Westside Cities COG: It’s All Opportunity

Westside Cities Council of Governments January 19, 2012Having just returned from the Westside Cities Councils of Governments (COG) bi-monthly transportation committee meeting (convened here in Beverly Hills), I’m surprised at the COG’s turn toward action since last Fall. After sailing in circles for too long, this voluntary regional councl of Westside cities has recognized a need to re-chart its way forward. And it is – but not a moment too soon. Here’s an overview of recent developments and some (unsolicited) suggestions.We’ve got serious mobility challenges on the Westside, so it is time for the COG to get busy. Some would it’s say past time for COG action. And count me among those critics. I attended my first COG meeting back in mid-2010 to prod Westside policymakers to collectively commit to bike facilities and programs. My thought then was that Beverly Hills would have to follow along and make improvements here too. As often pointed out on Better Bike, we’re the sub-region’s black hole for bike facilities: not a single bike lane, sign, or program to make our streets safer for those who choose to ride. Indeed we have a lot of work to do in Beverly Hills.

But the Westside Cities COG seems to be charting a new course characterized by renewed vigor and even – gasp! – action. Can it be that the COG is outpacing Beverly Hills in recognizing the changing realities of mobility in the Los Angeles region in the twenty-first century? With a bike coordination program and bike sharing proposal on the COG’s draft work plan for 2012, will that show the way ahead for Beverly Hills? And hey, what is a COG anyway?

Introducing the Westside Cities Council of Governments

A Council of Governments (COG) is regional council of dues-paying member local governments organized as a joint powers authority for the purposes of serving member needs concerning policy-related information, grants coordination, and technical assistance. Our Westside Cities COG counts as members Beverly Hills, Culver City, Santa Monica and West Hollywood, as well as the western districts of City of Los Angeles (5 and 11) and part of Los Angeles County (districts 3, 2 and 4).

Our COG is one of about ten in the greater Southern California area. According to the National Association of Regional Councils (the “national voice for regionalism”), 90% of the nation’s counties, cities, townships, and towns in the US are served by a regional council. According to the mission statement, our COG hews to the traditional role of regional councils:

The Westside Cities Council of Governments is a regional voice that extends the leverage of its member agencies at the State and Federal level for the benefit of the region.

More specifically, the COG:

forge[s] consensus on policies and programs of regional significance…[and] provides a forum for discussion and communication as well as formalized representation and advocacy with governmental agencies at all levels. The organization also monitors legislation as well as regional, state and federal funding and other collaborative opportunities to maximize services to the public at a minimum cost.

While COGs have historically played a role in supporting members with technical assistance and supplementing localities with incoming grant money, our COG is not currently resourced to provide such assistance. Fully one-third of the Westside COG’s annual $120k budget goes to meetings, conferences, travel and miscellaneous expenses, with the rest going to the executive’s compensation. There’s not discretionary money available for a hire at present and there is no dedicated policy analysis expertise in-house.

Also, grant coordination has always has been a key COG function. Indeed a COG can multiply many-fold its base administration budget. But our COG has not been aggressive in securing and coordinating grants. The South Bay Cities COG for example brings in nearly ten times in grant money annually than it budgets for administration. Our COG most recently brought in about 50% of administrative expenses in grants. So there is much room for resource growth for our COG.

Westside COG board meetings occur bi-monthly (in odd months) at rotating locations with standing committees meeting in even months. My attendance, though, suggested that the organization was long on meet-and-greet but short on action. If you were an elected official or a city staffer, say, it seemed like a nice gig. The lunch buffet and break from City Hall leavened the inevitably mediocre PowerPoint presentations delivered by agencies and vendors. (My own city’s officials actually spent more time checking their phones than they did contributing to COG discussions.)

But if you were a transportation advocate looking to the COG to move the ball forward on our regional transportation challenges, well, the lunch buffet was a welcome distraction from the PowerPoints. ‘Nuff said.

A New Westside Cities Council of Governments?

During the last half-year there has been a subtle change in direction, however. Santa Monica Councilmember Kevin McKeown and West Hollywood Councilmember Abbe Land had always kept active transportation somewhere on the COG’s agenda. But now Los Angeles Councilman Bill Rosendahl was stepping forward at a COG board meeting to wax poetic about his renewed acquaintance with a bicycle after 30 years. Then LA County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky talked about the joys of city living – once cars were out of the picture (he was celebrating ‘carmageddon’).

Most recently, Santa Monica’s Mayor Richard Bloom urged that the COG look seriously at a regional bike-sharing program. And all the while, in the background, Westside Cities COG was meeting with bike advocates to plug the holds in our growing network of bike lanes and marked shared-lane routes. That latter effort was the COG’s Bicycle Infrastructure Priority Corridor Gap Closures initiative, which produced a tally of five proposed gap closures. (Read the staff report for more information.)

The COG has opened public comment this month (until March 4th) so you will have your opportunity to opine on the gaps to be closed [pdf], or suggest others that might have been missed, or otherwise give your input directly to the COG on much-needed bike improvements.

But wait, there’s more. Back in January, the board discussed the COG’s purpose. Where was it going? What was next for the work plan (last updated in 2010)? Which priorities should the COG take forward in 2012? For the visitor accustomed to somnambulant get-togethers, suddenly the COG had an agenda. Four priorities were mentioned [staff report] for the new (ad-hoc) visioning committee to consider:

  • Bicycle safety awareness;
  • Bicycle sharing for the COG-region;
  • Grant opportunities re: California Energy Commission Plug-In Electric Vehicle Readiness; and,
  • COG Transportation Summit.

As you can see, transportation alternatives is squarely in the COG’s sights (two of four are bike issues) while board talk about objectives, deliverables and deadlines – all toeholds for accountability earlier missing from the work plan – suggested a new action orientation for the board. This will be welcome news to active transportation advocates. [See the draft work program for changes.]

Alas, today’s Transportation Committee meeting fell one body short of a quorum. Yet in the discussion, pro-bike concerns were still at the forefront, with recognition all around the table that cycling will be a key COG interest going forward. This is a testament to how far regional bike advocates have come: the COG is hearing from its members (and from Metro and SCAG too) about bike facilities. COG representatives understand that active transportation concerns will be part of any short- and long-term regional transportation plans, so it must get ahead of that curve if it is to be relevant as a planning organization.

San Fernando Valley COG's Mobility Summit Flyer That’s makes the proposed summit significant. While contingent on committee recommendation and board approval yet, a standalone COG summit in early 2003 would signal the COG’s interest to revisit its outdated Westside mobility study to bring it up to date. The example has already been set by the San Fernando Valley COG’s successful mobility summit in November of last year (“300 Leaders Turn Out to Map Transportation Future!”).

Let’s hope our Westside COG gets serious about outlining a vision for transportation policy on this side of the hill too. (COG efforts are not to be confused with a the Westside Mobility Study currently underway in Westside Los Angeles – I know, it’s confusing.)

Opportunities Await

Technical assistance has never been this COG’s strong suit, but it has long been part of a regional councils’ portfolio. Today there is simply not the staff support; our COG leans on staff from Santa Monica and Culver City in ad-hoc fashion for planning expertise. But that might change: for the first time that I recall, Executive Director Maria Rychlicki asked for committee input on whether the COG mission might be better served with a dedicated staffer.

With change in the air, let me offer a few unsolicited suggestions:

First, the COG should hire a mobility coordinator to provide hands-on technical and planning assistance on a full-time basis. A mobility expert could provide smaller cities like Beverly Hills with much-needed support and help member governments across the Westside rationalize plans and planning processes so that we don’t have one jurisdiction moving forward on a five-year implementation program (Los Angeles) while another has yet to re-open its 1970s-era bike plan (Beverly Hills).

We also need to coordinate the facilities themselves. Bike lanes are few and far between, and those that exist appear and disappear like a magic act. Bike racks, lockers or showers are practically nonexistent in much of the area. But imagine the road striping that peters out, or asphalt that simply comes to an end; or a rail stop without a platform, station house, or even a bench. A mobility coordinator could provide the synoptic vision that we’ve too long lacked, and be a logical liaison to regional agencies (rather than burden an executive director with that responsibility).

If the COG is building out the staff, let me suggest the COG needs to hire a policy director. Just to take one example, we also need to rationalize the legal frameworks that regulate cycling. Sidewalk riding is prohibited in Santa Monica but selectively restricted in Beverly Hills and West Hollywood. It’s legal in Los Angeles. Can’t the COG play a coordinating role in policy too?

A policy director could help us out in the statehouse too. Again using cycling as an example, Governor Brown senselessly vetoed the three-foot passing law (SB910) this past Fall that would have provided cyclists a buffer of protection on busy roads. Today we only have that protection in City of Los Angeles. Couldn’t a policy director help all Westside cities speak with one voice to the legislature and the Governor on bike safety? That’s some legislative leverage in Sacramento, which has long been the raison d’etre for regional councils.

Westside COG news pageLast, I suggest that the COG engage some web-savvy communications talent to help the COG communicate. For an organization dedicated to boosting the juice of local governments, this COG sure keeps a low profile – the ‘news’ webpage is always empty of content!

Today, much information flows into the COG from Metro, SCAG, vendors and local governments, but too little flows outward in real-time to engage the pubic. There are no press releases or social sharing buttons or engagement opportunities of any kind on the site. Let’s contract some expertise and bring the website into the present. I am available.

Let’s also build on good models like LA’s new interactive mobility site to jump-start two-way communication. It should be de rigueur for all significant work plan program changes. The grassroots has ideas. Let’s capture them.

We’re off to a good start with the “action-oriented” work program and talk of deliverables and deadlines. Let’s keep the momentum moving!