Bill Boyarsky
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February 19, 2009

Proposition B and the westside

In the small world of Westside politics, activists hold certain truths to be self-evident. Jack Weiss is a sellout. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is a sellout and a goof-off. Development is bad because it increases traffic. Billboards are bad because they’re…billboards.

And Proposition B, the solar initiative on the March 3 ballot, is so awful that there are no words to describe it, not even the powerful words of Ron Kaye. He’s the former Daily News editor who is now an angry populist blogger and community activist.

Aware of these deeply held, but not necessarily rational, beliefs, I drove a mile or so from my Westside house to Webster Middle School to hear Kaye and others debate Proposition B. The measure would authorize the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to install solar panels on commercial, industrial and other buildings and in parking lots. The power would flow into the DPW system, I like Proposition B but I thought the debate might give me some reason to vote against it.

Nobody beat up on Weiss, the city councilman who is running for city attorney. Any criticism of the mayor was mild. Nobody took on the Expo line although a couple of people blasted the flashing electronic billboards illuminating buildings and intersections. A couple of people from Venice complained about permit parking around their houses. The subject had nothing to do with Proposition B. But self -involved Los Angeles Venetians have their own agenda, no matter where the rest of the world is going.

There were some mild fireworks. Nick Patsouras, a former DWP commissioner now running for city controller, read from detailed reports he felt showed the DWP in a bad light. Patsouras opposes Proposition B. Sneering at Patsouras’ insistence in reading the reports, Brian D'Arcy, the union business manager and an author of Proposition B, said, “Can I get the phone book and read it?” When Kaye renewed his attack on B, D’Arcy said, “You don’t know what you’re talking about, as usual.”

Kaye made a strong case for the “no” side He noted that all the work on the proposition was done far from public scrutiny, in the union hall and Mayor Villaraigosa’s office. Kaye hates secret government and the clique of lawmakers, business people and union leaders who run L.A. He said the proposal should have been the subject of extensive council hearings and discussion by the neighborhood councils as well as detailed and public examination by experts.

He and other opponents also objected to the fact that DWP union workers will do the solar panel installations. “Union power grabbing,” he said, drawing cheers from many in the crowd but not from the union members who were there.

I agree with Kaye that the process stinks, although I doubt if the city council would have been capable of holding intelligent hearings on the matter. But that isn’t a reason to vote against Proposition B. Solar panels on building roofs and vacant land are a good idea. We need solar. And what’s wrong with union labor, anyway. My wages up when we organized the American Newspaper Guild at the Oakland Tribune years ago.

Most of the crowd stuck around until the end. With a hot primary race for the Westside Fifth Council District seat, and Weiss running for city attorney, this area may have a comparatively high turnout for a low turnout city election. The activist, fussy Westside is tough territory for the Proposition B campaigners but they may have to carry it to win the election.

February 13, 2009

A mayor, a train car and jobs

A dispute over light rail cars is testing whether Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is up to the job of shepherding the federal recession relief coming this way.

I know that it is widely believed that the mayor doesn’t have power, except to show up at events and smile. But he has plenty of power especially when it comes to distributing the money from Washington, and he should be held accountable for the way he does it.

As reported by the Times' Steve Hymon in the L.A. Now blog Feb. 10, a light rail manufacturing firm, AnsaldoBreda, has offered to move manufacturing facilities here from Pittsburg, Calif. and Italy if the Metropolitan Transportation Authority buys 300 rail cars at a cost of more than $300 million. The company said the plant and company headquarters would “generate approximately 5,000 jobs.”

Sounds like a good deal in an area where unemployment is rising above 10 per cent. But here comes the MTA bureaucracy. The MTA has reopened bidding on the cars rather than giving AnsaldoBreda the go ahead. The MTA staff said the AnsaldoBreda cars didn’t meet specifications, and the company was late in delivering a previous order of cars due by May 2007. Mike Cannell, MTA general manager for rail, said train doors opened too soon. Others complained the seats are too narrow.

Fabio Ficano, AnsaldoBreda’s director of government affairs, told the New York Times that Cannell’s attitude was influenced by the fact that his son works for Siemens, which is competing for the car contract. Nonsense, replied Cannell, who said his son works for a Siemens Energy, unconnected to the light rail car division.

The mayor is head of the MTA board and appoints a few other members. He’ll have a lot of clout when it comes to deciding which company wins, and he knows there are a lot of jobs at stake. Richard Katz, a Villaraigosa appointee to the MTA board, told me the mayor’s office is now trying to determine whether “the (car manufacturing) jobs are real or permanent and can the company fulfill its obligations.”

A total of $8.5 billion in the recovery bill has been allocated to mass transit around the country and a good-sized portion should be coming here. Combined with funds from the passage of the half-cent sales tax increase last year, mass transit should be getting a boost for improving service and creating jobs.

This is Villaraigosa’s first big chance to show whether he’s tough and skillful enough to cut through the bureaucracy and put the recovery money to work quickly on the light rail cars and the many other projects to come.

February 2, 2009

The solar March 3 ballot measure: good for L.A.

Don’t explain. Don’t ask permission. And don’t apologize.

Following those simple precepts, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and its powerful employees union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, have rolled over generations of politicians and anyone else in their way.

Now, according to critics of Proposition B on the March 3 ballot, the killer DWP-IBEW team is at it again. The measure would authorize the department to install solar panels on commercial, industrial and other buildings and in parking lots. The power would flow into the DPW system, where it would supplement power from fossil fuel plants and a nuclear facility. IBEW workers would install the panels and the many new employees needed for the installations would boost the union membership. The panels would generate 400 megawatts of power by 2014. A megawatt is a million watts. If that’s hard to visualize, think of a 100-watt light bulb and multiply.

In the green world we’re seeking, wouldn’t it be a good idea to light all these bulbs with solar power? Proposition B’s critics don’t think so. They claim the IBEW bullied the Los Angeles City Council into putting Proposition B on the ballot without study or in- depth hearings. Solar may be good, say the critics, but the process stinks. Proposition B, they say, made it to the ballot through secret government and a complaisant council. They also say Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is a puppet manipulated by Brian D’Arcy, the president of IBEW Local 34.

Although I don’t share the critics’ fevered emotions—or even their opposition to the plan—I am interested in the dispute. So I arranged with Sarah Leonard, a Proposition B media person, to meet with S. David Freeman, former Department of Water general manager, now president of the Board of Harbor Commissioners and one of the big supporters of Proposition B.

I asked him where the idea behind the proposition originated. “It was Chapter 11 of my book ‘Energy Independence and Public Power,’ he said. “I sold it to Brian and I put it in the heads of people in the mayor’s office.”
How would it work? The department would put out bids for the solar equipment. The solar panels would have to be assembled in Los Angeles, although components could be made other countries. “Manufacturing of electrical equipment is done all over the world,” he said. “We don’t make the turbines for the coal and gas fired plants in Los Angeles.”

Among the sites to be picked for solar installation, he explained, would be areas where the power network is weak, ”where they have the most trouble.” What about rate increases? He said he didn’t think the solar measure itself “will have any impact on what the average Angeleno pays for electricity.” But there could be rate increases in any case because the city would still rely heavily on fossil fuel for its power plants. Of course he doesn’t really know. As the Times said in an editorial, nobody knows if rates will rise if Proposition B passes: “There are too many variables—just as there are too many variables to let voters know how much rates will rise without Proposition B.” The uncertainty over the financing was pointed up last week when Rick Orlov reported in the Daily News that a draft DWP audit said installation of the panels could cost more than double of the current estimate of $1.5 billion.

As far as the process that put Proposition B on the ballot, Freeman thinks there’s been enough public airing of the measure, especially compared to what DWP has done in the past. “They stole all the God damn water from the Owens Valley and nobody knew about it,” he said.

Despite all the questions, I think Proposition B is a good plan. Solar is perfect for sunny L.A. Green industry is the wave of the future. It’s smart to have our public power utility do the work instead of a variety of private contractors. It’s good that DWP union workers will do the installations. We need more union jobs, which strengthen the economy by expanding the middle class.

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