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Measure B: Tweet Against the Machine 

How L.A. City Hall power was struck down by blogs and online social networks

Wednesday, Mar 25 2009
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There’s one thing both sides agree on following the defeat of Solar Measure B: It was a message to those in power to watch out. A handful of activists armed with one-twentieth of the budget of their foes, savvy use of the Internet and repetition of a clear message were enough to overcome a slick campaign, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and 12 of the 15 members of the City Council.

Last week, the City Clerk certified the death of Measure B, which would have draped L.A. buildings with 1,500 acres of solar panels at a cost of billions. It would have been the single largest solar plan in the country, and in a city with more sunlight than it knows what to do with, it was widely expected to be a slam-dunk.

Yet the key underlying motives that propelled the solar measure forward, arrived at in backroom discussions by a handful of power brokers, turned out to be the proposal’s fatal flaws.

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The measure’s sponsor was the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and its chief, the often overblown Brian D’Arcy. His union controls much of what unfolds at DWP, where critics say a weak management team, led by neophyte director David Nahai, is making long-lasting strategic errors by letting D’Arcy bully his way into a shadow role as the actual executive at DWP.

Measure B would have given the IBEW a near-complete monopoly over all the work on the multibillion-dollar project. D’Arcy’s assumption was that the voters of Los Angeles wanted solar power so badly they wouldn’t mind the open-ended costs or the underlying dual ballot-measure motives: to dramatically increase the reach of IBEW while using the city ballot as a self-promotion tool for Antonio Villaraigosa.

Some of this arrogance was still leaking out of the campaign shortly before its demise was verified March 19 at Los Angeles City Hall. Measure B spokeswoman Sarah Leonard refused to disclose how much money the campaign raised to peddle its vision, flatly telling L.A. Weekly, “I don’t think it’s relevant.”

Pressed further, she said, “I could just tell you, but you have not exactly been a friend to me throughout this entire process.”

In fact, the Los Angeles Ethics Commission official revealed, as required by law, that Yes on B spent nearly $1.6 million only to fail against the tiny $74,451 mustered by No on Measure B, which it used mostly to send out mail.

The lack of transparency dogged Yes on Measure B from the start. One example was Villaraigosa’s own evasively titled Committee for Government Excellence and Accountability, which does not actually support projects involving accountability. Villaraigosa’s special-interest group spent $145,000. And Leonard, who works for the Grover Park Group, was paid $34,000 for her P.R. services — which included a big faux pas when Leonard and her cohort sent out an erroneous press release on election night wrongly proclaiming that Measure B had passed.

Its defeat was a shock to former Obama California campaign manager Mitchell Schwartz, who became part of the melodrama in January when he filed an unsuccessful court petition to water down the “con” language opposing Measure B in the Official Voter Guide. Schwartz’s attempt to prevent voters from seeing the “con” argument as written by Jack Humphreville and other Los Angeles activists turned into yet another black eye for Measure B.

Schwartz put up $1,000 of his own money to help Measure B. He now says, “When something that should be very popular doesn’t pass, it is a wakeup call to the mayor and the City Hall establishment. There was something that went on that the mayor and others need to look at and understand. There is some discontent out there which is directed at the powerful.”

One of City Hall’s critics, urban expert and author Joel Kotkin, says that under Villaraigosa’s reign, City Hall has become much more of a servant to developers and unions: “There was no countervailing force. But now we start seeing that countervailing force. It is informal and largely run over the Internet.”

Joan Blades, the founder of Moveon.org, which uses its vast network to rally progressives, had not heard of the controversy from her home in far-off Berkeley. But she was not surprised by the effectiveness of a small group against a political machine. The Internet, Blades says, is “changing the dynamics between power structures and average citizens.”

Average citizens opposed Measure B’s unknown but huge costs and its union monopoly. They had only three months to defeat a plan that City Council President Eric Garcetti needlessly jammed onto the March ballot — purely as a political favor to Villaraigosa, who wrongly believed he could utilize the city ballot to pass Measure B, then use that victory to promote himself as pro-green in his possible run for governor.

Critics saw Villaraigosa’s move as an abject abuse of the city ballot after the plan was hurriedly and unanimously passed by the City Council in November. In December, David Zahniser of the Los Angeles Times broke a story about how Garcetti had hidden from his own council colleagues a report calling the plan “extremely risky” and freighted with open-ended costs.

The opposition surfaced on neighborhood council websites and in blog posts by people like DWP ratepayer advocate Humphreville, DWP Advocacy Committee activist Soledad Garcia, Citywatchla.com’s Ken Draper, MayorSamBlogspot.com’s Michael Higby and former Los AngelesDaily News Editor Ron Kaye, who blogs at ronkayela.com.

On January 3, DWP officials presented Measure B to a meeting of the Los Angeles Neighborhood Council Coalition. Michael Trujillo, a consultant who ran the Yes on B campaign, disingenuously warned the crowd that without voter approval, “the DWP won’t do it” — when in fact, bloggers had already reported that DWP has a backup plan to embrace most of Measure B with or without voter approval.

“After the meeting, we started grappling with the idea that we had been dealt the hand of being a ‘No’ group,” says Stephen Box, a bicycle activist who wound up running the on-the-fly communications effort against Measure B.

Using sites like Twitter and Facebook, Box started organizing. By February, No on Measure B was trading punches with the mayor, City Council, IBEW and DWP, tapping into neighborhood councils and other groups to hold 80 town hall meetings and debates in February alone.

The blogging and social networking created a buzz, while the Los Angeles Daily News and L.A. Times both published editorials against the measure. A blog on the New York Times Website reported “dueling Facebook groups” fighting over Measure B. The City Council’s small group of just three fiscal conservatives, Bernard Parks, Dennis Zine and Greig Smith, broke ranks to slam the measure. City Controller Laura Chick, seen by some as the most popular politician in Los Angeles, warned that Measure B “stinks.”

This set the stage for a brilliantly sunny Election Day on March 3, when just under 18 percent of eligible voters showed up, and turned down Measure B by a margin of 2,644 votes.

“The public actually shut down a multimillion-dollar campaign” led by Villaraigosa, Box says. “They got a taste of real political will.”

Can rag-tag Facebookers and neighborhood council activists blog and tweet their way to a solar future and a real stake at the political table?

Mayoral spokesman Matt Szabo says Measure B’s opponents “will play an important role as citizen journalists in holding policymakers accountable as we move forward with our solar plan.” Garcetti’s office sounds less vague. “Eric did talk to Ron Kaye and Jack Humphreville and he does want to work with them,” says Garcetti spokeswoman Julie Wong.

But Brian D’Arcy, in a back-patting statement in which he insisted he was all about transparency, is already urging DWP and Villaraigosa to “swiftly implement a solar energy plan” that many experts say is not ready for prime-time.

Measure B’s opposition is wary about rushing a Measure B lookalike through City Hall. “The council members pay some lip service about transparency,” Kaye says. “But we haven’t heard [a plan for activing transparent] out of the mayor’s mouth or David Nahai’s mouth, and D’Arcy says, ‘Fuck you people, we will do whatever we want.’ ”

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