Kind of reminds me of a Carla Bley lyric from the old noir jazz classic Escalator Over The Hill. "They don't bite, they chew."
So I went down to the SCAG "Transportation Planning Process" confab at their rather posh top floor offices in downtown Los Angeles last night. This was a meeting where, at least on paper, the Federal Highway Administration and Federal Transit Administration were to find out from those in attendance how well SCAG performs its portion of the "planning process." In addition to myself both Mayor MacGillivray and Mayor Pro Tem Watts were in attendance as well, which made us about 36.35% of the guests who attended in L.A. In addition there were people attending in five of the SCAG satellite offices as well, each of which were linked to the mothership via the magic of teleconferencing. Attendance in these outer orbit locations averaging around two guests each. This was the total turnout for a meeting that apparently was promoted through e-mail blasts to 180 city governments (which apparently nobody saw), and numerous web notifications available to the entire SCAG region. Something that could make you believe that SCAG is not that highly regarded by its constituents.
Michelle Noch from the Federal Highway Administration emcee'd the affair, with Ted Matley of the Federal Transit Administration apparently filling the role of wise elder. And each of us were invited to get up and share what was on our minds, but only if we adhered to the three minutes alloted to us. Ms. Noch, who has both the demeanor and vocal tonalities of an NPR call-in radio show host, read off the names of those wishing to speak, and each of us did. There was a woman from some sort of road construction outfit out of San Diego who spoke about the transporting of "aggregate" in an ecologically efficient manner. A gentleman from a bicycle rider advocacy group said he was not happy about SCAG's representation on the issue of bike lanes. Others briefly spoke their opinions as well. The gentleman pictured above demonstrably related his concerns. And while I was not exactly sure what he was representing, he does seem to be a guy who enjoys raising hell at meetings like this. And I suspect he doesn't miss very many. Unfortunately his lack of focus coupled with an apparently overweening need to appear controversial and bold blunted the effect of his message. Whatever it was. He definitely was not happy about SCAG though, which was a good thing.
And those of us from Sierra Madre made comments as well. The gist of which being that SCAG, which is supposed to represent our needs in Sacramento, actually functions as more of an enforcer for the lobbyist driven decision making of our state capital, coercing the member (and non-member) cities in its region to accept centrally generated RHNA numbers that more often than not defy any true planning logic. That and they don't seem to care about any other opinion than those put out by the state legislature. And then there is the issue about Sacramento seizing city planning control by de facto fiat. An ugly power grab showing a stunning disregard for democratic principles that go back to the very founding of this state.
And after each of our comments, and those of the handful attendees from the satellite offices (who seemed mostly to be planted lower level government employees eager to express a deep abiding adoration for SCAG) Ms. Noch, in that NPR announcer voice, thanked us for our comments.
Now it was only after the public comment part of the review process was over that an actual conversation broke out. This meeting, which was scheduled for an hour and a half, still had quite a bit of time to go, and the Feds, along with the many SCAG gentlemen and ladies standing near the doorway (including Commissar Ikhrata, who appeared fascinated by the cookies and fruit provided for the attendees), seemed to have some time on their hands. Maybe their dinner reservations weren't until later in the evening, or perhaps "the process" dictated that the entire hour and a half be used. But we all talked, and it was then that the futility of this meeting became apparent.
For it was here that Mr. Matley revealed the shocking banality of this strange exercise. It wasn't any of our specific complaints that he was concerned about. And while he appreciated the passion and dedication of those who showed up (apparently this was the best attendance they'd had in years for this meeting), he couldn't really use any of that. What this was really all about was "the process" of SCAG's role in the Federal Transportation planning apparatus. When questioned by Mayor MacGillivray about the purpose of a "process" that never comes to a conclusion about the issues raised by it, Mr. Matley smiled in a weary sort of way, said he understood, but that just isn't what he does. He is just concerned with the process, but not really too involved with what exactly becomes of it. A revelation of paper-thin logic that validated the opinions of the assembled guests about self-perpetuating bureaucracies and the futility of such things.
Commissar Ikhrata, reluctantly raising his eyes from the food tray, also revealed the essence of this bureaucratic miasma. Repeating the message he delivered during a recent Sierra Madre City Council meeting, he reiterated how none of this is the fault of SCAG, and that there is little that he can really do about it anyway. You see, and as he hoped we would understand, what happens as a result of the process has nothing to do with them. They just do what they are told by Sacramento. And when Mayor MacGillivray questioned him about this, a look of empathy appeared on his face. "They don't listen," he said.
The process, it's all about the process. Like building a sand castle at the beach, and then watching it get washed away in the rising tide. Over and over again.
Sometimes Mr. Ikhrata reminds me of Sargeant Schultz from the old TV situation comedy Hogan's Heros. Though perhaps he is not quite as demonstrative.
As a most fortunate coincidence (I guess this is just my lucky morning), there is an article in today's Pasadena Star News reinforcing that sense of futility within "the process," plus SCAG's functional impotency. This piece, entitled Sierra Madre withholds dues from regional planning organization, discusses the decision to withhold our $1,000 dues payment from SCAG until they do something to actually earn it. Which seems pretty logical to me. Why pay good tax money to an organization that appears to have more to do with the vanity of its individual members than getting any concrete results for them?
But will they actually ever do that? Check out the following juxtaposition of two paragraphs from this article. The first from noted SCAG apologist John Buchanan, the second from SCAG President Jon Edney.
"SCAG is a metropolitan planning organization that simply is charged with implementing some of the (mandates)," Councilman John Buchanan said. "If you want to send a message, you're sending it to the wrong people. You should be going to talk to the state legislature."
And now this from Jon Edney:
"I suppose if you made the argument that if the City of Sierra Madre withdrew membership dues, and SCAG would have no impact over transportation in Sierra Madre, you could say that's their choice," Edney said. "But in fact, that's not going to be the case. They're still going to have to be going through the same things they've gone through - they're just not going to have a place at the table."
Not having a seat at the table does sound troublesome. But if that table really doesn't mean anything, and the people sitting at it are not heard by the those who actually count as Ikhrata and Buchanan revealed, is it worth the $1,000 to participate in a process that goes nowhere and never comes to a conclusion? Apparently SCAG is more of a cop than a judge.
And certainly there has to be some kind of metaphor in that the President of SCAG is a City Councilman from El Centro, a place wracked by both extreme poverty and one of the highest crime rates in the country.
In this article Joe Mosca once again reveals his re-election strategy of simultaneously speaking out of both sides of his mouth while in essence saying nothing.
Councilman Joe Mosca said he has problems with both SB 375, the state's recently passed ant--sprawl bill, and the state's housing mandates, but he called the move to withhold fees from SCAG "unproductive."
That Joe Mosca serves on the SCAG board responsible for the RHNA numbers caused by these state mandates, and until recently chaired the SGVCOG committee charged with enforcing SB 375 locally, makes his "problems" here seem a little suspect. But I guess expecting authenticity from The Carpetbagger is kind of like trying to get blood out of a stone. Just ain't going to happen.