Thursday, June 30, 2011

Jerry Brown Takes the Ax to Redevelopment Agencies

Yeah, I know. Yesterday I said I was going to take some time off. And I really intended to do that. But then all this other stuff happened and I figured I should probably write about it.

I remember when I started this blog I worried a lot about how I'd run out of things to write about. Now I worry about where I will find the time to just keep up with it all.

So the big news is Jerry Brown has finally put the ax to the CRAs, or RDAs depending on your taste in acronyms. After decades of eminent domain abuse, truly awful development and the corrupting influence of millions and millions of taxpayer dollars placed into the hands of small town oligarchs and the redevelopers who love them, the monster has finally met its well deserved end.

Look at it this way, if Sierra Madre didn't have a redevelopment agency, the Downtown Specific Plan and Measure V, along with all of those unfortunate effects still afflicting us today, would never have happened.

Here is the good word from the LA Times:

Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law Wednesday proposals to abolish California's existing redevelopment program ... Under AB 26 1x and AB 27 1x, California will force its existing network of more than 400 redevelopment agencies, which spend property tax dollars to fix up blighted areas, to dissolve and join a new redevelopment program. The agencies would hand over $1.7 billion to the state for the privilege in the coming fiscal year, as well as $400 million each year thereafter. Supporters of redevelopment agencies have likened the plan to extortion and have promised to sue.

The cost of opting into the new redevelopment scheme being so high it is assumed that only the wealthiest cities will be able to participate, and even then may not choose to do so due to the vast expense. Of course, there are those who are so determined to have a redevelopment agency that they will spend $100s of thousands of taxpayer dollars for the privilege. And our very own John Buchanan has apparently already budgeted for just that contingency. Without having the kind of "conversation with the community" he plans to have about the UUT.

But then again, why should he? There isn't that much the community can do about it, whereas the UUT could be vastly diminished next April. Conversations apparently only happening when there is something that he wants.

Speaking of the UUT ...

I'm trying to get my mind around what looks, at least anecdotally, like a disconnect between the City Council and the UUT Oversight Committee. There is some suspicion that the UUT Committee, by coming up with their recommendation to raise utility taxes by 2%, was doing something that they had been encouraged to do. Which explains their shocked reaction when they realized that the City Council wasn't going to take their hard work to heart.

Larry David, who has a gift for being outraged without losing command of the language, put his sense of disbelief into these words:

"Aren't you going to ask why we recommended raising the UUT rate? Won't there be any questions, or any debate?"

All he got back were half smiles and silence. Nancy Walsh did note a little later that they had worked hard, helpfully pointing out that there are plenty of other commission positions open for them should they wish to continue serving their community.

In today's Pasadena Star News (click) there is an article that details the rather abrupt treatment the UUT Oversight Committee received in exchange for their pains. Here is how Mayor Buchanan shooed the flies:

"We felt that in these economic times, it was better to give our citizens a break," Mayor John Buchanan said on Wednesday. "We were able to balance the budget without increasing the rates, but yes, we had to make some cuts to our program."

There really is some kind of disconnect here. Previous UUT Oversight Committees (I was on one) never even considered the question of rates. The job was to check spends and make sure that they had been made appropriately. And when I was a part of that excitement the oversight from City Staff was not just present, but highly active as well. Short of requiring us to ask permission to use the bathroom there wasn't much that they didn't control.

For me it is hard to believe that this particular committee's decision to meet an extra 3 or 4 times to grapple with the issue of raising the UUT rate to its full permissible 12% was not done without at least the tacit approval of someone in authority.

So were they set up? Was UUT Oversight Committee's call to raise the rate 2% in order to deal with the $860,000 shortfall in public safety costs done so that the City Council could give the appearance of holding fast on tax increases? Could it be they were unwitting partners in a publicity stunt?

The NY Times calls Patch a "Content Farm"

Recently the NY Times published a very intriguing article called Google's War on Nonsense (click). The topic is "content farms," which are corporately-run operations that produce bulk internet nonsense with the express desire of "gaming" the Google rating system. The notion behind this exercise being to drive hits to an owned entity, improving that company's page views, thus enabling them to charge more for advertising.

Here is how the Times explains it:

Content farms, which have flourished on the web in the past 18 months, are massive news sites that use headlines, keywords and other tricks to lure Web-users into looking at ads. These sites confound and embarrass Google by gaming its ranking system. As a business proposition, they once seemed exciting. Last year, The Economist admiringly described Associated Content an Demand Media as cleverly cynical operations that "aim to produce content a a price so low that even meager advertising revenue can support it."

As a verbal artifact, farmed content exhibits neither style nor substance. You may faintly recognize news in some of these articles, especially gossip - but the prose is so odd as to seem extraterrestrial. "Another passenger of the vehicle has also been announced to be dead," declares a typical sentence on Associated Content. "Like many fans of the popular "Jackass" franchise, Dunn's life and pranks meant a great amount to me."

These prose-widgets are not hammered out by robots, surprisingly. But they are written by writers who work like robots. As recent accounts of life in these words-are-money mills make clear, some content-farm writers have deadlines as frequently as every 25 minutes. Others are expected to turn around reported pieces, containing interviews with several experts, in an hour. Some compose, edit, format and publish 10 articles in a single shift. Many with decades of experience in journalism work 70-hour weeks for salaries of $40,000 with no vacation time. The content farms have taken journalism hackwork to a whole new level.

The "content farm" phenomenon had become something of a problem for Google. Why would anyone want to use their search engine when most of the stuff any request turns up is content farmed junk?

So who is responsible for creating all this strange stuff? The NY Times goes on to identify the culprits:

Business Insider, the business-news site, has provided a forum to a half dozen low-paid content farmers, especially those who work on AOL's enormous Seed and Patch ventures. They describe exhausting and sometimes exploitative writing conditions. Oliver Miller, a journalist with an MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence who once believed he would write the Great American Novel, told me AOL paid him about $28,000 for writing 300,000 words about television, all based on fragments of shows he'd never seen, filed in half-hour intervals, on a graveyard shift that ran from 11 p.m. to 7 or 8 in the morning.

So why would a company like AOL be doing this? Page views and money, of course.

Mr. Miller's job, as he made clear in an article last week in The Faster Times, an online newspaper, was to cram together words that someone's research had suggested might be in demand on Google, position these strings as titles and headlines, embellish them with other inoffensive words and make the whole confection vaguely resemble an article. AOL would put "Rick Fox mustache" in a headline, betting that some number of people would put "Rick Fox mustache" into Google, and retrieve Mr. Miller's article. Readers coming to AOL, expecting information, might discover a subliterate wasteland. But before bouncing out, they might watch a video clip with ads on it. Their visits would also register as page views, which AOL could then sell to advertisers.

The good news is Google has now responded to this threat to their credibility, and has instituted a new algorithm called "Panda." One designed to weed out content farmed nonsense so that legitimately produced news information can be easily retrieved by those using the world's largest search engine. Panda is apparently still a work in progress, but it is credited with already improving Google service in this regard markedly.

Which means that in the not too distant future, when you are looking up a topic of personal interest on Google, your search request won't automatically turn up a million Patch articles.


  1. Ha! Sir Eric can't stay away; maybe John Crawford can take a break, but not his alter ego. And, apparently, neither can I. Checking in with my coffee, looking for the overnight posts, wondering if the 4:00 am Poster would have a removal notice. And what to my bleary eyes does appear but a blog gift!

    Thank you, John and Sir Eric.

  2. Sir Eric, you and John Shear just go and have a Merry Prankster ride down the parade route on Monday! Happy Fourth of July!!

  3. A grateful readerJune 30, 2011 at 7:54 AM

    Better that I take time off than you.

  4. This really does make sense. You should always do what you like most on your vacation. So when you take your vacation from the blog, you blog. Otherwise why take a vacation at all?

  5. Anyone know how much John Bonds is willing to pay to stay in the CRA? Someone told me he was going to give the PUSD $650,000. Can anyone verify that number?

  6. $650,000 just so he can say we have a CRA? That is insane.

  7. Chief Bottle RocketJune 30, 2011 at 8:09 AM

    Yes. I, too, emphasize. "Just when you think you're out, they pull you back in." Personally I won't rest easy until the Gang O'Four rest with the fishes.

  8. Fish never rest. Especially when there is fresh Gang O' Four to snack on.

  9. 8:07, Bonds Buchanan announced at the last meeting that the council saved $650,000 of CRA money for just this event. Instead of spending that sum on pool equipment, which was the earlier intention when they were spending every dime as fast as they could, the council put $650,000 into the CRA reserves, in order to pay what he called the "ransom."
    It's because we are so wealthy.

  10. Only the wealthiest cities will be able to participate in Community redevelopment Agencies, and they are the ones who need it the least. What's this, the work of the League of California Cities?

  11. A publicity stunt is a great way to put the 4/5 council's use of the UUT committee.
    And that committee was supposed to consider the 'intent' of Measure U, not just monitor the spending.
    But their work will be put to use in Buchanan's conversation with the city about vote yourself permanent UUT or suffer a terrible fate.
    Want to bet the conversation opens with "Folks, we saved you from the 12%, and now...."

  12. allergic to PatchJune 30, 2011 at 9:03 AM

    "cram together words that someone's research had suggested might be in demand on Google." Begs the question, how much was "someone" paid?
    Probably not enough to buy back his soul.

  13. you've got fraudJune 30, 2011 at 9:11 AM

    What do you expect from a company that makes a big chunk of its money fooling people that they need to pay for an irrelevant internet service?

  14. We've known about the patchian raison d'etre since the beginning: SEO, search engine optimization. Good for google for fighting back.

  15. If Google cuts the knot that drives AOL's web traffic and therefore profits, is there any real purpose left for Patch?

  16. Patch was doomed to fail when Tom Armstrong set out to make it the hip new thing.

  17. Not Of This TownJune 30, 2011 at 9:50 AM

    You guys will love this one from the LA Weekly!

    Los Angeles CRA Creates Blight

  18. I wonder if a new and improved CRA will include a definition of blight. Maybe that is why Mosca was so careful about announcing that we had blighted areas in Sierra Madre, just to get it on the record. I also wonder if under a new CRA the City could expand the area to include our blighted library, thus allowing a tear-down of the old and a new, larger one built in it's place. Hmm

  19. 9:51, there are still to this day plans for the new and improved Sierra Madre Library on the Pasadena architects site that Fred Wesley belongs to (he of the 55 condo Wisteria Village in the Downtown Specific Plan).
    Go to their Portfolio, then Institutional, then #6.

  20. The library of the future can be fit into something the size of an average conference room. Why would we want to spend all of that money on something so large and antiquated?

  21. While I certainly am ecstatic that RDA's took a blow, I'm still feel a bit uneasy about this "new" redevelopment type agency that cities can join.

    I'd feel a whole lot better if the RDA's were pronounced dead and summarily buried the minimum six feet under.

  22. Thanks for the link, Not Of This Town. The LA Weekly article that I got a big kick out of was here:

    "Where do L.A. Community Redevelopment Agency "anti-blight" funds go? The parking lot serving Eli Broad's stunning proposed art museum, shown here, will get $52 million."

  23. I agree with you True Freedom. I guess the buy-out was the way to prevent the League of California Cities from turning to terrorist actions.

  24. Getting rid of the welfare for developers is definitely a step in the right direction. Now let's abolish the hopelessly incompetent Southern Californian Council of Governments, the corrupt San Gabriel Valley Council of Governments, and shrink regional governing bodies back down to an appropriate size.

  25. There are more stories than time for a single community blogger in Glendale as well, and Google's new, improved algorithm ignores my blog's original content.

  26. That was one of the reasons I went with Blogger. Technically I am contributing content for the benefit of Google, so it only makes sense that my pithy observations would be treated better than that from sources beyond their world. And it is, my stuff is everywhere. In many interesting looking languages, too.

  27. Who knows what kind of absurd reorganization of Redevelopment Agencies the colluding developers and politicians will come up with next. For the moment, I am certainly enjoying the fact that the most wasteful and disgustingly greedy among them have been stripped of their fuel, our money.

  28. You're right 9:37, but it's Tim Armstrong, not Tom, and it is worth noting that Tim was once President of Google's Americas operation. He knew very well what strategies he had to employ.

  29. Watching Jerry Brown zap the CRA scheme is kind of like being a kid and lifting up a rock in your dad's back yard. All sorts of interesting insect life scuttling around there.

  30. 8:31

    How sad they opted to give the money to PUSD when so few of our children use the system. Many more children and families use the pool than PUSD.
    They really should rethink that decision.

  31. Sierra Madre has more than 800 children in the PUSD system. And if the schools were upgraded many more families would choose to send their kids rather than the huge private tuitions that so many families struggle with.

  32. California is no longer worth it. My advice to you all is to get out.

  33. I'm not sure that "content farm" quite captures the slavish work conditions to perverse ideals that the AOL escapees have described. Maybe Content Gulags is closer to it.

  34. 800 kids(total enrollment for both schools with all of the bussed in kids from out of town) versus 11,000 people.
    Should have done more for the majority..not the minority.

  35. 3:42, I'm tempted to agree with you, but on the other hand, the killing of the CRAs is a very promising sign.
    And I did not vote for Brown.

  36. I believe the 800+ Sierra Madre schools kids includes lower and middle schools, and the PHS students, as well as the Aveson and other specialty schools. Kids actually living in Sierra Madre. There's a substanatial number.

  37. The Times article about content farming was frightening. Somebody has got to do a movie about that. Young promising journalists and writers who find themselves pounding on a keyboard producing internet crapola in the middle of the night. Real modern life horror.

  38. Amen 4:28.
    It's an inversion of the wonderful guiding principle,
    quality over quantity.

  39. To even come up with Search Engine Optimization speaks of a stunning cynicism, unless it's used as an example of what a writer should never do.

  40. Tim Armstrong is not about principles or ethics, or even writing. His thing is marketing.

  41. If the big corporations ever get their way with the FCC and "tame" the internet, AOL-Patch is what everything will look like.

  42. I taught in a small town with a high school, a continuation high school, a middle school and 6 elementary schools. I can tell you that having a supported public school gives a heart beat to a community. We need to support public education in Sierra Madre.

    A survey was taken some time during the Youth Master Plan development and it was reported that Sierra Madre school-aged children attended 28 different schools.

    Sure, parents walk their money right out of our local public school district and into the private, religious or public sector schools somewhere other than PUSD but it does not help the sense of community or the building of the foundations for participatory democracy.

  43. I agree with you in theory 6:18, but in practice I am not willing to give my children a less than excellent education in order to make the community feel a sense of identity.

  44. Sierra Madre residents and property owners DO support the public schools like it or not.

    We pay property taxes.
    We are paying for two bond measures.
    We allow the schools to have free access to our library.
    The police give free assemblies.
    The water district re landscaped the school, only to have it die because the school did not water the grass.

    28 private schools are needs because PUSD does not meet the educational needs of our children.

    What would the district do if the first day of school, all the private school children showed up to enroll?

    The district is a joke. In fact all of the Council Memebers use or have used private schools. They know better than to send their kids to PUSD for 12 years.

  45. Your kids only get one chance for a good education. Don't risk it by trying to be socially and politically correct.

  46. We shouldn't have to sacrifice our kids just because the public school system screwed things up. I don't think we owe anything to incompetents. Especially our kids prospects for success. Sorry. Hope that isn't un-PC or anything.

  47. 5:19 You are correct, but don't go far enough. In addition to "big corporations", the ruckus Supreme Court (5 of the 9 follow one relitgion ,with at least 1 on the take) Confederate South, the Taliban toe hold in Kansas (women under assult), and the Koch Bros (they made their money the old fashion way...they inherrited it)to mention a few. The "patch" is just hor dourves. 15th Century beliefs are feasting at the dining table as we sleep.

  48. So Sierra Madre residents are supporting 800 kids' public education via taxes and physical infrastructure. Does the PUSD budget break that out for the public K-8 school in Sierra Madre? That looks like about 100 kids per grade, maybe 35 classrooms plus ancillary spaces (gym, etc.) in a town with about 5000 households? Those numbers must not include the kids enrolled in PUSD high schools. A good analysis would clear some of this up.

  49. It's all the fault of those people who send their kids to private school.

  50. 8:25, correction. K-12.

  51. There are about 2000 school aged kids in
    sierra Madre. Over 1200 don't go to PUSD.
    I don't believe 800 use the PUSD schools.

  52. City has responded to Crawford's lawsuit, saying he waited too long to file the complaint. See Sierra Madre News Net for details.

  53. It is a joke. They claim that he had only 60 days to file because the water rate increase was about bonds. Which is pretty much an admission that the city lied when it claimed it was for water infrastructure repair when they first rolled it out. About as weak a response as you could possibly imagine. They're toast.

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