Sunday, December 25, 2016


The New York Times' Neal Boudette wrote on Tuesday about how the big carmakers are adjusting to the threat of ride hail making individual car ownership obsolete.

Among the interesting bits were examples of Los Angeles-area people going mostly carless (from my view the last and final test among U.S. cities), that automakers are now considering the first and last mile (to the bus or train station and back) that mostly occupies public transit analysts, and that a shift away from individual car ownership could be a financial relief for automakers, who expend massive capital to produce new cars. Boudette breaks out that math:

Automakers are generally betting that sales of vehicles to fleet services will offset any decline in sales to individual consumers. Boston Consulting Group predicts that 44,000 cars will be sold to ride-sharing fleets in North America in 2021, more than making up for an expected net decline in consumer sales of about 8,000 vehicles. 

The bigger impact might be on how the automotive industry — not just carmakers, but also fleet service operators, parts makers and the like — makes its money in years to come. 

According to the consulting firm PwC, the global automotive industry generates about $400 billion a year in profits; about 41 percent of that — or about $164 billion — comes from new vehicle sales. 

By 2030, PwC forecasts that even as overall automotive profits grow to about $600 billion, only about 29 percent of that will come from new vehicle sales. By then, PwC predicts that “mobility services’’ — including ride-hailing and other types of last-mile transportation services — will represent 20 percent of the automotive industry’s profits. 

Ford is among the automakers angling to be in position if that shift occurs.
“We are on the cusp of a revolution,” Mark Fields, Ford’s chief executive, said at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November. Cars, he said, “are no longer our entire game.”


If you skim the LA City Council's recent meetings, you might believe that it took action on sidewalk repair, finally deciding who exactly is responsible in one cohesive policy. No. All the 15 members of the council did on Dec. 13 is receive another report from a subcommittee and officially file that report.

This is an issue that has gone on and on. I wrote about this all the way back in my Patch days in 2010. There were two versions of the article - one for Encino and one for Chatsworth. The Patch people killed the Chatsworth one, the more comprehensive one, and for some reason pulled the timeline that ran with both. Pathetically, it does not require much updating after six years.

Saturday, December 24, 2016


I only just read this unnecessary piece about the Gatto family in the Los Feliz Ledger yesterday, though it was published Oct. 27. The title misleadingly suggests it's a look back at unresolved elements of the investigation and not a big MacGuffin of a lurid look into a struggling family.

No one can make the paper reevaluate or pull the article. There is unfortunately no unified standard of journalistic ethics for all media outlets to follow. I keep the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics in mind when in doubt, and try to share any thorny issues with editors. I know, from my own Ledger days, that the paper's Publisher-Editor Allison Cohen would not much heed them anyways, having used her position to rail against Griffith Park preservationists and the imperfect, but mostly sincere and committed, local business improvement district. I was unfortunately a party to both, having my reporting twisted with heavy editing to unfairly slam individuals among those two groups.

But here it is anyways, in full. The section relevant to the writing about the Gattos falls under the obligation to minimize harm in the process of reporting:

As it turns out, I don't need to call Cohen out. A reader did it brilliantly. To Cohen's credit, she received the criticism directly and then posted the letter to the comment space of the article. Nicely said, Ellen Barry:

I read the article about Mr. Gatto’s unsolved murder today and was saddened to see that the Ledger decided to invade the family’s privacy in their grief by airing dirty laundry about estrangement among his children.
Your paper need not stoop to National Enquirer levels to inform us about what is newsworthy: the fact that the murder remains unsolved. Even though the probate issues are publicly filed, it is none of our business that the family is grappling with this additional strain as they grieve their father’s loss. I don’t have any need to know what he thought of his daughter’s relationship, nor how much money he left, or its disposition. Shame on you for trying to “spice up” a story with little heft by adding in gossipy details about his family’s life. After all, none of the family members are suspects in the murder, and they are entitled to hash out their grievances privately. And shame on the family friend for gossiping as well. I can only imagine his widow’s distress. You owe her an apology. 
Ellen Barry
Silver Lake

Saturday, September 10, 2016


I wrote a listicle for LA Weekly to help people find 7 places to combine yoga and booze this month in Los Angeles. Yes, I ask the hard hitting questions for you. It was part of my week of fun articles, the other being my piece on Netflix-for-rad-toys startup Joymode. (Look for it on Thrillist on Thursday Sept. 22.)

I became interested in the trend when I received an invitation for one of the events, and wondered how common it is to stack a happy hour on top of yoga class. I learned it's common, and spreading. Boston has a Bendy Brunch (vinyasa + mimosas), and Washington D.C. has Soul & Spirits, both produced by yoga event organizer Grip the Mat, which does Vinyasa to Vino here in LA.

Later this month, a St. Louis ale house will combine yoga with a tasting, like the Dude's Brewing Company event featured in my Weekly article. That event was planned by Yoga Buzz, a St. Louis nonprofit that plans various yoga events to make it more accessible to the community. Early next month, another Yoga Buzz event will add baseball to the yoga-drinking mix. Browse Eventbrite and you'll find events throughout the country.

Here in LA, all the events from my list - with the exception of Sunset Yoga & Cocktails - will repeat. I will catch the next Sound Off Yoga. Glow in the dark earphones in a dim garden, deep house in my ears alone (sort of), and the lovely garden at The Garland - epic idea.

I didn't get to include one photo of the Grip the Mat founders, Christy Skarulis and Ashley Braun, in my piece. We also didn't publish some of the photos of Green Tree Yoga & Meditation, a wonderful South Park nonprofit seeking to renew the community through access and practice. The outtakes:

Grip the Mat founders, Christy Skarulis and Ashley Braun, teach vinyasa at The Lazarus Experience on Wednesdays, followed by wine and mingling. I love this photo of the friends and founders, but we picked the photo we ran because it better encapsulated the actual event, with yogis with wine in hand. Photo: Courtesy Christy Skarulis

Green Tree Yoga & Meditation (above and below) brings donation-based yoga and meditation, and a new kind of community, to South Los Angeles. Below, the instructor is Green Tree founder Raja Michelle. Photos: Courtesy Green Tree Yoga & Meditation 

Sunday rooftop yoga at the Standard DTLA buys you a day at the pool, a package with a perfect name - Bender. As in, bend your body around before you go on a [booze] bender. Photo: Bender Twitter

Thursday, September 8, 2016


My overview of the downtown Los Angeles Arts District for a special issue of The Real Deal is now live. The Real Deal is really a trade magazine for an investor-developer-agent-analyst readership, so I'm glad I had an editor who let me write honestly about a community uneasy with the change driven by that readership.

I didn't have the editorial space to go as deep as I could have on different perspectives on change in the area, with Boyle Heights just across the river as an example of a vociferous, bordering on violent,  debate over the redevelopment of a longstanding Los Angeles community.

It is noteworthy that two Arts District success stories - Poketo and Angel City Brewery - don't just sell product, but organize community.

How quickly Boyle Heights would change without opposition is debatable; the two communities differ significantly. Part of the developer interest in the Arts District is the availability of a particular kind of space. As I wrote in the article:

This post-industrial hub still has the factory buildings that characterized the neighborhood in the 1920s, when an industrial boom kept it busy. After manufacturing shifts and global trade required more vertical clearance to stack high-volume shipments, the Arts District’s four- and five-story square blocks of symmetrical floors became obsolete, and the sector was pushed out to areas like the aptly named Commerce, about six miles southeast. 
The upper floors of the buildings, left empty for years, were eventually populated, in part, by a migration of New York artists needing cheap and voluminous space. The community of bohemian crafters living in their work studios transformed the mini-factory town into the Arts District. “You couldn’t even lease these places at 10 cents (per square foot). People were living there when they shouldn’t,” Hillman said.
In 1981, the Artists in Residence Ordinance allowed artists to legally live in the industrially zoned units. Then, in 1999, another ordinance allowed a separate set of building standards that relaxed safety-retrofitting guidelines for buildings constructed before 1974, an attempt to preserve space that would otherwise be destroyed because of the costs of retrofitting. The city’s grudging tolerance of the artists’ illegal dwellings, combined with easier redesign for developers, gave rise to the modern urban real estate phenomenon of live-work lofts. 
Then developers caught on to an investor’s dream: inexpensive, easily repurposed open space in buildings with good bones. 
Two landmark projects from Linear City Development — the Toy Factory Lofts in 2005 and the Biscuit Company Lofts in 2007 — set the stage for converting hollow, neglected factories into mixed-used models of functional high density.
I chose the strips to include in the map with blurbs and photos. I've since received feedback it wasn't an entirely accurate portrayal of what is in the district. It was just a tough call, as I was limited to 18 locations. My editor and I decided 7th St. would roughly be the southern boundary, so I omitted SoHo House but included Bestia.

There is one major error on the map of Santa Fe Ave. that is, I'm sorry to say, all mine: One Santa Fe and the Ford Factory swapped places. The addresses printed are accurate, but each is where the other should be on the map. I had an opportunity to proof the maps after The Real Deal's graphics team did their work. I focused on how the text descriptions had been edited rather than looking at the spatial representation of the streets I chose. Apologies to the Arts District community.

There was much more to cover than I got to. I didn't just want to mention more places on the map; I wanted to find out if the arts will really stay in the Arts District. I would have liked to get the full story on how and why exactly the wulf., an experimental performance space, will move elsewhere. While I was doing my reporting, the nonprofit's managers and performers were reticent to detail what exactly happened to the lease. WriteGirl is in the Arts District, too. Will they be priced out? Who else?

Finally, I would also have loved to do a sidebar on Natalie Chapple's beautiful work on Angel City Brewery, and other reworked watering holes around the city.

This post was published, then unpublished, then updated on Sun. Jan. 8, 2017.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016


Washio suddenly ended its Uber-for-your-clothes-like business of smartphone application-based laundry service to and from wherever you are, effective Aug. 29.

The company's founders addressed customers in a letter on the Washio webiste:

As of Aug 29, Washio will be shutting down its operations. No more orders will be accepted and outstanding orders will be returned promptly to customers.

We are not alone in believing in Washio’s core business, technology and team, and hope it lives on in some shape or form in the future. But, that story has yet to be told…

From the bottom of our hearts, we want to thank you for all of your support and belief in Washio, our vision and our love for sharing cookies and clean clothes.

The cookies are a reference to the cookies given to customers at each visit, the mobile service's version of a hotel mint on your pillow.

I wonder how much ever-changing contracting policies for their pick-up and drop-off staff, called Ninjas, led to this abrupt shuttering.

I am trying to find some to talk, but I expect it to be challenging. When I first wrote about the Los Angeles gig economy for LA Weekly last year, the Ninja I spoke with insisted on anonymity, and painted a picture of a controlling company that prioritized profits and secrecy over efficient scaling and a productive culture. At the two laundry facilities where the Ninjas pick up and drop off loads before and after shifts, no one directly tells them not to talk among themselves, compare notes, or share advice. It's just a silent but palpable edict in those two 'Drop Shops,' one Hancock Park-ish and one Palms-ish, the Ninja said.

The outlets (TechCrunch, Los Angeles Times, Business Insider, Quartz) who've reported the story were not able to get comment from Washio on the specific operational missteps that led them to fold (no pun intended).

It's unlikely they spent too much paying Ninjas, according to my source's account in the Weekly piece:

Washio's pickup and delivery drivers, each assigned the job title Ninja by the company, uniformly oppose the unpaid pockets of time tacked on their shifts, according to one Ninja who spoke anonymously. 
Calls by L.A. Weekly to the app companies, aside from Washio, were not returned. Washio responded by saying it had no comment. 
The Ninjas meet one another when they pick up and deliver loads of laundry to a "Drop Shop" at two locations in L.A. The locations give Washio's Ninjas a chance to share notes about their unseen bosses, a more personal version of the Facebook and Meetup groups where Uber and Lyft drivers trade job stories and woes. 
"The biggest thing is money," the source says, because Washio's pay has fallen off a cliff since 2013 — not to mention the work they're allegedly made to do for free. 
According to the source, "shift preparation and completion tasks" at the two Washio Drop Shops take about 45 minutes — and this is deemed off-the-clock by Washio's owners. 
After the company's 2013 founding, Ninjas were paid $18 per hour. Then Washio instituted a per-stop payment of $7.10, with a $2.01 subsidized tip. 
But now the per-stop payment is just $5.09, with the rest expected to be made up by tips from customers. If a customer in L.A. forgoes a fair-sized Washio tip, that Ninja loses nearly 30 percent of his or her per-stop income.

For New Yorkers who are willing to pay a pretty penny to do laundry with a few swipes on their phone, FlyCleaners is still in business. Another Washio imitator, Prim, has already shut down.

If you want to get someone to come to your home to do laundry, TaskRabbit's housekeeping "taskers" are still an option.

Here is the full letter posted to the Washio homepage, no longer live but still cached:

Wednesday, August 24, 2016


I am wrapping up my project for the ICFJ-S&P Global Financial Data Journalism Program. I am honored to have won the first prize fellowship to expand my dig into the LA gig economy that started at LA Weekly. My piece on two LA millenials making the gig economy more navigable runs on Thrillist Los Angeles on Friday; the rest of the project will run here, as a series:
Wed. Aug.  31   Mileage, mapping, and weather applications
Wed. Sept.   7   Gig economy accounting
Wed. Sept. 14   Out-amenitize the competition
Wed. Sept. 21   Lawyer up
Wed. Sept. 28  Side hustle your side hustle
Wed. Oct. 5      Cash out early
Wed. Oct. 12    Monetize your mistakes
Wed. Oct. 19    Find your people

Tuesday, March 22, 2016


Los Angeles City Hall was a finalist for this year's Black Hole Award, on my nomination. The government of the U.S. Virgin Islands took top prize. The runners up were the Wisconsin Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee (second time in the Black Hole) and the Marshall County, Tennessee's Sheriff’s Office. You can read about all of the "winners" here.

Friday, March 4, 2016


Alexandra Alter wrote in the New York Times yesterday that Barnes & Noble isn't dead yet, if you read into the retailer's middling quarterly performance as an indicator.
Barnes & Noble had another not-so-bad quarter, which these days counts as good for the struggling bookstore chain. When the company reported its earnings on Thursday for the third fiscal quarter of 2016, there were signs that the steep losses that have plagued it in recent years may finally be leveling off.
Also, Alter reported, the big retailers are starting to gain ground on e-books, and what retail sales they lose go at least in some part to the indies. Good news to me since I wrote last year about how local Los Angeles independent bookstores are surviving, and saw what they really are to community, placemaking, and authors trying to find a niche audience for their work.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016


Santander Consumer USA, a lender that was issuing Uber-cosigned weekly leases to the rideshare company's contracted drivers until an unexplained split last year, had to answer SEC questions yesterday about past financial reporting.

Inquiry into the Spain-based firm's public disclosures were not related to the past Uber partnership (though that partnership does merit some questions). However it reminded me to finally share unwritten parts of an LA Weekly piece I wrote last fall about Angelenos who use their smartphones as their employers, finding daily gigs via application-based personal services like Uber, Lyft, Wag!, Washio, and TaskRabbit. I call them smartphone microlaborers. I was limited to about 1250 words and only one photo, so I couldn't include all the colorful bits I found in this subsector of the local gig economy, or all the new questions that arose from looking at these contracts and what the smartphone gig life really means in practical terms.

With a few more paragraphs I would have painted a picture of lives out on the road: Uber and Lyft drivers have a head nod when they pass one another, Uber contractors of various roles ride with Lyft drivers to recruit ("poach") them for a bonus, Washio Ninjas live the most in their own worlds, as their numbers are fewer and an unspoken company culture of silence keeps them from chatting, even at the two Drop Shop locations where they pick up clean loads and drop off the dirties. Wag! dog walkers and DoorDash food deliverers share the pet peeve of paying their own meter parking. With the exception of David Nolan, the affable multi-gigger with whom I led my piece, ride service drivers generally dread drunk people.  Nolan finds them entertaining: "Drunk people turned out to be a good time." Sometimes he'll join them for a drink at the next bar when he's ferrying a crawl.

One major correction is needed: Uber did not decline to comment. I was in email and phone tag with their press rep, trying to schedule a time on the phone, as taking quotes by email is not good journalistic practice. We didn't connect before my deadline. I've made exceptions to asking questions by email before (LaBonge's errant staff), but I avoid it when I can. Jessica Santillo of Uber's Corporate Communications division wrote in an email, in response to Jerry Washington's account of no tech support when the driver-side interface of the app goes down, that Uber drivers now have such support in their west Los Angeles Partner Support Center. Santillo also noted that Uber has parted ways with Santander. I'd inquired about Santander for another piece of the story that did not make it in to the article: odd dealership fees and a costly lease eating into Uber drivers' profits.

Uber alone could be its own entire book, with staffing decisions being one chapter. Politico did an interesting piece last year on applying political communications strategies at Uber via Obama's campaign architect. Obama to Uber is not an uncommon migration: Santillo, based at Uber's San Francisco headquarters, is one of Uber's White House alumni. She worked as a press secretary in two different departments from 2011 to 2013 and before than ran communications for Obama's Ohio campaign. Michael Amodeo, Uber's LA press rep, didn't work in the White House, but was Communications Director for Obama's 2012 campaign in Colorado, according to his LinkedIn.

Last month I finally used Lyft as a customer, the first time I'd used a ride app. I got two rides two days in a row and caught both extreme ends of the spectrum.

My first driver represented the most negative stereotype of the ride app driver, not different from the image of the average LA cab driver: bolting through traffic, high speed and abrupt lane changes on the freeway, thinly veiled complaining about the short distance (read: low fare) to which he was delivering me, a scent of cigarette smoke masked by cologne, a slightly angry personality. Before Lyft he drove for a AAA subcontractor, but was axed when he wrecked a flatbed truck with two cars on it and presumably surrounding cars as well. He decided to try to jump a yellow late at night when he was dead tired at a full intersection. He blames his employer for scheduling him for such long shifts - if he weren't so tired, he says, he would have reacted better. No one will hire him now as a professional driver because of what it costs to insure him, but he can work for both Lyft and Uber because ride drivers pay their own insurance. So he eats the premium to continue to drive for a living, free to make decisions behind the wheel that are, based on my experience, as rash as ever.

My second driver, Walker, was the archetype of the positive experience, on both sides. On the customer side, I got a polite young guy safely driving a brand new, immaculate Prius C.  As a contractor who clocks in and out when he wants to, his schedule is open between rides for dance classes and auditions. He stays in and around North Hollywood, a major dance center. The Metro station is a frequent destination, and he says people are good to him for the most part.

When I started on this piece I expected find people like Walker populating this new labor economy. It is LA after all, and performers between gigs and auditions constantly trying to balance consistent income with scheduling flexibility represent a good chunk of our population. What I found instead was a wide range of circumstances.

I also learned that smartphone microlaborers, and the gig economy in general, will continue to remain a bit mysterious. There is no way to track them. Different categories of 1040 tax forms and Bureau of Labor Statistics definitions don't fully work as proxy, since performers doing gig work will self-identify primarily as performers. The same is true for other kinds of self-employment. Even if federal tax reporting categories were refined enough to draw an accurate statistical portrait, it would still only be national data, with no way to compare between regions, and certainly not as granular as city-level analysis. And because some app workers contract for more than one service, it's difficult to compare companies on effectiveness in recruiting and retention. That might provide clues to quality of work life, acceptable pay rates, and other perks that keep these contractors loyal to one app.

The outtakes:

Lyft keeps a large fleet on the road by issuing bonuses for drivers with a high acceptance rate (pick up requested rides rather than decline) who drive at peak times. 

Kate Eberhard was the Lyft driver in my story who sees her rides as leads to new adventures, and has a great time with the visitors to her backseat of all ages. This is her guestbook. Underneath it are the stacks of magazines she browses at her local Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, when she's decided to have a mellow morning and contemplate taking rides for the day. 

Jerry Washington was a veteran of the Red Cross before he came a ride service driver. He's done Sidecar and Lyft, but now  drives mostly for Uber. He catches up with friends and browses the day's news at his local Santa Monica Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf before heading out for the day. The Santa Monica-Venice retail strip on Main Street, tourists around Third Street Promenade, and airport rides keep him busy year-round. He likes the flexibility and proximity to his home, even though his  position is that Uber pulled a bit of a bait and switch. Promises of income with bonuses moved him to lease a Pruis wagon at $235 week, but then had to eat unexplained dealer fees at signing, and go without rides some weekends when the Uber app malfunctioned. 

Uber was in a highly visible recruitment push at and around UCLA last fall. This flyer was on a tree in Westwood Village. The recruiters below are on UCLA's heavily trafficked Bruin Walk, a major connector on the large campus. They are positioned to meet traffic coming from undergraduate dorms and off-campus apartments to classrooms on a weekday morning. The recruiter on the right is an alum who said Uber provides great opportunity, but declined to be quoted by name or give specifics. 

This is Kate Eberhard's phone. A former Uber driver, she likes Lyft better, but continues to get messages with incentives to pull her back to Uber. 

Sunday, February 28, 2016


The Society of Professional Journalists, of which I am a proud member, has an annual Black Hole Award to "highlight the most heinous violations of the public's right to know." Timely, as I've been meaning to revisit the battle I fought last year with then-City Council District 4 representative Tom LaBonge, his obscured 501c3 [supposedly non-profit] organization Sister Cities, and what felt like all of Los Angeles City Hall.

Some of it emerged earlier this month when a citizen lawsuit pushed the city attorney's office to go hunting for documents that disappeared from LaBonge's office, and the contents of the shredder- and incinerator-bound file boxes suggest illegal behavior including campaigning from sitting office. The Los Angeles Times later obtained emails showing willful refusal of my document requests around Sister Cities.

My nomination is a bit scattershot, as I learned of the award and the impending deadline last minute. I rushed through, but you can get a picture of why I'm nominating LaBonge, Sister Cities Inc., and the general culture at 200 N. Spring Street. With the exception of some parties'  contact information for the judging committee's follow ups, this is it in its entirety:

I nominate Los Angeles City Hall for the 2016 Black Hole Award for having no enforcement mechanism when a city agency refuses to comply with a public records request. In California, the governing law is the California Public Records Act. In February 2015, I sought documents from a nebulous 501c3 nonprofit operated by a sitting Los Angeles city councilman from his city hall office. After being bounced to different departments and being denied answers to straightforward questions, I asked who is in charge of requiring a city department to comply with the law. The answer is no one. If you don’t get your documents, your only available remedy is a lawsuit. This is intimidating and costly even to a major news outlet, let alone an independent journalist.
In September 2013, I was project manager and editor of a non-partisan security policy project (Los Angeles Health Care Systems Security Project/ that endeavored to identify and mitigate the Los Angeles region’s vulnerability to attack, with an emphasis on the health care system. LAHCSSP/ Project Director Peter Katona and I met with then-Los Angeles City Councilman Tom LaBonge, Sister Cities of Los Angeles Director Kamilla Blanche, and LaBonge’s then-Chief of Staff Carolyn Ramsay. I sought the meeting because one of our goals was to form partnerships with, and acquire best practices from, other cities whose terror and disaster resilience challenges mirrored Los Angeles’: large metropolises with diverse populations, with several soft and hard targets, and/or sitting on a coast. Those are primarily San Francisco, New York, London, and Manila. A quick Google search on “Los Angeles sister cities” returned LaBonge’s office and Sister Cities Director Kamilla Blanche. Scheduling the meeting was challenging because Blanche did not understand how the work of Sister Cities of Los Angeles, an organization housed at Los Angeles City Hall and purporting to strengthen relationships between cities, was at all germane to the mission of LAHCSSP/ In the meeting, Blanche had little response on the actual function of Sister Cities of Los Angeles, and little knowledge of international partners. Her repeated suggestion was to reach out to international cities via the British Consulate, as that was her main international relationship because of shared events planning, even though London is not a sister city, and our project director already had some London relationships. 
The meeting concluded with the decision that I should produce what LaBonge termed a ‘one sheet’: a one-page description of what we hoped to accomplish. He was to forward it to LA’s 24 sister cities around the world and help establish relationships. I produced the one-sheet, but it never resulted in any connections. I made mental note of all of the above, but did not pursue it immediately.
I left LAHCSSP/ in February 2015, and joined a small local paper, the Los Feliz Ledger, as a freelancer almost at the same time. LaBonge’s council seat was up for election because he’d been termed out, and two of his former staffers, including Ramsay, were in the primary election to compete for his seat in the May 2015 general election. In an early story meeting with Ledger Publisher-Editor Allison Cohen, I suggested an investigation into LaBonge’s office, particularly Sister Cities. Cohen had already planned a dig into LaBonge’s staffing budget, rumored to be one of the highest in the city, with frequent turnover.  
The (attempted) investigation
On February 13, 2015 I emailed Sister Cities Director Kamilla Blanche requesting an interview about Sister Cities, and two years of budget documents. I did not mention the election, or suggest Sister Cities had any connection to any campaign. I received an email on February 18 that she would only respond after the election. We continued to pursue documents but never obtained them. Here are the articles published:
LaBonge Dodges Records Request “Until After Election”
Covers the reasons for our request, and Blanche’s tying the Sister Cities non-profit to the election, a link we never suggested.

LaBonge and Ramsay Decline to Discuss Sister Cities Details
Covers timeline and provides transcripts and email screenshots, as the Ledger had received criticism for unfair characterizations and making leaps. Note that we pushed in accordance with the terms of the California Public Records Act. Also note that in our phone interview, LaBonge promised to show me all documents. I now know that at this point, Avak Keotohian, a city legislative analyst who is charged with ensuring compliance wtih city rules and requirements, had already advised Blanche to not respond in a timely fashion, counter to the requirement of the PRA. See the Los Angeles Times article below under the header Some Documents Surface. In that article, I am the Ledger reporter to which the writer is referring.

By April I had tried everything, finally sharing this timeline with Rob Wilcox, the media point person at the city attorney’s office, hoping for some mode of enforcement:

Form of communication, specifics
Fri. Feb. 13
Will SC continue after LaBonge’s term?
Budget last 2y
Accomplishments – outputs & outcomes, last 2y
Timeline for the above
Request phone interview Walmsley-Blanche on Mon. Feb. 16 or Tues. Feb. 17
Walmsley emailed Blanche, ccd LaBonge’s press rep Brenda Gonzalez
Wed. Feb. 18
No items provided, only wrote “Thank you for your email.  I would be happy to answer your request after the election in June 2015.”
Blanche reply to Walmsley Feb. 13 email
Wed. Feb. 18
Reminded Blanche of requirements of CPRA, attached to email, and again request interview while docs being gathered
Walmsley reply to Blanche Feb. 18 email
Thu. Feb. 19
No items provided, no interview date, no timeline, only “thanks for your reply, yes we are very busy here, I will look into this and get back to you”
Blanche reply to Walmsley Feb. 19 email
Thu. Feb. 19
Requesting timeline: “By when can I can expect to hear from you?”
Walmsley reply to Blanche Feb. 19 email
Thu. Feb. 19 – Fri. Feb. 20
Seeking some comment or published from City Ethics Commission. They do not comment and only provide background. Are under the impression that there is an official Sister Cities contract that allows the non-profit to be housed at City Hall
Walmsley calls to City Ethics Commission main #, Lisa Ishimaru, Michael Altschule, emails to Ishimaru and Altschule
Sat. Feb. 21
Follow up email to Gonzalez as LFL was on deadline, asking:
1. What does our request have to do with the election?
2. What was Carolyn Ramsay’s role in Sister Cities?
3. How many trips has the Councilmember taken for sister cities initiatives, either as part of the CD-4 initiative, or the non-profit?
Walmsley email to Gonzalez, Blanche and Cohen ccd
Sat. Feb. 21
LaBonge brief comments on phone
Walmsley-LaBonge phone conversation #1 (transcribed here)
Sat. Feb. 22
LaBonge comments on phone about 25 mins, but nothing substantive. Did promise documents
Walmsley-LaBonge phone conversation #2 (transcribed here)
Mon. Feb. 23
Blanche directs Ledger to Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA): “In response to your public records request dated February 13th 2105, I must direct you to the Department of Cultural Affairs, as they are the keeper of the records that you are referring to.”
Blanche email to Walmsley, directing Ledger to DCA for documents
Mon. Feb. 23
Irrespective of location of documents, would like an answer on timeline related to election. “Thank you, but I'd still be interested to take your comments - or another CD4 representative's comments - on why you specifically determined that those documents would only be available after the election. How is Sister Cities (either CD 4 department or the non-profit) related to the election calendar? We are very close to print, but you have about 30 minutes to comment if you'd like.”
Walmsley reply to Blanche Feb. 23 email
Mon. Feb. 23
Blanche directing questions to CLA: “I would like to direct your question re Sister Cities to the CLA's office.”
Blanche reply to Walmsley Feb. 23 email
Asking Rob Wilcox at City Attorney what remedies exist for unanswered PRAs outside of a lawsuit, he checks to see if any organizational chart to indicate authority to force a PRA response
Fri. Mar. 13
Request City Clerk provide location of docs – not gather info, but just tell the newspaper where it is, and clarify whether the City Legislative Analyst or Department of Cultural Affairs will explain role of 501c3 versus CD4 paid staff
Walmsley email to Cindy Hernandez in City Clerk’s office
Tues. Mar. 17
City Clerk response from Ruben Viramontes on behalf of Cindy Hernandez:
“The Office of the City Clerk is in receipt of your CPRA Request pertaining to the Sister Cities Program.  Unfortunately, this program is not administered by our office but rather is administered by the Department of Cultural Affairs. Their Department would have detailed information as it pertains to documents and expenditures.  If you are looking for copies of  MOU's/Contracts with Sister Cities, these may be available by searching City's Council File Management System (CFMS).  A link to the data base is provided here.
You may also want to search the Controller's Office open data website.  This website allows you to search for particular expenditures by entering keywords related to the content you are looking for.  A link to the website is provided here.
Lastly, if you are trying to contact the CLA's Office, their general information number is 213-473-5709.
Hope you find this information helpful. “
Viramontes email to Walmsley
Tues. Mar. 17
Requesting documents, relaying above timeline to James Burks, Director of Special Projects in the DCA, identified by the Department of Cultural Affairs as appropriate point person
Walmsley email to Burks
Tues. Mar. 17
Requesting documents, relaying above timeline to Avak Keotahian in the Chief Legislative Analyst’s office, identified by the CLA receptionist as appropriate point person. Attached IRS 501c3 Compliance Guide and CPRA
Walmsley email to Keotahian (I now know that it was Keotahian, charged with monitoring compliance, who had advised Blanche to not answer me almost a month earlier.)
Thu. Mar. 19
Walmsley asked LaBonge in person where docs are and when can view. LaBonge said DCA.
In person at Ivanhoe Elementary school for SL Reservoir Bypass Construction community meeting
Mon. Mar. 23
Follow up email to Burks
Walmsley email to Burks
Mon. Mar. 23
Brief phone call with Burks, who committed to Tues. Mar. 24 phone interview after 10 a.m.
Walmsley and Burks
Tues. Mar. 24
Unanswered calls to Burks during scheduled time, 10:10 and 10:31
Walmsley to Burks
Tues. Mar. 24
Follow up email to Burks after unanswered call
Walmsley to Burks
Tues. Mar. 24
Phone conversation with Wilcox – follow up on what to do about unanswered PRAs. What city department oversees and pushes departments to answer them?
Sent link to transcripts of LaBonge interviews, gave overview
Walmsley with Wilcox
Late March (voicemail did not create timestamp)
Burks message for Walmsley: You’ll get the documents in a couple weeks in an email (paraphrasing).
Burks voicemail for Walmsley.
Thu. Apr. 9
Follow up email to Burks about voicemail – what specifically will be sent and when:
Walmsley to Burks 8:45 a.m.
Thu. Apr. 9
Follow up call to Burks about email sent this morning. Burks said “I have no idea” what content of documents are and when will be sent; they will come from Matthew Rudnick, Asst. Gen. Mgr of DCA, who will obtain them from DCA’s accounting unit.
Walmsley to Burks 2:24
Thu. Apr. 9
Phone call to Rudnick via DCA main #. IDd self, receptionist said he was unavailable
Walmsley to Rudnick 2:27
Thu. Apr. 9
Email to Matthew Rudnick, a forward of last email to James Burks. 
Walmsley to Rudnick 2:31

The answer I received is that the city attorney does not involve itself in PRAs; it will only advise a city department whether they are obligated to comply. Even with a timeline and documentation showing a failure to comply, the city attorney did not get involved.
We eventually got some old salary data for Blanche which shows she was paid by the city at the same time she was contracted as a Sister Cities representative, by a separate city department to do work that is identical to her role description as a LaBonge staffer. We only got it because of a citizen’s separate request whose timing was fortunate. She had been following Ledger coverage and shared the files with us. This is the article that covered that revelation:

LaBonge: Staffer Didn’t “Double Dip”

The Saber Rattling
A lawyer for Sister Cities emailed and snail mailed this letter on April 30:
Re: Requests for Information From Sister Cities of Los Angeles, Inc. 

Dear Ms. Cohen and Ms. Walmsley:                                                        
I represent Sister Cities of Los Angeles, Inc. Ms. Kamilla Blanche has asked that I respond to your requests this year for various organizational, corporate governance, tax filings, and financial records of Sister Cities. I have also read your "May 2015" article titled "LaBonge Says Staffer Didn't 'Double Dip." Please direct any further communications on the subject of those records to my office.                                                           
Sister Cities of Los Angeles, Inc. is a private, not-for-profit corporation in regular good standing with the California Secretary of State. It is neither controlled nor entirely funded by any government agency; some of its funding comes from private donations. Sister Cities does receive publicly vetted funding from public entities, such as the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA), whose goal, as stated on the DCA Web site, is "to enhance the quality of life for Los Angeles' 4 million residents and 40 million annual visitors."                                                      
A board comprised of volunteer directors oversees Sister Cities of Los Angeles. Ms. Blanche and various other individuals who serve the organization as members of its board all do so voluntarily and do not receive any salary or wages from Sister Cities or any other entity for their services. None of the funding Sister Cities receives is given to any of its volunteers as compensation. DCA has never paid Ms. Blanche to perform any services for it or Sister Cities. The "documents" and "contracts" that you refer to in your article are presumably those from DCA, and I understand that you have copies of the DCA contract. You will note that the contract in question did not provide for payment of money to Ms. Blanche. All money donated by DCA was and is for the benefit of Sister Cities and its programs. The DCA contract was with Sister Cities, not Ms. Blanche.
It appears the Los Feliz Ledger is attempting to associate Ms. Blanche with the alleged wrongful receipt of public donations. As stated by Lisa Schechter in your article, money received was used for and by Sister Cities; Ms. Blanche did not "double dip" or "pocket" those funds. In fact, she could not have done so because all payments from DCA were made out to Sister Cities of Los Angeles Inc. Any insinuation or accusation otherwise is false, unsubstantiated, and unfairly harmful to the reputations of Sister Cities of Los Angeles, Inc., Ms. Blanche, and DCA.
To the extent that you have requested any information under the California Public Records Act (CPRA), my understanding of the CPRA and related case law authorities informs me that my client is not subject to the CPRA. Until and unless informed otherwise, Sister Cities is not obligated to produce organizational, corporate governance, tax or financial records, nor does it have to provide copies or any internal memoranda or communications. Sister Cities is not a "state or local agency," as defined by Government Code Section 6252, subdivisions (a) and (f). Nor is Sister Cities a "nonprofit entity that is a legislative body of a local agency pursuant to subdivisions (c) and (d) of [Government Code] Section 54952." (See Gov. Code § 6252, subd. (b).) Moreover, I believe that none of your requested information constitutes a "public record" (defined by Gov. Code § 6252, subd. (e)). If you have any questions or concerns, please reach out at your convenience.

Some documents surface
A citizen lawsuit for documents out of LaBonge’s office pushed the city attorney to seek out documents. That search eventually produced documents marked for destruction earlier this month, as reported in these two Los Angeles Times articles:
Campaign records found among Ex-L.A. City Councilman Tom LaBonge's office documents
Feb. 5, 2016
Documents which suggest managing campaigns and associated fundraising from LaBonge's city council office surface; the Times publishes portions of emails the paper obtained showing willful refusal to comply with the PRA

Documents ex-L.A. councilman sought to destroy are made public by successor
Feb. 6, 2016
LaBonge's successor, Councilman David Ryu, opens the documents, some of which he himself sought
Live link:


Black Hole Award nominations should meet the following criteria:
1. Violation, in spirit or letter, of any federal or state open-government law. This means either a clear violation of the statute governing access to public records or public meetings, or using an ambiguity or loophole in the law to avoid having to comply with the law. For example: conducting multiple meetings with small groups that do not constitute a quorum, email discussions outside the public view, or charging unreasonable amounts to copy documents.
1. 501c3s are supposed to be apolitical.
2. In their tax-exempt status are subject to open records laws in general, and specifically must provide updated copies of their 990s (tax returns)

1. The California Attorney General maintains a guide for charities advising them of IRS requirements for 501c3s.
2. The California Public Records Act mandates the disclosures we requested.

2. Egregiousness. In order to maintain the effectiveness of the Black Hole Award, it should not be given for just any openness violation. Recipients should know they are trampling on the public’s right, placing personal or political interests ahead of the public good or endangering public welfare. Examples might include an agency or official who attempted to keep information secret to avoid embarrassment or hide misdeeds.
It was willful refusal, followed by an intimidating letter from a (possibly taxpayer funded) attorney, followed by an attempt to destroy documents. 

3. Impact. The case should be one that affects the public rather than an individual. The award should not be used to settle vendettas against recalcitrant bureaucrats. Withholding information should hurt the general public rather than an individual.
City Hall’s general culture of secrecy impacts everyone. As for Sister Cities specifically, it still exists at City Hall, and its donors, outputs, and actual function are still shielded from public view. It is still not clear exactly how much money moved through Sister Cities, and for what. The nature of the organization involves international travel - the kind of trips, junkets, gifts, and favors that are explicitly barred under campaign laws.

---- [end of nomination application]

There is more than what I published from the Ledger and have until now written on this blog. Any reporters with the resources (read: counsel) of a major outlet want to continue to dig?

Pete Stern
Pete Stern, a multimedia artist who made a Sister Cities promotional video and had his work showcased at Sister Citites events and through Sister Cities partners, is likely Kamilla Blanche's husband. This matters because an English artist with what looks to be a sparse U.S. portfolio got a significant amount of Los Angeles visibility out of Sister Cities connections. Blanche-Stern is referenced in city documents as Stern, but in Sister Cities content and on her LinkedIn profile as Blanche.

Blanche-Stern's LinkedIn profile as of July 2015 listed her as both working for the city and for the non-profit.

City of Los Angeles 2014 salary data listed Blanche-Stern as Kamilla Stern, a council aide on salary since 2008, being paid separately from the contracts with the city as a Sister Cities representative (see story "LaBonge: Staffer Didn't 'Double-Dip'").
We never found the marriage license or any public records that definitively tied the two, so we did not publish this part of the story. They may have been married in England, where both are from. While they're present at the same events, they haven't often been photographed together. This photo is a rare exception.

LaBonge and his wife Brigid posed with Pete Stern and Kamilla Blanche-Stern in April 2011 during BritWeek. Blanche-Stern sat on the committee for that event, part of a body that organized Stern's gallery show at the Merry Karnowsky Gallery on April 29, and his documentary's premiere screening at LACMA on April 30
The city's seal and the logo of a city department, the Department of Cultural Affairs, are included in sponsors and partners. How much public funding went to giving Pete Stern's work exposure? What was the financial arrangement between LACMA and the city/Sister Cities Inc.? LACMA was one of the targets in LaBonge's last package of funding transfers as he was leaving office

The section of the City of Los Angeles Ethics Code that addresses conflicts of interest. It is not clear  if under 2a sale of property means a sale to the city, or selling items (art) at a city-sponsored event (gallery show coordinated by one's spouse). For 2b, Stern produced a video that is still (as of March 2016) live on his Vimeo channel, but payment arrangements, if any, are not known. 

Blanche-Stern disappears
After I started asking questions while at the Ledger, her name was scrubbed from the Sister Cities website's footer, and LaBonge's office told the Ledger she was working offsite and couldn't be reached. What kind of arrangement existed between her and the city that, unlike other city hall staffers, she works from wherever she is without measurable deliverables? A significant part of her role is community engagement, including media. If she wasn't completely unavailable, she was  selectively unavailable to those asking questions. Both scenarios merit explanation.
The Sister Cities of Los Angeles website's footer in February 2015.

The Sister Cities of Los Angeles website's footer today

The zoo transaction
LaBonge transferred $20,000 of discretionary money to the Los Angeles Zoo. That money didn't go through the non-profit, but it was hyperlocal public improvement spending repurposed by LaBonge and shipped overseas in what was to be a swap of animals and their keepers with the Berlin Zoo.

Later documents show that it was only a training partnership. Animal handlers were exchanged so that they could acquire experience working with different kinds of animals, but animals were not transported back and forth.

Questions for LaBonge:

  • Should your constituents be on the hook for a property tax bill that partially funds what was to be a new attraction (new animals) for a foreign zoo?
  • You got $20,000 partly to execute the expensive international shipment of (presumably protected) species, and instead spent taxpayer funds for four individuals to boost their skill set in handling captive animals, a practice that is controversial in your district. Animal welfare at the zoo has been a topic of debate because of Billy the elephant (explored brilliantly in this Los Angeles magazine longread by Tamar Brott), who was captured in the wild and sent to the Los Angeles Zoo in a separate exchange with a foreign zoo. Why was funding zoo commerce more important than the basics in your district, where there are plenty of worn and broken streets, and vocal residents with good ideas for how to apply those funds?
  • Before the plan changed to training only, which animals were to be shipped, and how did you guarantee you'd get clearance to send them under the requirements of the federal Animal Welfare Act?  

Sister Cities of Los Angeles counsel
Who is Shanen Prout and why would a non-profit require a libel lawyer? According to his LinkedIn, he has multiple areas of practice, and is not exclusively libel. But under what circumstances would a non-profit attorney be paid to instruct a reporter to contact him for documents, rather than city, in the same letter in which he (wrongly) declares they're not public information and he won't provide them anyways? I asked a non-profit expert about this, and she told me that he can't tell me not to call city hall, because I don't work for him, and even if there were some legal method of shielding the non-profit and LaBonge from public examination, he can't tell me how to report a story.

How much does retaining Prout cost, and was that cleared through the board? Do any taxpayer dollars go to his retainer?

As an extension of a quasi-government agency, is there any sanction for crafting a letter that twists the law? For overstepping on his authority and telling me I am not allowed to call city hall in a scary letter that implies slander (i.e. a libel suit)?

Has he even read his own client's LinkedIn, which conflates the non-profit and the work of the council office clearly enough, even if a pile of documents and past event coverage didn't?

If he is advising Kamilla Blanche and Sister Cities of LA, shouldn't he address the specifics of the city's ethics rules on working for other organizations while on the clock as a city staffer? It appears from the rules that there is a workaround for Blanche/LaBonge/Sister Cities/the council office. Why didn't Prout delineate these for me rather than characterize my reporting as unfounded and slanderous? 

Ethics guidelines for outside employment

Non-profits at not just Los Angeles City Hall, but in all municipal government
How many are there? What are the loopholes? What kind of reform to sunshine laws is needed in order to make these organizations transparent? What is the current status of the Mayor's Fund, on which the Times reported last year?

LaBonge in retirement
Where is he and what is he doing now? Where has he traveled in retirement and how lavish are his accommodations? Has he gone to any of the sister cities whose global images and local economies he helped to bolster while in office? Do names of any of his hosts appear in the sister cities documents and campaign donor details (illegal to maintain from sitting office) retrieved from the file boxes LaBonge sent for destruction as he completed his term?

Note: This post originally published on Feb. 28 2016 7:32 p.m. I pulled it to add in my additional questions, and leads for other reporters to pursue the story, the following morning, Mon. Feb. 29. It was republished Wed. Mar. 6 4:47 p.m.