Asleep at the Wheel – The Disheartening Tale of the San Gabriel Valley Council of Governments By Kelly Aviles
Secrecy breeds corruption. When the public’s business is conducted illegally behind closed doors, the public pays the price, whether it’s Cudahy, Bell or the San Gabriel Valley Council of Governments. The tales of Cudahy and Bell have been splayed on the front pages of the local papers, but the SGVCOG’s story has been relegated to the occasional blurb. It shouldn’t be.
The SGVCOG is a joint powers authority formed in 1994 that serves the San Gabriel Valley area. The agency membership is comprised of 31 local cities, three Los Angeles County Supervisorial Districts and three local water agencies. Each agency appoints a representative to sit on the governing board.
But within the COG, violations of the Public Records Act and Ralph M. Brown Act, which govern how public agencies conduct their business, resulted in the arrest and prosecution of the executive director, Nicholas Conway on four felony charges. Conflict of interest allegations, and questions about “funny” accounting, including the use of an unlicensed accountant and multiple budgets, appear to be the norm rather than the exception.
Some of these issues, including the conflict of interest issues, date back at least six years. Which begs the question: Who was supposed to be guarding the henhouse? The easy answer, and the answer you will most likely hear, is the executive director, Mr. Conway (a.k.a. “the Fox”). The more complicated answer is we are all to blame – our elected officials who sit on the board, the public who failed to attend meetings or monitor its activities, the local newspaper that was more interested in weekly meetings about the battery recycling program than investigating the misuse of public funds.
First, will our elected officials that sit on the SGVCOG governing board please stand up? No ... seriously! STAND UP! We elected you, not Conway. You formed the SGVCOG and hired Conway and his staff, but then neglected to perform any of the supervisory duties that we expected of you. Materials should have been read, budgets reviewed, contracts scrutinized, and questions asked – but none of this happened. Our leaders have clearly failed us.
In fact, the SGVCOG continues to pay Conway’s company, Arroyo Associates, Inc., under each and every contract – including those tied to the felony charges. In June alone, Arroyo Associates, Inc. was paid some $66,000. This doesn’t include the new interim executive director’s salary, approximately $8,000 per month. Conway continues to have full and unrestricted access to staff – after all, the staff is employed by Arroyo, and the SGVCOG and Arroyo offices are one and the same.
The proposed solution to this problem? Just hire the Arroyo staff as employees of the SGVCOG. Some board members have even contacted some of the local member agencies, telling them Conway is the good guy and will be reinstated as soon as he is acquitted.
Next, to the public. It has been said that we get the government we deserve. President James Garfield once said, "The people are responsible for the character of their Congress. If that body be ignorant, reckless, and corrupt, it is because the people tolerate ignorance, recklessness, and corruption.” Who knew the SGVCOG was around back then? But he also said, “If it be intelligent, brave, and pure, it is because the people demand these high qualities to represent them ..."
Unfortunately, we haven’t demanded much. Over the past 18 months, members of the public have rarely attended a SGVCOG meeting. A member of the public once showed up to a meeting where there were no chairs available for the public. When a staff member got up to get him a chair, Conway stopped him, saying, “Let him stand.”
But even now after the corruption has been uncovered, where is the outrage? After Bell, citizens took to the streets, demanding change. Yet, no one is voicing their outrage about the SGVCOG.
And finally, to our local news agencies. What happened to being the fourth pillar of democracy? You would think that with the scarce resources of the local newspapers these days, someone would put them to better use. I don't want to hear about a Monrovia woman's dinosaur mystery that was solved on a reality TV show, or how a tree branch fell on a Cadillac in San Dimas (both are stories on the San Gabriel Valley Tribune website today.)
What I and the public desperately want are for our local papers to cover important local issues, like the secrecy and corruption at the SGVCOG, and not just function as a press release depository for the self-serving statements put out by our local government agencies. Some news agencies are doing a great job at this, some are not. I’ll leave it to you to figure out which is which.
Removing Conway as executive director is like using a Band-Aid to close a gaping wound – it just isn’t enough. If the SGVCOG is going to continue to exist, there need to be wide-spread changes. The public needs to stand up and demand that these changes are made. Our elected leaders need to listen and clean up the agency they created. And the newspapers need to report on it all, and leave the battery recycling program coverage for another day.
MaryAnn MacGillivray's Public Comment on the Green Committee
Whether or not to convert the Green Committee to a Green Commission warrants a more robust discussion that the Council will be able to have tonight. It is not a simple matter of changing the name, but rather an evaluation of the scope and purpose, expertise and qualifications of the members, and the application and authority that will be granted to such a commission.
When the Green Committee was appointed, it was anticipated that it would be an adjunct working committee to assist the GPUSC in determining how best to meet the requirements imposed by AB32 and SB375. The GPUSC, together with the hired consultant group, was able to collect and evaluate the data necessary to meet legislative mandates without the assistance of the Green Committee because efforts to combine subcommittees of the two just did not work out. The GPUSC is well into the editing process and when the draft is submitted to the Planning Commission and the City Council you will see that it is riddled with green leaves throughout (having adopted the Claremont format) because “being green” does not reside in its own box, but rather permeates our policies and way of life as reflected in the updated plan. That anticipated function of the Green Committee is no longer needed.
The Green Committee is now reacting to data and proposals submitted to them by the staff analyst which directly parallels sustainability initiatives set forth by ICLEI (International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives now changed to Local Governments for Sustainability). ICLEI wrote what became Chapter 28: Local Agenda 21 of Agenda 21, which is an attempt by NGO’s (non-governmental agencies) to influence local land-use laws to shift the population away from low-density residential areas into high-density urban areas, and to put limits on production and consumption of items and services of all kinds including food, transportation, public utilities, natural resources and open space utilization for recreation. Most of the items listed on the Sierra Madre Accords already fall under the purview and authority of the Planning Commission or staff.
Sierra Madre has always been environmentally conscious even before it was mandatory. With the help of SMEAC, we have been recycling for over 20 years. Water conservation is a way of life for the residents of this village. As stewards of the San Gabriel Mountain watershed, we take our responsibility seriously and have managed development and avoided overdevelopment utilizing the Hillside Management Zone to keep the watershed healthy. We have been able to work to protect the environment and make wise development decisions without the participation of the NGO’s, so why would we shackle ourselves to them and become subject to their mandates particularly if they do not benefit Sierra Madre?
The City joined ICLEI sometime in 2008, shortly after the Mayor signed the Kyoto Protocol, primarily to utilize the ICLEI software to assist in conducting a GHG (Green House Gas) inventory. Not only has the process been more difficult and complicated than anticipated, but we can now utilize the software without being a member of the organization.
It is important to remember that part of our environmental health is our ability to prosper as a city and community. That ability is increasingly more difficult when we try to comply with the ever-changing unfunded state mandates.
Staff and the City Council have a pretty full plate. The General Plan is nearly complete: the draft and EIR need to go through the approval process. Our Housing Element is not yet certified and the next one is due in October 2013 – just 13 short months from now. Numerous codes and zoning regulations have to be evaluated and approved so as to be consistent with the General Plan update after it is approved. The Kensington project and vote is on the horizon and we are still grappling with the aftermath of the dissolution of the CRA. Our water rates are not meeting the objectives as hoped with regard to infrastructure improvements and bond covenants.
And that just hits a few highlights. Commissions take time and money – we are short of both. The GPUSC would have finished in half the time if they were allowed to meet twice per month as they requested, but staff time and even facility access just did not permit it to happen.
It would be prudent and even wise to postpone the decision to convert the Green Committee to a commission until more complete analysis and discussion can be had by staff and council.
A good starting point would be:
• List all of the non-government agencies (such as ICLEI), groups, and committees that Sierra Madre belongs to, what the associated costs are and what the real benefits to the City are. Then withdraw from those that are not of value, and especially withdraw from those whose mandates and charters are contrary to our plan for sustainability. This should free staff time.
• Determine what the purpose and charter of a Green Commission would be. Would it be a working commission like the GPUSC or a review and approval commission more like the Planning Commission? And what would it review and approve?
• What non-redundant topics and policies would benefit by such a commission?
• What then would be the expertise needed by the members to perform the functions assigned?
Inform the public and seek input. Provide many opportunities for open dialogue with the community because it is the residents whose lives will be changed. Kermit the Frog always said “It isn’t easy being green” but he didn’t know how expensive it is. We residents of Sierra Madre, all of us, will ultimately pay the price so we should have something to say about it. Many a good solution has come from the audience and not the dais so don’t act too quickly and not without engaging the public.
I am submitting to the City Clerk a listing of all ICLEI member cities. Sierra Madre is a member but our neighbors, Arcadia, Monrovia, Pasadena and even South Pasadena are not. That should create questions if not concern.