No Need to Get the Public Involved

Twin Towers Correctional Facility near Downtown LA

Twin Towers Correctional Facility near Downtown LA

Last week the LA County Board of Supervisors voted to approve the construction of two new jails, at a combined cost of more than $1 billion. By itself, this probably doesn’t seem too alarming, since the County has been facing severe criticism over the conditions in its jails for years. But in their rush to approve these projects, the Supervisors forgot one little detail. Somehow they neglected to let the public know that this item was coming up for a vote.

These projects have been under consideration for a while, and the need to fix this problem is very real. But the agenda posted before the meeting says absolutely nothing about taking action on this issue. The agenda did mention that a proposal to transfer mentally ill prisoners to a different facility was going to be discussed, and they’re claiming that the vote to approve the jails was related business. What a joke. The public was completely bypassed. There was no serious debate. The three alternatives considered were not properly analyzed. This is a travesty. And aside from being a travesty, it’s totally illegal. The Brown Act requires elected representatives to give adequate notice for any item they plan to take action on.

The Board has had transparency problems before. Back in 2011 it held a secret meeting with Gov. Jerry Brown to discuss the transfer of mentally ill prisoners, which triggered a lawsuit by Californians Aware. Last year the Board refused to turn over records detailing payments to private lawyers who had defended the Sheriff’s Department in excessive force cases.

But the County isn’t alone in its efforts to shut the public out. The sad fact is, this kind of thing is common practice for our elected officials and government agencies. The City of LA has a less than stellar record when it comes to public participation. City agencies hold public meetings, declaring that they want to hear from the citizens, but often these meetings are so poorly publicized that nobody knows about them. They scheduled a series of five open forums on re:code LA, a massive overhaul of the City’s zoning code. I did receive notice of the meetings. Unfortunately it didn’t arrive until the first three had already taken place. I wasn’t able to attend the last two. I still remember the meeting held by the Housing and Community Investment Department a while ago in Pacoima. The purpose of the meeting was supposedly to get input from the community on how to use millions of dollars in federal funding. Only about 20 people showed up, and they were all either city employees or reps for non-profits. Why were there no citizens from the communities that might benefit from the funding? It came out during the meeting that the HCID had neglected to contact local groups within these communities in order to help publicize the event. They hadn’t even distributed flyers within the areas under discussion.

It happens at the regional level, too. Earlier this year the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) announced a series of open houses to get comment on their Regional Transportation Plan/Sustainable Communities Strategy (RTP/SCS). I bet a lot of people would’ve liked to attend. Unfortunately, all but one of the meetings were scheduled during working hours, meaning anybody with a job would have to take time off to be there. On top of that, of the six open houses planned, none of them were located in the City of LA. In other words, there wasn’t going to be a single meeting within the boundaries of the largest city that SCAG serves. SCAG took some heat for this, and they did end up scheduling three more meetings. But why do we have to put the screws on just to have our voices heard?

This is really maddening. These people are supposed to be serving us. Instead, they’re routinely shutting the public out of discussion on important issues. And with the Board of Supervisors voting to spend $1 billion without even putting the item on the agenda, we seem to be hitting a new low.

If you want to contact your Supervisor to let them know how you feel about this, here’s the link.

Board of Supervisors

SCAG’s Scam

SCAG Comp 1

I don’t have a car, and I use public transit almost everywhere I go. So when In opened my e-mail one morning and found an announcement with the heading “SCAG Seeking Input from SoCal Residents”, I was definitely interested. SCAG is the Southern California Association of Governments, and they handle regional planning initiatives. The announcement explained that SCAG was holding six open houses to get input from the public on their Regional Transportation Plan/Sustainable Communities Strategy (RTP/SCS).

Because transit planning affects me personally, I felt like I should show up at one of these meetings. But when I looked at the schedule, I realized that it would be pretty difficult to attend any of them. In the first place, all but one of the open houses were happening during working hours, which meant I’d have to take time off work. In the second place, it would take at least an hour for me to reach any of the locations by public transit.

To me the most bizarre thing about these open houses is that not a single one was held within the City of Los Angeles. When you think about the fact that LA is the largest city in the region that SCAG serves, doesn’t it seem weird that they would ignore it completely? There are tens of thousands of Angelenos who depend on public transit to get around. Apparently SCAG doesn’t feel that they need to hear our input.

I found this so hard to believe that I wanted to research it further, so I went to SCAG’s web page for the RTP/SCS. I found out that a couple of meetings had been held in Downtown LA back in May, but as I read further I was even more dismayed. The two meetings they held on March 17 and March 18 were part of the scoping process for the Program Environmental Impact Report. In other words, these meetings were intended to get feedback from the public that would determine the scope of the PEIR, or the range of issues that needed to be addressed. And that’s all they had. Two meetings. One started at 3:00 pm and the other started at 5:00 pm. Again, SCAG seems completely oblivious to the fact that most of us have to work for a living.

And now we have the same problem in reverse. This recent series of meetings leaves LA residents ouf of the picture. But the scoping process apparently excluded everybody else. Were there other meetings held throughout the region to kick off the scoping process? I couldn’t find anything else on-line. The SCAG web site also alluded to a 30 day comment period, which ended on April 7. Unfortunately, I don’t recall receiving notification about any of this. I would’ve liked to be involved in the scoping process, but I guess I’m just out of luck.

The web site itself is an indication of how little SCAG scares about getting the public involved. On the page titled Public Participation Opportunites there’s a timeline with a series of links. Unfortunately, all of the links open a blank page with the message “404 File Not Found”. A number of PDFs are embedded in the page titled Staff Reports and Presentations. I clicked on all of them, and none of the files opened.

So back to this series of so-called open houses. Check out this map. The sites for the meetings are marked by black dots.

Map LA City w Locations

Yeah, I suppose I could’ve gone to the meeting in Culver City. If I’d been able to take the day off from work. If I’d been willing to travel at least an hour each way. But if SCAG really wanted to get my input, wouldn’t they have scheduled at least one meeting in LA? One meeting that Angelenos could easily get to on public transit? And why weren’t all the meetings held either at night or on weekends? Do they really think it’s fair to make people take time off work, especially when for many transit riders that would mean losing income?

The bottom line is, they don’t want my input. Or your input. Like many government agencies, they see public meetings as a nuisance. They’ve already figured out what they want to do. Getting feedback from the people is a time consuming process, and there’s alays the possibility that the public might want something different than the plan they’ve already decided on. The problem for these agencies is that a lot of the funding they get requires them to show that they’ve solicited feedback from the community. So in many cases, they slap together a series of token meetings which are deliberately planned to discourage attendance. And then when they submit the documentation required to justify the funding, they claim they’ve done extensive outreach.

SCAG isn’t the only guilty party. The City of LA frequently does the same thing. And I’m sure it happens all over the country. But SCAG’s series of “open houses” is maybe the most transparent scam I’ve seen along these lines. It really does make me angry. Not just because they’re shutting the public out, but because they have the gall to claim they’re serving the public. What’s really happening is that a closed circle of planners and politicians have gotten together and decided they know what’s best. And that they don’t need to hear from the people.

The timeline on the SCAG web site indicates that they’re planning to hold more meetings for public comment when the PEIR is released in October. But my guess is that when they post the schedule it’ll be more of the same. Call me cynical, but based on past experience, I’ve really lowered my expectations.