couldn’t determine who caused the sinkhole.

So I ask, how can we avoid these issues? It seems to me – and I’m horrible with money and not too much of a planner myself – but aren’t we all paying the big bucks for someone up there in those towers who does this exact thing? Isn’t it the city staff’s job to inform the city of failing pipe lines, get projects in place to repair aging water systems before it’s too late, clean up pools that are desperately in need of overhaul and other problematic troubles with aging systems across the board?

It seems there should be prioritization of all these issues before things start to descend into calamity, which lately we’ve seen a lot of. And now we have this: BongHwan Kim, the general manager of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, writing an article that City Watch was wrong about the status of Neighborhood Council roll over funds.

“I instructed my staff to place a temporary hold on roll-over balances,” Kim wrote. “This was necessary so that we could confirm accurate remaining balances from prior years. This is the problem: I inherited a financial management system which lacked adequate checks and balances. One key weakness of the system is that annual reconciliations were never done – from its inception.”

So the city apparently handed out thousands of dollars to the councils without clarifying instructions – as how to watch over that money – since its inception, which apparently may lead now to some $100,000 worth of embezzlement charges of some neighborhood council members.

Since we all know embezzlement seems part of human equation for those tempted by the funds, typically “checks and balances” are in place before funds are doled out.

Somehow, “common sense” doesn’t seem to be part of the Los Angeles City Dictionary. There’s too much politics involved to let the rational, pragmatic or visionary attempts gain a foothold in the city’s system. Then there are the unions. And the officials we are paying ghastly amounts of money for the art of saying no to the public’s ideas.

In addition, we pay City Council members about $179,000-a-year, which is truly appalling because I still can’t figure out how they really help us. Let’s see: Was it Councilwoman Janice Hahn’s latest approval to support an incoming 7-11 store on 19th Street and Pacific Avenue in San Pedro – the one the residents vehemently protested as not only not necessary, but would generate trouble for the neighborhoods in the wee hours of the night? Janice still went for the business – even though our Neighborhood Councils supported the residents’ concerns.

Perhaps we should pay our Neighborhood council members as we get much better representation – at least in our neck of the hood – out of our honest Neighborhood Councils.

After our pool opened, and a group of citizens’ accomplished this, lower level city staffers from all over came up and asked how we did it? They were amazed and praised us because all such proposals in the past had been beaten down.

“Well,” I asked, “if you see the pool you are working at is falling apart, isn’t it your job to have a bigger vision and help the city get it prioritized as a project for a future overhaul.”

They looked at me in shock. “No,” one staff member explained, who was actually a manager. “We’re not allowed to be visionary about things. It has to come from the community.”

Now, that’s a double-edged blade and a half. Because if it comes from the community, you can bet there are mid-managers well versed in the art of saying no, which is what the answer was for our antiquated pool for ten years.

Park advisory boards and Neighborhood councils, for god sakes, have to do battle to do things as silly as adding a park bench – being paid for out of Neighborhood council funds!

This has led me to conclude one thing: the city of Los Angeles, starting with its mid-managers and up, remains its own worst enemy. Imagine all the wonders we might have for ourselves and our children – if revised trails and park benches – didn’t have to go through endless turmoil and rigors – even when the money is right at the city’s fingertips.

Oh, how much sweeter L.A. life could be.