Court Says California Cities Must Let Homeless Sleep On Streets

homelessA ruling this month by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals which holds it is unconstitutional to ban homeless people from sleeping on the streets is likely to complicate the attempts to crack down on homelessness problems by local governments in California.

While the ruling involved a 2009 law adopted by Boise, Idaho, it is binding on California, which is one of the states under the 9th appellate court, which is based in San Francisco.

“[J]ust as the state may not criminalize the state of being ‘homeless in public places,’ the state may not ‘criminalize conduct that is an unavoidable consequence of being homeless — namely sitting, lying, or sleeping on the streets,’” Judge Marsha Berzon wrote for a three-judge panel.

The finding that the law is a cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment was welcomed by activists who have long argued that such restrictions make being poor a crime.

Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, told the Idaho Statesman that “criminally punishing homeless people for sleeping on the street when they have nowhere else to go is inhumane, and we applaud the court for holding that it is also unconstitutional.” Her group provided an attorney to the handful of Boise homeless men and women who sued over the city’s law.

If Boise does not appeal the ruling, the 9th Circuit will have expanded on the protections for the homeless that it created in 2007. The appellate panel ruled then that Los Angeles could not ban people from sleeping outside when shelters were full.

Legality of living in cars is next battleground

Meanwhile, the next fight over homeless rights in California has already emerged. It involves regulations in many cities that have the de facto effect of banning people from sleeping in their vehicles, even if the practice is not specifically singled out.

In Los Angeles, for example, a city ordinance that bans overnight parking in residential areas and a growing number of such restrictions in commercial areas have made it increasingly difficult for vehicle dwellers to find anywhere to sleep. This has made life difficult for the estimated 15,000 people who live in their cars, trucks or recreational vehicles in the city. The policy prompted sharp criticism from some quarters this spring over a perception that City Hall was insufficiently sympathetic to those without shelter.

City officials in San Diego and Santa Barbara are going in the opposite direction, starting trial programs in which car dwellers are allowed to use a handful of designated parking lots overnight – so long as they meet a handful of rules meant to preserve public safety and to minimize littering and public defecation and urination.

But San Diego may have to expand its program or develop other new policies as well. Last month, federal Judge Anthony Battaglia issued an injunction banning the city from ticketing people for living in their vehicles.

Unlike in the other high-profile federal cases involving city laws and homelessness, Battaglia’s argument wasn’t based on the idea that penalties which appeared to single out the homeless were cruel and unusual.

Instead, he concluded that “plaintiffs have shown a likelihood of success on the merits of their claim that the ordinance is vague because it fails to alert the public what behavior is lawful and what behavior is prohibited.” He noted that some people were given tickets merely for reading books in their cars.

The injunction is not permanent, but Battaglia indicated he is likely to make it so in coming months.

This article was originally published by CalWatchdog.com

Making the DMV Audit a Reality

dmv

Motorists across the state have had to wait in hours-long lines at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to register their vehicle or license renewal. Some have spent an entire day waiting in line. Upset drivers have flooded my office with calls and emails.

To make matters worse, DMV personnel mangled 23,000 voter registrations. How did this happen?

In 2015, Democrats passed the Motor Voter Law, directing the DMV to automatically register new voters, unless they choose to opt out. State Senate Republicans warned that this would be problematic. At the time, my colleagues and I expressed our concerns of adding to an already overburdened workload at the DMV. Furthermore, the DMV is the wrong venue to register new voters since this is not the agency’s area of expertise.

Three years later, we learn that tens of thousands of Californians have been registered to vote even though they did not want to be registered. The DMV also made “mistakes” that assigned some voters a different political party preference than the one they chose. We sincerely hope this was not a case of voter fraud.

Once again, the DMV is the state agency that just can’t get it right. It already has been criticized by the public for long wait times, which it blames on an antiquated computer system and the federal REAL ID law – passed in 2005 and set to be implemented by 2020.

Before the legislative session concluded in August, a group of Assembly Republicans called for an audit of the DMV. At the Joint Committee on Legislative Audit hearing, DMV Director Jean Shiomoto apologized for the long wait times, asked for more money and reassured lawmakers that the problem would be corrected by the end of the year. The request for an audit failed after some Democrats did not vote for it.

The public has lost confidence in the DMV.

It has mishandled its core mission, along with a long list of problems including the erroneous registration of voter affidavits. Something needs to be done to regain that trust. The best way to do so is for the DMV to undergo a nonpartisan audit, which would reveal the extent of its problems and suggest recommendations for fixing them.

Enough excuses. Let’s audit the DMV now.

California State Senate.

This article was originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily

Bill to Stop ICE Arrests at State Courts Awaits Governor’s Signature

ICE 2A bill with the potential to worsen California’s already-frosty relationship with the Trump administration passed the Legislature on a near-party-line vote in late August and was presented to Gov. Jerry Brown for his signature last week.

Senate Bill 349, by state Sen. Ricardo Lara (pictured), D-Bell Gardens, is a direct response to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s embrace of the tactic of detaining unauthorized immigrants when they come to state courthouses to deal with matters in the California criminal justice system.

Exact statistics are not provided by ICE on its detentions. But there have been regular reports of ICE raids at state courts and their parking lots in California – especially in the Fresno area – as well as in Arizona, Texas and Colorado within the last year.

ICE officials issued a formal notice in January of their intent to go after targeted individuals when they have scheduled appearances in state courts. Some have said they moved to adopt new policies after the California Legislature adopted and Gov. Brown signed “sanctuary state” legislation last year limiting state cooperation with federal immigration officials.

Lara’s bill would specify that state court officials have the authority to block activities that interfere with the proceedings and operations at state courts. It would require federal immigration agents to have a warrant before they can enter schools, courthouses and state buildings to arrest or question people. It would ban civil arrests in courthouses and authorize the state Attorney General’s Office to pursue civil claims against individuals who violated SB349’s provisions.

The legislative aides who wrote the analysis of the bill cited historical evidence that the practice of not picking up people at courthouses for offenses unrelated to their visits – known as “the common law privilege for civil arrests” – goes back hundreds of years and far predates any controversy over illegal immigration.

Brown and state Attorney General Xavier Becerra have been joined in their sharp criticism of ICE’s tactics by California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye. In a statement issued last month, she blasted arrests at state courts as “disruptive, shortsighted, and counterproductive … . It is damaging to community safety and disrespects the state court system.”

Some sheriffs want more cooperation with feds

Nonetheless, conservative sheriffs in some counties who oppose “sanctuary” policies are supportive of ICE’s aggressive tactics, according to a recent report in the Los Angeles Times. Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims is openly looking for ways to increase her department’s cooperation with ICE in spite of the state law.

That suggests that even if Lara’s bill is signed by Brown, some police agencies may be far less enthusiastic about enforcing it than others. Court battles over what exactly “sanctuary”-style laws compel these agencies to do seem likely.

At issue is the scope of the generally accepted doctrine that the federal government cannot compel state law enforcement agents to enforce federal regulations and that state laws prevail unless they directly conflict with federal laws.

Historically, conservatives in the post-Reagan era and Southern Democrats in the 1950s and 1960s have had more of a “states’ rights” approach to interpreting this doctrine, while liberals have leaned more toward the idea that the federal government deserves deference in gray areas open to different interpretations.

In the Golden State, these political roles have been swapped in the Trump era.

While sharply critical of the Trump White House on many immigration issues, Brown has not commented specifically on Lara’s bill. He has until Sept. 30 to sign or veto it and the hundreds of other passed bills he has not yet made a decision on.

Lara is the Democratic candidate for state insurance commissioner on the November ballot. He is running against Steve Poizner, who is now an independent after serving as insurance commissioner from 2007-2011 as a Republican.

This article was originally published by CalWatchdog.com

Government Boondoggles Threaten CA Property Owners and Taxpayers

High Speed Rail FresnoOne would hope that with the profound foolishness associated with California’s infamous High Speed Rail (HSR) project that our elected leadership would have learned a thing or two.

But this is California. Because we do things bigger and better than anyone else, it’s apparent that one massive boondoggle isn’t enough — we need two.

Let’s recap what we’ll call Boondoggle, Senior.

The complete dysfunction of HSR is no longer in dispute. Missed deadlines for the business plans, lack of transparency, massive cost overruns, engineering hurdles that make the project virtually impossible to complete and a lack of funding are tops on the list. Not only is HSR no longer viable, but the biggest irony is the project was justified on grounds that it would reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Even there it fails, as the independent Legislative Analyst has concluded that the project will be a net GHG producer for the foreseeable future.

HSR is now an international joke. Many who originally supported the High Speed Rail project have changed their opinions, including a former Chairman of the HSR Authority.

Boondoggle, Junior, is the planned construction of the Twin Tunnels project through the Sacramento River Delta, also known as WaterFix. While there is no doubt that California needs additional water infrastructure — and the dams and canals we have now are in need of serious maintenance – Governor Brown’s Twin Tunnel project suffers from the same major flaw as High Speed Rail — an abject lack of planning and no vision for how the project will be funded.

Like the High Speed Rail project, the financing for the Twin Tunnels is illusory. Many of the potential major wholesale customers of water from the Twin Tunnels are highly skeptical of its viability and balk at paying for it. The one exception is the Metropolitan Water District in the greater L.A. area, which has now said it will pay for the full project. Of course, that means its customers will pay.

Lack of transparency is another quality the Twin Tunnels project shares with HSR. Earlier this week, the Joint Legislative Budget Committee held a hearing that opened the way for an extension of the long-term contracts for the State Water Project for another 50 years. (The hearing was supposed to be conducted in the waning days of the Legislative session, but because the topic is so controversial, it was delayed until after everyone left town.) …

Click here to read the full article from the Pasadena Star News

Business Not United on Gas Tax Repeal

Gas-Pump-blue-generic+flippedWhile business organizations are largely opposed to Proposition 6, the gas tax repeal measure, opposition to the measure from business is not universal.

Yesterday, the influential California Business Roundtable announced its positions on November’s ballot and Proposition 6 was absent. The California Business Roundtable took a neutral position on SB 1, the gas tax increase bill, so the CBRT board decided not to take a position on Prop 6.

Meanwhile, the National Federation of Independent Business/California has been pushing for the gas tax repeal to pass since July.

The California Chamber of Commerce announced its opposition to the gas tax repeal months ago. CalChamber remains a leader in opposition to the tax repeal measure and it is not alone. The No on 6 website lists more than 50 business related organizations in the opposition coalition including the Bay Area Council, the California Small Business Association and VICA, the Valley Industry and Commerce Association.

Proposition 6 would require that all legislatively passed taxes on fuels and vehicles only become effective after a statewide vote of the people. The measure is written so that the taxes passed by SB 1 would be null and void since they did not get a public vote.

CalChamber’s board opposed the repeal citing the Legislative Analyst’s estimates that $5 billion in annual revenue for state and local transportation projects would disappear. The Chamber argued that repealing the gas tax would:

  • Stop transportation improvement projects already underway in every community in California. This measure would eliminate funds already flowing to every city and county to fix potholes, make safety improvements, ease traffic congestion, upgrade bridges, and improve public transportation. 4,000 local transportation improvement projects are already underway across the state thanks to SB 1.
  • Make traffic congestion worse. California’s freeways and major thoroughfares are among the most congested in the nation, and Californians spend too much time stuck in traffic away from family and work. This measure would stop projects that will reduce traffic congestion.
  • Cost drivers and taxpayers more money in the long run. The average driver spends $739 per year on front end alignments, body damage, shocks, tires and other repairs because of bad roads and bridges. Fixing a road costs eight times more than maintaining it. By delaying or stopping projects, this measure ultimately will increase costs for motorists.
  • Hurt job creation and the state’s economy. Reliable transportation infrastructure is critical to get Californians to work, move goods and services to the market, and support the economy. This measure would eliminate more than 680,000 good-paying jobs and nearly $183 billion in economic growth that will be created fixing California roads over the next decade.

NFIB California State Director John Kabateck sees things differently. “California small businesses and working families are being crushed in this state with rising costs in every aspect of running their business, which is why NFIB was the leading statewide business association opposed to Senate Bill 1 last year, and why we fully support Proposition 6 to repeal these regressive gas and car tax increases on hardworking Californians. Business owners deeply understand the need for a vibrant transportation infrastructure, and they also know Sacramento has mismanaged existing transportation tax revenues for decades which has resulted in abysmal roads across California. However, with a $200+ billion state budget with a $9 billion surplus, clearly higher taxes are not needed—better management of our tax dollars is the answer, and Proposition 6 forces the legislature to be accountable with existing transportation tax dollars.”

While business associations are not all lined up on the same side, as with most things political, money can make a difference. Estimates are the No on 6 campaign could put $40 million or more into defeating Prop 6. The yes side will only have a couple of million at best and is unlikely to buy any statewide television ads to convince voters. The Yes on 6 campaign is counting on voters affected adversely in the pocketbook by the tax increase to ignore opposition ads and vote for the repeal.

While business is not uniform in its Prop 6 position, business dollars could play a decisive role in the outcome.

This article was originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily. 

Silicon Valley’s Political Perils

FacebookLast week’s news underscored growing concerns over the politicization of tech companies. With his inimitable style, President Trump claimed on Twitter that Google shows political bias by skewing the news found in online searches. Relatedly, a group of some 100 conservative-leaning Facebook employees formed an online community to escape the strictures of a “political monoculture” and provide themselves a “safe” place for “ideological diversity” among their 25,000 co-workers.

It’s a truism that Silicon Valley leans left, but the average tech millionaire is not easy to pigeonhole ideologically. A revealing, if little-noted, 2017 study from Stanford University compared more than 600 “elite technology company leaders and founders,” 80 percent of them millionaires, with more than “1,100 elite partisan donors” of both political persuasions. The distinctions are revelatory for anyone interested in mapping the future of American politics. “Increasingly, technology entrepreneurs are using their personal wealth and firms’ power to exercise political influence,” the survey’s authors observe. “For example, recent federal candidates have referred to Silicon Valley as a ‘political ATM’.” The study found that 80 percent of tech millionaires overwhelmingly donate to Democrats over Republicans; hardly a surprising finding.

But the key reveal of the Stanford analysis is not about party alignment in donations: it’s in what can only be called a kind of political schizophrenia around the core ideologies associated with each party. On one hand, the study showed that Silicon Valley’s titans are firmly aligned with Democrats on social issues, what the survey calls “liberal redistributive, social, and globalistic policies.”  But on the other hand, the survey shows that the ideologies—if not the financial support—of tech millionaires solidly align with Republicans on issues relating to the regulatory environment, specifically around such topics as drones, data storage, self-driving cars, and employee policies.

This ideological rift prompted the Stanford researchers to conclude that tech’s business elites are donating politically against their “self-interest.” For analysts and political operatives, the question is whether that’s an immutable or malleable political reality. After all, it’s not just Republicans like President Trump attacking Silicon Valley; Senator Bernie Sanders, the standard-bearer of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing, is one of many in that caucus taking on the tech giants on “fairness” issues surrounding income inequality in general and Amazon CEO’s Jeff Bezos’s uber-wealth in particular.

It’s risky for companies to become identified with a specific political orientation. The recent evidence of a political tilt at numerous Silicon Valley firms—or at least among their leaders—has ignited controversy, not just in Washington but also in the tech community itself. At least one Valley executive worries that “political correctness” could hurt innovation, the mother’s milk of the tech sector. Google’s firing of engineer James Damore for raising questions about gender differences on an internal discussion board showed the willingness of tech companies to police political expression.

There is a real existential risk for tech companies to be found in the historical propensity of governments to declare new tech enterprises, especially new means of communication, as inherently monopolistic—and thus inherently unfair. Back in 1949, on the theory that radio broadcast companies had monopolistic control of that medium, Congress ordered broadcasters to “afford reasonable opportunity for the discussion of conflicting views of public importance.” The Fairness Doctrine would survive for nearly four decades, before it was revoked in 1987.

Some Democrats sought to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine a decade or so ago, in response to the rise of talk radio, which became overwhelmingly conservative after 1987. Now, some Republicans (and Democrats, too) are looking again at the notion of “fairness” in the context of the dominant market share enjoyed by the likes of Facebook or Google. Google’s global share of “search” has reached 90percent, and Senator Orrin Hatch has already sent a letter to the FTC to request an investigation of anti-competitive practices at the company.

When it comes to issues surrounding access to accurate and “fair” news and information in particular, the challenging question is whether anyone can easily see if there is (or isn’t) an algorithmic finger on the scale of fairness. In the history of the news business, this is an unprecedented concern. The designers and coders of the algorithms respond that the Web’s interstices are arcane and not easy for the layman to understand. In effect, the experts are saying: it’s complicated, so trust us. From a technical perspective, it would indeed be difficult to come up with a “user interface” that provided credible transparency about how news and information are curated or accessed on Web platforms. But one could have said the same thing, circa 1990, about converting the Arpanet’s technically arcane TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol) into a Web system so simple that preschool children can use it now.

As Steve Jobs famously said two decades ago, “simple can be harder than complex.” But conquering complexity used to be what animated Silicon Valley. That is, in fact, how Google got started. It’s time to revive that zeitgeist, and make the power of news on the Internet not just easy to use, but easy to trust.

Berkeley Officials Reject Plan to Fast-Track New Housing

HousingAs CalWatchdog reported July 2, the city of Cupertino’s decision to stop fighting a massive mall makeover project enabled by a far-reaching 2017 state law meant to promote more housing construction could someday be seen as a milestone in state planning.

Senate Bill 35 by Sen. Scott Weiner, D-San Francisco, requires cities that have not met their affordable housing requirements to approve projects that are properly zoned, pay union-scale wages to builders and have at least 10 percent of units in “affordable” ranges.

After months of objections from Cupertino elected officials and activists, in June, the city signed off on developer Sand Hill Property Company’s plan to convert the largely empty 58-acre Vallco Mall site to a huge multi-use project with 2,400 residential units, 400,000 square feet of retail space and 1.8 million square feet of office space

Given that 98 percent of cities have been found to have an inadequate supply of affordable housing, according to a state evaluation, the Cupertino precedent seemed potentially huge.

Two months later, new developments related to SB35 appear to point in the opposite direction.

Last week, Berkeley officials rejected a plan to use the law to fast-track approval of 260 apartments and 27,500 square feet of commercial space at 1900 4th Street just east of the Berkeley Marina despite evidence presented by developer Blake Griggs Properties that it was properly zoned and otherwise met SB35’s edicts.

City tactics in fighting project have familiar ring

The tactics that Berkeley is prepared to use mirrored the ways that construction projects have been fought in California for decades: raising a variety of legal objections that could cost developers millions of dollars because of delays, even if they have little or no validity or applicability.

Berkeley planning chief Timothy Burroughs said the project could not proceed because:

  • It would have been built on land designated as a historical landmark because of a Native American burial ground. As a city with its own charter government, it is given deference in protecting its history.
  •  It would have considerable low-income housing but not enough housing for those with very low incomes.
  •  It would have increased traffic in the area in ways not allowed by city laws.

The objections were of the sort that Weiner sought to bypass with SB35. This is why the developer warned of a lawsuit earlier in the summer after the city put up roadblocks to approval.

But in a surprising move reported last week by the San Jose Mercury-News, West Berkeley Investors – part of the group backing developer Blake Griggs Properties – has backed out of the project without explanation. The assumption of many is that it saw the hassles as outweighing the chances for success.

The Mercury-News also reported that a spokesman for Berkeley City Hall said officials would welcome it if developers chose to reactivate a previous application that had far fewer residential units – 135 – and slightly more commercial space – 33,000 square feet.

In his Sept. 4 letter rejecting the latest version of the project, the city planning chief emphasized the historical significance of the Native American burial ground. Why that significance would lose weight in planning decisions if a smaller project were being considered was not explained.

But Burroughs pushed back against the idea his city was hostile to adding housing stock. He said 910 housing units have been built since 2014, 525 are now being constructed and 1,070 are cleared and in the pipeline.

This article was originally published by CalWatchdog.com

Prop. 57 Favored Violent Criminals Over Public Safety

Police carWe told the truth about Prop 57 prior to the November 2016 election; that it would free violent felons years early. We said it would free sex offenders. We said it would free criminals whose sentences were enhanced due to prior violent strike offenses. Well, the sex offenders already sued and won their claim that they are entitled to be considered for early release based upon the language of Prop 57. Now the third-strikers with violent criminal histories have done the same and won.  An Appellate Court decision this past week made that crystal clear, ruling that under Prop 57, inmates serving three strike sentences for what are clearly violent crimes are entitled to early release even if decades remained on their sentence.

Prop 57 was a poorly drafted, last minute initiative that hijacked another initiative regarding direct filing of juvenile charges. The California Supreme Court ruled that it could go on to the ballot despite failing to comply with a 2014 law prohibiting wholesale changes in pending initiatives and requiring 30 days of public comment. In his dissent, Justice Ming W. Chin cogently noted that Prop 57 was “exactly the sort of measure that would greatly benefit from public comment and the opportunity to make amendments” as they would “easily expose its drafting flaws.”

A key drafting flaw was the farcical claim that Prop 57 only applied to “non-violent” inmates. That is because the proponents failed to define what were “non-violent” crimes, with a legal presumption that any crime not explicitly defined as “violent” would qualify for early release. As we have highlighted time and time again, demonstrably “violent” inmates have been released early thanks to Prop 57, including criminals who have committed horrible beatings and stabbings of women in domestic violence situations and stabbings and assaults on fellow prison inmates and correctional officers.

However, there is a partial fix in 2020 that will help fulfill the promise of Prop 57 proponents to California voters that “violent” inmates would not be eligible for early release under its provisions. The “Reducing Crime and Keeping California Safe Act” will be on the ballot, and among other provisions will reclassify crimes currently considered “non-violent” under Prop 57 as “violent,” ensuring inmates serving time in prison for these crimes are ineligible for early release under Prop 57. Because Prop 57 was a constitutional amendment, it will be difficult for the citizens to fix all the bad drafting, but the Reducing Crime and Keeping California Safe Act is a start.

resident of the Association of Los Angeles Deputy District Attorneys.

This article was originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily

Battles Fought to Stop Tax Hikes in CA Legislature

CapitolWhile on the campaign trail prior to the 1988 election, Republican presidential candidate George H.W. Bush uttered the now infamous words, “read my lips, no new taxes.” Of course, this was a pledge he broke, which likely cost him reelection.

The mission of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association is to protect Proposition 13 and to advance taxpayers’ rights, including the right to limited taxation, the right to vote on tax increases and the right of economical, equitable and efficient use of taxpayer dollars.

Unfortunately, this value set is shared by too few politicians in Sacramento.

Because of that, taxpayers rarely are able to obtain meaningful reform in the state Capitol. California’s reputation for high taxes and burdensome regulations is well deserved and taxpayers are usually able to obtain relief only through the powers of direct democracy including initiative, referendum and recall.

While many wish this wasn’t the case, the stark reality is that legislators have voted for eight taxes (six of which became law) since 2012.

In nearly all instances it was Republicans (usually opposed to higher taxes) who joined with tax-and-spend Democrats to provide the final vote for tax increases ranging from car registrations, to gas taxes, to lumber and battery assessments and mattresses.

Thankfully though, no taxes were approved in 2018.

Don’t misunderstand, the tax-and-spend lobby wasn’t taking the year off just because of the upcoming November election. If anything, they were eager to follow up on their three victories last year, which included the infamous gas tax and a tax on recorded documents. Governor Brown made it clear in 2016 that he desired a permanent source of revenue to fund transportation, affordable housing, and clean water programs. He got the first two last year so only the water tax remained.

The fight over the water tax was very contentious. First, no one doubted the importance of having access to clean water, particularly in the Central Valley where decades of neglect and mismanagement of water systems created the problem in the first place. But imposing a dollar-a-month tax on all residential water users in the state to address a local problem made no sense. The cost to fix the problem was estimated to be $120 million of one-time money, which reflects a tiny percentage of California’s General Fund budget. Thankfully, Senate Bill 623 failed before the Legislature’s summer recess in July and taxpayers and their allies, mostly California’s local water agencies, breathed a sigh of relief. …

Click here to read the full article from the Los Angeles Daily News

LA’s Liability Claims Are Out of Control

Pension moneyLA WATCHDOG – Liability claims against the City of Los Angeles have caused continuing nightmares for the City’s budget mavens.

Over the last five years, the total payouts and settlements for legal actions totaled $541 million, an average of $108 million a year, double the amount for the previous five years (2009-2013) of $264 million, an average of $53 million a year.

This problem has been compounded by the fact that the City has underestimated its Liability Claims as payouts and settlements over the past five years have exceeded the budgeted amounts by $234 million, an average of almost $50 million a year.

Granted there have been several large payouts and settlements, including significant sums to settle a housing-related lawsuit by a disability rights group, a $1.4 billion settlement to repair our sidewalks over the next thirty years, numerous police department related lawsuits, and the settlement of the class action lawsuit involving the City’s illegal Telephone Users’ Tax.

Just last week, the Leo Baeck Temple filed a lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles, claiming the City was negligent as it failed to clean up a homeless encampment nestled in hills of Bel-Air.  This was despite repeated complaints and warnings to Councilman Paul Koretz and his office as well as to the Police and Fire Departments.  Unfortunately, the December fire that started at this encampment burned almost 500 acres, damaged the Leo Baeck Temple, disrupted life in Bel-Air for several days, caused the cancellation of schools, closed and delayed traffic on the very busy 405 through the Sepulveda Pass, destroyed six homes, and damaged a dozen homes in one of the priciest areas of the City.

The lawsuit does not specify damages, but if all the homeowners join the temple, the loss to the self-insured City could very easily reach $20 to $30 million, not including any punitive damages because of the negligence of the Councilman and the City.

According to several insiders at City Hall, payouts and settlements will exceed the $89 million budgeted this year for Liability Claims.  This will increase the existing budget deficit that is estimated to be in the range of $250 million when considering raises for the civilian workers whose contract expired on June 30, the raid on the City’s rainy-day funds, questionable new revenues, and unidentified efficiencies.

Unfortunately, the City Attorney has developed a reputation for being an easy target, a soft touch, where the plaintiffs’ bar is able to extract large payouts and settlements because the City is afraid to go to court because of the fear of runaway juries, especially in cases involving perceived police misconduct.

One solution is to reform the judicial system by passing laws that will make California less of a “judicial hellhole,” where the defendants, including the City, have the opportunity for a fair trial. But this will difficult as the plaintiffs’ bar has considerable political clout in Sacramento as it is a generous contributor to our State’s politicians.

While the higher payouts and settlements may be the “new normal” and probably are going to get worse because of all the disability, discrimination, and workplace litigation, the City should at least develop a realistic Liability Claims budget so the City does not have to raid the Reserve Fund or issue Judgement Obligation Bonds to fund the cash outflow, dumping the burden on the next generation of Angelenos.

Jack Humphreville writes LA Watchdog for CityWatch. He is the President of the DWP Advocacy Committee and is the Budget and DWP representative for the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council.  He is a Neighborhood Council Budget Advocate.  He can be reached at:  [email protected].

This article was originally published by CityWatchLA