Bill Boyarsky
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November 14, 2009

Doug Ring and good deeds

One of the last of Doug Ring’s many good deeds was a visit to the Los Angeles Times editorial board with members of Housing LA, an organization advocating affordable housing for the thousands of residents being forced out of the city by high rents.

He mentioned the incident in passing when we met for lunch a few weeks ago, having another of our discussions on where the Times is going. Surprised, I asked him why he — as a property developer— had been included in the meeting. He explained that he’d been working with low cost housing advocates. They thought it would help to have him along when they pitched the paper for support.

I told him that was pretty interesting, a developer battling for a law that would require him and his fellow builders to include some units in their new apartments that working class and middle class residents could afford. He said that Los Angeles needs housing for everybody. Otherwise it will become unlivable — squeezing out the middle class, leaving just the well off and the poor.

That enlightened view, so different from many of the big developers, was typical of this good-hearted, highly intelligent, complex man. His death has robbed the city of an unselfish leader at a time when such people are badly needed.

Doug was one the first friends Nancy and I made when our family moved to Los Angeles in 1970. He’s been a loyal friend through good times and bad. Our sympathies go out to his widow, Cindy Miscikowski, a former City Council member now president of the harbor commission.

The news stories note that Doug was a lawyer. That’s just part of the story. Doug’s father, Selden, was a rich developer but Doug didn’t fancy the idle life of an heir. He was always trying something new—living on a kibbutz in Israel, studying to be a rabbi at another point. Eventually, he went to work for Los Angeles County Supervisor Baxter Ward while attending law school. Ward was a rebel who fought constantly with his board colleagues, but he had a vision of a rail commuter network for Los Angeles County.

Ward first tried to persuade the voters to approve a sales tax increase to build the network. Failing that, he wangled $3 million from the country to buy a train and start a commuter service. But the railroads wouldn’t permit the county train—dubbed “Baxter’s choo choo” by his critics—to run on their tracks. By then Doug had passed the bar. As a novice lawyer, he went up against the railroad legal heavies and beat them. The railroads were ordered to make room for the country train.

The train didn’t last long. But Doug’s legal work did. It cleared the way for the commuter rail network that now runs over railroad company tracks, serving thousands every day.

I had a number of personal experiences with Doug’s legal and development skills. (He practiced law and became a developer after leaving Ward). Here’s just one example: As a columnist for the Times, I had campaigned for the city to reveal the terms of its contract with the stadium’s developers when they first began the process of building Staples Center. But when the city finally released the contract for public view, I found it overwhelming: thick and filled with incomprehensible legalese. One Saturday, I took it over to his house. He spent the morning explaining the contract to Cindy and me—a great assist to me for the column and for Cindy at city hall.

Despite his many civic activities and philanthropies, Doug was a cynic about politics, wanting things to be better but skeptical of change. He was amused when I was appointed to the City Ethics Commission, which enforces campaign contribution controls. He thought that the web of campaign laws created by reformers wouldn’t stop a determined crook. Nevertheless, Doug, who had served on the redevelopment and library commissions, spent considerable time tutoring me on how to be a commissioner: Get to know your fellow commissioners and the staff; learn the details of the commission’s job; make an effort to meet council members. I couldn’t find it in my heart to follow them all, and he finally concluded that my problem was that “you have a love-hate relationship with the ethics commission.”

He was also an amused critic when it came to journalists, but he supported the Ring Award for investigative journalism established by his father and was a substantial donor to the Investigative Reporters and Editors.

Doug will be remembered by the good he accomplished on earth, helping rebuild the library, making commuter rail possible, helping create the Children’s Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art—and by the loyal friendship he gave so many.

November 4, 2009

A union gumshoe

As newspapers and television pull back from investigative reporting, foundations and other organizations are beginning to fill the void. One of the most interesting is Accountable California, a project of Local 721 of the Service Employees International Union.

Ted Rohrlich, a veteran investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times, took charge of Accountable California after leaving the paper in the midst of its many staff reductions. His project is part of the local’s Center For Public Accountability.

The organization’s latest work looks into the salaries of executives heading publicly supported Los Angeles County health or human service nonprofits. It turns out six of them receive more than $300,000 a year, $50,000 more than the salary of Ramon Cortines, who heads the huge Los Angeles Unified School District.

I asked Rohrlich why the union, which represents 80,000 city and county employees, has undertaken the effort. “We don’t want public funds going to waste,” he said. “It’s in our self interest to make sure government works well.”

You might wonder about the motives of a public employee union focusing on salaries in nonprofits. After all, these organizations, financed by government, foundations and donations, can and do shrink the pool of public jobs. On the other hand, the nonprofit sector does need investigating.

Money-starved governments are increasingly turning to nonprofits to operate projects they say they can no longer afford to run. The organizations examined by Accountable California provide medical services to the indigent and uninsured, various services for poor children,and help for the mentally ill.

Small nonprofits often do a better job than big government bureaucracies. But they should be examined closely. We don’t want publicly funded jobs and subcontracts passed out to relatives or old buddies.

After Accountable California’s expose was posted, the Los Angeles Times had an even more powerful story. Alan Zarembo revealed that a job training charity for the developmentally disabled paid its executive director an annual salary of $872,311 and his wife, the associate executive director, $606,862. The fact is with newspapers reducing staff, their own efforts will be cut back.

There’s nothing wrong with a union digging up dirt. Reporters have always used tips from unions, business PR people, cops, nonprofits , and many others with a special interest. Now that there are fewer reporters, these special interests are beginning to finance investigations themselves. As long as they’re fair, it’s a good development. Accountable California was fair in its expose, writing in bold face that only “a small minority of nonprofits pay their executives more than $200,000 or more…Many were paid much less.”

We do need more watchdogs. With mainstream media reporters disappearing, someone has to do the job. Here’s the link to the AccountableCalifornia site.

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