Pound Foolish

Dumping L.A.'s Board of Public Works would stink.

City, county, state and federal budget crises are the dominant issues facing government, business and the public.  In what has become an annual event, elected officials and administrations scramble to balance budgets by coming up with policy ideas that save pennies but are more than a pound foolish.

At the federal level, cutting back EPA’s budget by up to 30% has nothing to do with fiscal prudence.  If the House was as serious about major cuts as it is about rolling back environmental protections, then eliminating tax loopholes, agribusiness and oil and gas subsidies, and reducing defense spending would be part of the dialogue on the Hill.

At the state level, Gov. Brown has proposed massive cuts of over $12 billion per year. Yet in negotiations with opposition leadership, there’s more talk about environmental rollbacks that help big business than about moving forward with an election to let the public decide what kind of California we want.
At the local level, it’s the same story.  Every few years, Heal the Bay seems to find itself in a budget fight with the city of Los Angeles to fund a full-time Board of Public Works made up of mayoral appointees.  Mayors Riordan and Hahn unsuccessfully tried to eliminate the board and now Chief Administrative Officer Miguel Santana is taking a run to make up for the annual $400 million shortfall the city seems to face.

The board has been around for a century or so and provides transparency and oversight for the bureaus under the Department of Public Works. Eliminating the board would save a few bucks, but estimates of an annual $1 million in savings are comical. The cost-cutting move would save at most a few hundred thousand dollars annually. And any savings would come at the expense of moving nearly 85% of the city’s construction contracts away from the sunlight (the public and the media).  This is a very strange move in the aftermath of the Bell debacle.  The city should be embracing more transparency, not less.
Some critics have accused mayors of making board appointments as a patronage reward for supporters, but we elect the mayor to make decisions on who should run the city.  And the mayor is accountable for those appointments.  If members of the public have a problem with appointments, then they can express their views at the board, to the mayor and his staff, or to council.  The bottom line is that the board has a lot of work to do and pure patronage appointments of people who don’t do any work would be exposed quickly at the three-times-a-week public meetings.
Others have claimed that the board should become a part-time panel modeled on the DWP.  Really?  Has that part-time commission really influenced decision making at DWP? 

Here’s a brief list of how this model isn’t working: the Owens and Mono Lake decisions of the past;  lack of major progress on water recycling, stormwater recharge and wellhead treatment of local groundwater supplies;  end runs around the Commission and the City Council on opposing the state’s Once Through Cooling policy through gut and amend legislation;  and the ill-fated Measure A approach to bringing major solar initiatives to Los Angeles.

As I often say, if noted movers-and-shakers Mary Nichols, Mike Gage, and Dorothy Green couldn’t turn DWP around as part-time commissioners, then no one can.  That’s not a model to follow.
And the L.A. County model may be even worse.  L.A. County Public Works/Flood Control has oversight from the County CEO.  None of its actions have public oversight unless you consider the Board of Supervisors as adequately playing that role.

There is no way that the supervisors can provide sufficient public works review, given their constituent service responsibilities for nearly 2 million people each and enormous health services, legal and justice services, and public safety responsibilities.

And the CEO’s office is incredibly insulated from the public.  I often wonder if the county would have sued over the Regional Board’s stormwater permit and enforceable beach bacteria water quality standards if they had a board of public works. Transparency and public meetings improve accountability and serve as an essential part of responsive government.

Lastly, the Board of Public Works has provided tremendous leadership and policy development for the cty.  Where would L.A. have been on upgrading Hyperion, rebuilding the sewer system and moving forward on a stormwater program without board president Felicia Marcus in the 1990s?  Past board president Chuck Dickerson provided strong leadership on sewage and stormwater.

Current president Cynthia Ruiz has been a champion on the award-winning Integrated Water Resources Plan as well as solid waste recycling.    And commissioner Paula Daniels has worked closely with staff to move the city forward on the Low Impact Development ordinance and creating the first ever standard plans for Green Streets. Full-time commissioners are needed to put in the time to develop these critical policies and to provide the electorate with a face on public works projects and policies.
The city’s financial problems are daunting, and the mayor’s bold move to renegotiate union contracts to reduce the budget shortfall demonstrates the magnitude of the problem.

But cutting the Board of Public Works is a short-sighted move.  Transparency in government has never been more important.  The board provides us with that transparency, and that helps make the city publicly accountable for public works actions including wastewater, stormwater, solid waste recycling, engineering, street services, increasing rates, and so much more. Eliminating this board would be waste at its worst.


2 Responses

  1. […] Filed under: City of Los Angeles, Environmental Governance, Heal the Bay, L.A. DWP Tagged: Environmental Governance, government transparency, Los Angeles City Board of Public Works Read full article… […]

  2. Excellent essay. This cited budget cutting fever used as a pretext to dismantle regulatory and oversight structures is going on across the country at Federal, State and Municipal levels. It’s part of the drive to privatize historically public agencies and route the money gained thereby to corporations who then underpay/outsource employees, overcharge consumers, and pay little or no taxes to the government. Vigilance is required now and Mark is to be commended by tying all these threads together in this post.

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