MALIBU’S MYOPIC GOVERNANCE

The willful ignorance of Malibu’s governance is exasperating, exposed recently by the ill considered search to curb mansionization, the fumbling of the rebuild effort  in the wake of the disastrous Woolsey Fire and city hall’s false front.

Putting this into a  larger perspective, the muddle in Malibu can be sadly considered a local manifestation of what select pundits have described as a rupture of the link between the governing and the governed globally that has exacerbated no less than the crisis of climate change, the continued deterioration of the environment and the dispiriting economic disparity. I fear for my children and grandchildren.

However, there is a faint hope in our bubble of Malibu that we can do something to modestly begin to mend the rupture, specifically at the moment to pressure the conflicted City Council to kill the proposed square foot reduction ordinance approved last week by a confused City Planning Commission. That if you recall was despite the strong reservations by concerned residents who packed City Hall. You had to be impressed by the turnout and the heartfelt comments.

To be sure, many as myself are opposed and repulsed by mansionization, concerned that it would invite blatant commercial use as unwanted rehabs or obnoxious AirBnBs. But they also clearly recognize you can’t really codify  (8500 sq ft ?) what constitutes mansionization or a “McMansion,” as I can’t as a design critic immodestly cited by Wikipedia as a reference. I literally coined the phrase 30 years ago in a book review for the L.A. Times entitled ‘Out of Place: Restoring Identity to the Regional Landscape.’

In search of a measure rather than an arbitrary square footage that incidentally can be hid by good landscaping, I suggest the colloquial expression, “I know it when I see it.” That subjective phrase parenthetically was used in 1964 by United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, in attempting to define what exactly, constitutes hard-core pornography.

Of course, what the council should be doing, as it has repeatedly promised, is provide some needed oversight and light a fire under a sluggish city hall, and its bloated bureaucracy and cadre of consultants, manipulated by crafty city manager manager Reva Feldman. All else could be considered broadly as pornography.

MALIBU PLAN COMISSION CONFUSED

It was heartening to witness the public turnout at City Hall Monday night for the hearing on a proposed ordinance capping residential development.  

Though there was some understandable confusion concerning the flawed attempt to codify “neighborhood character,” most all speaking late into the evening expressed an obvious heart felt affection for Malibu.

But that made it all the more disheartening to witness, as the night wore on, the genuine homeowner concerns to be mostly ignored by a confused and at times contentious, supercilious Planning Commission.

The nit picking majority of commission eventually did painfully vote for a watered down version of the ordinance, exempting lots of less than an acre while demonstrating their embarrassing lack of planning knowledge, making several ad hoc additions.

Of course, what they should have done was simply hose down the ordinance, and tell the also neophyte compromised City Council to bury it, and instead direct the city’s planning staff to bolster its rebuild effort.

Despite its overblown PR effort, the city’s under achieving governance and over stuffed city hall staff is a muddle, suffering from a hardening of the bureaucratic arteries and in desperate need of surgery.

MALLEABLE, MUDDLED MALIBU

Being misanthropic Malibu, it will not be surprising if the city’s attempt to thwart tacky “McMansions” most likely will end up just feeding its bungling bureaucracy and frustrating a planning conscious public.

And given the city’s protracted politicized process, I suspect it also will fatten the suspect facilitators of deep pocket developers, and compromise whatever ordinance might be approved, as they have in the city government’s pathetic past.  

Yes, there is finally a report out from the city’s Planning Department recommending an amendment to the zoning code that may have the effect of possibly limiting square foot development of select projects in select residential zones.

The attempt to somehow institute an ill defined goal of neighborhood character is scheduled to be aired before the Planning Commission July 1st and presumably eventually by the City Council.

But after reviewing it, and despite being an adherent of neighborhood character, as an experienced planner and long time resident of Malibu, concerned for its preservation as a livable community, I reluctantly oppose the proposed ordinance.

Primarily I do so because I fear however limited it would only make the city’s rebuild effort more muddled, exasperate many of the burned out Woolsey fire victims of modest means, and further discourage their return, hollowing out the economic and demographic diversity of the city.

 And this while encouraging flipping, to no doubt the cheers of prevailing, ever-avaricious realtors.

Even if the proposed amendment to the dense zoning code somehow is clarified to address neighbor character, the problem that has plagued planning in Malibu since its founding persists.

Bluntly that is a mostly inept and lazy municipal government, conniving administrators and vain glorious, generally neophyte city councils. And this sorrowfully includes some good people whom I consider friends, but if truth be told who are not particularly politically or planning savvy.

No matter how noble the city’s mission statement, and how well intentioned the city’s codes may be, I feel they can be only as effective as are those who administer them.

As for the report, it does not in its own voluble wording address the findings requested by the council for site plan review and minor modification “that the projects does not adversely affect neighborhood character.” It is a bad read.

Not incidentally, it was written by a former city planning director and now a consultant; heaven forbid the city with its overblown staff headed by an overpaid city manager attempt to do any heavy lifting or heavy thinking. Our bean counters do love their consultants to the tune of millions of tax payer dollars that instead could be going to improved services.

What we have gotten is a lot of lip service from the City Hall crowd posing as friends of Malibu, all the while surreptitiously raising the fear that limiting development and square footage would limit price and profit. For this we must credit local rumormongers.

As I have stated previously, real estate value is based on location and neighborhood character, and that out-of-scale mansionization tends to diminish value. They also tend to be poorly detailed and in bad taste, and generally bad neighbors, earning the approbation of “McMansion.”

I first used the phrase back in the 1980s when as the LA Times Design Critic described the practice in Santa Monica of building the largest size house possible on a site, which led to a domino effect that ultimately compromised the character of neighborhoods and accelerated gentrification.

In Malibu, I recall too well a case years ago in which an over designed plan for a prime site on Cliffside Drive had been objected to by neighbors, but nonetheless was approved by the city after an emotional appeal by the owner.  He and his tearful wife pleaded that though possibly over designed the house nevertheless was the family’s dream, where they intended to live into the sunset. 

Within a year after completion, they flipped the house for a huge profit, and flipped off Malibu. There have been too numerous similar incidents, orchestrated by special interests scamming a malleable Malibu.

Yes, Malibu needs some tough codes to protect what is left of its “neighborhood character,” but what it really first needs is a committed and courageous City Hall.

WHITHER MALIBU

  It is no surprise that the Malibu City Council approved extending the contract with California Strategies, despite no public accounting for the more than $2 million it has paid the Sacramento firm over the last dozen years, and a violation of accepted municipal practices.

The extension was recommended by City Manager Reva Feldman, who continues to mesmerize and manipulate a susceptible, neophyte council to safeguard her sinecure while wily wrapping a somnolent city in a bureaucratic web.

To witness the last council meeting it seems forgotten was that our $300,000 plus a year de facto mayor Feldman failed to prepare the city for the Woolsey fire disaster, mismanaged the evacuation, abandoned the emergency control center when most needed, neglected to advocate in the civic chain of command for a local first response, and then chided those who stayed to fight the fire while praising her staff and herself for a job well done.

 We are talking here of gross malfeasances, further aggravated by the city’s lack of ethical public service norms, while the city manager hires staff and consultants such as California Strategies as foils.

Sadly for those who had cheered Malibu’s cityhood, there is no effective municipal checks and balances, nor council oversight, in particular its heedless fealty to Feldman.

 Perhaps the disastrous fire took the fight out of residents for a responsive and responsible local government, or maybe the hard fact is most who have the good fortune to live in Malibu really don’t care and don’t want to get involved.

 After all, what does City Hall actually do? Malibu doesn’t have its own police and fire departments or garbage pickup, nor can do anything about the traffic on the PCH. It does put out a lot of promotional press releases.

But frankly when it comes down to an explication, the Council is not much more than a self-important ceremonial construct, its commissions a local conceit. (Yes, I did serve, but we never built the playing fields or affordable housing, or instituted the view protection, that was and are still needed.)

 Let’s face it: Malibu has become a honey pot for bureaucrats, some of whom are committed to public service, but others who are self serving public serpents. And then there are the less than competent or caring office holders who seem to be tragically gaining in power globally. One wonders whither democracy, here in Malibu, and elsewhere?

TIME TO LIGHT A FIRE UNDER REVA

Time for Malibu City Council to halt the reflex approvals of the past, and start questioning some of the consultant relationships proposed by wily City Manager Reva Feldman.
Yes, the persevering overpaid, under achieving city manager who just told the municipal finance challenged council and her staff they must be frugal.
This is particularly needed in the wake of the disastrous Woolsey Fire and the acceding to the righteous request of waiving rebuild fees for resident victims. (And hopefully not for the real estate vultures waiting to snap up burnout sites.)
With this in mind, I have urged the Council to reject tonight’s item (3.B.11.) extending the contract with California Strategies, pending a transparent detailed accountability of the more than $2 million the city had paid it over the last dozen years.
This request has been made in the past, with, typically no response from the stiff upper lip City Manager, and a curt dismissal by the consultant.
In a long and questionable relationship with the city there has been no written report available to the public, of any indication of service, contrary to the best practices of municipal management.
One has to wonder what the firm has accomplished on behalf of Malibu other than glad hand and host select councilpersons and the city manager?

IF YOU CARE ABOUT MALIBU

If City Manager Reva Feldman was so determined rallying resources on behalf of Malibu in the disastrous Woolsey Fire as she is preserving her sinecure perhaps the present local quandary could have been avoided. Who knows?

If you happen to care, what we are sadly seeing at City Hall these dark post disaster days is a classic double defense of its questionable administration, the conscious construction of a bureaucratic bulwark by a wily city manager Feldman.

 And perhaps more sadly with Malibu suffering “fire fatigue,” it seems to be working.  It has been six months since Feldman failed the city and no criticisms have been forthcoming as of yet from a decidedly split, compromised City Council.

To be sure, it is waiting, as we all are, for the report of a well connected, perhaps too well connected, team of management consultants who are reviewing the city’s performance during the fire, and hopefully will address Feldman’s failures.

I added “hopefully,” given their indicated predilections otherwise cited by the indefatigable documentarian and local watchdog Paul Taublieb.  Will the report be a smoke screen?

Meanwhile, the city manager continues to laugh all the way to the bank, depositing her $300,000 a year salary and benefits, not bad for a neophyte pencil pusher with just three years chief ranking managerial experience.

Of course, that does not include her years as a fledgling under Malibu’s menace Joe Edmiston, of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. There no doubt he passed to her the apparatchik ability to haughtily ignore any criticism or critics.

Feldman’s first line of defense has been simply to be unapologetic, keep a stiff upper lip and not to take responsibility for having failed the city at its most crucial time during the firestorm, and pathetically continuing to fail it, while padding her payroll.

 Those who witnessed the city’s manager’s megaflop might be able to forgive her. That is if she admitted her failures, but they can’t forget her not preparing the city adequately for the disaster, mismanaging the mandatory evacuation, closing down the emergency control center when most needed, failing to advocate in the civic chain of command for a focused first response, and then dismissing and actually hampering those who stayed behind to valiantly fight the fire. 

Talk about grounds for dismissal!

No amount of bureaucratic obfuscation can hide the simple truth that if individuals such as a city manager and mayor had any sense of fidelity for their positions of trust, they should not be making excuses for their inaction and blaming others. Not apologizing also is just bad manners.

The second line of defense which we are now witnessing with a certain amusement is her obviously contriving awards for herself and staff from congenial consortiums, and taking credit for whatever half truths can be manufactured surrounding City Hall stumbling in the fire and after.

So for the State of the City, her fattened PR staff produced what I would label a public disservice video obviously at some expense in house, Now being played on the City’s social media and the City TV channel and available on-demand on You Tube, the slick video takes some egregious liberties from my perspective as an Emmy award wining reporter/producer.

Particularly sharp were the comments Taublieb, also an Emmy winner, included in an email to the city inquiring about the cost of the video. He added:

“BTW, the video is quite nice – great shots of fireman at work, but missing the ones of frantic homeowners waving at fire trucks riding by and refusing to stop and help!  and really love the coverage of the relief effort at pt. dume marine science and the boat relief – both efforts the city had nothing to do with and actually tried to stop!  or in reva’s words to me, “if you stayed behind you were not the responsibility of the city.”  but heh, we’re in the shadow of hollywood and taking credit for things you didn’t do is almost a local tradition!”

How will this farce of a City Hall end? I hope sooner rather than later, for I really don’t want to continue as town grouch, preferring instead to pursue cultural offerings, travel and tending my landscape.

But I also hate to witness my Malibu of many, long, loving years being hustled and compromised by greedy bureaucrats and special interests, orchestrating the sorrowful Woolsey Fire experience to their advantage.

5.25.19/6.1.19

AT LACMA: MATERIAL ART FROM CHINA

By Sam Hall Kaplan

The visual arts these days can be almost anything beyond the recognized appearances as paintings and sculpture.  Embraced now is printmaking, ceramics, drawing, design, crafts, photography, video, filmmaking, and, yes, my past prime interest  of architecture.

Exploring and embracing as art even further the everyday world and more, with engaging and select stunning results, is an exhibit that opened recently at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, entitled “The Allure of Matter: Material Art from China.” It runs until Jan. 5, 2020.

Be prepared to be provoked, if not encouraged to look at everyday elements as grist for an artist, and for this reason alone the exhibition is noteworthy.

And so we have both usual and generic materials as plastic, furniture, cigarettes water, and gunpowder, too, used by Chinese contemporary artists as their preferred mediums to express themselves and comment on present day society. As noted in the introduction to the exhibit, “these signature materials transcend standard art forms to function as superagents that hold particular significance and strongly convey meaning.”

But, really, to understand and explain it, you really have to experience it, even if it means having to endure the traffic of the frustrating freeways and the dread PCH.

Of the 21 artists Chinese artists represented most well known and influential is Ai Weiwei, who recently had a captivating exhibition at the nearby Marciano Art Foundation last year.

The prime installation there was a response to the refugee crisis with boats, humans and zodiac figures crafted out of traditional kite-making materials: bamboo, sisal and silk. But what really remains with me is the image of a huge carpet of millions of sunflower seeds made of tiny porcelain sculptures that celebrate the 1,600 artisans it took two years to make, a statement of labor and love.

At LACMA, Weiwei is represented by two antique tables he had transformed into a balanced sculpture that of course turns what had been two pieces of furniture into a crafted art piece. This, of course, negated their original functions, and is a telling statement I feel about society’s value for traditional woodworking and contemporary art.

Actually more provocative is an untitled piece by Gu Dexin, consisting of an entire room decorated with abstracted composition of brightly colored and plastic scraps taken from a factory where he had worked for years no doubt at a dreary job. At home over the years he meticulously  melted the scraps into a variety of striking art forms celebrating space and place. Amazing.

Then there was a particularly striking art piece by Xu Bing, consisting of a large tiger skin carpet made entirely of cigarettes. It was ironically labeled a Tobacco Project, and, more ironically, crafted by him as an artist-in residence at Duke University, which was founded by the tobacco fortunes of the Duke family. Bing of course is a native of China, where widespread smoking is a major health, social and economic concern.

Another fascinating work of art really is rooted in the art of nature, specifically the silkworm. For more than 25 years Liang Shaoji has been using this fascinating insect to spin silk on a host of objects,  here on hollow metal chains hung from the gallery’s ceiling. According to the exhibit’s didactics, the artist’s “fascination with silk is rooted in the Chinese psyche,” which link the discovery of silk making with the creation of no less than the Chinese civilization,.

What is clearly apparent in this and most of the other art pieces in the exhibit is that they go beyond just making statements about “materiality,” as the curators comment, to the making of “matter,” as “the primary vehicle of philosophical, political, sociological, emotional and aesthetic expression.”   This is art, and provocatively much more. 

5.30.19

BEYOND THE PCH

Couldn’t make it to Paris this Spring?

If regrettably not, you should consider for compensation most definitely going to  “A Paris Love Story,” at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, on stage May 24 through June 9th.

There the incomparable Hershey Felder as a story teller and pianist will be conducting a personal virtual tour of the romantic metropolis as he explores the life and music of the French composer Claude Debussy.

As I write for The Local and select websites, Felder is very much an original who in the past has fashioned staged portraits of such musical  notables as Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Chopin, as well the more contemporary Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein.

The productions with their staging and costumes might be a little hokey, but they also have been entertaining and informative, making the engaging Felder, fake beards or not, an international star, and box office favorite.

The theatrical Felder no doubt will find Debussy a particularly succulent subject, for the composer is considered the foremost musical expression of the Impressionist and Symbolist movements at the turn of the 19th and 2oth centuries.

Not only known for such major works as “Clair de Lune, ”Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” and La Mer, Debussy also had the reputation of being somewhat of a rake, with an active love life that was marked by a touch of tragedy.

 This should evidently prompt some staged histrionics, for which Felder is famed, and also make for a fun evening’s entertainment.

State of The City: Not So Good.

Embedded in the remark echoed by a parade of local politicians at the recent State of the City gathering in Malibu was the memorable plea made by Rodney King during the Los Angeles riots of 1992, “Why can’t we all just get along?”

Most direct was those of the engaging State Senator Henry Stern, who declared he was concerned about the state of the city, “but not because of our competence, not because of our financial condition of our infrastructure, but because of relationships with each other.”

As I write in the Local and other select websites, Stern obviously was alluding to the growing chorus calling for the ouster of City Manager Reva Feldman, for failing to prepare the city for the anticipated Woolsey fire, for abandoning it in the heat of the fire, for absolving herself of any responsibility and for fumbling in the projected aftermath.

Her financial acumen also has been questioned, as well as her leadership abilities. Comments in the social media have been particularly scorching, while a petition for her removal has garnered 4,000 signatures. 

Further galling her critics has been Feldman perversely promoting herself as both a hero and a victim of the disaster, while never admitting to, or apologizing for, any failures. Instead she has depended on the questionable support of recalcitrant councilmen Rick Mullen and Skylar Peak, and self-important residents and special interests that she has favored.

Sorry Henry, but any chance of a civil dialogue is going to have to await Feldman ceasing favoring back scratching friends, supporters and consultants. Also must end is her stonewalling any resident she perceives as not being an ally.

Answering emails would be a start and simply doing the job for which she is overpaid, while not incidentally padding the city payroll for others to do it for her. Though not likely, she could, of course, simply resign and give up her $300,000 a year job she has wrangled for herself, which is more than the salaries of the State’s governor and U.S. Senators.

As for Stern who defends her by default, he may be a promising young progressive, but as most politicians, when push comes to shove, is a protector of the status quo and not prone to probe hardened bureaucratic arteries.

That pose in effect allows one to stand and shout in a boat adrift in the waves of democracy but careful not to rock it so it tips. This is a problem among public office seekers.

As for County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl and Malibu Mayor Jefferson Wagner, likeable as they also are, they obviously have shortcomings in their relationships with the city manager. Kuehl with her political establishment network and show biz connections of old seems to know who butters her toast and the ever amiable mayor sometimes is just too amiable.

You would think that after Wagner’s home burned, same as the 1,000 plus other victims of the fire, he’d be angry and would demand accountability and, yes, an apology from the wayward first responders and Malibu’s bloated bureaucracy. 

Accountability in public service? There’s the rub.

So, can Malibu be mended?  Can the local bickering stop?

I’m optimistic. But first, frankly, the bull being shoveled out of City Hall has to end and that begins with the council taking back the governance of the city from defacto mayor Feldman.

Get that elephant out of City Hall, and maybe the dialogue might begin, hopefully before the next disaster hits Malibu.

5.18.19

TIME FOR CITIZEN BUDGET OVERSIGHT

Some good news, that is if the neophyte City Council and concerned citizens can assert themselves in the discretionary municipal budget review now going on at a paranoid City Hall.

That is a big “if” in the face of manipulative bureaucratic city manager Reva Feldman, who heretofore customarily scripted Malibu’s budgets to, yes, granted, serve the city, but also her personal political prerogatives. And she gives every indication of haughtily continuing to protect her job as de facto mayor of Malibu

As I write in The Local and other select websites, churning out budgets is the heart of public governance, theoretically directing where moneys are allocated for whatever priorities dictated by duly elected representatives, presumably acting on behalf of their constituencies. The bottom line is that budgets are the essence of what governments do.

Except in too many governments, in cities such as Malibu, the constituencies, out of ignorance or indifference, too often relinquish the budget process to a rapacious burgeoning bureaucracy. And their priorities unfortunately tend to be self-serving rather than public serving, such as padding their payroll and pensions, and cozying up to and coddling consultants and special interests for whatever nefarious reasons.

With that admittedly prejudicial view of government, I note Malibu’s City Hall these days is following up on the heartfelt recent pleas of the Woolsey Fire victims that prompted, if not shamed, the City Council to direct staff to revise the municipal budget. This is being done to allow permitting fees for rebuilding burn outs be waived by at least 75 per cent, which could save befallen homeowners up to $10,000.

That it had to take a determined, vocal contingent of victims to get a mostly mealy mouthed council and addled staff headed by a controlling city manager to act six months after the fire says something about the city’s callous, greedy governance.

To be sure, there has been a lot of hand wringing at City Hall over the fire. But according to many victims there has not been much shoulders-to-the wheel help from an inconstant staff, and an unrepentant hard assed Fire Department. Some of the experiences reported on social media have been harrowing.

What was the worst fire in Malibu’s history demands the foremost response by City Hall, financially, administratively and personally. And really so what if it would set a precedent, as an ever-cautious councilperson warned, and that the budget would be compromised.

It was calculated that cutting the fees would cost the city at least $2 million, and that if it wanted to maintain a desired undesignated “rainy day” reserve and balance the budget, it would have to cut some programs.

Various programs were mentioned, including postponing the solar  paneling of city hall, but typically the reworking of the budget details was bounced by Council back to staff, and that means back to the city manager’s desk, behind closed doors.

That is exactly where it should not be these days when her performance is being questioned by a growing contingent of concerned residents, and hopefully a consultant team hired by the city. She should not be given the opportunity to favor select people and programs in exchange for support, as she has baldly done in the past and is in position to continue.

Instead, I suggest the Council consider as other cities have instituting so called  “participatory budgeting,” a transparent process in which citizens participate in open decisions what  programs are to be funded or not.

That includes the cherry consultant contracts the city quietly awards and the generous travel expenses the city manager approves for herself and select councilpersons.

I suspect there is a lot of gravy hidden in Malibu’s budget that could be better used to ease the pain and suffering caused by the Woolsey Fire, rather than on some questionable junkets, and grants and contracts for arbitrary projects.

Too bold for a buttoned-up governance like slothful Malibu? Then in the interest of home grown democracy, how about some citizen input and oversight?