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A force of our best nature

August 21, 2014

Social worker Cynthia Langley at the bus stop where the Professor had lived for more than a decade.

Cynthia Langley is no quitter. Lives depend on that.

A social worker for more than three decades, Langley fights chronic homelessness one weary soul at a time, spending day and night trying to persuade the most entrenched residents of the street to give housing a chance. She’s never welcomed with open arms. But in the end, she receives enough hugs of gratitude to keep her spirits strong.

“Someone has got to reach out to these individuals. They’re somebody’s son, somebody’s brother, somebody’s cousin, somebody’s loved one,” says the 58-year-old Langley, herself a grandmother of four. “And I’m stubborn enough not to take no for an answer.”

Earlier this year, I called upon Langley’s employer, the miracle-working Step Up on Second, for help on a case that would take every ounce of her stubbornness and devotion.

For more than a decade, a homeless man had taken over a bus shelter on Beverly Boulevard at Gardner Street near the Fairfax area. Over the years, he’d amassed a rising mountain of boxes and bags. The situation was no longer acceptable—for him or the community.

I knew that if anyone could get him off the street it was Step Up on Second, a Santa Monica-based nonprofit that provides permanent supportive housing to the most vulnerable of our homeless population. In fact, I’d recently allocated county funds to the organization to expand its outreach into the Beverly corridor, an area of increasing homelessness. Langley was brought aboard with that money and would soon come face-to-face with one her toughest challenges—a 64-year-old man who’d come to be called the “Professor.”

What happened during the next four months is both inspiring and instructive—a real-life look at what it actually takes to bring about the first steps in a long journey of recovery. It’s a remarkable story of skill, perseverance and trust, one with a happy beginning but no promise of a satisfying ending. That simply is the reality we face in trying to coax the homeless into homes, especially those who, like the Professor, are battling mental illnesses.

Langley says the first time she met the Professor at his bus stop, he was sitting, as usual, with his back to the street, keeping an eye on his belongings piled high behind the shelter. It was a chilly morning and he was wearing a big brown coat. “He turned around slowly with an angry, suspicious look,” she recalls.  After Langley explained why she was there, the Professor said flatly: “I’m not interested.”

“Would you mind if I came back?”  Langley asked. He turned his back on her. But she returned anyway, day after day, always deferential. “I know you’re busy,” Langley would say, “so what times work for you? What do you prefer?”

The Professor's belongings at Beverly Boulevard and Gardner Street, before he moved into his own apartment.

Soon, the facts of his life started slowly unspooling: He was born in Germany. He was physically abused by his father. He immigrated to the U.S. as a teen with his family.  He went to UCLA and earned a bachelor’s degree in military science and a master’s in medieval history. He served in the Army. He never married. He even worked as
an adjunct professor at UCLA (hence the respectful nickname bestowed on him by Step Up on Second.)

Eventually, he began sharing with Langley the rituals of his daily life. He told her he’d spend hours at the neighborhood Starbucks. He’d clean up in the bathrooms at Pan Pacific Park, across the street from the bus shelter. Nice people would regularly bring him food and clothing. He’d been living this way, he said, for 14 years.

It also became clear to Langley and the team at Step Up on Second, including program director Dr. Michael Marx, that the Professor was distrustful and erratic. One day he’d be cooperative, the next combative, launching into diatribes and rants. He worried that the Starbucks was bugged.

Langley says she tried to stay mindful of the professor’s delicate mental state. She’d make sure to ask him, for example, whether it was all right for her to take a few notes as they spoke. That way, he wouldn’t think she was scribbling secret things about him to give to the government. Sometimes, he’d get racially provocative. “You’re African American,” he’d say to Langley, “what do you know?” But Langley would say calmly, without a hint of the irritation she felt: “Everyone has a right to their opinion.”

Always, she’d steer the conversation back to the primary objective.

“You’re just another one of those people who think they’re going to get me housed,” he’d say. “You’re right,” she’d answer. “I’m going to keep trying. I really do care about you and I’d like to see you living in a comfortable place. One day, I can imagine you housed. Can you imagine that?”

“No,” he’d respond. “I’m always going to live on the street.”

Still, he was continuing to open up. He eventually gave Langley a link to his past, a friend from his UCLA days with whom he’d once lived just a few miles away—the last home the Professor would know.

When Langley and Marx visited the friend, he said the Professor had been seriously hoarding and he had no choice but to ask him to leave, although they remained in contact. The friend, now in his 70s, also gave Langley and Marx an old datebook the Professor left behind, containing, among other things, his social security card, his honorable discharge from the Army in the 1980s and photos from years back.

Finally, in May, a breakthrough came when Langley and Marx asked the Professor if he’d like to see the Hollywood apartment that, just in case, had been reserved for him at a place called Michael’s Village. To the amazement and elation of the Step Up on Second team, he agreed to get in Langley’s car and go. When they walked inside, Marx took the lead.

“You’re a professor, can’t you imagine yourself sitting here writing?”

“Yes, I could,” the Professor responded. “This is for me?”

“This is your unit.”

“It’s too good to be true,” the Professor said.

“It is good, and it is true,” Marx assured him.

As Langley listened to the conversation, one thought kept going through her mind: “We got him.”

In the weeks ahead, there’d be more challenges to moving the Professor into his apartment. At one point, he changed his mind and vanished for a few days. But his old friend helped bring him back into the fold. He also suddenly became distrustful of Langley, who knew better than to personalize a snub rooted in mental illness. In fact, when it came time to sign the housing contract and other paperwork, Langley went so far as to duck under her desk so she wouldn’t agitate the Professor and send him back out the door.

The Professor finally moved into his unit at Michael’s Village earlier this month. Now, of course, comes the really hard part. Marathoners have a saying that the course is divided into two halves—the first 20 miles and the last 6, the most grueling stretch. That seems an apt description for the difficulties the Professor will confront as he tries to adjust to a roof over his head and neighbors all around him. He is no longer slipping through the cracks.

Fortunately, although he’s got a good distance to go, he’s finally on course—with a committed and compassionate team behind him, coaching him along the tough road ahead.

As for Langley, she’s already focusing her energies on a homeless man about a half-dozen blocks away at First and Detroit streets.

“I think we got him,” she says.

Posted 8/21/14

In the interest of real oversight

August 5, 2014

Max Huntsman, testifying Tuesday, is the first inspector general, a position that carries high expectations.

The Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to reject a proposal  to create a new citizens’ commission to oversee the Sheriff’s Department, a proposal  I opposed. Here, in a statement I read during Tuesday’s board meeting, is why:

Ensuring constitutional policing, and the accountability and transparency that promotes it, has long been one of our society’s–and especially Los Angeles’–most difficult challenges. Law enforcement agencies, which have the extraordinary power to take away our freedoms, to use deadly force, to collect information on private citizens, must be held to the strictest standards of law.

Each of us serving in public office takes an oath to uphold the constitutions of the United States and the State of California. For me, that oath has a very personal meaning because many years ago, before I ever was elected to office, my rights as a private citizen were violated by a local police agency. As an elected official, I spilled considerable political blood–even as others were spilling real blood–when I took on such police abuses as excessive force, bad shootings, reckless use of chokeholds and illegal spying on law-abiding citizens.

Today’s upheaval in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is only the latest in a series of crises that have engulfed our local law enforcement agencies over the years. When jail violence and other misconduct issues shook the Sheriff’s Department, this board, on a motion I authored with Supervisor Ridley-Thomas, established the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence to recommend steps to reverse the department’s slide into scandal. The commission produced a hard-hitting report on what its esteemed members concluded was necessary to hold the Sheriff’s Department accountable for how it polices our jails and, by extension, our communities. Our board unanimously approved each and every one of those reforms, most of which have been implemented, some of which remain works in progress.

Today’s discussion focuses on this very question: What is the most effective way to ensure that the department strictly adheres to its constitutional mandate while conducting itself with as much transparency as possible to restore public confidence. The problem with the Sheriff’s Department is not that there is too little oversight. The problem is that there’s been too little effective oversight.

Since 1959, before the now-notorious Men’s Central Jail was even opened, the County’s Sybil Brand Institutional Inspection Commission has been charged with monitoring our jails. After the 1992 Kolts Report, which focused on excessive force, community relations and citizen complaints, the Board of Supervisors hired Special Counsel Merrick Bobb to track these issues and produce semi-annual reports. The Board also created an Office of Ombudsman to hear and vet citizen and inmate complaints. Later, the Board engaged the ACLU as an independent jail monitor–so independent, in fact, that the ACLU would periodically sue us over the very conduct they were monitoring on our behalf.

Later still, we created an Office of Independent Review, a group of attorneys operating within the Sheriff’s Department to provide a second set of eyes on the department’s internal investigations of alleged and potential misconduct. And on top of all this, the U.S. Department of Justice has been looking over our shoulder for years on a variety of matters, including whether the department is meeting its obligations under a Memorandum of Agreement in its treatment of mentally ill inmates.

Despite these oversight efforts, the Sheriff’s Department went into a tailspin that included: the failed administration of our jails; violence perpetrated against some of our inmates and jail visitors, and a lack of adequate and effective treatment of inmates with mental health issues. This is not to mention problems elsewhere in the department that made it a poster child for how not to carry out its constitutional responsibilities.

It was in response to this meltdown that I proposed the creation of the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence. After nearly a year of dedicated work under the leadership of some of L.A.’s most respected jurists, experts and community leaders, the panel urged enactment of more than 60 reforms. The centerpiece was the establishment of a new, full-time Office of Inspector General that would be independent of the Sheriff’s Department, answering directly to the Board of Supervisors, with its own staff, budget and broad investigative authority, including unfettered access to the department’s records.

Those recommendations did not include the creation of a sheriff’s oversight commission, like the one now being proposed. In fact, the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence concluded in its final report: “While the Commission considered a civilian commission comprised of community leaders as an additional oversight body, such a commission is not necessary if the Board of Supervisors continues to put a spotlight on conditions in the jails and establishes a well-structured and adequately staffed Office of Inspector General.”

But the ink was barely dry on this historic report before this Board was asked to consider the creation of a sheriff’s oversight commission. A year later, before the Board had even appointed an Inspector General, a second motion was proposed, calling again for the creation of a sheriff’s oversight commission. And now, just as the Board is preparing to formally establish the Office of Inspector General, we once again are being told that only a sheriff’s oversight commission can really do the job.

I understand the deep and long-held frustrations that have led to this proposal. I share them. Long before the scandal over brutality in the jails erupted, residents in some neighborhoods complained of heavy-handed tactics by the Sheriff’s Department. In recent days, we have all heard from many people who support the idea of a new oversight panel, and I applaud them for their active engagement in an issue of such critical importance. But I believe it is necessary at this moment of understandably high emotions to provide straight talk about what I see as the surest way to reach our goal of righting the Sheriff’s Department for today and the future.

Some of you might ask: What’s the harm? Isn’t too much oversight better than too little?  But that’s been precisely the problem—not too much oversight, but too much inadequate, ineffective and duplicative oversight. Somehow, with the many monitoring efforts launched over the years, problems were overlooked, ignored or never addressed. In my judgment, the ambiguous roles of these various oversight structures contributed to a lack of focus and decisiveness in addressing the department’s problems, which have now become a national embarrassment.

Simply put, when everyone is in charge, no one is in charge.

This is why the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence urged the creation of the Office of Inspector General, an agency with authority, resources and a single-minded dedication to our collective mission of restoring constitutional policing to our County. Today, more than seven months after we appointed our Inspector General, we finally have before us on our agenda a staffing and organizational plan for his office. In addition to providing rigorous oversight of the Sheriff’s Department, his mandate includes reaching out to the public through town hall meetings and other vehicles to hear complaints and investigate.

The Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence, the acting Sheriff, the County’s CEO and our own Inspector General all agree that the first priority must be to get this new office fully operational before contemplating any additional oversight proposals.

These are the indisputable facts: the proposed sheriff’s oversight commission would have no real power, no legal investigative authority, only limited access to sensitive department materials and no meaningful way to implement any recommendations it might make. The state constitution grants great power to the Sheriff, and he is not subordinate to the Board of Supervisors. And this Board cannot delegate powers to a commission that the Board itself does not possess.

Finally, looming ahead, there is a potential for oversight, beyond the Inspector General, with very real and sharp teeth. The U.S. Department of Justice has been investigating key areas of the Sheriff’s Department for a number of years. While it has noted some progress toward reform, it recently warned of serious deficiencies. It is becoming abundantly clear that the Justice Department will compel the department and this County to be accountable for constitutional policing through a consent decree or a Memorandum of Agreement, all under the supervision of a federal judge.

We must permit the Inspector General, the Justice Department and this Board to implement the system of accountability recommended by the jail violence commission nearly two years ago. Creating any additional structure would be counterproductive. These entities, working in tandem, offer the best chance of establishing the kind of accountability and transparency that we all want. If this system falls short, then our Board can reassess any number of alternatives, including legislative changes at the state and county levels that would allow for an oversight body with real authority over the Sheriff’s Department.

This much I know for sure, the commission we’re being asked to create today would be unable to live up to our highest—and rightful—expectations.

Posted 8/5/14

 

A diversion from the status quo

July 3, 2014

Mentally ill inmates have been handcuffed to benches for therapy sessions. Photo/Los Angeles Times

When it comes to Los Angeles County’s decrepit Men’s Central Jail, building a better future doesn’t have to mean spending $2 billion to erect a replacement structure that would continue to house huge numbers of mentally ill inmates accused of low-level, non-violent crimes.

Two months ago, as the only member of the Board of Supervisors to vote against moving forward on this massive, publicly-financed construction plan, I argued that we must first fully investigate the opportunities for diverting low-risk members of this population into community-based treatment programs.

My reasoning was simple: if we can find more humane and effective treatment outside jail cells for these mentally ill individuals, then we might be able to scale back the size and cost of the proposed new downtown jail. At the same time, we might also be able to make our neighborhoods safer by reducing the high rate of recidivism typically associated with mentally ill offenders. They stand little chance of achieving lasting recovery inside an oppressive and teeming jail environment where they have been chained to tables during therapy sessions and victimized not only by fellow inmates but by some sheriff’s deputies who run the operation.

This week, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California released a persuasive new report that should serve as yet another reminder of why we must confront this issue now, before we commit another dollar to a construction project that, while well intentioned, will continue to give our county the ignominious distinction of overseeing the biggest mental hospital in the nation.

The report, produced in conjunction with the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, cites examples from around the country, where recidivism and incarceration costs have been slashed through jail diversion programs. One, in New York, reported a 70% reduction in arrests among participants during a two-year period, according to the report. A diversion program in Miami-Dade County, meanwhile, reduced recidivism among misdemeanor offenders from 75% to 20%.

The report also notes that, once an individual is placed in a community-based setting, federal and state funds can be tapped to help finance the treatment, which can’t be done as long as a person remains behind county bars.

Among the leadership of the Sheriff’s Department, there’s a belief that only a new 5,000 bed mental health jail will satisfy the U.S. Department of Justice, which has been monitoring the county’s treatment of mentally ill inmates for more than a decade, ever since concluding that their constitutional rights were being violated. Last month, the DOJ didn’t pull punches when it informed us that, despite improvements, serious problems remain in preventing inmate suicides. The justice department lawyers warned that they’re now prepared to step up the oversight by seeking the intervention of the federal courts.

It seems clear to me from the tenor of that 36-page letter that the Justice Department expects improvements now, not in 10 years, when the proposed new jail would be scheduled for completion. In fact, the DOJ lawyers praised a Board of Supervisors vote to analyze diversion programs and said “we strongly encourage the Sheriff, the Mental Health Director, and the County to consider alternatives to incarceration” for mentally ill inmates.

Finally, for those of you who might be inclined to dismiss the ACLU report as a predictably liberal position, I’d point out that the leading champion of community-based diversion programs is Los Angeles’ top prosecutor, Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey. During testimony before the Board of Supervisors on the day of the jail construction vote, she suggested that as many as 1,000 inmates may be needlessly held behind county bars. “The current system is, simply put, unjust,” Lacey said bluntly.

And that can’t be made right by embarking on the biggest capital-spending project in Los Angeles history. This issue, with the stakes so high, requires a level of intellectual capital that we’re only now starting to expend.

Posted 7/3/14

A stowaway on Expo 2

June 18, 2014



I had a chance to ride the rails last week, going behind the scenes of one of L.A.’s most eagerly anticipated transit projects.

The vehicle transporting me was a bouncing truck, not a sleek light rail train. But my imagination was moving full speed ahead as I traveled a major chunk of the Expo Line Phase 2 route now taking shape beside the 10 Freeway. (I even shot some iPhone footage along the way. I’m probably not going to be winning any cinematography Oscars, but I hope you’ll click on the above link to share a condensed and accelerated video version of my off-road voyage.)

When completed next year, and opened to the traveling public in 2016, Expo will be an urban transportation godsend: a chance to bring some predictability and personal choice back to what’s become, over the past decade, the increasingly soul-crushing experience of just trying to get across town.

I was moved—and not only in the literal sense—to see all the years of hard work, planning and construction transforming into something so real and so powerful. The long-held dream of being able to make it from downtown L.A. to 4th Street in Santa Monica in 46 minutes flat is now emerging fast from steel, sweat and stone.

I saw stations rising in Palms and at Westwood Boulevard. Long stretches of sound walls were already in place. About four miles of track have been installed, with 10 additional miles coming soon to complete the roundtrip journey of Expo Phase 2 from Culver City to Santa Monica.

On the morning of my off-road tour, from Bagley Avenue to Military Avenue in West Los Angeles, electrical crews were racing their construction counterparts to put up the network of power poles that will move Expo’s trains. Knots of workers were busily installing pavers on the platform of the Westwood Boulevard station. Elevator towers were up at the Palms Station, ready for the contractor to install glass and machinery. And heavy, laser-equipped machines were preparing to tamp down rock ballast between rail ties.

It was a fascinating trip into L.A.’s past, present and future. We traveled past the modern Lycée Français de Los Angeles; past an area known as Motor Yard where generations of taggers, unfortunately, have left an inch-thick residue of graffiti for our teams to clean up; through an old freight train tunnel under the 10 Freeway that will soon see a new generation of trains gliding through.

To our right, for some of the trip, rumbled the 10 Freeway—moving uncharacteristically smoothly on this morning but inevitably heading toward the gridlock that will be the Expo Line’s best advertisement when Phase 2 opens. As we passed the Westwood Boulevard station, another symbol of motoring frustration, the 405 Freeway, was visible to the west.

It was an amazing vantage point, and I wish that every Angeleno who’s ever cursed a Sig Alert could have been along for the ride. Short of that, I hope that the video above will spur your imagination and awaken the sense that something better is coming down the tracks for Los Angeles.

Expo 2's making tracks to Santa Monica from Culver City. Photo/Expo Construction Authority

Posted 6/18/14

It’s official: Feds fund subway

May 21, 2014

L.A.'s subway system gets a boost from a new federal funding agreement for the Westside extension.

As public transit milestones go, they don’t get much bigger than this: The federal government has formally agreed to fund the long-awaited extension of the Purple Line subway into Los Angeles’ traffic-choked Westside.

The $2 billion commitment, announced at a ceremony today in Washington D.C., is truly an historic moment for our region.

As I stood in the Dirksen Senate Office Building this morning, it felt like a pivotal turning point had at last arrived for a project that I have passionately championed and which I firmly believe will bring all of us Angelenos a desperately-needed alternative to sitting in gridlock day after day. It’s been important to me for so many reasons: helping people get to jobs, helping visitors access our amazing cultural institutions, and above all allowing folks to reclaim precious time in their days to spend with their families and in their communities.

Starting now, we have the federal government’s financial backing in bringing relief to one of our most traffic-challenged areas. Today’s “full funding grant agreement” sets in motion a growing subway line that eventually will push past the 405 Freeway.

The federal funding—a $1.25 billion grant and an $856 million low-interest loan—combines with local funding from Measure R to enable us to build the first leg of the subway extension, running from Western Avenue to La Cienega Boulevard. This segment, heading toward completion in 2023, will open up the culturally and jobs-rich Wilshire Corridor to people throughout the county, who will be able to get to renowned attractions like the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the La Brea Tar Pits without an automobile. It also will blaze the trail for the next two segments, one culminating in Century City and the other at the V.A. in West Los Angeles.

I don’t have to tell anyone reading this blog that traffic congestion in these areas and others has seeped into every facet of daily life in Los Angeles. It affects where we can work, where we play, where we go to lunch and where we attend school, It robs us—and our economy—of untold hours of productive time.

Like you, I’ve fumed behind the wheel as it takes an hour to move two miles, and groaned inwardly that I could jog there in half the time—without breaking a sweat.

That’s not just frustrating—it’s wrong, and something has to change.

Now it will.

The first installment of the agreed-upon federal funding is included in President Obama’s proposed budget for this year. While there are no sure bets in Washington’s current atmosphere, I have every confidence that Congress will move this funding forward annually until the first leg of the project is complete.

As I joined in today’s announcement with U. S. Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, Metro executives and my fellow elected officials from Los Angeles, I felt gratitude and a surge of pride in the federal-local partnership that has brought us to this point. It is a vote of confidence in Los Angeles County, and in the increasingly vibrant mass transit system we are building here.

And it is a vote of confidence in you, the people of L.A. County. By a two-thirds margin, you went to the polls in 2008 and—despite the Great Recession—approved Measure R’s ½-cent sales tax for transportation projects, including this one.

Today’s action is a vital step in delivering on Measure R’s promise. Together, we’re putting to rest the old myths about our car-crazy metropolis and writing a new chapter about freedom and mobility in the City of Angels.

Yaroslavsky, left, joins Waxman, Boxer and L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti at signing ceremony. Photo/KPCC

Posted 5/21/14

Shaking off complacency

April 3, 2014

Lucy Jones' visibility has increased but her earthquake mantra remains the same: be prepared.

Like countless Angelenos, I’ve been a Lucy Jones fan for years.

When it comes to earthquakes, no one conveys information more accessibly—or calms rattled nerves more quickly—than the plain-talking seismic scientist from Caltech. I can still vividly remember the way my family was glued to Jones’ televised briefings in the wake of the deadly Northridge earthquake, which had delivered a powerful jolt to our house and psyches.

In recent days, you’ve probably seen a lot of Jones, more than at any time since that 1994 temblor. She’s been called upon by news organizations here and abroad to put into perspective our recent earthquakes, including last Friday’s magnitude 5.1 near La Habra. As she told The New York Times the other day: “The last 17 years has been the quietest time we’ve seen. Maybe we’re starting to turn back to more normal levels.”

I suspect that for many of you in the post-Northridge generation, this is probably the first time you’ve really felt the earth shake and looked to Jones for answers and reassurance. In fact, Jones became an overnight sensation last weekend after opening her @DrLucyJones Twitter account  largely because of followers who were likely still in grade school, or not even born yet, when the Northridge quake hit.

Intrigued by front page headlines like this one in the Los Angeles Daily News—“Scientist charms the Twittersphere”—I scrolled through her Twitter postings to see what insights she was offering her new generation of followers in the space of 144 characters. Of course, she was right on message, as this exchange of tweets showed:

@Joolsthebest: “Are we going to have a bigger earthquake…?

@DrLucyJones: “If I could tell you when the next EQ was going to be, I’d be a lot richer than I am. You need to be ready all the time.”

Jones has rightly seized on our recent spate of earthquakes as a teachable moment in her crusade to shake the public (especially you younger folks) of denial and complacency. The time to prepare, she preaches to all who’ll listen, is now—before we’re walloped by a far more destructive seismic event.

Her suggestions are simple. First, she recommends visiting the website of the Earthquake County Alliance, which offers suggestions on how to prepare, survive and recover from an earthquake. Among the proactive measures she says you can take today: secure moveable items; create a disaster plan and decide how you’ll communicate; organize disaster supplies in convenient locations, and minimize financial hardships by organizing important documents and strengthening property.

From personal experience I’d also highly recommend keeping a pair of slippers by the bed. After the Northridge quake, our young, barefoot daughter was lucky not to cut her feet on the shattered glass strewn throughout the house as she came running into our bedroom.

And, remember, when the quake strikes, “drop, cover and hold on.”

That’s exactly what KTLA news anchors Chris Schauble and Megan Henderson did on the morning of March 17, when a 4.1 quake struck on the Westside. As the studio shook, both ducked under their desk. “Earthquake, we’re having an earthquake,” Schauble exclaimed while taking cover.

In the hours and days that followed, Schauble took a beating. His reaction and facial expressions were ridiculed across the Web; a YouTube clip of the incident has been viewed more than 14 million times. But leave it to Jones to cut through the uncharitable chatter. For her, this was another teachable moment. At a press conference on the quake, she said she was “very proud” of the anchors for protecting themselves. “That is absolutely the right thing to do.”

These days, Jones’ responsibilities have moved well beyond her job at Caltech and the U.S. Geological Survey. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti recently tapped her for a year-long appointment as a special advisor to draw up an earthquake preparedness plan for the city. And I’ve recruited her as an unpaid consultant for Metro on seismic issues relating to subway tunneling under Beverly Hills.

But thanks to social media, she’s now reaching a vast new audience with her message of individual disaster readiness—and reconnecting with some appreciative fans from earlier times.

“Thank you for always putting my mind at scientific ease after quakes,” one young woman posted on Jones’ Facebook page. “ I have been listening to your advice since I was a child, I even quoted you in science reports!”

Here’s hoping that, like me, you’re following that advice, too.

Posted 4/3/14

Exposing a mountain of deceit

March 12, 2014

Opponents of a plan that would protect the Santa Monica mountains for generations to come have launched a misinformation campaign to advance their own vested interests.

Last month, the Board of Supervisors adopted a widely-hailed, landmark plan to preserve one of our region’s most precious natural resources—the Santa Monica Mountains. Under this blueprint for environmental stewardship, streams would be protected from pollution, ridgelines would be spared the scars of unrestrained development, historic groves of native oaks would be saved from the ax and a public in need of recreational opportunities would forever find a serene haven in the hills above Los Angeles.

This plan—known as a Local Coastal Program, or LCP—resulted from the work of an unprecedented coalition of groups and individuals, including the Sierra Club,  Heal the Bay, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, the Las Virgenes Homeowners Federation, the California Coastal Protection Network, State Senator Fran Pavley, Assemblyman Richard Bloom and a broad cross-section of the equestrian community. The Board of Supervisors approved the LCP by a 4-1 vote amid an outpouring of support.

But now, as the California Coastal Commission prepares to consider the plan, a disinformation campaign has been launched by a small army of lawyers and lobbyists, representing developer clients who do not want to play by the rules. They are shamelessly placing their self-interest above the public interest. And they are advancing this agenda not by stepping forward themselves. They are hiding behind a smokescreen they created by falsely generating fears among equestrians, backyard gardeners and others that the plan would rob them of the things they hold dear.

Make no mistake, these big-moneyed real-estate interests have one thing in mind: to derail the LCP so they can profit from an environmental jewel that, in the process, would be destroyed and lost to us all.

I encourage you to read the plan yourself here. In the meantime, here is the truth behind the more blatantly false misrepresentations that have surfaced in recent days:

 

FICTION: The LCP bans the riding, boarding and training of horses in Malibu.

FACT: The proposed plan specifically supports the riding, boarding and training of horses in the Santa Monica Mountains. It calls for a substantial increase in the current areas where such activities are permitted and would allow homeowners in unincorporated areas to board horses in their backyards, which is now prohibited by county codes. What’s more, the plan encourages the establishment of equestrian-friendly trailhead parking and staging areas to promote low-cost public access to trails. The plan clearly states that it seeks to preserve the equestrian traditions of the Santa Monica Mountains.

 

FICTION: The LCP was sprung on an unsuspecting public.

FACT: For months, the county and my office engaged hundreds of individuals and groups during the preparation of the LCP, resulting in the unprecedented coalition that coalesced behind the plan. Indeed, many of the plan’s provisions are the result of the thorough and constructive input we received from residential, environmental and equestrian stakeholders. Moreover, for six weeks before the Board of Supervisors’ vote, the LCP was posted online and placed in local libraries and government offices. It was also presented to more than 30 homeowner organizations, the Santa Monica Mountains Trails Council, equestrians, environmental organizations, representatives of neighboring cities and counties, and numerous other organizations.

 

FICTION: The LCP would commercialize the rural character of the Santa Monica Mountains.

FACT: The LCP’s guiding principle is that “resource protection has priority over development.” To that end, the plan would cut by nearly two-thirds the area zoned for commercial development under the plan. In fact, less than one percent of the Coastal Zone is slated for commercial use. Among other things, the LCP prohibits: ridgeline development, long access roads that carve-up natural hillsides, the blocking of streams, commercial vineyards and the destruction of oaks, sycamores and other native woodlands. It also strictly limits grading and imposes lighting restrictions to preserve the night sky. In addition, thanks in large part to the efforts of the county, state and other public partners, more than half of the Coastal Zone has already been acquired as public parkland on which development is restricted.

 

FICTION: The LCP would turn the City of Malibu into another resort town ridden with chain stores, severing the town’s connection to its rural origins.

FACT: The LCP does not in any way govern land use or business within the City of Malibu. It addresses the roughly 50,000 acres of unincorporated territory within the Coastal Zone north of the City of Malibu, between Ventura County and the City of Los Angeles. The City of Malibu has its own LCP, which governs land use inside the city. Land use decisions in the City of Malibu are made by the Malibu City Council. Land use decisions in the unincorporated county are governed by the Board of Supervisors. Neither agency has jurisdiction over the other.

 

FICTION: The LCP prohibits backyard fruit and vegetable gardens and bans vineyards.

FACT: The LCP explicitly protects the right of all new and existing homeowners—as well as schools and other community uses—to maintain fruit and vegetable gardens. At the urging of many environmental leaders, the LCP would prohibit new commercial vineyards because of their serious impact on water quality in our streams, beaches and the Santa Monica Bay. The policy prohibiting new vineyards would also prevent the loss of sensitive habitat and avoid concerns over the industrial spraying of pesticides near homes and the areas where tens of thousands of visitors come each year to enjoy the region’s beauty and recreational opportunities. Nevertheless, out of fairness to existing vineyard owners, legally established vineyards that currently exist would be allowed to remain under the LCP.

 

FICTION: The LCP will take away your dogs.

FACT: This is patently—and ridiculously—false. The LCP maintains the same rules for dogs as we have in the county code today.

 

FICTION: The LCP will add fees and costs.

FACT: The LCP would save the average property owner seeking permits thousands of dollars. Under the status quo, homeowners who want to build within the Santa Monica Mountains Coastal Zone must first go to the county to get an “approval in concept.” Once they finish the county process, they must proceed to the Coastal Commission for a public hearing, further review and more fees. Once the LCP is certified by the Coastal Commission, however, property owners will have a one-stop shop at the County of Los Angeles and they will no longer have to go to the Coastal Commission, pay a second set of fees and go through a second layer of governmental review.

 

So, there you have it. Those are the simple facts, which I urge you to verify for yourself.

The Santa Monica Mountains LCP is the product of years of meticulous analysis and negotiation. Its opponents want to delay and ultimately kill this important plan.  And they are using deceitful tactics—including dishonesty—to try to achieve those goals. This cannot be allowed to happen.

The Santa Monica Mountains represent one of the largest remaining unspoiled coastal resources in Southern California.  Future generations will not forgive us if we fail to seize this opportunity.

Posted 3/12/14

 

 

The beauty is in the details

February 20, 2014

New rules will preserve the beauty of the Santa Monica Mountains for the ages. Photo/Pedro Szeke

There are moments in my job—special moments—when I know I’m representing not only the interests of people today but also the needs of generations to come. One of those occasions, I’m delighted to say, came this week with a historic vote by the Board of Supervisors to protect one of our region’s most precious environmental and recreational treasures.

On Tuesday, the board approved a Local Coastal Program (LCP) for an 80-square-mile area of the Santa Monica Mountains. Years in the making, this far-reaching document—required by the state and endorsed by a broad coalition—establishes rigorous new restrictions for development in the mountains that rise along Los Angeles County’s northern edge.

Among other things, the LCP will ban construction in the most fragile habitat areas to help ensure the survival of animal and plant life, including our oak woodlands. Natural streams will be allowed to flow without alterations or barriers. Certain deadly rodent poisons will be outlawed to protect mountain lions and other vulnerable creatures. Stars in the night sky will remain visible thanks to tough rules on outdoor lighting.

What’s more, development will be prohibited on all significant ridgelines to prevent scars that would ruin this magnificent landscape and undermine the outdoor experience for hikers, equestrians and others who’ve found refuge just minutes away from our urban sprawl.

Where development is allowed, zoning will be dramatically reduced from an average of one house per acre to as low as one per 40 acres. For grading that exceeds 5,000 cubic yards, a discretionary permit will be necessary, as well as environmental and public hearings. The current threshold for such actions is 100,000 cubic yards.

The board’s passage of the Local Coastal Program, which now goes to the California Coastal Commission for certification, also represents a dramatic shift in the stewardship of the Santa Monica Mountains.

For years, in the absence of a detailed LCP, applicants for development permits have needed approval from both the county and the coastal commission. This has added needless uncertainty, delays and costs to the process. The coastal commission, for example, currently requires a full hearing for nearly every permit. Under the county’s LCP, however, an administrative permit would be issued to people who want to build such basic structures as single-family homes or room additions that comply with the plan’s development standards.

So now the rules will be clear to all, and the elected Board of Supervisors finally will have responsibility for managing a priceless resource that draws tens of thousands of visitors to its trails and vistas each year.

In fact, the LCP itself reflects the views and priorities of a wide collection of groups and individuals who have a stake in the mountains and a passion for their continuing preservation as a rural outpost for Los Angeles. Among them are the Sierra Club, Heal the Bay, the Las Virgenes Homeowners Federation and the majority of local equestrians, whose interests are specifically addressed in the LCP. I thank them all for their heartfelt participation.

I also want to thank the county’s Department of Regional Planning and my deputy Ben Saltsman. Together, they shepherded this monumental effort, demonstrating how government can, indeed, build consensus and serve the public’s lasting interests. This plan sends a very clear message: In the Santa Monica Mountains, concerns for the environment will dictate development, not the other way around.

For more on the Santa Monica Mountains and their place in L.A., check out our video below. 

YouTube Preview Image

Posted 2/20/14

Not just a local hero

February 6, 2014

Rep. Henry Waxman, who's retiring this year, is a once-in-a-generation congressional leader.

For 40 years, Rep. Henry Waxman has represented a wide swath of Los Angeles’ Westside. But the truth is that no single member of Congress has had a more far-reaching impact on the health and well-being of the entire nation than Waxman.

He championed legislation that led to cleaner air and water not only in L.A. but also in polluted cities across America. He was the driving force behind bills that restricted the use of pesticides and required food manufacturers to put those now-familiar nutrition labels on their products. He made sure that children in lower-income families had access to health insurance. He wrote the law that created the generic drug industry, saving consumers countless millions on their prescriptions.

And remember back in the mid-1990s, when the heads of the nation’s tobacco companies were collectively summoned to Washington for a televised hearing, during which they denied that their product was addictive? That landmark session was convened by Waxman, and it represented a turning point in the long and ultimately successful efforts to give the federal government more power to regulate tobacco.

Although Waxman is a proud liberal Democrat, a good number of those bills—and many others—were signed into law by Republican presidents, a testament to his mastery of the legislative process and his ability to build respect and consensus on both sides of the aisle.

With that legacy of accomplishment, it’s no wonder that, in recent days, there’s been an outpouring of praise for my friend and role model, the 20-term congressman. Last week, Waxman, surprised us all when he announced that he’d be retiring at the end of this year. At 74, he explained, it was time to begin the next chapter of his life. I can certainly understand that desire on the part of someone who has devoted his entire adult life to elective office. But I wish it wasn’t so.

Waxman’s departure will leave a huge void in Congress. Among many other things, his has been a powerful voice for the positive role government can play, especially in protecting the public health, whether you’re among the most fortunate of us or those struggling at the lower rungs of the economy. It’s not an exaggeration to say that his legislative work has saved millions of lives. He will surely be remembered as a huge idealist, but one with an unparalleled pragmatic capacity to turn those ideals into reality.

He also has been a great friend to Los Angeles County. In the mid-1990s, for example, when the county was confronting bankruptcy and the collapse of its health care system, Waxman stepped in to help secure the Clinton Administration’s help. In 2008, when federal officials wanted to sell off the Veterans Administration properties in Westwood, where so many deserving men and women have received assistance, Waxman again came to the rescue.

On a personal note, no public servant has taught me more about what it takes to bring about positive change in our society. Through his example, Waxman showed me that it’s not enough to have a vision. You must be willing to stay in the ring despite the long odds you may face. And when you’re knocked down, you get up and keep fighting for what you believe in.
As one of his longtime constituents, I’m grateful for his unmatched advocacy.

He’s going out a champion.

Waxman's tobacco hearings represented a turning point in bringing greater regulation to the industry.

Posted 2/6/14

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