May 22, 2013
I am honored to address your graduating class of the Annenberg School here at USC. While I am a loyal UCLA Bruin, my mother and sister are graduates of this great university and I suppose I get partial credit for that.
As you prepare to take your place in the world, you and your peers are poised to become the leaders of tomorrow. So today, let me offer you some thoughts about leadership, drawing on some ideas of two extraordinarily successful leaders I came to know during my public service career. One is the late John Wooden, the former head basketball coach at my alma mater. The other is Steven Sample, the immediate past President of USC.
Coach Wooden is best known for his achievements in athletics, but to those of us who knew him more intimately, he was much more than that. He was a life coach and a philosopher.
Steve Sample is best known in these parts as the man who led USC into the 21st century with soaring academic achievements and a commitment to the community which this university calls home.
I had the privilege of knowing both of these men, and they both taught me a lot about leadership. I have chosen just a few of their profound and axiomatic nuggets of wisdom by which leaders should be guided.
Addressing the core issue of character, John Wooden said, “Character is more important than reputation, because reputation is merely what other people think of you; character is what you really are, and only you know what that is.”
Politics is my line of work, and I can tell you that in my profession, we spend far too much time worrying about what other people think of us and far too little pondering who we really are and communicating who we really are.
What people think of us is important. But what’s far more important are our core values—the values that we are willing to defend regardless of what others think. Or as Steve Sample said, knowing which hill we’re willing to die on. In short, who we are is ultimately informed by our character.
Wooden also reminded us: “You are your word. Don’t give your word unless you intend to keep it. A leader whose promise means everything is trusted.” The best example of this is John Wooden himself. When he came to UCLA in the late 1940’s from Indiana State University, the job he really wanted was head coach at the University of Minnesota. He waited for the call but never got it. One day, UCLA called and offered him the head coaching job in Westwood, and he accepted. The very next day, Minnesota called to offer him its job, but Wooden declined saying he had already given his word to another university.
How many of us would have made the same decision if we had been in his shoes? Times, indeed, have changed, but your word remains the highest valued currency in human relationships. A person of his word has integrity, and integrity will take you a long way in life. Don’t give your word unless you intend to keep it.
In his book, The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership, Steve Sample urges leaders not to form an opinion about an important matter until all the relevant facts and arguments are in. Anyone who has ever served on a jury knows this, but this principle is applicable in any walk of life.
Leaders are constantly bombarded with arguments on all sides of an issue in an effort to persuade them of a particular point of view. Common sense dictates making a decision only after you’ve heard all the pros and cons. A leader who jumps to a conclusion before hearing all the facts will, more often than not, regret it. Moreover, leaders command a stronger and more loyal organization when their team members know that their opinions will be heard and valued, even if they are contrarian points of view. Avoid the temptation to jump to conclusions before you have all the facts.
Dr. Sample counseled us to become artful listeners–and, I would add, respectful listeners. Too many of those in my profession are so convinced of their monopoly on wisdom that they insist on imparting their opinions and conclusions before anyone else has even had an opportunity to weigh in. In practice, we routinely see legislators badgering witnesses with a fusillade of questions, cutting them off before the witnesses can muster even a sentence in reply, and then criticizing them for evading the question.
Listening can actually allow a leader to learn something from his subordinates. After all, leaders aren’t the only ones with good ideas. In fact, good leaders get their best ideas by keeping an open mind, and open ears, wherever they go.
A collateral benefit of listening to others is that it enables us to see things through their eyes–to walk a mile in their shoes. When you’re negotiating a contract or a peace treaty, the greatest gift a negotiator has is the ability to visualize what’s going through his adversary’s mind. It may actually lead to resolution instead of a dead end; a breakthrough instead of conflict. That’s why Sample writes that artful listening “is not just an asset—it’s a necessity.”
Sample also advised that leaders should surround themselves with people whose skills make up for their own shortcomings. I got similar advice from the late Senator Henry Jackson of Washington at the start of my career. He said, “Zev, surround yourself with people who are smarter than you are. Anything less is a waste of your time, because you’ll end up doing their work as well as your own.”
Dr. Sample and Coach Wooden both agreed that great leaders give credit to others, but accept the blame themselves. Any leader who fails to grasp this basic principle will not long endure in that leadership role. In any organization, nothing builds confidence in a team, and success in an enterprise, more than the knowledge that the leader will have your back when the going gets tough. People who feel this way about their leader will go to the ends of the earth for him. Those who don’t will do the bare minimum, if that.
Today, you become graduates in communication. An old proverb has it that “the eyes are the window of the soul”–but communication is the essence of your character. How we express ourselves is how we think, and how we think is who we are.
In politics, perception is reality. Our communication literally defines our personas for those we serve, and it’s changed enormously since I first took office. Back in the day, traditional print and broadcast outlets were the only way to get your message out.
Back then, they called me “the master of the 30-second sound-bite,” but today, if you can’t say it in six seconds, you’re out of the story. As media organizations downsize their political coverage, officials and institutions are filling the gap with their own multi-media websites, e-blasts and social media postings.
News consumers access their information on a variety of wireless platforms–podcasts, smart phones and tablets–no longer just radio, television and newspapers. But whatever form it takes, the bottom line remains that communication is transmitted through the voice of the communicator’s character.
You have been trained and taught well here at Annenberg, but as Mark Twain cautioned, “Don’t let your schooling interfere with your education.” Today, your schooling is formally completed, and I warmly congratulate you on that outstanding accomplishment. But your real education begins now, as you embark on the next chapter of your lives. As you do so, I wish you an abundance of character and wisdom. Good luck to each and every one of you.
May 2, 2013
No one who knew Dr. Antronette K. Yancey—public health expert, UCLA professor, athlete, author, poet and general force of nature—will be surprised to hear that the first time I met her, she interrupted a meeting so we could all exercise.
This was in 2011, and we were serving together on the First 5 LA Commission. She was already an appointee and I had just been named to the rotating post of chairman. I didn’t know at the time that she was a national leader in the anti-obesity movement, nor did I know we were about to become dear friends. I just knew that her voice was confident, her smile was charismatic and her opinions were as down-to-earth as they were incisive. Also, at 6-foot-2-inches tall, she was pretty imposing.
We were wrapping up a discussion on our search for a new executive director when Toni suggested that we all stop and do some shoulder circles.
“She can’t be serious,” I whispered to one of my colleagues.
“She’s very serious,” came the reply. “She does this at every meeting.” She even had a name for it: “Instant Recess.”
Toni asked if I would join the exercise break, and I demurred. “I took my regular 4 mile jog early this morning,” I said. “I’ve gotten my exercise for the day.”
She politely explained that my run was commendable, but it didn’t make up for the unhealthy impact of sitting in meetings all day. She also politely explained that a sedentary work environment increases the probability of cardiac and other diseases. Besides, she said, “a little exercise break will make you feel better.”
I told her I would pass.
Almost nobody else followed my lead.
They followed hers. Dozens of people—from audience members to county department heads—started swinging their arms, stretching and bending as I slipped into the adjacent room where they kept the snacks. Dr. Yancey just smiled at me as I made my exit. On her face was a look that said: “Just wait, mister—I’ll get you yet.”
This Friday, a memorial at Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills will commemorate the remarkable life of Toni Yancey, who died last week at 55. A non-smoker, she had come down with a chronic dry cough that she had thought to be an allergy; it turned out to be lung cancer. In the days since her death, the many of us who knew, admired and loved her have struggled to make sense of the shocking loss of such an important voice and such a bright light.
Long before she was tapped for the nonprofit board advising First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign, Dr. Yancey was making it her mission to help people counteract the risks of sedentary living. As the county’s first director of chronic disease prevention in the late 1990s, and then as a founding co-director of the UCLA Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Equity, she consistently stressed fitness. As a scholar, she published dozens of papers on chronic disease prevention, obesity and nutrition.
But her secret weapon was that she led by example. Knowing how hard it can be for most people to overcome inertia, she brought her signature exercise breaks to schoolyards, community centers, conferences and public meetings. She made videos featuring members of the Lakers, Sparks and Padres. She did public radio commentaries on the importance of healthy living.
Even after her cancer diagnosis, her work continued. With me, she talked community and basketball—she’d played for Northwestern University’s Division 1 women’s team in college. With others, she found different points of connection: as a mother and a grandmother, as a devoted mate to her partner Darlene Edgley, as an ex-model, a musician or as a published poet.
I will remember her as an inspiration. After that first humbling encounter, I never again skipped an exercise break at the First 5 Commission. Frankly, it made me feel better. I became such a believer that I often get up in long meetings and move around to get my blood circulating.
Last summer, she gave me a copy of her 2010 book, “Instant Recess: Building a Fit Nation 10 Minutes at a Time”. I treasure it. It is the product of years of research that led her to the conclusion that exercise breaks are important to our health and longevity.
Yes, in fact, she did get me. I only wish I had been given more time to work with and learn from her. I will miss her dearly.
April 23, 2013
Universal City is one of L.A.’s most famous destinations. It is also a member of a famously complex community.
Part movie studio, part theme park, part corporate campus, part international tourist attraction, the 391-acre site—which lies both in the city and county of Los Angeles—plays almost as many roles as the entertainers who work there.
Its operations impact millions of Southern Californians, from workers and shareholders to homeowners and commuters. No wonder, then, that when NBCUniversal began talking about a master plan for the property, and then about a major expansion, it took more than seven years for all the stakeholders to reach the consensus that came before the Board of Supervisors this week.
NBCUniversal’s Evolution Plan, endorsed unanimously on Tuesday by the Board of Supervisors, is a big deal. And that’s not just because the $1.6 billion final product promises to create more than 30,000 jobs while expanding production facilities and bringing “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter” to L.A.
With a new trailhead park and a nearly $14 million investment in the L.A. River Bike Path, it jumpstarts the riverfront’s revitalization. It paves the way—literally—for a long-dreamed-of bike route from the San Fernando Valley to Long Beach.
Its $100 million in transit improvements will ease congestion in the long-suffering southeast San Fernando Valley even as NBCUniversal adds 1.88 million square feet of net new space for studios, offices, tourism and entertainment. Overall, the project is expected to generate some $2 billion in economic output, and add $15 million in new tax revenues to the county annually.
Talk about a stimulus package. And we can expect it to pay dividends for generations to come.
But what impressed me most was that at a time when all the talk is about how impossible our politics are as a nation, this was a case study in democracy with a “small d”. Projects of this magnitude often leave communities feeling railroaded and businesses feeling thwarted. Negatives are forced on one side or another in the name of progress, or as a necessary cost of doing business.
But on details big and small, NBCUniversal and its community collaborated to make this plan work for all sides.
When some—myself included—balked at the idea of replacing a large chunk of crucial backlot with 3,000 apartments and condos, the company scrapped the housing and doubled down on its core entertainment business. When potential glare from office lights posed a concern to homeowners, NBCUniversal agreed to 10 p.m. lights-out in unoccupied offices in key buildings.
Digital signage was dramatically scaled back, and neighbors’ views were protected with new landscaping. Perhaps most significantly, the plan establishes a community advisory panel to maintain the partnership on a regular basis.
Working together in a place with this many moving parts isn’t always easy. And compromise is famous for happening away from the limelight.
But when it does happen, it’s almost as thrilling as the words, “Lights! Camera! Action!” There was applause this week as the Board approved this project, and I suspect that the way it came together will be winning raves for a long, long time.
March 27, 2013
During my many years in public life, there’ve been just a handful of times when I’ve been caught off guard.
This week, as the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on the constitutionality of California’s voter-imposed ban on same-sex marriage, I thought back to one of those surprising—and humbling—moments. It came some two decades ago when, as chairman of the Los Angeles City Council’s finance committee, I championed a measure to provide domestic-partner benefits to couples who’d been living together for more than a year.
After the vote, the committee’s clerk asked whether she might speak with me for a moment. By then, the hearing room at City Hall had cleared. It was just the two of us. I figured she had some committee business to discuss. And, in a very deep and unexpected sense, she did. She revealed that she’d been living with a partner, a woman, for nearly 20 years. “I just want you to know,” she said, “that this legislation will improve the quality of our lives in a truly meaningful way. Thank you.” I was overwhelmed. It’s rare that you get to witness such an immediate and profound impact of a vote on a person’s life. That was a good day.
Throughout my career, I’ve worked hard to be a consistent advocate for groups and individuals marginalized by society, including gays and lesbians. From my earliest days on the City Council, I confronted the Los Angeles Police Department for wrongly harassing gays and lesbians. I was the first straight elected official in California to debate then-State Senator John Briggs over his infamous (and doomed) ballot initiative in 1978 that would have prohibited gays and lesbians from teaching in the public schools, a measure ultimately opposed by Ronald Reagan.
But until a decade ago, I didn’t embrace the movement for same-sex marriage. I didn’t see the point. Hadn’t we provided gay and lesbian couples with virtually all the benefits of marriage except a license? With so many other important fights to pick, was this among the most pressing struggles for our society’s well-being?
Then I got educated. I had a conversation with my daughter, one that reminded me of that old Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song, “Teach Your Children.” In the final refrain, it calls out to the young listeners of the day to “teach your parents well.” And in my home, like millions of others across America, that’s what happened.
“What difference does it make to you, Dad, if same-sex couples want to get married?” asked my daughter, who was then in her 20s. Although it was a simple question, I couldn’t summon a satisfactory answer no matter how hard I tried. The core issue was no different than any other civil rights struggle: a right extended by government to some was being denied to others solely because of sexual orientation, putting it in the same class as other discrimination battles our nation has known all too well.
While some people have described their support of marriage equality as an evolution, it was more like a 180-degree revolution for me after that conversation with my daughter. In the ensuing decade, I’ve supported same-sex marriage and I campaigned against Proposition 8, the California ballot measure now before the Supreme Court.
I’m hoping that the justices go big, that they rule as unconstitutional any laws banning same-sex marriage anywhere in the country. Judging from their questions and observations from the bench this week, most experts think that’s unlikely. Still, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the court will at least begin to get on the right side of history and strike down California’s Proposition 8, which enshrined discrimination in the state’s constitution.
Maybe if each justice had the chance to preside over a same-sex union, as I have, they’d have a better sense of why Americans increasingly favor marriage equality.
In the fall of 2008, during a five-month window when such marriages were legal in California, I was honored to be asked by June Lagmay and Rita Romero to officiate at their wedding. June was no longer the clerk for the City Council’s finance committee, as she was when we had that private chat in the hearing room so many years ago. She’s now the City Clerk for the City of Los Angeles, and she’d waited a long time to wed her partner of 40 years, a wait that had joyously ended when the California State Supreme Court ruled for marriage equality.
The couple’s home in Temple City was packed with friends and family. There were beautiful rings, champagne toasts and a big layered cake. But most of all there was love, the kind that’s full of understanding and acceptance, a love that’s too powerful to be contained by bigotry and bad laws.
February 7, 2013
Maps and blueprints are fine, but there’s nothing like getting out into the real world and seeing the future take shape.
A few days ago, I had the opportunity to tour the second phase of the Expo Line, which is rapidly taking form along a corridor running from Culver City to Santa Monica.
It was remarkable. New bridges are rising, a once-abandoned railroad right-of-way is coming back to life and the contours of the project are emerging before our eyes.
The thrill of going behind the scenes in the construction zone was kind of like seeing a prenatal sonogram: Expo Phase 2 is still a long way from the delivery room, but this baby’s shaping up beautifully.
When the 6.6 mile stretch is finished in 2015—with a final station just a short walk from the Pacific Ocean—it will complete the light rail line that’s now carrying more than 23,000 passengers a day between downtown Los Angeles and Culver City. It will offer a true alternative to the heavily congested Santa Monica Freeway that it parallels for much of its route.
And it will mark another crowning achievement in what I consider the golden era of public transportation infrastructure development in the Los Angeles region.
Think about it: in just the last 10 to 15 years, we’ve built a subway to the San Fernando Valley, forged light rail connections to Pasadena, East Los Angeles and Culver City, and created two legs of the Orange Line rapid transit busway that now runs from North Hollywood to Chatsworth. Workers currently are constructing a new stretch of the Gold Line from Pasadena to Azusa, and work should be starting on the Crenshaw Line to LAX in the not-too-distant future. We’re also preparing to extend the subway to the Westwood V.A. and to build a Regional Connector downtown to help tie it all together.
As we’ve grown the system, the whole has proven to be much bigger than the sum of its parts, offering a bustling network of region-wide connections that would have been unthinkable a generation ago.
In our notoriously sprawling and supposedly car-dependent region, we’ve shown that Angelenos aren’t wedded to their automobiles and in fact are more than willing to vote with their feet if we can offer alternatives to an increasingly clogged freeway system.
I fully expect them to beat a path to the Expo Line when it’s complete. I’m not just talking about folks who live on the Westside but also the thousands throughout the region who commute there for jobs and recreation.
From what I saw during my tour, it’s clear that this line will offer them more than just a great escape from traffic on the 10. It also will provide a bargain tour of Los Angeles rarely glimpsed through the windshield of a car. It includes a sylvan stretch in Cheviot Hills where the Red Car once ran, panoramic views from bridges and elevated platforms along the route, and a middle-of-the-street trip through the pleasant urbanscape of Colorado Boulevard before it concludes at 4th Street and Colorado, just across from Santa Monica Place and down the street from the Pier.
Construction projects, of course, are highly unpredictable but I’m happy to report that this one, for now, is on time and on budget—maybe even a little ahead of the game.
But we can’t afford to let up.
Funding for Expo Phase 2 and other projects comes from Measure R, the ½-cent sales approved by 68% of county voters in 2008. Disappointingly, efforts to extend the sales tax for another 30 years—making it possible to get moving sooner on an array of transportation projects—failed at the ballot box this past November.
The extension, known as Measure J, lost even though it received 66.11% of the vote because of an anachronistic provision in our state constitution requiring two-thirds voter approval for such measures.
This needs to change.
So as construction teams work to finish Expo, efforts are building in Sacramento to try to move the approval threshold from two-thirds to a still-difficult but more reasonable 55%.
I hope that the state’s voters are ready for the change, and for the improvements in transportation infrastructure it could generate.
Because here in Los Angeles, we’re building a transit system that will benefit our region for generations. And we have no intention of turning this train around now.
January 24, 2013
“I’d like to talk to Stan Musial.”
I was a baseball-crazed 11-year-old when I made that pronouncement to the telephone operator at the old Hotel Statler at Wilshire and Figueroa. I’d learned from a feature in the Sporting News that the St. Louis Cardinals were staying there during a series with the Dodgers—and I was determined to talk to Stan the Man, the visiting team’s star outfielder.
The nickname was spot-on. During a career spanning more than two decades, Musial would ultimately win seven batting titles, appear in 24 All-Star Games and set scores of records. He was that rare player who was elected to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. Still, despite the gaudy numbers, he was also known as a humble gentleman, with little of the flash of such famous contemporaries as DiMaggio, Mantle and Mays. Musial spoke softly but carried a very big stick.
So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when he picked up the phone in his hotel room. But I was. He caught me off guard in my ruse as a radio sportscaster named Bob Price. (I didn’t think he’d bite on a name like Zev Yaroslavsky.) Trying my best to sound older than my pre-teen years, I asked a series of questions about the team’s strengths. He thoughtfully answered each, offering particular praise for a young right-handed pitcher named Bob Gibson, who’d one day join him in Cooperstown. Because I didn’t expect to actually talk to Musial, I quickly exhausted my list of questions.
I closed the “interview” by melodically saying, “Thank you, Stan Musial, for being on our sports show.” To which he said: “You’re welcome, son.” Turns out, he’d been playing along from the start, so free of self-importance that he was willing to take a few moments to give a kid a memory of a lifetime. Imagine that.
Last Saturday, at the age of 92, Stan Musial passed away, and that memory from the late 1950s came back to me with the power of one of his mighty swings. I know that, given the security concerns of today, such a phone conversation between a boy and a ballplayer would be highly unlikely. But I also wonder how many of our super-star athletes even recognize, as Musial did, the obligations that come with fame. Celebrity is not an entitlement. Forgive the cliché, but whether in sports or politics, you’ve got a responsibility to be a role model for those who look up to you.
Two years ago, this quality in Musial was recognized in a White House ceremony by President Obama, who presented him with the nation’s highest civilian award, the Medal of Freedom. Obama described Musial as “untarnished, a beloved pillar of the community, a gentleman you’d want your kids to emulate.” For my part, I’ve given it my best.
Sometimes, when I get a late-night call from a constituent with a problem—and they’re not play-acting—I think back to that day when Musial found time to talk to a young kid. And then I try to step up to the plate, too. Now 64, I’ll be forever grateful to the ballplayer who demonstrated what being a man is really about.
January 10, 2013
The obituaries told us that he’d been a fixture on local television since the early 1980s, but I could have sworn that Huell Howser had been a part of our family for a lifetime. It felt like I’d been a fan of his for that long. When Huell generously agreed to preside over my swearing-in as a newly-minted County Supervisor in 1994, it was one of the high points of my political career.
Huell came from sturdy American stock. He was born in Gallatin, Tennessee, established in 1802 as the county seat of Sumner County and named for Albert Gallatin, a Secretary of the Treasury under Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Maybe it was that kind of rich history and sense of place you find in so many Southern towns that helped develop this country boy into the gifted storyteller that enchanted the city slickers here in Los Angeles for so many years.
Huell and I shared a deep fascination with history in our college studies, and he earned his undergraduate degree in it from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. After a stint in the Marine Corps and serving on the staff of Sen. Howard Baker—one of my Watergate heroes—he embarked on a career in TV news, working locally in Nashville before graduating to New York.
In 1981, he came to Los Angeles as a feature reporter for KCBS-TV, but soon found that the hustle of local TV news and its obsession with crime and celebrity fluff wasn’t his thing. In 1985, he found a happier home at KCET, then the Southern California flagship station for PBS. There he created a wide variety of feature programs like Videolog, California’s Gold and others, and finally hit his stride as a joyful chronicler of all things California, from quirky people and offbeat occupations to spectacular natural wonders and all manner of outdoor adventures.
With his shades, Hawaiian shirts, shorts or khakis, he was like a slightly goofy tour guide for a statewide vacation that never ended. There was nowhere he wouldn’t go, nobody he wouldn’t talk to. He was always friendly, cheerful, courteous and somehow incredibly interested and excited to learn about the most obscure places, occupations or activities.
Everything was “amazing” to Huell—“Oh, my gosh! Would you look at that!” he would always exclaim. It’s been said many times, but I honestly think it was Huell’s sense of innocence and wonder that was the key to his enduring and universal appeal. It wasn’t an act. There was nothing cynical, ironic or post-modern about it. This wasn’t the “Daily Show.” Off-camera—and I know, since we were friends and practically neighbors when he was staying at the grand old El Royale Apartments on Rossmore—he was exactly the same earnest and charming guy that you saw on screen.
Huell may have been born in Tennessee, near the cradle of the Confederacy, but he became by choice an adopted son of the Golden West. Maybe that’s why he had so much respect and admiration for the wonderful things too many of us native Californians take for granted.
It was easy to make fun of his folksy, “gee-whiz” manner, but you just had to spend five minutes with him to know that it was no put-on. His segments were just as honest and straightforward, strictly do-it-yourself productions—Huell and a camera guy, basically—but who needed all the other bells and whistles? The classic storytellers of ancient times required only a campfire, an audience, and a story to tell.
Though he became a genuine TV star, he never lost his modesty or humility. As he was winding down his career, he donated his tapes, books, and even his spectacular Volcano House home in the desert to Chapman University. Nearing the end, he instructed his colleagues that he wanted no ceremony or memorial, public or private, and he asked close friends to honor his wishes that they not participate. He just wanted people to watch his shows and enjoy the stories. That’s the only tribute he wanted.
When we first learned of his retirement in November, we hoped to honor him at the Board of Supervisors. We couldn’t have known at that time that he was already too ill to participate.
Now he’s gone, and it feels like we’ve all lost a cherished friend. So let me just say: “Happy trails, Huell.” You’ve left behind a wonderful legacy.
January 4, 2013
In the aftermath of last month’s horrific Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, we once again find ourselves talking about how we must reduce gun violence and confront the easy access our society provides to weaponry that, in the wrong hands, can inflict mass carnage. As both a member of the Los Angeles City Council and the county Board of Supervisors, I’ve long been a proponent of sensible gun regulation—especially when it comes to automatic and semi-automatic firearms, including assault rifles, that gunmen have wielded in several of the more recent shooting tragedies. But they’ve also been used plenty of times in the past.
After the Newtown murders of 20 children and six adults, I was instantly taken back to an incident here that had the potential to be even worse than it was. In 1999, a gunman opened fire with an assault rifle at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills, wounding three children, a teenaged camp counselor and a receptionist. He was accused of later killing a mail carrier in Chatsworth.
This came just two years after two bank robbers in North Hollywood pinned down overmatched Los Angeles police officers with automatic weapons fire before the criminals were finally killed. Some of those firearms were traced to the nation’s largest gun show—held on the L.A. County-owned fairgrounds in Pomona. It made no sense to me that public property would be used to sell weapons of all kinds, some of which would end up on our streets and contribute to what was then an epidemic of violent crime.
So I proposed a ban on the sale of guns on any county property, including the fairgrounds. Two of my colleagues, Supervisors Gloria Molina and Yvonne Burke, joined me in passing this historic ban. The gun show owners filed suit against the county. But the California Supreme Court in 2002 affirmed our right to ban the sale of guns on our publicly-owned property.
More than a decade earlier, in early 1989, I successfully sponsored an emergency ordinance banning the sale and possession of semi-automatic weapons in the City of Los Angeles. Not only were they becoming the weapon of choice for L.A.’s notoriously violent street gangs, but just a month earlier, a gunman in Stockton, armed with an AK-47, had killed five schoolchildren and injured more than two dozen. I felt compelled to act because our Sacramento lawmakers had procrastinated for too long on legislation banning assault weapons. The City Council approved my proposal, and weeks later, the State legislature acted, fearing that hundreds of cities would each pass their own bans.
I’ve always believed there are two principal reasons to responsibly regulate gun sales in our communities.
First, the harder we make it for people to get their hands on military-style assault weapons, the less likely it is that such weapons will be used. Have these laws, passed both locally and nationally, made a difference? Did they save lives? Undoubtedly they did, although we’ll never know how many. But if these restrictions have saved one life, then it’s worth it. I’ve been around long enough to know that one of the great shortcomings in our society is that too many of us make the perfect be the enemy of the good. While no one law or regulation will completely eliminate gun violence from our society, that’s no reason to do nothing. The one guarantee we have is that if we don’t try, we’ll get no results.
The second reason, which is rarely talked about, is one of messaging. Leaders and opinion makers in politics, religion, business, public health, law enforcement and elsewhere make a difference when they take a public stand on an issue of this societal magnitude. The Board of Supervisors sent a strong message when it banned the sale of guns on county property, not only because it might save lives but because by doing so we were saying that this kind of activity is not acceptable. Just as we’ve changed the culture of smoking in our country over the last generation, the culture of easy access to military-style assault weapons can be changed as well. When the largest county in the nation says “no” to the sale of guns on its property, it’s taking a giant step toward changing that culture.
That’s why I strongly support California U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein’s plan to reintroduce her federal ban on assault weapons, which expired in 2004. If approved, her legislation will not just save lives in the short run, it will also send a clear message that enough is enough, that weapons with the devastating power to take lives and kill dreams in Newtown, Aurora, Columbine or San Fernando Valley have no place in our communities. When we ban assault weapons, we begin to stigmatize their ownership. When we allow them on the free market, we’re essentially saying that these weapons are consistent with the values we collectively hold dear. Well, in any civilized society, these values should never trump the value of a human life, and that’s why I hope you’ll join me in supporting Senator Feinstein’s efforts.
December 13, 2012
For more than a year, I’ve made no secret of my concerns over the rushed and deeply flawed ways in which Sacramento saddled California’s counties with the duty of supervising tens of thousands of inmates being freed from state prisons. In all my years in public life, I’ve never seen a matter so crucial to public safety pursued with so little regard for on-the-ground realities.
This profound transformation of California’s criminal justice system, enacted under a bill called AB 109, erupted in the news this week in the most tragic of circumstances: the accused gunman in a quadruple homicide in Northridge was one of Los Angeles County’s new AB 109 charges. Exactly how the defendant, Ka Pasasouk, slipped through the cracks—and whether systemic breakdowns may have been to blame—remains under investigation. But already the case has exposed a painfully disturbing fact of “realignment.”
Under the law, only inmates serving sentences for non-violent, non-serious, non-sexual offenses are shifted to the county’s Probation Department for post-release supervision. State parole officers oversee the rest. But the truth is that upwards of half of these so-called N3s were previously incarcerated for serious crimes. Post-release supervision under the new law is based entirely on an inmate’s current conviction, not on those for which he may have served time in the past. Pasasouk was released from prison last January on a vehicle theft conviction. But he had a long history of older offenses, including robbery and assault.
The reason for Sacramento’s legislative sleight-of-hand comes down to this: expediency. The state was under a court order to slash its prison population by 30,000. Had earlier serious and/or violent convictions been thrown into the AB 109 mix, the state would have been unable to hit that number. I can’t help but wonder whether armed state parole agents would be better equipped than the county’s Probation Department to monitor this violent population, products of California’s penal system. I believe this is worth exploring as we move forward.
Of course, any criminal who’s determined to elude supervision will do so, whether he’s being watched by the state or the county. But there’s no question that California’s governor and legislature heightened the public risk by passing AB 109 before our local authorities had a handle on some of the most basic challenges, including how many of the inmates had serious mental health problems, violent histories or even places to live. To this day, more than a year after the law’s implementation, the Probation Department is struggling to keep pace with its mushrooming responsibilities.
Some probation officers have caseloads topping 200 individuals. Many of those ex-convicts, like Pasasouk, have been deemed “high risk.” Although probation officials say the caseload ratio should be closer to 50-to-1, we’ve been unable to hire and train probation officers fast enough to keep pace with the flow from the state’s 33 prisons. The Board of Supervisors has authorized the hiring of 393 probation officers, but so far only 170 have taken to the field, according to department executives. Meanwhile, just this week, probation took delivery of 35 new cars so its officers can make more home visits and compliance checks on “post-release supervised persons,” whose numbers have swelled to more than 11,000 in L.A. County.
This situation is so infuriating that it’s easy to get stuck on what we wish would have happened, rather than on facing and embracing the reality of our predicament. It’s important to remember that the ex-inmates for whom Los Angeles County is now responsible would have been cut loose no matter who was supervising them, and most would have returned to their previous counties of residence. This was not an early release program. While we can, and will, push Sacramento for some legislative fixes, AB 109 is not going away. So I’m hoping that some good might come of all this.
A wide array of county and municipal agencies across the region, extending beyond the Probation Department, have joined together under the hot lights of public scrutiny to tackle a job they know is crucial. Representatives of the departments of public and mental health, for example, are at the table when treatment plans are created for the AB 109 arrivals. Despite gaps that still must be filled, this intensive, multi-agency effort already exceeds the level of collaboration undertaken by state parole officials.
And that, at least, should be encouraging to a public that has a right to expect its government to keep them safe.