Political Accountability Takes a Holiday in Beverly Hills

Scale of justiceThe usual mechanism for holding officials accountable in a representative democracy is the ballot: if we don’t like how we’re served by our representatives, we can simply “vote the bums out.” But what happens when elections come around and nobody steps up to challenge incumbents? Beverly Hills should be holding a municipal election this March for two Council seats, but the only two candidates to step forward are incumbents. So we simply cancelled the election. Here the practice of governing falls short of theories about governance, and political accountability for unsafe streets takes a holiday.

The ballot box is a powerful lever for affecting the priorities of elected officials. Here in Beverly Hills, our opportunity comes every odd year. Terms for our five-member City Council are staggered; two seats come open in March election and three in 2017. Because office of the Mayor is a ceremonial office, each council elections is our key opportunity to shape the direction we want the city to take. In large part that’s because the ballot we cast affects how the city is managed.

Beverly Hills org chartIn Beverly Hills, City Council appoints a city manager, the technocrat who manages departments, conducts and supervises hiring, and implements programs among other responsibilities. According to the organization chart, the city manager takes direction from councilmembers and manages the staff. But one thing left off the chart is the need to manage staff inertia – the  preference not to act. That’s often chalked up to risk aversion, which is a characteristic of local governments.

Also left off the city’s organization chart is the city manager who doesn’t take direction well. Here in Beverly Hills, we’ve seen friction emerge between City Council and City Manager Jeff Kolin over the management of the Santa Monica Boulevard reconstruction process, as well as the enduring vacancies on the Beverly Hills Police Department. Mr. Kolin announced his retirement come January.

And not a moment too soon. Beverly Hills City Hall is defined by inertia; it’s where good ideas die on the vine for want of City Manager leadership or staff concern. In our five years advocating on behalf of safe streets and multimodal mobility, we’ve seen remarkably little action on that agenda from our officials beyond the empty rhetoric of plans and press releases. Little of substance reflects the city’s stated policy objectives in the Sustainable City Plan and the General Plan’s circulation element such as reducing congestion, slowing the growth of greenhouse gas emissions, and yes, encouraging cycling. Even rhetoric went missing: the city manager is rumored to be a cyclist himself but seems remarkably reticent when it comes to speaking up for safer streets. In fact, we can’t ever recall him uttering a word about making Beverly Hills bike-friendly.

Come 2015, however, we expected the opportunity to nudge our city in the right direction mobility-wise: we were to go to the polls to choose two councilmembers and to work with a new city manager. If only it were so! When no challenger stepped forward to contest a Council seat, our election was canceled (as many have been across Los Angeles County) as no challenger filed the required number of signatures necessary to run.

Because Councilmembers Lili Bosse and Dr. Julian Gold were simply appointed to four-year terms by City Council, missed an opportunity to hold City Hall accountable. And we missed an opportunity to reflect on recent changes in how our city operates. City Council strengthened the hand of insiders, for example, by reducing the size of city commissions to narrow the gate for new, incoming ‘team players.’ City Council raised the limits on contributions, too, in our small city too vulnerable to influence-buying.

Moreover, City Hall has ‘liberalized’ planning regulations; weakened our preservation standards; and reassigned some zoning decisions to an administrative process behind closed doors from quasi-judicial hearings as in the past.

If many of us didn’t pay attention to these policies as they percolated though the governing process, with a canceled election we don’t have any means of giving our collective thumbs-up or thumbs-down at the polls. Ballot box accountability is particularly important because few residents pay attention to what our commissions are doing, according to our quick look at commission meetings:

Commission meeting attendance montage

Commission business in Beverly Hills don’t pull in the stakeholders.

Then again, few pay attention to the polls. The city’s turnout is remarkably anemic. Just 22% of those registered actually voted in the municipal election of 2013, marking a long-term overall slide in voter interest:

Beverly Hills turnout 1950-2013 chart

In the 2013 election, for example turnout was fewer than 5,000 votes in a city of 38,000 residents (22%). One of the three contested city council seats that election was secured with just 2,540 votes (merely 7 more than the runner-up).

In fact, it takes fewer than three thousand votes to secure a City Council seat in our city of 38,000 residents, which means opportunity for those who are involved, and organized, like north-side homeowners, to gain disproportionate influence and use a heavy hand on the tiller of the ship of state.

For those of us who chafe at the city’s inaction on street safety, and who feel frustrated that our calls to make Beverly Hills bike-friendly falls on officials’ deaf ears, we can only lament the missed opportunity at the polls to hold City Council accountable. Instead of a campaign season that might have tested candidates’ commitment to multimodal mobility –  as our plans urge, by the way – we’ll instead wait for our next chance in 2017 to put our own hands on the tiller.

*And maybe it was overdue, as it is surprising to learn how little backing is necessary in order to gain a toehold in local government. In 2013, the three winning candidates spent an average of less than $20 per vote to run a campaign. (Councilmember Willie Brien was the big spender: he broke the bank at $25 spent per voter.) Clearly it doesn’t take very much to keep the wheels of governance turning in Beverly Hills, which is good news to the lobbyists and ‘influencers’ who ply City Hall corridors.

Beverly Hills Civics 101

City Manager dominates the org chartLast we checked, power flows from the people. We the people stand astride the machinery of government. We sit atop the pyramid of power. So accordingly we the people top-off the governance organization chart. But democracy in practice doesn’t always accord with the organization chart. Even in local government of only forty thousand people. Power is arrogated and bureaucracy exercises it’s prerogatives. Where does that leave the people?

Civics 101

Beverly Hills organization chart 2013Let’s take a look at the City of Beverly Hills organization chart [pdf]. It shows the people (‘citizens’) at the top of the power pyramid. From the people flows the power, of course, down through the representative City Council. The people signal the policy preferences and the Council, advised by (all-volunteer) commissions, as well as the City Attorney and Clerk, makes the laws. All work for the people.

And so does the City Manager. The City Manager reviews department head candidates, for example, and enjoys the authority to make the appointment. Though his organization chart box is subordinate to the Council and two rungs below that of the citizens, the City Manager enjoys quite a bit of control over the day-to-day management of the city. Though he takes direction from Council, the latter enjoys scant control over day-to-day management of the city and is, in fact, prohibited from taking a hands-on role in any aspect of our municipal governance. (This doesn’t make Beverly Hills unique, however; it’s the case in other general law cities in California that operate without their own standing city charter.)

The theory is that the people express their will to the Council, which crafts policy and makes decisions and then hands off to the City Manager the development of programs and responsibility for their implementation.

In practice, governing a city like Beverly Hills works a little differently. Our elected policymakers do indeed govern with the consent of the citizenry – that’s tested in every election of course – but their legitimacy, authority and even a mandate flows from the ‘voters’ rather than the ‘citizens.’ And there is an important difference: while the ‘citizen’ is the foundation of representative democracy, and occupies an idealized place atop the org chart, in reality it is the voter who effectively communicates preferences. And only the voter holds policymakers accountable at election time.

To nobody’s surprise, policymakers are responsive to voters. But less-organized precincts with lower turnout may not get that love. That’s where the gap between the theory of representative democracy and its practice emerges; and that gulf is amplified when voter turnout is low. In Beverly Hills our turnout is very low. Only 4863 registered voters cast a ballot in March’s city election. This in a city with 22,000 registered voters and another 5,000 voting-age residents who won’t (or can’t) even register.

In the event, only 22% of registered voters pulled a lever to elect 3 of 5 City Council members in March (as we illustrated in our deep dive into the 2013 election). Not that the contest wasn’t without interest. A big-ticket issue (Metro tunneling) had simmered for the previous year and a relatively acrimonious campaign season might have ginned up more voter attention. Yet our turnout trailed that of the 2012’s presidential election by a whopping fifty percentage points!

What happened to the other folks? In fact, our 2013 city election marked a low of sorts: more voters made it to the polls in each of the previous ten city elections (a twenty-year period) than they did in March. The downward arc of voter interest is especially clear over time:

Beverly Hills turnout 1950-2013 chart

Despite wide variation in turnout in Beverly Hills municipal elections, one can’t miss the downward trend in voter interest. (Or is it an upward trend in voter disinterest?)

If ‘citizens’ are to signal preferences and provide an accountability check on elected policymakers, how reassuring is it if our top vote-getter on Council nets fewer than 3,000 votes? What does it say about voter interest when few folks participate in the machinery of governance? According to a bi-weekly meetings digest provided to Council, stakeholders seldom do turn out to address city commissions. What could that say about a mandate to govern?

Democracy from Theory to Practice: Meet the City Manager

Council priorities excerpt 2012We detoured for Civics 101 because since early 2010 we have wondered why pro-bike improvements progress so slowly here in Beverly Hills. Sure, we’ve got a few block segments of improvements under the city’s Pilot program. And we hope to build on them in the future. But with Council on record as favoring pro-bike improvements, who’s foot is on the brake?

Jeff KolinMeet the City Manager, Jeff Kolin. He’s been on the job (under contract to City Council) since 2009. He’s an avid cyclist, according to numerous city staffers, yet he’s not stepped into any policy discussion about safe streets or even promoting bicycle facilities in any meaningful way. The City Manager is in a position not only to support the Council’s bike-related priorities but to keep pace with other localities where road safety has become much more of a priority. So it’s unfortunate that we’re not seeing leadership from Mr. Kolin’s office. Our city has been left behind by other Westside cities in this regard.

How can the City Manager accelerate our advance into the twenty-first century multimodal mobility era? His responsibilities are crystal clear according to the municipal code:
City manager function from Muni codeThe key here is department management. Consider how timelines for bike-related improvements have inexcusably stretched toward the horizon. For three+ years our ad hoc Bike Plan Update Committee has been talking about an update to our 1977-era Bicycle Master Plan. For two years we’ve waited for our Transportation Division in Public Works to develop a bicycle racks installation program to get bike racks on city streets. The city recently took delivery of 30 new racks but it looks like a couple of months before we’ll even see one deployed to a sidewalk in our business district, where we really need them.

Moreover, the City Manager enjoys some latitude to (literally) set the city’s agenda. But cycling issues don’t often make an appearance. In frustration, a horde of cyclists descended on Council Chambers to demand that the city take action in a heinous hit-and-run bike-involved collision. That should have been a hint to city hall to accelerate initiatives that will promote cycling and make it safer.

(Recently Mayor John Mirisch said that the City Manager was “usurping” his authority as Mayor in scheduling a meeting that excluded from the discussion  the Mayor and Vice Mayor Bosse when one of the Mayor’s concerns was up for discussion. We did our own digging to find out that the rules are somewhat ambiguous.)

On that note, the City Manager is in a position to articulate a broader message to city staff  about road safety. Mr. Kolin could perhaps draw on his own experience as a cyclist to seize opportunities to suggest to Council the steps that we need to take to make cycling a safe (and convenient) transportation option. When residents show up and say they’d like to bike to the business triangle for an ice cream but don’t feel safe, that should be a cue to the City Manager to identify good practices we see implemented elsewhere and make them programs here too.

The City Manager could recommend to Council that bike facilities be included in the city’s capital improvement (CIP) budget. Or suggest signage programs with some of the $2.5 million we’ll hand over to the Convention and Visitors Bureau to market the city. Heck even a slice of that quarter-million dollar marketing documentary budget would get us on the way to safe streets.

At this point in time we should be roaring into a new mobility era but so many of our policies are stuck in the auto era. We need to update our land use code to be sure that our commercial developments support bike commuters, and we need new language for our languished bicycle-related ordinances to reflect formal city policy statements about mobility. We’re not sure who’s foot has been on the brake, but it’s time we lifted it and accelerate into a sustainable mobility future.

We expect that one problem has been the entrenched leadership in the Public Works department. It never seemed supportive of bicycle transportation. Following on the recent retirement of the PW director, there is good news on the horizon. This week City Council will consider moving the transportation planning functions into our Community Development Department, which currently assumes land use planning responsibilities. Huddling transportation planners with engineers (in Public Works) was probably never the best strategy anyway, but it is a small city and compromises are made.

We were prepared to become very involved in selecting the PW chief replacement, who would be selected by the City Manager, but this is a better outcome should Council give the proper direction on Tuesday to consolidate land use and transportation functions. I could be a bold step forward (one contemplated but not implemented in City of Los Angeles) to jump-start an overdue conversation about the policy reforms we need in order to make Beverly Hills bikable.

The Org Chart Reconsidered

The city’s organization chart, we believe, doesn’t sufficiently reflect the City Manager’s power. Having a box at the center of the or chart may well suggest a technocratic function like making the trains run on time, but does it reflect the practice of governing in Beverly Hills? Is the City Manager the ‘hidden hand’ of general law city governance?

Why not look turn the org chart on its side to reflect the centrality of his role and to, well, level the implied hierarchy of power? How about resizing the boxes to suggest a more realistic portrayal of power in city hall?
Our revised city organization chartHere the City Manager assumes a central role as the stakeholders and Council are literally off to the side – a mere input to the City Manager’s office. The commissions (with the notable exception of the Planning Commission) are proportionately downsized to reflect their real role in municipal government.

Perhaps most significant is the stakeholder class that goes unmentioned on the city’s official org chart. And it is the most important one. Our business community. This includes owners of both tangible (real estate) and intangible (business owner) property. If you thought real estate taxes make this city hall run, think again. It’s sales tax receipts. And the power-center of this ‘commerce class’ is the business triangle, of course.

You won’t find them on the city’s chart because the commerce class works behind and through city hall’s networks of political influence. So here we’ve added them without explicit lines of authority because their power is of course implicit.

Let us know what you think. Did we get it wrong with this revised org chart? Have a version you’d like to submit? Let us know. Or reply to us via Twitter at @BetterBike.

Time to Review the Department Head Hiring Process

Beverly Hills org chartHave you wondered why Beverly Hills has taken none of the steps toward safer for cyclists that other cities have? One can point to a few factors that get in the way: an outdated 1977-era Bicycle Master Plan; our Traffic and Parking Commission which doesn’t recognize road safety as a mandate; and a City Council that historically has shown little interest in cycling. All are true but not sufficient: probably the biggest obstacle has been our Public Works department where managers and staff seem not to grasp the importance of multimodal mobility to our city’s future. But now that it’s time to name a new PW director, we can help to change that. How difficult can it be?

More difficult than one would imagine! The department head selection/hiring process has historically been shielded from public participation and oversight. In ‘general law’ cities like Beverly Hills, you see, the City Manager hires and fires. Even the council has no formal say (much less a veto – read the staff report for details). Aside from the recent Chief Financial Officer hire, we can’t think of a case where the public was invited to participate.

Mayor Mirisch ran his campaign on a City Hall for the residents, and he sees an opportunity to revisit the hiring process in order to give the City Council a greater role. In a representative democracy (even Beverly Hills!) the public would then enjoy a greater say too. We favor any step to make City Hall more available (and accountable) to the people.

An open hiring process is not only good practice it it much needed. Good practice because the public can play a key role in vetting candidates. We can suggest criteria for consideration and reflect on prior candidate experience. Good practice too because we see some need for improvement. We have found it difficult to wheedle information from City Hall about hiring the next Public Works chief, for example. Since late-April we’ve asked about criteria and timeline to no avail:

  • 4/26: (email to Transportation) “Would you know who in City Hall is handing that search, or if there are any candidates under consideration?” Reply: “Mahdi Aluzri, Assistant City Manager, will be the Acting Director of Public Works & Transportation.” We followed up with a call to HR but no further information was available.
  • 5/15: (email to Transportation) “Can I ask where we are in that process, if you know? Or should I put the question back to HR or the City Mgr. office?” Reply: “The PW Director, the City Manager determines the process and timeline for selection. I am not privy to that information.” We followed up again with HR in mid-May but again, no information was on offer.
  • 6/6 :(email to HR) “When we spoke [in mid-May], you mentioned it was very early in the process and that neither the process nor the criteria were formalized yet. I wonder if you could give me an update?” Reply: “The selection criteria and process for the Director of Public Works position have not yet been formalized. I’m not sure what the timeline will be at this point….”
  • 7/9: A phone message to HR was returned the following Friday at 4:45 pm — to late to return it. A follow-up email produced an auto-reply: “I am currently out of the office and will be returning on Tuesday, July 16th.”
  • 7/16: A phone message to HR asking about that day’s City Council discussion on hiring department heads, but again no reply. Then a call also to Public Works. Finally we sent an email to the Public Works Acting Director. (We got a call back on the afternoon of 7/19 but are still waiting to connect.)

What we do know is that the city is working on a ‘transitional plan’ for hires, but we don’t know what that means. And it didn’t come up in Tuesday’s City Council Study Session [agenda] where department head hiring was preliminarily discussed.

[Update: We heard back from acting director Mahdi Aluzri who explained that the city is considering reorganizing the Public Works department, including the relocation of transportation planning to Community Development. More on this shortly.]

What was interesting about the Study Session is that it occurred at all. The session had already been cancelled but was resurrected late last week by the Jeff Kolin, the City Manager. But the Mayor couldn’t attend to speak on the issue that he had raised for consideration. (Councilmember Bosse too was unavailable.) According to the Beverly Hills Courier, the City Manager on his initiative scheduled the item. And it would have been summarily considered and dispensed with if Nancy Krasne had not suggested that the item needed the Mayor’s input. It was then continued to a later date. (We’ll be there.)

(Listen to the discussion [mp3) or tune in for our short statement [mp3] about the value of public participation.)

What a New Public Works Chief Can Do

Bringing the public in should lead to better city performance. We believe that to be the case with the Public Works chief – especially where mobility is concerned. For example, Beverly Hills explicitly endorses multimodal mobility in our General Plan’s circulation element. It says we should:

Strive to maintain operations on roadways and intersections within multimodal districts…characterized as areas within the City served by frequent transit service, enhanced pedestrian and bicycle systems, and areas that include a combination of uses (commercial, retail, office or residential)….” Circulation goal 1.4c

We agree. But our investments in our circulation system don’t reflect that view. As we reported last fall, the Request for Proposals for Santa Monica Boulevard Construction didn’t even mention ‘complete streets.’ That’s despite the General Plan stipulating that

provisions [be] made to improve the overall system and/or promote non-motorized transportation, such as bicycling and walking, as part of a development or City-initiated project.” Circulation goal 1.4a

A Public Works chief that understands the importance of multimodal mobility, and the value of safe streets, could make a real difference in the rider’s experience. And our city’s much-overlooked Sustainable City Plan (2009) would back her up: it calls on residents to ride a bicycle in order to reduce congestion and emissions. She would only need to heed the plan’s call for encouraging “alternative forms of travel” in order to realize the plan’s aspiration for multimodal mobility. “If there are safe bicycle routes and if secure bicycle parking is available then people will bicycle more,” the plan concludes.

We can achieve such policy goals in the future. And the good news is that the stars are already aligned. Today we have a City Council that has expressed general support for cycling (and even said the words ‘complete streets’). We have taken a baby step toward safer streets with Pilot program improvements on Crescent and Burton. And despite the three-year interregnum where our Traffic and Parking Commission made no progress on updating that old 1977 plan, we ourselves have taken another look at it and found that it’s not so bad after all. It’s something we can build on.

With public participation in the hiring process we can at least help to identify a Public Works candidate who would value multimodal mobility and work for safer streets for Beverly Hills.

(Disclosure: We supported Mayor Mirisch in the last election and attend his ‘Sunshine Task Force’ meetings because we believe that open government is a key step toward good government.)

City Manager Performance: Worthy of a Bonus Necessary?

Aside

Our recent election made an issue of City Hall performance. Mayor Mirisch said at installation, “If local government doesn’t listen, it can also be the most frustrating form of government.” Councilmember Krasne criticized City Hall for insularity. “The people have made it clear that they will no longer be excluded from the decision-making process,” she said. So why is a $7,500 performance bonus (aka “compensation enhancement”) for the City Manager even on the table tonight at the City Council meeting?

New Mayor Talks Multimodal Mobility at City Council Installation

Council installation: Mirisch addressBeverly Hills pulled out all of the stops to celebrate the installation of the new City Council this past Wednesday at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences theater. From a taste of Sweden to incoming Mayor John Mirisch’s recipe for community right here in Beverly Hills, the ceremony hit all the high notes after a season of Council discord and a partisan election characterized by negative attacks. Yet this new Council’s installation suggested that change may actually be in the air. Of course the potential for change comes every two years, but in our parochial burgh, it’s usually only the Council nameplates that rotate even as our entrenched resistance to open government endures. Will the coming two years be different?

Let’s get right to the important stuff: If you haven’t attended a Beverly Hills City Council installation ceremony, you’ve not only missed an opportunity to hear directly from your elected leaders a preview of their priorities, you’ve also missed a top-tier buffet. No rubber chicken and Costco cookies here. This year, catering came from Picolo Paradiso restaurant in Beverly Hills, and the salmon, crab cakes, tiramisu and cheesecake reset the bar for event food. The best part: you need not be a resident (or even receive an invitation) to enjoy it. This is as democratic and egalitarian as it gets in Beverly Hills, so hungry cyclists take note: put March 2015 on your calendar already!

Hopefully by then you’ll have more to celebrate than a good buffet. With two and possibly three progressive members on City Council, each of whom believes in transparency, accountability, and (to borrow a slogan) “putting residents first,” it’s possible that the next two-year Council term will produce something tangible in the way of road safety and bike-friendly improvements. It’s been three years since the city created a committee to update our 1970-era bicycle plan, and we haven’t yet seen a single change. Nor have we seen a single shared-road sign or bicycle lane. Not even a single rack.

But are the stars aligning to make bike facilities and safer streets a possibility? Incoming Mayor John Mirisch went out of his way in his address to call for “convenient, safe and practical” cycling. New Vice Mayor Lili Bosse has spoken often in Council chambers about making the city bike-friendly too. And incoming councilmember Nancy Krasne has made vehicular congestion one of her campaign’s “six points.” In the past she’s been sympathetic to the dangers on the street that we face. All suggest change may be in the air for cyclists.

Council installation overviewLet’s take a closer look at the event by way of a recap and then move on to some of the statements made by our incoming Council.

Note to the Academy: Cue the Jaws Music!

The Council installation at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was long in duration but short on highlights. To be fair, these kinds of events generally do tend toward banal pomp characteristic of municipal rituals: mutual backslapping, empty platitudes, and above all, lots of good cheer for the home team. And so it was here. But some attention to the clock would have been welcome; the evening clocked at nearly three hours.

To keep the mind engaged, perhaps, the evening represented a distinct departure from the usual protocol in two ways: it presented a broader cultural perspective that we’re accustomed to seeing at an installation; and it renewed the focus on ‘service’ in the public service that is local government.

First the culture: our incoming Mayor is not only smitten with Swedish culture, he’s a bonafide Stockholm resident with Swedish citizenship too. The tipoff might have been the catered Swedish meatballs after the reception, but really that was the least of it. Angelic singers from a nearby Sweden-affiliated school warmed up the crowd (if you can call it that) with a couple of Swedish language vocal numbers. Listen to the event audio (or visit the archive for video) to hear for yourself perhaps the most unusual installation to date. And if the taste of Eurovision is not enough, fast-forward to hear our new Mayor himself deliver extensive remarks in Swedish. That’s walking the walk Mr. Mayor!

A focus on restoring service to the local government mission emerged time and again this evening. Where outgoing councilmember Brucker and former Mayor Brien hewed to the traditional themes of ‘best city’ etc., the incoming Mayor reprised his campaign’s slogan, ‘Still putting the people first,’ and charged City Hall officials with the duty to do more to deliver.

After two years of talk about high city salaries, generous benefits, but incommensurate performance and innovation, it was a refreshing break with the usual platitudes and suggested that this incoming Council majority might begin to repair the frayed ties and battered trust that characterizes the relationship between the residents and those who govern on our behalf.

Indeed, transparency and accountability were the twin themes this evening, and were echoed by incoming councilmember Nancy Krasne. In her campaign she had criticized City Hall’s insularity. And at installation she observed of the election, “The people have made it clear that they will no longer be excluded from the decision-making process.” Calling out City Hall is in itself is a departure from the pro forma Council installation.

Barry Brucker Tribute

Council installation: Barry Brucker tribute

Outgoing councilmember Barry Brucker gets a key to the city and a certificate for his service at the Council installation 2013

But it wasn’t all hardball. Testimony and video paid heartfelt tribute to outgoing councilmember (and former Mayor) Barry Brucker for his sixteen years of public service (which incredibly began with a write-in campaign for school board). All to the good: Brucker’s leadership on eliminating smoking in public places wins high praise.

But to be fair, his commitments to reducing our city’s carbon footprint and increasing civility have found less traction this past Council term. Sustainability? We’re still the regional avatar for over-consumption. Our ‘green city’ initiative has devolved from policy proposal to a few piecemeal gestures across the departments. And City Hall continues to resist planning for multimodal mobility. Our 2009 sustainable city plan was a Brucker product too but we haven’t even posted it on the city’s website. And it’s city policy.

While Brucker’s pro-civility ‘Take a Moment’ initiative was a symbolic step toward comity,  it encountered a City Council with deep divisions. Of course, we can hardly harangue Brucker for not bringing wholesale reform to City Hall. That’s a heavy lift for an institution so invested in the status quo.

Mayor John Mirisch

Might it take an entire village to bring change to City Hall? That seemed to be the thrust behind the new Mayor’s remarks. He placed community and connection at the center of his call for change. Indeed as if to overcome the partisan sniping that characterized the latter days of the election, he sported a badge of “communitarian” proudly. The Mayor called local government “the best form of democracy” because it is closest to the people and the closest thing that we have to home. “It’s where we’re safe – a refuge from the cruelty of the world,” he said. “But if local government doesn’t listen, it can also be the most frustrating form of government.”

Connections bind us together as residents, he said, but the ties that have traditionally bound residents to City Hall have frayed. He placed the onus on city officials to rebuild the trust necessary to govern with legitimacy. Reiterating here his campaign slogan, “Still putting residents first, he added, “Sometimes City Hall forgets that the purpose of local government is to serve the residents, not the other way around.”

Council installation: John Mirisch swearing in

Incoming Mayor John Mirisch takes the oath of office from Supervisor Antonovich

Mirisch staked his campaign and now term as Mayor on re-balancing the power between City Hall and the residents whom it serves, and to reintroduce good government as a central mission of City Hall. That’s been his approach on Council for the past four years, and it has informed his sometimes controversial stance on Metro’s preferred route for the subway extension: under the Beverly Hills high school. It’s a position that has earned him some pointed barbs on the Patch blog and exposed the city to accusations of privileged insularity.

Mayor Mirisch is unapologetic, however. In this installation address he doubled-down on the fight against Metro and promised to reprise a a Council resolution to withdraw support for the extension should Metro not heed the city’s concerns.

[Metro] likely thought that when push came to shove we would continue to support the Westside extension even if our concerns were dismissed, and sometimes in ways which give new meaning to the concept of arrogance. I intend to introduce a resolution that would hopefully dispel that notion and make it clear in no uncertain terms that as much as we support the principles of mass transit, this Council’s support is predicated on the alignments not going under our high school…We’re not willing to sacrifice our high school for the sake of well-connected special interests.

Last fall he tried but failed to secure from the Council majority a resolution of non-support. Now it is much more likely that the new Council majority will vote for that resolution. And it was lost on no close observer that he was sworn into council office (and again into the Mayor’s chair) by LA County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, a conservative and ideological counterweight to Metro backer Zev Yaroslavsky.

Mirisch ostensibly addressed Antonovich directly to score a  Mirisch delivered a few pointed barbs Metro’s way:

From the very beginning, you saw that the process, the process of deciding the route that would take the subway under the high school was rigged, fueled by old-school crony capitalism…You said it was like a professional wrestling match where one knows the outcome before the wrestlers even step into the ring.

If “the fix was in,” as Mirisch told Antonovich, “please help us to fix the fix. Get your [Metro board] colleagues to take our concerns seriously.”

To date our school board has spent about $2 million in legal fees and lobbying to oppose the high school route, and now as Mayor Mirisch is making clear his determination to thwart Metro by backing the board with even more financial muscle and lobbying power. (No idle threat to Metro: Antonovich is its incoming board Chair.)

Mirisch flyer putting residents first

The Mirisch campaign always put residents front-and-center

The Mayor has always said that his concern was the process by which Metro arrived at its preferred route for the subway extension. He has steadfastly claimed a bait-and-switch: that Metro first proposed a Santa Monica Boulevard route only to change it later and then refuse to entertain our city’s concerns. His crusade (if you will) has hinged on transparency, and he concluded his remarks on Metro by saying, “I hope we can make Metro more transparent, more responsive, and more effective…the kind of agency that does not stand in the way of principles like ‘good government.’”

The Mayor also outlined this agenda for his term as Mayor:

  • “Do more with less, not less with more.” He wants to repeal the recent water hike and work toward what he called “true and meaningful fiscal responsibility” that includes fair and sustainable city salaries and benefits rather than “sticking it to the residents.”
  • “Provide our children the opportunities that first-rate public schools can afford.” He called schools “the glue that holds our community together” and proposed to increase city direct support for the schools. Helping them deal with state mismanagement would, he said, “make our district once again into a lighthouse district.”
  • “Add five simple words to our city’s vision statement: open government, active resident participation, safety, innovation, sustainability, and service.’” With the formation of a Mayor’s transparency committee (aka the ‘Sunshine Task Force’), Beverly Hills could be a gold standard for local government transparency that offers residents more reasons to participate, he said.
  • “Invest in infrastructure by adding greenspace wherever possible and making our city more bike-friendly.” He emphasized the need for investing in multimodal mobility: “Walking and biking are wonderful ways to connect the different parts of the city, and we need to work on making this convenient, safe and practical.” Good news for us.
  • “Revitalize our Southeast part of town.” He called the area “one of the greatest opportunities for our city to create new, vibrant resident-friendly neighborhoods.” Now that it is an A-list council priority, he said, “It’s really time to do more than pay lip service to this goal.”
  • “Let’s make historical preservation and honoring and respecting our history a major part of our hundredth celebration.” He hailed the formation Cultural Heritage Commission (that he was instrumental in creating) and said that historic preservation needed to be a priority (and a key element of the centennial).

The new Mayor bookended his address with another call to celebrate people and the connections between them. “People are what community is all about. This evening is all about connections, and our connections extend beyond our community to the larger community in California and beyond.”

Willie Brien

We also witnessed the re-seating of current councilmember Willie Brien; welcomed former councilmember Nancy Krasne back to the dais after four years away; and celebrated the continued tenure of Lili Bosse and Julian Gold (two of three council seats were not open this election).

Council installation: Willie Brien

Former Mayor Willie Brien defiantly says “I’d do it all over again – that’s who I am.”

Former Mayor Willie Brien presided over the beginning of this event as an emcee. He sung the praises of Beverly Hills and honored outgoing councilmember Barry Brucker. He also thanked his campaign supporters and the voters, too, but couldn’t resist a nod to the acrimony in the campaign. He said, “I caught my share [of hell] this past year and let me tell you, it was worth it,” he said. He continued:

I say what I mean and I mean what I say. I will continue to stand up for what I believe is right for this community, and I will never bow to outside forces nor take the easy or expedient way. That is not who I am or what I stand for….

 

Courier anti-Brien callout box

Courier’s anti-endorsement of Brien in the 2013 election

It recalled the Courier’s very pointed front-page admonition, “Don’t vote for Willie Brien” and the West Hollywood Democratic Club’s battle on his behalf wherein it charged the Courier with “yellow journalism.”

Returning to a more wholesome theme, Brien in his next four years pledged to “expand the brand” that is Beverly Hills and he trumpeted support for revitalizing Roxbury and Beverly Gardens parks (the former having generated no small share of acrimony too). Outgoing Mayor Brien even heralded a new “transit-oriented approach” to making our city “the business-friendly community,” which might suggest his support for the subway or perhaps even greater support for multimodal mobility. Who knows?

Nancy Krasne

Council installation: Nancy Krasne

Incoming councilmember Nancy Krasne reprises her campaign’s six-point message

Nancy Krasne returned to the Council after a four-year absence with a big smile and a positive outlook. “Today we stand together for positive change,” she said. Was she  obliquely referring to City Hall over the previous two years, a time characterized by fiscal challenges and disagreement in Council over City Hall management practices? Or was she referring to community divisions over hot-button issues like Metro’s tunnel? Maybe she was simply referring to the acrimonious campaign of which Krasne had steered clear on the stump.

Krasne’s key campaign theme was the gap that seems to have emerged between the interests of residents and the actions of representatives and managers who work on our behalf, and she seemed to tip her hand when she said, “This past election was not about division…The results show just the opposite: that the people of Beverly Hills are united in their determination to reassert control in their city.” Lackluster public interest and low levels of engagement (Team Beverly Hills not withstanding) do suggest a disconnect between the people and City Hall.

Nancy Krasne's 'Rush Hour' campaign flyer

Nancy Krasne’s ‘Rush Hour’ campaign flyer

Krasne enumerated in her campaign a “six-point message” which she reprised here, including the scourge of vehicular congestion. “I don’t know when our city residential streets turned into a permanent rush hour,” she said, reprising her campaign mailer of the same theme, and to that end she again called for a “traffic summit” comprised of transportation officials, planners, and residents to address it.

But her real passion seemed to be better government.“At the heart of my election is a mandate to restore the transparency in city government,” she said as she revisited her campaign slogan, “I am not working for anyone but you.” Council decisions will be taken on the merits “judged on the facts alone and by your testimony,” she added.

Lili Bosse

Of our five-member City Council, Lili Bosse (along with Julian Gold) will return for another two years on the dais but takes the seat of Vice Mayor. Bosse started off strong: “Hotels are full, business is good, property values are up and retail spaces are renting,” she said – “life is good in Beverly Hills!” But she also acknowledged the charged air post-election. “Politics, politics, politics,” she said.

As we have just seen, elections can be difficult days in the life of a community. But our election is over. The voters of Beverly Hills have spoken. And now is the perfect time for this community to have a big breath of fresh air…. Let’s move on… We need to go forward together with open arms and open minds. I believe the possibilities are endless. We can accomplish great things: transparency, good leadership, community involvement can help make this happen.

Bosse focused on the change that the new Council represents and put her backing behind the new Mayor. “I know what matters to John: our residents, government transparency, pension reform, MTA, a vibrant business community, the revitalization of our Southeast community – also matters to the residents of our city.” Then she focused on good government (her remarks digested here):

I ran on open government and transparency – that was the ‘O’ in the ‘BOSSE’ plan – and I believe this can be the year that we take giant steps forward. Transparency creates greater accountability and encourages community involvement. And it’s just a better way to govern. These values get to the core of who we are as a city, and we need to ensure the highest levels of transparency and good government. The people of BH want transparency in their city government and it is our job to provide it.

Incredibly there are those who say that some issues are just a little complicated to be understood by the community and would best be handled behind closed doors. Really? You all look pretty smart to me. When you do things out in the open instead of behind closed doors you build credibility and you build trust.

She noted the Centennial celebration and the opening of the Annenberg Cultural Center and concluded, “We have a great year ahead.” Read more about the campaign, the outcome, and the campaign flyers.

Beverly Hills City Hall on Cable TV

Inside Beverly HillsDid you know that Beverly Hills broadcasts a cable TV television station with its own talk show called Inside Beverly Hills (Time Warner channel 10)? The show opens a window onto the process behind the politics and until Rudy Cole, the city’s unofficial political wonk and host, passed recently, we saw it as a big step that City Council took last year to reach the public. In honor of Sunshine Week (“open government is good government”) we will revisit one episode of Inside to celebrate Rudy’s handiwork and to learn how the public fits into this we the people enterprise, local government.

Sunshine Week is not just a feel-good celebration of the virtues of open government. According to the proponents behind the initiative, the American Society of News Editors and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Sunshine Week (March 10-16) is our opportunity to actively press public officials to share more about the business of the people with the people. To demand more from those who govern on our behalf. To move beyond ‘transparency’ as a platitude to give those governed a reason to become involved.

The Sunshine folks mean business: they’re providing a toolkit of resources (like state-by-state open government guides, for example California) and even a handy Sunshine Week Open Government Proclamation template that affirms our right to know. (We might just put that to our City Manager and Council at an upcoming meeting!) In that spirit, let’s celebrate Rudy Cole for his persistent (and characteristically laconic) inquiry into municipal government and the people behind it.

On his TV show, Inside Beverly Hills, and through his column in the Weekly, Cole kept us apprized. He had his finger on the zeitgeist (such as it is in Beverly Hills). He knew local government well and tapped his friends in high places (such as they are) to introduce us to those whom make our business their business. Cole moved past bare news items and cut through the clatter to handicap elections in a calm and dignified manner.

Undeniably Cole was of the establishment, but didn’t necessarily mete the bounds of the establishment turf. He didn’t assume a defensive crouch or defend the ramparts of City Hall. He just didn’t have skin in that particular game. Cole he was a longtime advocate for the business community, sure, but unlike the shadow lobbyists that hover around City Hall he didn’t cloak his vested interests.

When we looked at candidate statements to see who’s contributing, we found that plenty of folks have a proprietary interest in city policy. The statements are replete with contributions from real estate-related interests. If Beverly Hills is a company town, it’s a land company that owns it.

But many more community stakeholders don’t have a proprietary interest per se but do take an everyday interest in where they live. Yet many don’t bother to vote. And of those who cast ballots, few turn up at a committee, commission, or City Council meeting. Why not? Are people fully satisfied? We’ve long said that City Hall didn’t make the case for people to become involved. We felt that elected leaders and appointed officials seemed to believe that we the people had a defined and limited role in local government.

Rudy’s Reform Agenda?

Whenever a neighbor asks us about some or other nuisance and how to make the city change it, we wanted to say, “Go watch Rudy Cole! He talked about that department on his show!” Rudy Cole was in his element on Inside Beverly Hills. Sitting around a small table with officials against a black backdrop, he asked no-nonsense probing questions in order to pull back the curtain on municipal government.

Inside Beverly Hills on City GovernmentIn the March 2012 episode Rudy explored the council-manager form of government in Beverly HIlls with guests City Manager Jeff Kolin; councilmember Julian Gold; and former councilmember and Mayor Linda Briskman. He covers the basics (essential watching) but returns again and again to reform. Referring to a hypothetical situation but with an actual case in mind, perhaps, he asked his guests, Wouldn’t a reform-minded councilmember with his own agenda present a challenge to consensus?

Of Brisman he asked, “How did you handle Council members who wanted something on the agenda that wasn’t supported by other Council members?” She said that she viewed it as an opportunity to have the issue vetted in study session. Then Cole parried: What if one councilmember is elected and has a total minority view? “Say he wants to have hearings,” he said. “Shouldn’t he have any item placed on the agenda…?”

Briskman tacked to the right. Ideas should first be vetted with staff and the Mayor, she advised. “If the staff and the Mayor don’t see any harm in it…” That seemed to endorse a more streamlined, establishment-friendly process for the City Council – the standard operating procedure for a long time. Yet Cole persisted:

You can imagine a Council, this one or any other, where there is somebody who has been elected and who represents a view that has not been here before….and he’s just defeated one of the Council [members’] colleague or friends and you don’t want him or her to have any agenda items…but he represents a constituency. Not to allow his issues to come before the Council?

Councilmember Julian Gold replied, “It’s wrong in a public process to say, ‘No, we’re not going to talk about it.” But an issue that “nobody thinks is important” doesn’t necessarily have to move forward to a full Council discussion, he said. City Manager Jeff Kolin emphasized the need for consensus as a necessary step before the Council would put the issue on a formal (7pm) agenda. “But there is no structural guarantee that it will make it to the formal agenda?” Cole clarified. Nope. Nothing in the City Council Policy and Operations Manual suggests that the minority voice gets heard.

This 2012 Inside Beverly Hills episode was taped as the Roxbury Park issue was heating up. Neighbors had questioned the size of the proposed community building, and there was some Council disagreement over the direction of the renovation. Most importantly, there was a wedge emerging between a 3-member majority and the 2-member Council minority over the quality of staff support and even the working relationship between Council and staff. Marathon study sessions surfaced the issues as councilmembers Lili Bosse and John Mirisch looked more closely at project specifics. The issue was resolved with consensus (and a smaller project) eventually, but the discussion put the ‘reform’ question on the table.

Balance of Power in City Hall

The park issue and others too highlighted the respective roles of the Council and the City Manager (who works for the city on a contract basis). News outlets generally don’t cover this aspect of the governing process; it’s too in-the-weeds. Yet it’s important.

In our appearances at Council meetings plugging a bike plan, lanes and racks, for example, we’ve rarely seen City Manager Kolin join the discussion. (Around City Hall he’s known as a cyclist.) But as the chief translator of Council’s policy priorities into implementation by staff he’s a major player. We can’t help but think that over the past three years we’ve worked this issue, some responsibility for the city’s go-slow approach to safety for those who ride must fall with him.

Cole examined this balance of power in IBH. He seemed to have on his mind some of our Council’s contretemps when he asked the City Manager, “Is there a severe difference between cities and how they related to city managers? Any sharp differences in how the city manager functions” in other cities? Kolin replied:

I don’t think there are sharp differences…There are frequently situations where individual council members come from different backgrounds and are used to having more control….To develop a relationship where you’re welcoming input, feedback, coaching from councilmembers yet defining where their responsibility ends and mine starts.

“You can’t say that there has been one city where the Council has taken more or less control?” Cole asks, Not really, Kolin replied. Then turning to Gold, Cole asked,

Do you like the system the way it works? How would change the relationship between City Council and city manager? Are there reforms that we could do internally, or in the state legislature or through constitutional means?

Gold stuck to generalities. There were efficiencies in the council-manager form of government, he said, and suggested that it worked fine as far as he was concerned. “It’s complicated and wrong to micromanage day-to-day. It’s not the role of a governing body.”

Both Kolin and Gold were content with the balance of power. Kolin suggested some territorial concerns while Gold seemed disinclined to tilt toward a more activist Council. This contrasts markedly with a reform agenda, where push-back against the current arrangements becomes evident particularly where staff management and development issues are concerned.

Cole couldn’t leave well enough alone. He then followed up with Kolin with a focused question: “Are there reforms being considered?” Kolin preferred to focus on the normative. “My profession is putting more emphasis on transparency and accountability,” he said. Referring to management scandals in other cities, he highlighted the city manager’s professional responsibility but also saw a role for public oversight. “It’s [about] emphasizing transparency, citizen involvement, accountability and that we believe the public has to be involved in this form of government – along with the Council and our professional employees.”

The Role of the Public?

What of the role of the public? Our experience is that members of the public are welcomed and always treated very courteously, but we perceive a divide between City Hall and those whom it serves. In this election, candidate John Mirisch put a fine point on it when his campaign adopted the slogan, “Putting residents first.”

mirisch-flyer-residents-first

Kolin said, “It’s the citizens,” but he then described a tailored role for the public in municipal government:

Their involvement is key. We see them represented in our commission, boards and committees…. We have eleven boards and commissions and we’re seeing fifty or seventy people involved providing policy reocmmendations and making decisions….

Where Gold earlier called the Council “the ears of the community” and Briskman prosaically described the Council as a “funnel” for public concerns, the City Manager framed public involvement as volunteer service. That is, participation within the prescribed structures for participation in Beverly Hills: commissions, committees, and the ad-hoc panels that tap team players. Indeed our city likes to organize participation and welcomes our input on matters like the 100th centennial celebration, say.

And we really do call them team players, by the way. Beverly Hills holds every year a team-building exercise appropriately called ‘Team Beverly Hills.’ From its ranks committees and commissions members are drawn, subject to an application process and ultimately Council appointment. (Read more in the 2012 staff report.) Team Beverly Hills seems purpose-built for co-opting those who would question the policies and policy process within City Hall.

What about the value of public participation outside of prescribed structures? Council patiently tolerates gadfly types but constitutionally seems to have no stomach for change. And we’re cool to the reform agenda, preferring consensus around establishment priorities (like the centennial).

We asked one commissioner how receptive staff was to new initiatives to gauge the prospect of nudging City Hall in a different direction. Not very receptive, the commissioner said, pointing the finger at the management tier. The commissioner did hold out hope for making change from the inside, though. While I don’t doubt the commissioner’s sincerity, the years-long climb up through the ranks of our lower-traction commissions gives pause. Even if public participation is one of the three legs of the governance stool (as Kolin said), it sure seems less sturdy even if you’re a member of the public working the inside track for change.

Inside Beverly Hills Rudy ColeMaybe that’s what Rudy Cole was getting at in his persistent questions about reform. What would Rudy Cole have said about this election outcome? Might he have recognized change coming to the establishment constituency inside and outside City Hall? We’ve now chosen three councilmembers in two elections who have explicitly endorsed municipal government for the people. (As we observed earlier.)  Would he see little cause for worry, confident that the status quo would endure here? Did he even have a horse in that race?

In a different life, Rudy Cole would have been an academic digging into questions of power in public administration from a perch in the ivory tower. As it happened, though, he worked the inside track in City Hall as a citizen-researcher, digging into the actual machinations of municipal government in our own little citadel, City Hall.

BH Small Business Task Force: Not Asking the Obvious Questions

Tree base on South Beverly Drive

North Beverly has fancy tree grates. South Beverly? Not so much. Task Force: start here!

It’s one of the regular Beverly Hills approaches to a problem: appoint a ‘task force’ that meets behind closed doors with notice not required and scant public participation beyond the handpicked appointees. That’s how City Council approaches issues like sustainability and revitalization, and it’s been most recently applied to small business viability and associated challenges of recruitment and retention. The Small Business Task Force delivered recommendations this week which included parking measures, streetscape improvements, and ‘shop local’ marketing, but it overlooked one potential bottom-line booster: attracting more cyclists to boost foot traffic to retailers.

Let’s Start With Governance

Let’s take a look at the Task Force. A task force is an ad-hoc body created by the City Council to identify problems, find facts, and penultimately identify policy options from which policymakers can choose. Task forces generally report findings in study session (held the afternoon prior to a formal council meeting where much problem-solving actually happens); subsequently, direction may be given to city departments. If action is to be taken, action items will appear on the Council’s formal agenda.

Traditionally, the task force is Council-appointed with seats apportioned to each Council member. For the interested stakeholder, it is important to pay attention to those appointments, and to the guiding question(s) that define the scope for the task force. Gadflies would also do well to monitor study session agendas closely to see if a task force is making recommendations. That’s the time to speak up, before the City Council subsequently considers formal action in an evening session.

Now, the task force is but one kind of body created to problem-solve city problems. And the task force is not even mentioned in the city’s City Council Policy and Operations Manual (essential reading). City commissions (defined in the municipal code) create ad-hoc committees to do fact-finding and recommend action. Like the task force, and ad-hoc committee need not meet publicly, nor post notice of meetings, or even produce findings for public review. In practice, findings are transmitted via staff report to the commissions under which committee members serve (and all products are accessible via public records request). Our city’s Bike Plan Update Committee is one such ad-hoc body.

Small Business Task Force Background

Let’s consider the Small Business Task Force roster. Appointments were weighted somewhat toward corporate entities (law firms, finance, and realtors) with disproportionately smaller representation among concerns that we might conventionally call ‘small business,’ like small shop proprietors. (See p. 2 of the findings report for a rostser.) No surprise here: it’s in keeping with the City Council Policy and Operations Manual‘s direction to conduct business outreach “at the corporate level.”

But the Task Force’s definition of ‘small business’ was established as: “independently owned and operated, is organized for a profit, and is not dominant in its field.” That leaves much flexibility for making appointments as Beverly Hills businesses are typically not dominant and relatively few businesses here are franchised.

A true small-business task force, by contrast, might have drawn exclusively from independent proprietors like the small retailers who labor in the shadow of larger firms, and perhaps those in our neglected commercial areas outside of the Triangle who suffer disproportionately in an economic crisis. It might weight findings to reflect districts where the vacancy rate is much higher – perhaps double – that of the Triangle. That might surface a greater variety of perspectives on the ‘barriers’ to small-business viability that identified in this report.

Turning to scope, the Task force, which first met in September of 2011, was charged (in brief) to:

  • Review vacancy rates in “key commercial areas”;
  • Identify barriers to retention and new small business recruitment;
  • Review “best practices” of programs in other cities;
  • Develop feasible solutions to overcome identified barriers; and
  • Provide recommendations to Council “to retain and attract small business in [sic] Beverly Hills.”

While the findings presented to Council don’t include an analysis of vacancy rates per se, a follow-up call to the city’s economic development office produced data that puts the citywide vacancy rate into a Westside context (though too coarse to assess vacancy rates across our outlying retail districts).

Vacancy rates chart for the Westside 2009-2011

Vacancy rates for the greater Westside (2009-2011) via Costar report.

That limited data suggest that Beverly Hills is not as competitive as we would like. For the current quarter, the citywide retail vacancy rate is about 13.3% – a level sustained for the past 8 quarters. The average of all other Westside cities during that span was 4.6%. (Charts by Better Bike.)

Asking lease rates chart for the Greater Westside 2009-2011

Asking lease rates for the Greater Westside (2009-2011) via Costar.

Likewise, our lease ask rate (per square foot) was on the decline over that period. That’s not surprising since the vacancy rate was relatively high. But it is a drop of 17% from late 2009 nonetheless – the largest percentage drop among cities studied. That it remains relatively high is due to our city’s unique advantages – brand, cachet, and centrality. But most important, we will have to await more fine-grained data to understand the variance across BH districts as our outlying commercial districts are grouped with Triangle retailers in this dataset.

Foot Traffic is Key

From our anecdotal understanding of vacancy rates across the city, vacancies are relatively fewer in the Triangle and higher in outlying retail districts. Certainly the ask price also shows a peak in the triangle. In the Triangle, retailers pay high freight for high foot traffic and maximal visibility. So when we look at shops north of Wilshire we can see that revenues are high; even in tough times these shops tend to persevere (with some exceptions) because they are better capitalized to start and have the foot traffic (and tourist visitors) to cushion against a recession.

In outlying districts like Robertson south of Wilshire, for example, or the western gateway between Moreno and Wilshire, and even to an extent South Beverly, retailers tap relatively less foot traffic. They pay less for space, of course, but here absolute undercapitalization (i.e., not simply relative to costs)  is a problem. These concerns are less financially robust and may succumb in a downturn.

What is the single best means to reduce this variance? Increase the foot traffic in outlying districts. Indeed our outlying commercial districts are the key to improving the small business picture overall because there’s so much more upside there (relative to investment) when compared to the prospects for small businesses in the Triangle. In other words, much can be done in the outlying areas and it can be done tomorrow.

How important is foot traffic? Compare the 200 and 300 blocks of South Beverly. The 200 block is vital and vibrant and draws from the surrounding neighborhood. Noontime visitors come from local offices off Wilshire, and even walk south from the North Beverly corridor. (Tourists even make the trek as the Beverly Wilshire is just two blocks away.)

On the 300 block it’s much different. Some make it as far south as the Post Office, then they turn around – leaving the businesses south of the P.O. with hardly a fighting chance. It’s proven difficult to sustain even a casual dining restaurant much less a high-dollar boutique there, and vacancies tend to linger longer. Because there just isn’t the foot traffic!

The problem is one of planning: there is no critical mass of retailers to draw shoppers south of Gregory. The west side is almost exclusively small offices plus a supermarket; on the east side, retail contiguity is interrupted by the post office and a parking lot. This kind of micro-district needs a wholly different, perhaps unconventional approach (or mix of businesses) to attract traffic. The mid-block crossing suggested by the Task Force won’t cut it.

While it’s pretty clear that small businesses need foot traffic in order to improve their bottom line, one Task Force answer to undercapitalized small businesses is to subsidize them. Indeed the Task Force identified “financial incentives” such as grants, loans, and tax deferrals, for example. But consider the shops on the eastern side of the Triangle on Crescent Drive as a cautionary tale. The shops there cater to residents but they’re just not drawing additional foot traffic because they’re off the beaten path, retail-wise.

In response, the city lowered rents in city-owned properties to as little as 5% of the average citywide lease rate (“below market,” the city dryly notes). But tossing them a lifeline won’t right a sinking ship; they simply have to generate more revenue. And that means more foot traffic.

City of Beverly Hills Transparency? #FAIL!

Single search result from BeverlyHills.org

Search results can only draw on information contained in external links to our city's website

Did you know that City of Beverly Hills blocks all search engines from indexing the city’s public website? We noticed recently that a search of the Beverly Hills website brings up no results. Try it yourself. In Google enter: [your search term] site:beverlyhills.org. (Leave off those square brackets but keep the ‘site’ command that restricts your search only to the city’s website.)

We noticed the problem when looking for our city’s updated Sustainability Plan. The posted draft is from 2009, and it’s all that’s available. No luck on an adopted one. So, digging a bit further, we noticed that the city uses the ‘robots.txt’ file to block search engines from crawling any part of the city site.

Robots.txt is a text document that simply reads:

user-agent:*
Disallow:/

In plain English, ‘disallow’  prohibits all search engines from accessing anything in the public folder  (“/”) of the city’s web domain (which means all files publicly available via the site); it tells search engines to GO AWAY.  But it turns away everyone at the city’s online door. Google says of the robots.txt file, “You need a robots.txt file only if your site includes content that you don’t want search engines to index.”

Cities today want to make themselves more available to residents  not less so, don’t they? Why use robots.txt? Many recognize that public documents provide value and make such documents more accessible the public not less so.

Not Beverly Hills. The exclusionary practice is right in line with the city’s overall approach to transparency – which is to say non-transparency – and that’s why we give Beverly Hills a #FAIL. Consider:

  • Our city is one of only two cities in Los Angeles County that puts a full block on search engines – two out of 88;
  • Our city routinely links to official agenda materials that are not machine-readable and thus not searchable because they’re images of the paper documents;
  • Our city persists in generating PDFs that are not at all legible on the Mac platform (see below right) without special Adobe-brand browser plugins (Safari and Firefox use native or non-Adobe plugins respectively ‘out of the box.’

LAPD press releaseMost worrisome is the production of the document image PDFs. In this format, city documents cannot be indexed by search engines; nor can you copy or cut-and-paste text from them. And many city budget documents  today are presented in this fashion – such as the 75-page check register, City Council minutes, and purchase orders paid. All are linked from the latest City Council agenda. All are legible only to the human eye. Planning Commission minutes and some of the staff reports are not machine-readable either.

Why not? When City Clerk office officials from other cities in the region – West Hollywood, Santa Monica, Glendale and Burbank for example – were asked about the practice, they expressed puzzlement. After all, why print paper copies only to scan them? Such documents are more trouble to generate and it wastes paper.Those cities don’t follow that practice.

For the transparency minded, that process produces a document less open to scrutiny. Despite complaints stretching back to early 2010 in which accessibility was explicitly noted as a problem, the frequency of the practice not only continues, it seems to be on the increase. We’re making ever-more inscrutable documents not fewer of them. Public Works agendas and minutes, for example, are images of text documents, though until January they were actual text documents.

Consider the practice of generating images of text documents and the search engine exclusion a double-locked door: not only are these public documents not open for search engine indexing because they’re images; their ‘meta data’ (or information about the file itself, such as title and URL) is not accessible to search engines at all. While one-third of LA County cities use a robots.txt file to selectively block server directories, only Azusa and Beverly Hills bolt the front door that way.

Why the Fuss?

Search engines are the most popular way to find information of all kinds, but when Google and other search engines are prevented from accessing or indexing documents, they can’t deliver them to you today or in the future. If the Internet never forgets, our city doesn’t even allow it to begin to remember. Want that report or study that you know is public but that the city is not making available today? Forget it. Once off the Beverly Hills web server, it’s gone.

What does this say for City Hall access, so to speak?

Now, if you want a commemorative plaque for your philanthropy, why we’ll oblige you. Want a stand-up  photo-op with the Mayor in Chambers for your hard work or event promotion? That’s business as usual in City Hall. But if you want to be able to access  public documents via Google you are out of luck. That’s a transparency #FAIL, folks.

[Update (8/15): City of Beverly Hills has changed their robots.txt file to allow search engine crawling, and agreed to revisit PDF publishing practices for some documents that are not currently machine-readable. ]

Why COGs Matter

Since last Fall, Better Bike been pressing the Westside Cites Council of Governments (COG) to take a more active role in active transportation policy and planning on behalf of its five member cities and constituents it represents. The time is right, especially considering the observed increase in cycling on the Westside; a cultural shift seems to be in the making.

On the other hand, our small share of commute trips by bike (about 1%) means that even modest gains would highlight our embrace of new modes of travel. As bumper-to-bumper traffic saps productivity and puts a sour face on our famous Southern California quality-of-life, it won’t take much to double that 1% and more.

With a transportation revolution in the making, shouldn’t the COG be on the right side (as they say) of transportation history in the making?

While the COG workplan (adopted last Fall) tips its hat to cycling and the COG earlier this Spring inaugurated a bicycle planning coordination effort (see the staff report) so far the issue’s been taken up only at the staff-level (and the COG has a single staffer). It’s the only substantive bike-related initiative on the agenda).

Since the COG’s Transportation and Sustainability committees are where the transportation policy action should happen, but where it’s not actually happening, cyclists need be concerned. The COG needs to hear from cyclists that walking and biking (aka ‘active transportation’) is the smart choice for the Westside – a message they’re not getting at present.

The recent COG Transportation committee meeting proves the point. The committee met Monday (6/6/11 – see attached agenda) to, among other things, consider “bicycling planning next steps” (agenda item six). Better Bike was in the house to learn which ‘next steps’ the committee would take on the effort. The problem was that Better Bike arrived a fashionable half hour late in order to clear housekeeping agenda items #1-5 and so we missed the bike item discussion completely. Must not have been much of a substantive discussion. Then the meeting wrapped up fifteen minutes later (after only 45 minutes) – more brief than a Starbucks sit-down. Yep, that’s despite the many important transportation issues facing the COG at this juncture.

If the COG transportation committee needs issues to chew on, I think that LA-region cyclists can offer sound reasons to engage bike planning across the Westside and even provide some good ideas to get the committee members going. (Read more about the recent Transportation committee appointments made in May.)

Should Cyclists Be Concerned?

There are many reasons for cyclists to become more actively involved in COG business. First, the COG is a political body that wields influence over big policy issues. Super agencies like Metro, Caltrans, and the Metropolitan Water District routinely send representatives to the COG because they know that it’s important to get local officials on board with proposed policies like rate hikes. They chat up the committees and PowerPoints and hand out material. Now, COG members don’t vote directly on Metro or Caltrans policies. But the COG member cities and this body do swing weight.
We need to bring our organizing mojo to the table and open a policy dialog with the COG’s Transportation and Sustainability committees (which share oversight of bike-related issues). After all, if the COG is on Metro’s to-do list, it should be on our to-do list too.

Second, big agencies shape the terrain of regional transportation but local government craft the contours with transportation-relevant policies. Look no further than land use, where local governments often encourage development adjacent to rail. Leveraging public investment in transit, transit-oriented development (TOD, aka the ‘Transit Village’) organizes mixed-use and residential development around stations where accessible rail promises to move more people with fewer cars.
We must be involved in this discussion and work in concert with local government if we want to shift mode choice from the car to active transportation options like walking and biking.

Local governments, for example, may liberalize zoning to permit higher densities and otherwise provide incentives to developers (like relaxed parking requirements per unit) to encourage development. Now these incentives can be a boon to developers and good news for cyclists (if done right) but it causes no small amount of contention in the neighborhood, and local governments can use the political cover that a pro-bike advocacy organization can provide. Local governments need our political support as they make politically-painful short-term local land use decisions that can change the game.

Third, the COG is an under-utilized vehicle for finding consensus at the level of the sub-region. We cyclists cannot afford to overlook the role that the COG can play in establishing baseline policies (or at least guidelines) for member governments that would discourage auto use and encourage alternative means of personal mobility. We need the COG to step in as an intermediate political voice for post-auto transportation solutions, rather than have it sit on the sidelines as localities pursue their parochial agendas. Look no further than Beverly Hills to suggest the consequences of inaction.

Our shared objective should be, of course, moving the collective consciousness to the tipping point where cars become less relevant as the transportation choice. That in turn means that automobile interests are less powerful as a policy lobby – the gift that keeps on giving to transportation advocates. Let’s get the COG on board this campaign.

What’s Hamstringing the COG?

The irony of the COG is that this body seems to have overlooked its own capacity as a political actor, which would include communicating to constituents the benefit of policies that serve the public interest and defending against local parochialism. It’s a political body that neglects to to campaign. Rather the COG seems to view member cities as its only constituents, rather than recognize the larger public that it represents.

COG homepage comparison

Comparison of Westside COG homepages between 2006 and 2010. Not much change here!

Indeed the Westside Cities COG failed to meet even the most basic tenets of Web 2.0: sharing its business with the public.
Until last Fall the website was nearly moribund, for example. It had hardly evolved at all over the prior several years. Key documents were not updated. Meeting notes were not made available for the full year prior and web links to four out of five member cities returned 404 error pages.

COG comparison of site pages, 2008 and 2010

Refer to the screen captures at right comparing the succession of homepages between 2006 and 2010 (above) or the side-by-side comparison of site sections between 2008 and 2010 (left).
Today the COG board nor committee members still aren’t identified and the advocacy ‘toolkit’ the COG issued for building support for COG initiatives returns a 404 error today.

Not surprisingly, it’s a rarity to see a stakeholder in attendance at one of the COG’s midday meetings. For a body that could have a key role to play in transportation advocacy, it seems to all but have turned its back on the public it serves.

What’s the Problem Exactly?

Casual observation suggests that the COG’s mission is not to engage the public but rather to safeguard the parochial interests of member cities. Committees seem to generally follow the COG lead: rather than engage transportation problems to find solutions, the committees do what they did at last Monday’s meeting: receive an agency presentation and enjoy the provided refreshments.
The COG is under-staffed. With a budget of $120,000 the COG is not going to be undertaking heavy-duty policy analysis, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t drive change instead of gird against it. It can be done; the Southbay Cities COG is deeply involved in the development of that sub-region’s bike plan.

Why not the Westside COG? Given the congestion problems afflicting the Westside and the many complex projects underway, the COG needs a mobility/sustainability coordinator to help member cities move bodies with less friction at greater savings over the longer term.

What Can We Do?

We in the cycling community must engage and advocate for such a position lest we continue to allow our transportation needs to take a backseat (as it were) to issues that only concern COG member cities. Why not…

  • Attend a Westside COG board meeting. The COG board meets every odd month (next on July 21st) while committees meet every even month (next in August). Drop in wearing your bike helmet and fashionable active-wear and tell ‘em that Better Bike sent you.
  • Attend a COG transportation committee meeting. Our next opportunity comes in August (the next even month), but as that’s the dog days of summer we shouldn’t expect too much…perhaps even a canceled meeting.
  • Read the COG workplan. With the upcoming COG meeting on July 21st the new fiscal year begins – which is a good time to suggest to the board how it can better address the transportation issues that you care most about.
  • Contact your own COG representative. Is one of your council members an officer, on the board, or on a committee? Get to know that member’s staff and bring your concerns to the COG too.
  • Become involved in the COG’s Bicycle Plan effort [Better Bike coverage]. We hope to include policymakers in the upcoming meetings, and it’s important that we show the cycling community cares. Better Bike will keep you apprized of the next meeting day & time.

Check the Westside COG meetings page and mark your calendars. But you may have to take a half-day off, because our COG don’t meet in the evening.

Westside COG Appointments

At the May 19th Westside Cities Council of Governments meeting, the current fiscal year was closed out with some business for next year: officer elections and committee appointments. Have a look to see if your councilman, mayor, or vice mayor has a leadership role with this sub-regional coordinating body. The Transportation and Sustainability committees have joint input into the COG’s bike plan coordination program, so have a look to see if there’s an opportunity for constituent outreach. The COG next meets in July; the committees in even months in August (most likely). Read more about the committees and workplans in the staff report. The new board: Chair Richard Bloom, Santa Monica Mayor Vice Chair Willie Brien, Beverly Hills Councilmember Secretary … Continue reading

Plebis Power!

Richard Risemberg talks truth in Power to the People over on Flying Pigeon LA when he says: “One thing everyone I’ve spoken with has agreed on: the growth of cycling into a constituency, a large number of people with a common interests and an involvement in city government through voting and complaining, is what has made the city council members take notice, and they in turn have driven the administrative bureaucracies to take concrete (no pun intended) actions that will make it easier to ride a bicycle in Los Angeles. “So don’t let anyone tell you it doesn’t pay to get involved. The involvement of hundreds of often rambunctious activists, and the mere visible presence of thousands of cyclists on … Continue reading

COG Puts Bikes on Agenda

The Westside Council of Governments (COG) is a voluntary cooperative effort to exchange information and coordinate policy across the cities of West Hollywood, Culver City, Santa Monica, Los Angeles, and Beverly Hills. The board formed two standing committees of interest – Transportation and Sustainability – but these committees haven’t coordinated on transportation solutions at all. The Sustainability committee’s workplan identifies both greenhouse gas reduction and ‘sustainable transportation’ as work items, but bikes or cyclists appear nowhere on it. Things may change now that the first bike-related item has made it to the COG agenda. After a February meeting of the committees, the COG appears ready to move forward with discussions concerning a ‘COG bicycle program’ at its next May 10th … Continue reading

Westside COG Wades into the Bike Issue

The Westside Council of Governments sustainability committee surprised the only community member in attendance this past week by discussing bike planning – an issue dear to the heart of Better Bike members and all two-wheeled advocates region-wide. One would not know that there exists interest because at these COG meetings there is rarely even a single spectator present to see supra-local democracy in action. Because Better Bike Beverly Hills sees transportation challenges as a regional issue calling for a coordinated policy response from constituent cities, attending the COG board and COG committee meetings is a given. Why? Because transportation planning is a regional issue that has risen to the top of the state and local policy agenda, so it is … Continue reading

About the Westside Cities COG

Westside Cog logo

Better Bike Beverly Hills attended the Westside Cities Council of Governments sustainability subcommittee meeting last week to check on the organizations bike planning efforts. With new state policies in place to reduce greenhouse gases and a pending policy directive for ‘complete streets’ accommodations for all road users, it is even more pressing that all local governments be on the same page with regard to planning that will accommodate transportation innovations and new modes of travel. Increasing attention from large regional organizations like the Southern California Association of Governments and Metro can focus our collective mind on alternative non-motor transportation. So it makes sense that the local Council of Governments would put the issue front-and-center on the agenda. By way of background, … Continue reading