Sunday, May 17, 2009

City Hall's Faulty Budget Debate in Los Angeles

At L.A.'s City Hall, despite intense disagreements over the best way to make budget cutbacks, there is an implicit "we have no money" consensus among the Mayor, his supporters on the City Council, and his Council critics. As a result, they all sadly restrict their budget debate to the best way to reach bottom: Should we exempt or not exempt the LAPD from across-the-board staff reductions, even if results in 1,200 additional layoffs of civilians employees and up to 40 furlough days for the remaining civil servants.

But, both sides in this debate are wrong. There clearly is money, as demonstrated by this recent article from the Huffington Post. In addition to the $95 billion supplemental budget allocation for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars requested by the Obama Administration and just approved by a Democratic-controlled Congress (Sound familiar?), there is another $108 billion being shunted to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in this same legislation.

So -- let us have a real budget debate, not one which limits itself to disputes over the best way to deal with a few crumbs knocked off a very big table. And, should we not ask whether the IMF's broad agenda of privatization and cuts in education spending is being imposed by our own elected officials right here in Los Angeles at City Hall and the Mayor-dominated LAUSD?

Can Treasury Sneak IMF Money Through the Supplemental?

Robert Naiman, National Coordinator of Just Foreign Policy
Posted: Huffington Post, May 15, 2009 04:08 PM

Almost completely lost in the drama over the war supplemental for Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan is a sneaky play by the U.S. Treasury Department to get $108 billion in U.S. tax dollars for the International Monetary Fund through the supplemental. Of course, if Treasury can get the money through the supplemental, it can avoid any Congressional debate over the policies of the International Monetary Fund and whether this is a wise and just use of U.S. tax dollars; and whether Congress should insist on meaningful, observable reforms of IMF policy as the price of new U.S. funding.

After 1980 the IMF became one of the most powerful institutions in the world. The IMF's power largely derived from the fact that it headed a "creditors' cartel" that included the World Bank and other multilateral development banks, and as a result developing countries that didn't obey the IMF's policy "advice" could face a cut-off of international credit, a powerful disincentive. This power was used to impose an agenda of privatization, cuts in social spending, and removal of policies deemed obstacles to profit by foreign banks and corporations. The power of the IMF in middle-income countries has waned in recent years, as Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina and other countries broke free, repudiating a legacy of policies that failed to promote economic growth and reduce poverty. But in the poorest countries, especially in Africa, the IMF's abusive reign has largely continued. Now, rich countries are trying to strengthen the influence of the IMF, using the "opportunity" of the global economic crisis - that's the context of Treasury's request for more U.S tax dollars.

The House so far has rejected Treasury's request. Regardless of what one thinks of the IMF, there's a commonsense, nonpartisan, good government reason not to include IMF funding in the supplemental: funding for the IMF is not an "emergency" and it has nothing to do with funding the wars. The only reason to include funding in the supplemental is to avoid transparency and debate.

But on Thursday the Senate Appropriations Committee went along with Treasury's request. The Senate is expected to consider the supplemental next week; if the money for the IMF is not stripped out, the question will go to House-Senate conference. In a House-Senate conference, the leverage of Congressional leadership is high and that of rank-and-file legislators is weak, so Treasury may get its way even if the majority of Members of the House wouldn't support money for the IMF in a freestanding vote.

That would be a terrible shame. The last time there was a vigorous Congressional debate on the policies of the IMF was 1998, over ten years ago. Real reforms - not changes in rhetoric that have no practical consequence but actual changes in policy that one can verify - would have a tremendous impact on the quality of life of millions of people around the world.

In 2000, at the urging of aid groups and the AFL-CIO, Congress passed legislation that required the U.S. representatives at the IMF and the World Bank to oppose any agreement between these institutions and developing countries that required governments to impose school fees on primary education, a policy previously embraced by the World Bank that had kept many children out of school, especially girls. In part as a result of this legislation, the World Bank publicly repudiated the previous policy, and this opened space for many countries to dramatically expand access to primary education.

Today a coalition of NGOs is demanding that as the price for any new U.S. funding, the IMF agree to the following reforms: the IMF must not impose contractionary policies during recessions, or must provide quantitative justification for doing so; the IMF must exempt health and education spending from any government budget caps; parliaments must be given authority to approve or reject deals negotiated between the IMF and finance ministries.

If the IMF will not agree to stop imposing contractionary policies during recessions, or will not agree to stop promoting cuts in education and health spending, then the much-advertised pretense that funding the IMF bears any relationship to helping poor people in poor countries doesn't pass the laugh test. If we truly want to help poor people in poor countries, there are far better things we can do with $100 billion dollars. Indeed, simply using this money to stimulate our own economy would do far more good for the world, through increasing our capacity to absorb other countries' exports, not to mention the remittances that flow from our economy to Haiti, El Salvador, and elsewhere, than would increasing the leverage of the IMF to impose austerity.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Jane Usher Slams Gail Goldberg
A former commission president slams L.A.'s planning director as a developer sellout
By Steven Leigh Morris
published: April 30, 2009

Kevin Scanlon
Planning director Gail Goldberg
Planning director Gail Goldberg

It’s been a bad season for L.A.’s City Planning department. Recently, big sections of a city law to encourage density and affordable housing were struck down by Superior Court Judge Thomas McKnew. And now a leading civic figure is alleging that City Planning Director Gail Goldberg, who pushed the pro-developer law, is little more than a handmaiden to developers.

The judge tossed out provisions of a controversial “bonus density” rule that lets developers build far bigger and taller projects than allowed by zoning if they agree to include a small number of cheap rental units. That ordinance “masquerades as an affordable-housing act, when it’s really a densification act that facilitates sprawl,” says departed City Hall insider Jane Usher, former president of the Planning Commission.

According to Usher and Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, buildings constructed under the city’s so-called Density Bonus Implementation Ordinance are destroying, not creating, affordable housing — while enabling the kind of cheek-by-jowl living that invites gridlock and crime. (See story, “Density Blowup,” on McKnew’s ruling, next page.)

Usher, appointed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa as the unpaid president of the City Planning Commission, resigned last December. She now tells the L.A. Weekly that City Planner Gail Goldberg, rather than acting as a reformer, is flaunting rules and allowing exceptions that have put developers, not residents or voters, even more firmly in control of land use in L.A.

Usher points to a citywide “Categorical Exemption” that in January 2008 Goldberg quietly inserted into the density-bonus law, which has so bothered Judge McKnew. Goldberg’s loophole undermined the California Environmental Quality Act, which restricts development or requires mitigation of a project’s negative impacts like excess traffic or noise. Under the Goldberg exemption, Planning department workers and the Planning Commission could reinterpret that state environmental law and decide, on their own, whether a proposed project, even if far bigger than allowed by zoning, had negative neighborhood consequences.

When Usher and the Planning Commission tried to block a new project by invoking the state environmental law, widely known as CEQA, the developer sued the city, and won — citing Goldberg’s unusual new Categorical Exemption. “It’s rogue,” Usher explains. “The city jerry-rigs planning outcomes, then applies some process, like window dressing, to doll them up.”

Usher has no problem with permitting high-rise apartments and condos near subway and light-rail stations to encourage less driving and reduce the carbon footprint. But that isn’t the entirety of what’s going on under Goldberg, she says.

“We have done nothing to turn off the spigot of growth at inappropriate locations” from Sylmar and the West Valley to West L.A., “where there’s no train service — even in the plans.” She adds, “In three and a half years, I can count on one hand proposals [by developers] that weren’t ultimately approved.”

Goldberg, hired by Villaraigosa in 2006, has publicly claimed to abhor the control by land speculators over what happens to L.A. neighborhoods. Last year, Goldberg spoke to the Weekly of the importance of preserving the integrity of neighborhoods through Community Plans.

On hearing this, Usher shakes her head while holding it with both hands, a silent gesture that lasts a good 15 seconds. “So we write Community Plans with enormous specificity, and then we override them with exceptions — to the point that the Community Plans are unrecognizable,” she says.

Usher says Goldberg’s Planning department short-circuits the city’s constitution (called the City Charter) by cutting the city Planning Commission out of the information loop within City Hall, and then, with the Planning Commission unaware, Goldberg makes decisions on the commission’s behalf.

The key example of such malfeasance, Usher says, is Goldberg’s use of so-called “Delegation of Authority” — a minor power long granted to the planning director solely to fix small problems like typos found in ordinances after they have been approved by the Planning Commission. According to Usher, Goldberg is using that obscure rule to upend the Planning Commission.

The City Charter couldn’t be more clear about the intended purpose of the commission. All land-use changes and new land-use legislation must be considered by the Planning Commission, and subsequent changes by other city agencies or committees must be referred back to the commission.

But a series of e-mails sent between April and June 2008 reveals Usher’s fruitless attempts to have the Planning Commission included in receiving routine reports about changes being proposed by city departments and City Council committees involving zone modifications, conditional-use permits and major land-use ordinances.

In one e-mail, Usher wrote to lawyer Terry Kaufmann-Macias in City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo’s office, who replied that those reports are automatically sent to the Planning department. Usher forwarded Kaufmann-Macias’ e-mail to Goldberg, requesting that all city planners forward those reports to the Planning Commission. Instead, “not a single ordinance ever came back to us. Gail was issuing an approval or disapproval of the ordinance from an alleged ‘Delegation of Authority,’ ” in which Goldberg sees herself as final arbiter.

In the case of the Density Bonus Ordinance that displeased Judge McKnew, when the Planning Commission asked Goldberg’s staff to tell it how the final wording of the ordinance was coming along, “Gail’s team delivered the update with the footnote that it’s been signed and passed into law” — without the Planning Commission.

In another instance, when the wildly popular Baseline Mansionization Ordinance, which restricted huge mansions, finally came up for a City Council vote last year — months after being approved by the Planning Commission — Usher was stunned to learn that Goldberg had reversed the Planning Commission’s “yes” recommendation — again using her claimed “delegation authority.”

“It’s an oligarchy, a despotism that’s relatively new,” Usher says of Goldberg’s behavior. “I do think that the trajectory of this didn’t happen overnight, and with the mayor’s re-election I’ve watched it intensify.”

In fact, since 1964, the City Planning Commission has delegated its authority to the director of planning only under limited conditions, such as fixing typos on rules approved by the commission.

But in an e-mail to the Weekly, Goldberg defends her actions opposing the mansionization law — on the grounds that the ordinance was changed so much by City Council committees after the Planning Commission approved it that it became a new ordinance. In her mind, Goldberg could therefore act unilaterally — on behalf of the Planning Commission, she claims — by opposing it.

But city law gives Goldberg authority only over “minor editorial changes . . . where no substantive changes are made from the last action” of the commission — the opposite of Goldberg’s claim to the Weekly. The City Charter actually requires that something like the the Mansionization Ordinance, once revised by various committees, goes back to the Planning Commission. Instead, Goldberg simply rolled over the commission.

Usher says she explained to Goldberg that the Planning Commission supported the final version of the mansion law, but Goldberg refused to change her “delegated” opposition. The bizarre contretemps came to a head in May 2008, when the Planning Commission voted unanimously in favor of the much-revised mansion law — in contrast to Goldberg’s increasingly exotic opposition to it.

By continuing to oppose the mansion restrictions, Goldberg also triggered an obscure City Charter law that requires an “unrecommended” ordinance to get a two-thirds “supermajority” vote by the City Council. Except this was not an “unrecommended” ordinance — it was, by this point, a power play by Goldberg. Ultimately, the revised ordinance approved by the Planning Commission got a unanimous City Council vote.

A real estate attorney, Usher was counsel to Mayor Tom Bradley, which is why she found the rhetoric of Villaraigosa’s first election campaign in 2005 so appealing, “as was the idea, in those pre-Obama days, of having a broad ethnic coalition leading our city.”

The glow lasted until last summer. “By the summer of 2008, the mayor wasn’t willing to engage in a single land-use issue,” Usher says. “I wasn’t able to kid myself anymore about my own ability to effect change. At what point do you transform from enlightened to complicit?”