Down the Rabbit Hole of Traffic Barriers, Council District Officials, Neighborhood Associations, City Agencies, City Hall and Lawsuits.
1. A fence or other obstacle that prevents movement or access.
2. A circumstance or obstacle that prevents communication or that keeps people or things apart.
3. A medieval war game in which combatants fight on foot with a fence or railing between them.
“If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn't. And contrary wise, what is, it wouldn't be. And what it wouldn't be, it would. You see?” Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass
From 2005 to 2013 I found myself wandering through an Alice In Wonderland landscape of required government regulations that were not required, a City Council Representative that represented on whim, Council District deputies contradicting themselves and struggling with “truthiness”, City Agencies engaged in self admitted “irregularities”, City Hall motions that implied but lied and Court rulings that defied logic. In other words business as usual at the OK Corral they call Los Angeles government.
Hold my hand and walk with me as I take you through the Looking Glass....
In 2005 Councilman Martin Ludlow, (who eventually pleaded guilty to conspiring to embezzle campaign funds) then represented Council District 10 and the community of Western Heights (WH). At the request of a local WH resident, a lawyer working for Councilman Ludlow, the councilman introduced a motion in City Hall granting the residents of WH authority to install temporary traffic barriers in our community. These would eventually be replaced at the resident’s own expense and effort, with permanent barriers. The barriers were to be placed at three locations, two partial barriers allowing exits and one full barrier with no exit or entrance…right next to our Fire Station. Residents were responsible for raising the funds, taking out the insurance, getting the required permits and hiring the firms to install the final barriers. After one year of effort the motion was presented, bypassed the usual subcommittee oversight and then passed at Council in 2005. It then took the residents 6 years to raise the money to install the permanent barriers.
The motion cited California Vehicle Code Section 21101 (a) (2) and 21101.4 which allows for barriers if the street suffers from “an unsafe volume of traffic and a significant incidence of crime.” The motion implied the criteria had been well met and the barriers were needed to stop it. The motion passed unanimously. It directed the Department of Transportation (DOT) to begin helping the residents move forward.
DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE
“In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.”
When the community woke up and without warning found itself surrounded by barriers, I began to investigate how and why it had happened. It eventually led to the motion, filed away in the city hall archives, and the discovery that none of the required documents, importantly - a recommendation by the police department - sign offs from the Fire Department, studies by the Department of Transportation, were attached….nada, zip, zilch. It didn’t even contain the ad hoc survey of the community taken by the Western Heights Neighborhood Association and used by Ludlow to justify moving forward. (The survey simply asked IF there were going to be barriers, which configurations would the respondents choose. 76 responded - we have over 300 residents- and only 57 made choices). So the only attached document to the motion in the archives was a note saying there were no attached documents. Whoa.
THE MOTION AND THE LAW
1. REQUIRED: According to Code 21101.4 the city can block off a public street when: “The local authority finds and determines that there is serious and continual criminal activity in the portion of the highway recommended for temporary closure. This finding and determination shall be based upon the recommendation of the police department or, in the case of a highway in an unincorporated area, on the joint recommendation of the sheriff's department and the Department of the California Highway Patrol.”
What Actually Happened: None of these recommendations existed. The City Hall motion submitted by Ludlow stated that, “In addition, this neighborhood has also experienced significant crime (burglary and gun violence) with easy "get away" access to the freeway”
Based on the lack of required recommendations or studies by specific city agencies, this was an opinion not a fact and a look into crime stats for the community at the time identified this neighborhood as low crime. Not beset by prostitution or drug crimes.
2. REQUIRED: Section 21101 (C) The affected local authority conducts a public hearing on the proposed street closure.
(D) Notice of the hearing is provided to residents and owners of property adjacent to the street proposed for closure.
What Actually Happened: The motion had been presented and passed at City Hall without any community notice or public hearing. The community, including the Fire Station, woke up one morning surrounded by barriers. After the motion passed, the four or five residents who had advocated for the barriers, were then chosen by the Council office to work with Dept. of Transportation and decide on the configuration of the barriers, without alerting the community or involving them. The chosen few gave themselves the authority to decide for the community, where and what kind of barriers would be installed. They picked an option that got only 19 out of the 57 votes in their own original survey - a full barrier next to the Fire department preventing emergency vehicles from entering and the community from leaving. Even the Fire Station had not been alerted.
3. REQUIRED: Temporary barrier permits must be renewed every 180 days until the traffic problem from the prostitution and drug sales had calmed down.
What Actually Happened: These renewals were ignored.
Issues #1 and 2 alone rendered the barriers illegal. The criteria defined by the very code they referred to in the motion, had not been met.
Unfortunately when Councilman Herb Wesson was elected to the CD10 post after Councilman Ludlow’s early departure, he ultimately decided to ignore these issues -- despite Battalion Chief Castro’s statement in a CD 10 meeting with city agencies that LAFD would not support the barriers, despite the Department of Transportation’s concern over the “irregularities” involved, and despite his previous statements to the community that there would probably be a compromise. Instead, Councilman Wesson made a decision to let the barriers stay as they were and thumbed his nose at the Fire Department by letting the barrier blocking emergency access, remain. Despite his public stand that the issue was resolved and he was no longer involved, email records show that his office provided ongoing critical assistance to the residents involved until the barriers were finally installed six years later. Emails obtained through public record requests indicate that he also routed some of CD10's discretionary funds to help pay for the final permits.
“Do you think I've gone round the bend?"
"I'm afraid so. You're mad, bonkers, completely off your head. But I'll tell you a secret. All the best people are.”
Efforts to make these points at the Western Heights Neighborhood Association, now being used to raise funds and move the project forward, were met with curt dismissals and a “nothing to see here, move along” attitude and ultimately, when I wouldn’t let it go…efforts to dismiss me as, well, crazy. As one resident pointed out, “Why would they listen to you? They are being supported by Councilman Wesson.” Indeed. So I started to take it up with the city.
When I asked my contacts at the city agencies, the Department of Transportation, Board of Public Works, how they could keep moving forward to assist with this project, knowing that none of the legal criteria had been met, the people I talked to said, “if the Councilperson tells us to do it, we do it.” When I asked “even if it goes against legal procedures?” they all said the same thing… “it happens all the time. Councilmembers rule.” I asked how they get away with defying the law. Their answer? “Because nobody has the money to sue the city.”
In 2012 I brought a lawsuit against the city. I met my lawyer through a community member who had successfully brought barriers down in her neighborhood. The lawyer had taken her case on contingency. He was reluctant to consider my case but when he discovered there were no supporting documents attached to the motion at City Hall - “None!?”he asked increduously, “Nada” I replied - he took on the case.
We combed through records requests, emails between agencies and Councilman Wesson’s office and asked all the involved city agencies, Councilman Wesson and the city attorney to explain their legal basis for allowing the installations. The city agencies either had no answer or pointed to the motion at City Hall. Councilman Wesson, as usual, simply ignored the question. And the City Attorney responded to my efforts in pointing out their deficiencies, by reintroducing the motion to City Hall in 2010 in an effort to cover their tracks. Yet they still failed to send out the legally required notification to all the residents. The Council Office did ask for and received statements from the various city agencies claiming no objection to the barrier. But the one response, the only one that mattered, from Chief Charlie Beck of the L.A. Police Department, was very telling. He said they had no objection, and added “without recommendation”. As mentioned, state law requires a recommendation from the police department based on evidence of the need for barriers. He made a point of not making one. My surmise is that he knew the law, knew a lawsuit was coming, and he did not want to supply any recommendation without evidence to support it.
So we sued. We sent the city attorney our brief which outlined in detail the various violations, previous rulings on the issues we raised, emails and records supporting our claims (to read the brief go to our website click Eye On Wesson), and we eagerly awaited their response. Finally. We would receive the legal argument for why these barriers were allowed in our community. We got their response…No argument. Instead they went for technicalities. We should be suing the Western Heights Neighborhood Association and we didn’t file our lawsuit within 90 days of the passing of the 2005 motion or reintroduced motion in 2010. Apparently the city attorney's office could not justify the actions of Councilman Ludlow, Councilman Wesson, the City Hall approval of the motion nor the actions of the residents in charge of the project and in fact, I should have sued the residents. So I had proved the point, whatever the outcome of the case.
My lawyer had encouraged me to sue the residents along with the city but despite my distaste for their behavior as a group, I could not bring myself to do so. My lawyer argued back to the City Attorney that the Association was not the entity that obtained the city permits, in fact the city produced no records revealing whether a permit was ever really signed and if so, who it was issued to. Who exactly should be sued? He also argued that we filed our motion within 90 days of the final approval for permits by the Board of Public Works. Up until that date, the residents did not have the final permit approval and there was a possibility that given the irregularities they may not get approval at the required Public Works Commission hearing. They also had great difficulty raising the funds and there was reason to believe this may stop them. The courts typically want all remedies explored before you file a lawsuit.
We had felt hopeful when we were assigned a judge that held little regard for city shenanigans. But when I arrived on my court date, my lawyer was crestfallen. “Bad news” he claimed. Our judge had been reassigned to another department. Our new judge was more likely to rule on the deadlines than on the merits. Sure enough the hearing was short and focused on the city’s claim that we should have filed within the 90 days of the City Hall motion.We received his ruling against us a few days later confirming his argument...we should have sued the residents and after the City Hall motion in 2010.
TEA PARTY OVER!
“Well that was the silliest tea party I ever went to! I am never going back there again!”
A local resident told me how lucky our community was to have a Councilperson willing to help the community by bypassing frustrating and time wasting government procedures in order to get something done. I responded by making the point that we then don't have a government official representing a community, we have a Lord ruling a fiefdom, picking and choosing who they'll help.
“Too many people aren't paying attention and can't be bothered to vote, which allows sleazy opportunists to easily build fiefdoms." - Steve Lopez, LA TIMES
Although I was disappointed and frustrated with the reality of community politics and fighting City Hall - as my lawyer said, ”well, they got away with it” - there was much I was grateful for. There is something about fighting against all odds that builds character. And most importantly...the creation of this magazine, a result of asking the question “How does a community hold their representatives accountable?” Realizing that connecting communities and encouraging communication was a way I could contribute to the solution, I started The Neighborhood News. We're into our 5th year and publish 13,000 to 14,000 copies every two months.