The hundreds of millions of dollars in federal stimulus money are working their way through various systems, en route to a city near you.
Give President Barack Obama credit for acting boldly to pump the funds into the economy – or take him to task for printing up money on the cuff.
Either way, the time has come to shift your focus from Washington, D.C., and onto State Houses and City Halls throughout our land.
You’ll need to keep an eye on your local government officials because our civic culture has grown corrupt, and it’s a cancer that’s widespread. Politicians still don’t quite understand that this is now an open secret – although they’ve at least begun to stir in the wake of the recent and resounding “no” that California voters gave to the latest request for a bailout of a sick system of government.
Meanwhile, the stimulus money is beginning to flow as pundits slice and dice the results from the Golden State, and the federal funds offer the potential to allow local governments to ignore the clear message from voters who are fed up with corruption and waste. Consider that most local governments across the nation have enjoyed a long run of a strong economy with only a few, brief interruptions over the past 25 years. They’re out of shape, all balled up with bad habits. The stimulus money could serve to finance another year or two of bad behavior if the people don’t watch local government like hawks. And another year or two of bad habits will be too much for all of us.
Any doubts that these bad habits exist can be dispelled by taking a look at a recent deal that had city officials in Los Angeles ready to spend $5.6 million for a small parcel of land to be turned into a park on the 400 block of S. Spring Street. They eventually cut the offer to $5.1 million – a savings of $500,000 that came only after ongoing coverage by the Los Angeles Garment & Citizen – a weekly community newspaper that covers the Downtown area of the city and surrounding districts – shed light on a number of questionable factors in the deal.
Those questionable factors indicate that it’s time for everyone who is not a city official – the people, in other words – to take a second look at the situation. The recent coverage amounted to more than stories about a park, or even the price of the land. The stories pointed to systemic corruption in the process that city officials use in spending large sums of the public’s money.
There are no individuals to single out here – not at this point, anyway. No one got caught with a hand in the cookie jar. That’s the main problem – the corruption of our civic culture is pervasive to the point that it’s tough to catch anyone with their hand in the cookie jar. We don’t even keep our cookies in a jar in Los Angeles anymore – they’re left out around City Hall for the taking by politicians and special interests.
New rules and ethical standards are needed in Los Angeles – and it’s a safe bet that the same is in order for cities across the country. A good place to start would be a new rule to ensure that taxpayers never again see city officials offer to pay millions of dollars based on an appraisal commissioned on behalf of the seller of a piece of land—the very process originally used in the park deal in Los Angeles. There should be some standard that requires city officials to conduct their own appraisals on major purchases. Many cities have such expertise among their employees. If not, it is surely worth a few thousand dollars to hire an appraiser to work for the city’s interests on deals where a 0.1% savings would cover such extra costs, as was the case on the park land.
The Garment & Citizen’s recent reporting also shed light on the fact that bureaucrats in City Hall currently have great leeway in such matters. Sometimes they order their own appraisal on land purchases—and sometimes they don’t. The decision seems to be left entirely to the discretion of unelected bureaucrats.
The problem here is basic because the current set-up begs for abuse. Bureaucrats are human beings, after all, and subject to all of the problems and temptations that life brings. It’s also well known that the career bureaucrats in Los Angeles are subject to political pressure from any number of sources. That includes the 15 members of the Los Angeles City Council, who operate their districts much like personal fiefdoms. The City Council members tend to stay out of one another’s business in a pretense of some sort of legislative courtesy. What they’re really doing is withholding their best efforts at internal oversight, a failure that has helped send the people on a sorrowful journey from engaged participants in our democracy to cynics who don’t even bother to vote.
The lack of standards on appraisals is only one of the problems that cropped up on the recent park deal. There are many more specific to real estate dealings – and you can just imagine how many additional pitfalls can be found in the way the city purchases motor vehicles, or paper products, or telecommunications services. And so on, and so on.
It’s enough to make you wonder how many city deals could be trimmed by a half-million here or a couple of million there?
We’re guessing plenty – and that tightening up on these sweetheart deals would go a long way toward solving the current budget crunch while maintaining many of the jobs and services that might be cut to close a looming $500 million deficit in the city’s budget in Los Angeles.
You can bet there are plenty of similar savings to be had in State Houses and City Halls across the nation, too. Indicators abound in Gwinnett County, Georgia, just outside of Atlanta. Taxpayers in Gwinnett who want to avoid getting fleeced will apparently have to go a step further than a clear standard on appraisals for land deals. That seems to be the only lesson to take from a recent report in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which found that elected officials in Gwinnett County commissioned their own appraisal on a piece of land and still voted to pay twice the price.
Some of the county commissioners in Gwinnett said that they approved the higher price because land appraisals are “all over the board” these days.
Commissioner Mike Beaudreau opposed the deal, saying that the wide range of appraisals indicated that the matter should be given more study. He stood alone in his opposition, and the people of Gwinnett County are now set up to pay twice the appraised value for the land.
So here’s the key question to consider: Will stimulus money paper over such deals in State Houses, County Commissions, and City Halls throughout our land?
Only the people can say for certain.
Jerry Sullivan is the Editor & Publisher of the Los Angeles Garment & Citizen, a weekly community newspaper that covers Downtown Los Angeles and surrounding districts (www.garmentandcitizen.com)