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Afternoon notes....

* LOANS TO U.S. SENATE STAFFERS BY THE FORMER COUNTRYWIDE FINANCIAL CORP. (now part of Bank of America), PART OF THE LENDER'S "VIP MORTGAGE PROGRAM".....  San Francisco Chronicle piece notes questions that are being raised as to whether these were "sweetheart mortgages" from Countrywide to Senate staffers based on the recipients' "perceived ability to help the company." 

   "Several unidentified senators and Senate employees received benefits through Countrywide's VIP program," [Rep. Darrell Issa, a San Diego Republican' wrote the Senate ethics committee this week. The lender was looking for officials "positioned to advance Countrywide's business interests," Issa said

*And why is anyone talking about this now?  Maybe, as noted in the report, because the numbers shown in the material being reviewed by Issa only represent some early discoveries from the 37,000 documents produced so far by Bank of America, which acquired Countrywide.  And if names of the loan recipients become public, the information is certain to surface in campaigns for the midterm congressional elections.  (SF Chronicle)


   Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and other City Hall politicians have relied on a "major loophole" in the city's campaign finance law to create committees that can raise donations much larger than they could accept for their own elections, according to a report obtained by The Times.  Many of the donations come from special interest groups seeking favorable government decisions.

    In a 50-page study titled "Money and Power in the City of Angels," the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies looked at Villaraigosa's practice of raising contributions of $100,000 or more for campaign committees devoted to such single-issue topics as a telephone tax and improving public schools.  Under the city's ethics law, the mayor and other candidates for citywide office cannot raise more than $1,000 per contributor for their own elections. The center said those same limits should apply to ballot measure committees that are controlled by an elected official.

   Three Villaraigosa committees spent $11.4 million in the three-year period examined in the study. Among the six-figure donors mentioned in the report were the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which represents employees at the Department of Water and Power, and Steve Bing, whose construction company specializes in environmentally friendly buildings.  "The public says that the mayor shouldn't be receiving $1,000 contributions from a Steve Bing or labor or from the IBEW" for his own election campaign, said Robert Stern, the center's president. "So why should his ballot measure committee be getting more than $1,000?"


   One of the largest came from Change to Win, a labor organization that provided $500,000 to Villaraigosa's 2008 telephone tax measure, Proposition S. That group had separately pushed the mayor to bar truckers who operate independently from moving through the Port of Los Angeles, an initiative backed by the Teamsters Union that is now the subject of a lawsuit.

    Stern's group said it could not assess the impact of contributions on specific legislative decisions, since the City Council voted unanimously 99.993% of the time during a seven-month period examined in 2009. But it found that incumbents had a 19 to 1 spending advantage over their challengers in that year..........

   The report also examined "independent expenditure" contributions, which also have no limits but are distinct from ballot-measure groups because they cannot be controlled by a candidate.  The biggest beneficiary of such spending was then-city attorney candidate Carmen Trutanich, who saw the Police Protective League — the union that represents officers — spend $745,000 on his behalf. The powerful Los Angeles County Federation of Labor during the same period spent $351,000 on behalf of Trutanich's opponent, former Councilman Jac Weiss. Trutanich won.  A third, huge player in 2009 was the DWP's employee union, which spent $266,000 on behalf of Weiss and City Controller Wendy Greuel. 

And Stern's conclusion regarding the politics behind these contributions?  Zahniser writes:

   Those contributions sent a message to other politicians at City Hall, who threw their support behind a five-year package of raises for the utility's workforce near the end of 2009, Stern said.  "I might call it a warning—'Don't mess with us,'" he said.  (LAT)


   House Democrats are lashing out at the White House, venting long-suppressed anger over what they see as President Obama's lukewarm efforts to help them win reelection -- and accusing administration officials of undermining the party's chances of retaining the majority in November's midterm elections.

   In recent weeks, a widespread belief has taken hold among Democratic House members that they have dutifully gone along with the White House on politically risky issues -- including the stimulus plan, the health-care overhaul and climate change -- without seeing much, if anything, in return. Many of them are angry that Obama has actively campaigned for Democratic Senate candidates but has done fewer events for House members.  The boiling point came Tuesday night during a closed-door meeting of House Democrats in the Capitol. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) excoriated White House press secretary Robert Gibbs's public comments over the weekend that the House majority was in doubt and that it would take "strong campaigns by Democrats" to avert dramatic losses.

   "What the hell do they think we've been doing the last 12 months? We're the ones who have been taking the tough votes," Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (N.J.) said in an interview Wednesday. 


   House members complain that the White House routinely shows them disrespect. Until recently, some said, administration aides would wait until the last minute to inform them when a Cabinet official would be traveling to their districts to give a speech or announce a government grant. Lawmakers love these events, which let them take advantage of local press coverage. 

   House Democrats are far more upset that they have repeatedly voted to support Obama's agenda and then felt they were left to fend for themselves when the legislation was watered down in the Senate. First with the nearly $800 billion stimulus plan and then again with the landmark health-care bill, House members approved far-reaching, controversial early versions that reflected the White House's desires. But the bills stalled in the Senate under Republican filibuster threats and were scaled back. Now these lawmakers are left to defend their earlier votes on the campaign trail.  (WP)

* ANOTHER POLITICAL "OUCH" FOR DEMOCRATS FOR OBAMA?  Does disapproval of Obama and pessimism about the nation's direction make for a "bullish environment for Republicans" in November?   From the Washington Post:

   Americans disapprove of U.S. President Barack Obama's handling of almost every major issue and are deeply pessimistic about the nation's direction, offering a bullish environment for Republicans in the November congressional elections

   A majority or plurality disapproves of Obama's management of the economy, health care, the budget deficit, the overhaul of financial market regulations and the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, according to a Bloomberg National Poll conducted July 9- 12. In addition, almost 6 in 10 respondents say the war in Afghanistan is a lost cause. The Senate is scheduled to begin voting on the financial regulation bill today.  Almost two-thirds say they feel the nation is headed in the wrong direction, an even more sour assessment than in March when 58 percent felt that way. Two-thirds of independent voters are pessimistic, while just 56 percent of Democrats offer a vote of confidence.

   "They don't see any solutions in sight," said J. Ann Selzer, president of Selzer & Co., a Des Moines, Iowa-based firm that conducted the nationwide survey. "They have been hammered by the economy and there is a disconnect between the lives Americans are living and Washington. They seem to have lost hope."

   Poll respondents are divided on their congressional preference between Democrats and Republicans, with both sides getting 43 percent support. Among those who say they are most likely to vote, Republicans are favored, 48 percent to 40 percent. The Republican advantage is even greater among likely voters who view the election as exceptionally important, with Republicans beating Democrats 56 percent to 34 percent.

   For the Democrats, who control Congress and the White House, the survey shows the potential for losses in November, when voters will fill all 435 House seats, 36 Senate seats and 37 governorships. The outcome could affect Obama's ability to move his agenda through Congress for the two years leading up to his own 2012 re-election bid.  (WP)


News of the Day: Thursday, July 15

* What is an appropriate salary for the city manager of Bell, with a population 37,000 and a general fund of approximately $15 million?  How about $787,637?  Yes, according to documents obtained by the Los Angeles Times under a California Public Records Act request, that is what their city manager is being paid.  And, if the $800K doesn't get your attention, how about also $376,200 for the assistant city manager and $457,000 for their police chief!  Along with a salary of nearly $100,000 for their part-time city council members.  From the LAT:

   Experts in city government said they were amazed at the salaries the city pays, particularly Rizzo's. "I have not heard anything close to that number in terms of compensation or salary," said Dave Mora, West Coast regional director of the International City/County Management Assn., and a retired city manager.  By comparison, Manhattan Beach, a far wealthier city with about 7,000 fewer people, paid its most recent city manager $257,484 a year. The city manager of Long Beach, with a population close to 500,000, earns $235,000 annually. Los Angeles County Chief Executive William T Fujioka makes $338,458.

   The salaries do not appear to violate any laws, said Dave Demerjian, head of the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Public Integrity Division. State law governs how much city council members can be paid, but not the amounts that council members decide to pay administrators, Demerjian said.  The district attorney is investigating Bell over the hefty compensation of its City Council members — about $100,000 a year for part-time positions. Normally, council members in a city the size of Bell would be paid about $400 a month, Demerjian said.

Also, an additional bit of background:   Located about 10 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles, Bell has a population that is about 90% Latino and 53% foreign-born. Its per capita income is about half that for the U.S.  (LAT) 

    ***[Can't help but wonder if anyone remembers South Gate and Albert Robles???]

* Construction to begin in early fall on $110-million residential and retail project in Marina del Rey:  The Argonaut reports that a new mixed-used project is now set to break ground in a few months on Maxella Avenue, adjacent to Lincoln Boulevard and the entrance/exit to the Marina (90) Freeway.  Much as I enjoy going to the Jerry's Deli. the Nichol's Restaurant the Pavilion's Market within the Villa Marina Marketplace where the project will be located, I also know what a mess the traffic is along Lincoln.  Can't help but wonder what all of this is going to do in terms of making the current traffic mess even worse?  But, then, what's a few more apartments (which may later be converted to condos) and a few more shops or restaurants among friends?  At least the strip on Lincoln that had been looking so tacky for several years will now feature something more attractive.....  (The Argonaut)

* And, also from The ArgonautThe Santa Monica City Council last week approved the Land Use and Circulation Element of the city's general plan.  The plan is intended to be a vision to guide development in the city for the next 20 years.  It is the first update since 1984 and included a process that extended over six years....  (The Argonaut)

* State budget impasse, sides continue to be divided over tax hikes vs. budget cuts....  And Sacramento Bee reports that Senate leaders are engaging in side talks beyond the regular meetings of legislative leaders of both housesWhy the separate negotiations? 

   All four legislative leaders are meeting regularly, but Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, and Senate Republican leader Dennis Hollingsworth of Murrieta have been engaging in side conversations, several budget sources said. Some of those talks have included Sens. Denise Moreno Ducheny, D-San Diego, andBob Dutton, R-Rancho Cucamonga, who are the budget chairs of their caucuses. 

   The thinking is that any fruitful budget deal will have to originate in the Senate. Steinberg and Hollingsworth have worked together before and seem more inclined toward compromise than their Assembly counterparts. However, the two remain far apart on taxes.

   Steinberg and Assembly Speaker John A. Perez have produced a two-page memo of Democratic principles, but that doesn't mean the party's leaders are on the same page yet.  Meanwhile, Republicans have attacked Democrats for proposing tax hikes. But they seem to be targeting their fire at Pérez, with Dutton writing Wednesday in a blog post that the speaker "has chosen to abandon common sense in this process." The post didn't mention Steinberg.  (Sac Bee)

* Daily News editorial gives thumbs up to Paul Krekorian's first six months in office; real test to come in the next fiscal year.....

   WHEN Paul Krekorian took his seat on the Los Angeles City Council in January, the Daily News promised to keep a sharp eye on this Valley politician to ensure he serves his constituents well and keeps his promises to voters.  Six months into the job, Krekorian has made a good first impression.  For residents of Council District 2, which stretches from Sherman Oaks to Sunland-Tujunga, Krekorian has created an e-mail list, a policy blog, a Twitter feed and an iPhone/Android app that allows residents to report on graffiti, potholes and other issues from their phones. His office has hosted or attended some 40 events in the district in just half a year.

   In City Hall, Krekorian has proven to be a thoughtful leader. He hasn't been a grandstander or a go-along voter. He was willing to buck the City Hall machine by voting against the DWP electrical rate increase, and he's become a leading advocate for neighborhood councils. Krekorian pleased neighborhood council activists when he worked to preserve their funding, and he developed a compromise to preserve the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, or DONE, after the mayor proposed merging it with another city agency - though some may question whether keeping DONE is ultimately a good use of taxpayer dollars.  And, in a nod to the realities of the city's financial situation, Krekorian took a 5percent pay cut as of July 1, down to $169,849 a year. And he cut his council office's budget by $400,000, to $1.2 million. He maintains a staff of 23 and has one take-home city vehicle for the entire office, which is the one he uses.

And, as for the challenges ahead, DN editorial argues:

  Indeed, Krekorian's honeymoon period was brief. He came on the City Council just as the city was dealing with the most challenging budget in years. The city's financial problems will continue to be Krekorian's most important citywide issue - and we urge him to work on behalf of his constituents to help restructure city government.  In particular, city leaders must undertake the hard work of reforming city employee pay and pensions in order to get L.A. back on solid financial ground. Krekorian had the backing of the labor unions representing most city civilian workers and firefighters - and will likely seek their support again as he runs for re-election in March - but he must put the needs of city taxpayers first.

   Planning and land use is practically a contact sport in CD 2. During the boom years, developers clamored to build bigger and bigger projects, while residents fought efforts to bulk up their neighborhoods. Krekorian won early praise for convincing his Council colleagues to overturn a condo project in Valley Village that been granted a density bonus by the Planning Commission, and for pushing regulators for stronger environmental protections at a Sun Valley trash-sorting operation.  Now, resident groups are closely watching whether Krekorian will uphold his pledge to oppose exemptions to the Ventura Boulevard Specific Plan. The first test will be a 500-unit apartment and shopping complex at Camarillo Street and Sepulveda Boulevard, which seeks numerous exemptions. 

   Krekorian has made a good first impression on both the district and on us in his first six months. But the real test will come in the next fiscal year, when his loyalties to labor unions and his responsibilities to voters to fix the pension mess will be tried.  (DN)


Afternoon notes....

* A bit of a commotion in connection with an RFP from L.A. City Attorney's office seeking outside private investigators to assist with billboard investigations:  Is the RFP an end-run on the city's hiring freeze?..... From the Daily News:

   In a move some officials see as an end run around Los Angeles' hiring freeze, City Attorney Carmen Trutanich is looking to hire a squad of private investigators to help root out illegal billboards.  The effort has raised questions from City Council members, who were surprised at Trutanich's efforts to hire outside investigators after he was denied permission to expand his own staff because of the ongoing budget crisis. The council had authoritized Trutanich to spend $325,000 hunting for billboard violators, but thought he planned to use employees or existing contractors.  "I do not recall us authorizing something like this," said Councilman Bernard Parks, chair of the Budget and Finance Committee.

   Bill Carter, Trutanich's chief deputy, said the City Attorney's Office released a Request for Proposals to expand a panel of private investigators that the department uses for complex crimes.  "We wanted to hire our own employees, but our budget was cut and we weren't allowed to hire full-time investigators," Carter said. "So, pursuant to the direction of the council, we are having to contract outside vendors to help us investigate these crimes.  "We already contract with four outside firms that have about a dozen private eyes that we use for investigations."

   Since taking office, Trutanich has tried to expand his Bureau of Investigations, but no funding has been provided. As a result, he has had to contract with private firms to help with prosecutions.  "We think it would be less expensive in the long run to hire our own people, but the council hasn't agreed," Carter said. "We would then have people who understood what we were doing."  Carter said the funds are not coming from general tax revenue, but from fines the city has collected.

And what is the wrinkle here?  The city has had a hiring freeze in effect for more than a year. It has reduced its workforce by 3,500 workers, and begn laying off more than 200 workers this year.   Which then raises the question as to what the council originally understood or intended when it appropriated the $325,000.... (DN)

* Latest questions regarding financing of California's high-speed rail project, this time from State Treasurer Bill Lockyer.....  Sacramento Bee reports that Lockyer is warning that investors' concerns that the proposed high-speed rail project will "never work economically" could hurt progress on plans to build the bullet train connecting Los Angeles to San Francisco.  Lockyer said questions from Wall Street investors have made him "reticent to try to go to market to issue bonds to finance the state's share."  Voters approved $9.95 billion in bonds in 2008 to fund the project. The state has also been awarded $2.25 billion in federal funding, but Lockyer said securing the additional private funding to construct the project could prove difficult until questions about its viability are answered.  (Sac Bee)





A new and improved Gladstone's?

* Gladstone's Malibu:  Not gourmet but renovated and designed to the tune of $1 million.  Will this bring back beach-community residents?  From the Los Angeles Times:

   Gladstone's Malibu, the iconic 33-year-old seafood restaurant that lays claim to 700 feet of prime beachfront real estate where the river of traffic on Sunset Boulevard flows into the estuary of the Pacific Coast Highway, had been having a bad decade, or two Now, to the rescue:  Gladstone's owner, former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan along with SBE chief executive Sam Nazarian, who have invested $1 million in renovating and freshening up the restaurant's design and menu, say the new and improved beachfront property is ready for business.  Not just for tourists but also for  the "well to-do elites in Malibu, Pacific Palisades and Santa Monica --  who had previously "treated the place like kryptonite." 

   And how good is the new menu?  LAT review opines that this is something that will be borne out only by way of time and the measure of repeat business from the restaurant's neighbors, but that the food is distinctly better than it once was. Still, based on the sheer size of the restaurant (it has close to 700 seats) and the huge volume of food it has to crank out (almost $24,000 in food costs alone on a busy day, resulting in sales in excess of $70,000), it will be difficult to make Gladstone's a gourmet destination.  But gourmet food isn't what Riordan was gunning for anyway, just a modern upgrade that has local cachet and brings in repeat customers. "My favorite restaurant in the world is the Original Pantry. That's the level of my interest in cuisine," says Riordan, who also owns the Original Pantry.

   As for Riordan's own food preferences, he adds that he doesn't eat seafood. "It just totally scares me and turns me off."  (LAT)


News of the Day: Wednesday, July 14

* March ballot measure to create DWP Ratepayer Advocate position?   L.A. City Council President Eric Garcetti and Councilwoman Jan Perry (chair of the Energy & Environment Cmte.) say they want to  place a measure on the March ballot to create an independent ratepayer advocate position within the L.A. Department of Water & Power.  Details of the measure were not spelled out, but one idea is to possibly use the LAPD Inspector General's Office as a model.  As for the mayor's position on this, his office had no immediate comment on the proposal.  He has, however, previously indicated his support for creating such a position under either the Office of the City Controller or the City Administrative Office, but this would be quite different from the "independent" advocate that Perry and Garcetti are talking about.  Before anything goes on the ballot, Garcetti and Perry say there would be public outreach and public meetings to flesh out the details.  (DN)

* Los Angeles Ethics Commission weighs in on free tickets to elected officials....  From today's Los Angeles Times:

    A majority of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission said Tuesday that elected officials should be required to report the value of free tickets they receive to concerts, sports events and other cultural activities — even when they are attending as part of their official duties.  As they reviewed a plan to update the city's disclosure law and ensure that gifts are not a factor in government decisions, three of the panel's five members expressed support for a provision that would require the mayor, the City Council, department heads and other high-level officials to state what official business they performed at each free event........ If the commission approves the disclosure plan next month, the proposal would be forwarded to the City Council for a vote. The commission is also reviewing a plan to bar elected officials from receiving gifts from anyone who has business pending before them........

   Villaraigosa's office did not comment on Tuesday's discussion. But officials with the Ethics Commission appeared to support the mayor's argument that a free ticket to a cultural event is not a gift if a ceremonial duty is performed.  Holt, the commission's policy director, also said that simply showing up at a free event should not be considered a ceremonial duty. The mayor's lawyer has suggested that Villaraigosa's very attendance at an event is an official act.

   The Ethics Commission will continue reviewing its gift law next month. Whether the council will follow any of its recommendations is unclear.  Although the panel voted last year to recommend an overhaul of the city's lobbying ordinance, that proposal has sat in a committee headed by Council President Eric Garcetti for nearly a year without coming up for a vote.  (LAT)

[***And I see that the Daily News has a fairly thorough report on this, as well, also reflecting a sense of commentary at the Ethics Commission meeting that (a) yes, local elected officials should be attending high-profile events throughout the city and (b) the free tickets for such events should be publicly reported.  (DN)

* LAUSD approves additional $6 million for Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools complexTotal cost of the K-12 school complex is now up to $578 million, making it the most expensive in LAUSD history (and possibly the most expensive in the U.S.).  From the Daily News:

   The campus will consist of six separate learning centers and enroll 4,260 students this fall, making the cost per seat about $135,000 - nearly 40 percent higher than the average school built in the central Los Angeles area over the past two years. Currently, two learning centers at the RFK complex are open.  Part of the high cost of the Kennedy schools is attributed to the public park that will be part of the campus, including a pool, soccer fields and a public art installation that includes a giant marble and granite Kennedy memorial wall. Kennedy was assassinated in the hotel's kitchen area as he campaigned for president in 1968.

* Obama not alone in falling poll ratings; now Schwarzenegger hits low point, as well....  Yesterday Washington Post-ABC News poll showed nearly 6 out of 10 Americans lacking confidence in President Obama's performance in office.  Today, Sacramento Bee reports that the latest Field Poll shows that Governor Schwarzenegger's job approval rating has also fallen, to a record low of 22 percent, matching that of his predecessor, Gray Davis, from 2003, the year that Davis was recalled.   And, as for the state Legislature, the Field Poll numbers showed that registered voters held an even dimmer view of the job these folks are doing, albeit that their job approval rating ticked up to 16 percent, which is three points higher than it was earlier this year. 

* "As the World Turns"Bristol Palin and Levi Johnston say they are now once again engaged.  That this came about a couple weeks ago while the two were working out a custody plan for their 18-month0old son, Tripp.  And, for an extra little twist, seems that the two lovebirds told Us Magazine about their engagement before they told her parents....  (LAT)

* City Hall media rules:   "Clarification" of rules for news media access to the Los Angeles City Council while the full council is in session.... KABC Radio reporter Michael Linder has provided a description of the regulations.   LA Weekly piece notes the details and raises several questions:  Are the rules fair?  unduly restrictive?  biased only in favor of "accredited" journliasts holding media credentials issued by LAPD?  perhaps not as flexible for bloggers and internet "reporters" as some would like?  (LA Weekly)