Monday, July 27, 2015


Last month Pat Morrison sat down with then-Councilman LaBonge on his way out of city council, where he has looted managed Council District 4 since 2001. In his interview, true to LaBonge form, he kissed an acquaintance through glass, used a chocolate chip cookie to illustrate better council district divisions, and called valid questions (including mine) about frivolous spending of public works money "horse s---" because money spent to illuminate the Los Angeles Zoo - which is already funded with taxpayer dollars via a nebulous non-profit with highly paid executives - brings people joy. Morrison persisted, asking if that should be the work of government: 
You were criticized for spending money from your discretionary fund on things like holiday lights around the zoo instead of, say, on potholes.
That was a bunch of horse---- because the zoo lights bring joy. The DWP years ago created the holiday lightfest in Griffith Park. That $100,000 brought nearly 200,000 people to the zoo at night. 
Is it the city's job to bring joy to people?
Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely, three times plus. Where there's joy, there's love, and if there's love, there's life.
The platitudes in the last sentence are pure LaBonge in that it speaks in feel-good concept, and not specific numbers. Even in the waning days of his reign, when questions persisted about where his district's funds went and someone else would soon access the accounts, LaBonge was pivoting from transparency to pageantry.

Now David Ryu is taking charge, and seeking to implement actual discretion in the use of the discretionary funds that LaBonge repurposed from public works to "the arts" and "cultural exchange" until the very end of his term. Ryu's motion to set up a mechanism for reviewing use of funds, with constituent input, goes to city council tomorrow (emphasis added):
Council offices receive discretionary funding in several ways. Unfortunately, in some cases the expenditure of these revenues have not had much transparency, and from here on need to be reviewed and validated, in order to give our projects traction. While this may be a problem throughout the City, several local news outlets have highlighted some especially extreme misuse of funds within Council District 4. Going forward, the best way to prevent even the appearance of abuse is to apply a healthy dose of community input and public accountability. We need to starting thinking “outside the box” for answers that will give us an advantage.
The goal of an advisory task force would be to make this process as transparent as possible. A specific plan should be established to show how much the District is receiving and how much of it can be spent. The input of the community is crucial in navigating these expenditures for the District, and the decisions made should be up to those who live in the District. 
One takeaway is that media heat did force transparency. But only under Ryu, who understands his mandate. LaBonge was grabbing at funding until the end. 

The day before the Pat Morrison interview published, LaBonge got his council colleagues to issue a new contract out of AB 1290 funds - discretionary money for district improvements - so that a plaque and monument could commemorate the role of a Native American tribe in Fern Dell in Griffith Park, near the site of a bridge repair that the first contract paid for.  My request for the contract, not retrievable in the city's online system where contracts are usually housed, is pending in the city clerk's office. 

The purpose of AB1290 funds is pure public benefit, like blight reduction, public works, and economic development. But city councilmembers can use the money as they see fit, and argue for necessity outside of expected uses like sidewalk repairs and graffiti removal. Councilmember Martinez, for example, recently cleared funding for a police "party car" to patrol her San Fernando Valley district for parties and gatherings in public spaces that become disruptive. She obtained permission from her council colleagues to apply $20,000 to staff an LAPD patrol in problem areas.

On June 26, with just five days left in office, LaBonge filed a motion to give $60,000 of the district's money away to another council district, out of both AB1290 funds and another discretionary fund, to different initiatives and non-profits, organizations whose donors need not be disclosed. However some organizations, like the Los Angeles Beautification Team, list their donors, and they show plenty of big business influence, including the property developers, and tourist-magnet film studios that create the kind of congestion LaBonge's constituents eventually grew tired of, punishing his administration with rejection in the voting booth. LaBonge's chief of staff, Carolyn Ramsay, was considered a front runner to replace him in the May election.

As the election approached, Los Feliz Ledger and Los Angeles Times reporting on LaBonge's shell game with taxpayer dollars funneled to nebulous funds with unknown donors non-profit community organizations caught up with him, as Ryu dogged Ramsay with the phrase "slush fund" at debates and in the media. Apart from the Ledger's persistence on public works money spent on the frivolous parties and glamorous art events that are hallmark LaBonge pageantry, the Los Angeles Times' Emily Alpert-Reyes wrote an excellent piece on infrastructure disrepair in Hancock Park becoming a liability for Ramsay.

Tomorrow, along with getting his new council colleagues to take a first step at tighter controls on discretionary spending, Ryu will also ask them to kill LaBonge's last minute $60,000 giveaway to a central Los Angeles district, in addition to separate six-figure packages. 

The transfers had not yet gone before council when LaBonge's term ended on June 30. The following day, Ryu used his first day in office to rescind the motions and suggest new spending procedures instead.

The other transfers included: 
  • A package of $115,000 in transfers for various public works and improvements in Hancock Park and in Griffith Park, which included a request that the city controller be "authorized to waive any procedural and administrative requirements in this matter to effectuate the transfer as expeditiously as possible."
  • A package of $191,830 in transfers for similar public works and improvements, plus $40,000 in nondescript community services, with the same language urging instant transfer without review
  • A package of $242,500 in transfers to various organizations, including to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Ford Theatre, two organizations with ties to Kamilla Blanche-Stern, a LaBonge staffer and director of a non-profit housed at city hall which refused to turn over documents or disclose any outputs or outcomes. Blanche-Stern is paid by taxpayer dollars, to manage funds that flow into a city council office anonymously, and has at least once been retained to perform work on contract that she was already being paid for on salary. Persistent questioning about what the non-profit actually does, and multiple requests for documents and financial data, produced no answers.

Monday, July 20, 2015


So, the independent bookstore is not dead. At least not in Los Angeles. I visited Skylight Books in Los Feliz, Stories on Sunset in Echo Park, and Chevalier's Books on Larchmont for forthcoming articles for the Ledger papers, and found full stores with interesting stories and committed customers.

People still use libraries too. I was at the Silver Lake Library twice last week, and parents actually go with their kids and read from printed books, not iPads and Kindles.

I wasn't allowed the editorial space for all the photos and interesting bits about the stores, their ownership, and their strategy. The outtakes -

A longtime neighborhood hang, Skylight Books has been open since 2006, and owned by the same LLC. Some of the individual investors have changed out, but a core group continues to shepherd the store.

The resident cat, Franny, is very sweet. She just hangs out with customers all day. She is named for J.D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey.

The store is named for the diamond-shaped skylights that illuminate the store beautifully.

Skylight continues to engage community support with aggressive event planning both on- and off-site. Next in the pipeline is bringing children's book authors into elementary schools.

Chevalier's has only had three owners since 1940. Filis Winthrop took over from the Chevalier family in 1990, after 50 years of family ownership and operation. When two avid readers and local residents observed decreasing selection and difficulty with special orders last fall, they approached Winthrop to buy the store. One a lawyer and one a businessman, neither has ever owned a bookstore. One customer I talked to while visiting does not even know how long she's been going, but it's between 30 and 40 years. People who have lived in the neighborhood for that long run into and socialize with each other there. The store still has house accounts.

Stories on Sunset sits on Sunset Boulevard on the same block as Sage Vegan. The manager, Alex Maslansky, says they're doing well because it's a bookstore for locals. He was at Book Soup for seven years before Stories, and his belief is that good stores are a reflection of place. 

The customer is Eren Magri, who is about to open his own Echo Park business with The Semi-Tropic, a beer and wine bar on Glendale Boulevard at Montana Avenue. It was his first time in the store. It was not a conscious decision to patronize an independent bookstore, but he shops local. 

Stories' bottom line is bolstered by the café. Often full as it is here on a Thursday morning, it produces about half of the store's monthly revenue. 

Saturday, July 18, 2015


The UCLA hospital system was the site of another cyber attack, the LA Times reported yesterday.

I, along with Holli Herdeg, wrote about hospital data as one of several Los Angeles critical infrastructures vulnerable to cyber attack for EPICenter LA. In the article, we covered a 2014 breach into Community Health Systems, the second largest hospital operator in the country. Details of that attack were not provided until mandatory disclosure in an SEC filing:
"The attacker was able to bypass the Company’s security measures and successfully copy and transfer certain data outside the Company… this intruder has typically sought valuable intellectual property, such as medical device and equipment development data. However, in this instance the data transferred was non-medical patient identification data related to the Company’s physician practice operations and affected approximately 4.5 million individuals who, in the last five years, were referred for or received services from physicians affiliated with the Company."
Interestingly, the number of records possibly compromised, 4.5 million, was the same as at UCLA. Is there something about a cache of 4.5 million records that is useful to hackers?

The largest patient record hack to date was Anthem's breach in January. A database with about 80 million records was infiltrated. The actual number of records estimated stolen was in the tens of millions, an Anthem representative told USA Today.

That breach was organized and targeted sensitive information, like social security numbers. Anthem said in a statement:
"Cyber attackers executed a very sophisticated attack to gain unauthorized access to one of Anthem's IT systems and have obtained personal information relating to from consumers and Anthem employees who are currently covered, or who have received coverage in the past."
At UCLA, data obtained also included social security numbers, we well as treatment records. Affected individuals will get a year of free credit monitoring. The university has not yet explained how it happened. The FBI is investigating.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015


The city council today advanced the possibility of permanently closing the pedestrian tunnel on Sunset Boulevard by authorizing cost analysis, with a report due back in city council on an undecided date.

The analysis is moving forward against the hopes of a group of local art enthusiasts who want it converted to an outdoor gallery modeled on the one in Cypress Village.

I first learned about issues with the tunnel, and plans to close it, from one of Silver Lake city council member Mitch O'Farrell's field deputies. Then O'Farrell's press rep said no plans exist, weeks before O'Farrell filed the motion that today became a city council order to look at costs and find budget to get it done.