L.A. City Councilman Dennis Zine may wish sidewalks had gotten fixed anywhere other than his own street a few years ago -- after all, there are 5,000 miles of broken sidewalks in Los Angeles from which to choose. Instead, Zine yesterday handed his rival City Controller candidates Cary Brazeman and Ron Galperin a club with which to smack Zine.
Galperin called Zine a "camera-hungry politician" and Brazeman was disgusted after Zine announced on the same day that absentee voters began mailing in their ballots for City Controller that Zine will spend $1 million to repair the 50 worst sidewalks in the voter-rich West Valley. (It's public money but Zine alone controls it. More on that later.) Bristling, Brazeman says, "After using taxpayer money to fix sidewalks on his own street, it's nice to see Councilman Zine spread the wealth ..."
L.A. Weekly asked Zine why City Hall fixed Zine's sidewalks while most city sidewalks were allowed to crumble, and why he waited until absentee ballot voting began to announce his plan to spend $1 million on Valley sidewalks.
Zine explains that the sidewalk in his neighborhood was repaired "three to four years ago."
That would have been during the recession, and during a five-year period of 2008-2012 in which the Los Angeles Times has reported City Hall set aside no budget funds for fixing sidewalks.
Zine says his new sidewalk program for District 3, announced on the same day as absentee voting began for the City Controller post, "came up now because it takes time to get these programs together."
He defended the timing and explained that he got the $1 million by "[taking] a pay cut and we used some money from AB 1290 (public redevelopments funds) -- I will continue to invest the dollars to enhance the community."
Zine took a 10 percent pay cut of his $178,789 salary in 2009 and an 11 percent pay cut in 2011, in part to quell intense criticism of his double-dipping, which had ballooned his City Hall salary to $280,789.
Like other well-to-do elected officials, Zine legally double-dips, taking a generous cop pension of $102,000 annually. He still brings in perhaps a quarter-million dollars a year after the voluntary pay cuts.
At noon yesterday, Cary Brazeman's campaign released embarrassing before-and-after photos of the repairs made to Zine's street in recent years by the city. The work unfolded during the same rough period that the City Council considered requiring private residents to pay to fix the city sidewalks in front of their homes.
Brazeman has been calling for a cleanup of mismanagement and overspending on pet projects by the City Council for several years. He jumped into the controller's race as an underdog against the better-known Zine.
Long before this dust-up, the City Council's failure since 2008 to spend funds on crumbling and even dangerous sidewalks had become a sore point for L.A. residents.
-- The price to fix L.A. sidewalks, thanks to years of City Council and Mayoral budget decisions to spend elsewhere, is now $1.5 billion.
-- The city no longer knows where the broken sidewalks are. A Bureau of Street Services bureaucrat in 2011 said it would take a 18 months and $1 million just to figure it out, setting off howls from activists (and anyone under 40) who pointed out that the sidewalk survey could be done for almost nothing, in just a couple months, using bicyclists with GPS devices.
-- In 2010 and 2011, City Council members argued that things were so bad, L.A. should require private residents to fix the neglected city sidewalks in front of their houses. (More howls.)
Each of the 15 City Council members, including Zine, controls a huge "office budget" and "discretionary" funds that many, including former City Controller Laura Chick, have criticized as slush funds used by the 15 to further their own PR machines. All of it is public money.
Each city councilman also employs a large personal staff of 15 to 20 aides, each one is exempt from city parking tickets, and each one gets eight free cars with free gas, all on the taxpayer dime.
Sidewalk repair? Not enough money.
Another candidate for City Controller, Ron Galperin, slammed Zine for launching his special $1 million sidewalk repair program using, in part, Assembly Bill 1290 funds.
AB 1290 money is to be used for "economic development and the elimination of blight" -- but the decisions on what that means has been left up to L.A. City Council members.
Zine controls $1.38 million in AB 1290 funds, which come from taxes paid by property owners in Community Redevelopment Areas. From that, Zine's office says it allocated $700,000 to remove tree stumps, provide community beautification, and make street repairs in City Council District 3.
Ron Galperin says Zine "is using $1 million of taxpayer money including $900,000 from the AB 1290 account without any real plan and without any real cost controls."
He particularly criticizes Zine's tapping of AB 1290 funds, which are generally meant to bolster private economic development, focusing on helping blighted neighborhoods.
Galperin told the Weekly, "As a 2010 audit by [Controller Wendy Greuel] found, the City has been playing fast and loose with how they spend AB 1290 money, and this is just another example of a council member focusing on photo-ops instead of real systemic solutions that will adequately fund street and sidewalk repairs in Los Angeles."
Galperin added: "Our city doesn't need a camera-hungry politician in charge of our city's finances -- we need new ideas and experience that will return dollars and 'sense' to Los Angeles."
Zine has plenty of supporters. Vorzimer Masserman Attorney Molly O'Brien Harrison works in the West Valley and supports Zine's $1 million sidewalk plan, saying he has played a big role in helping the Valley.
Harrison's office faces Zine's local community outreach center for women.
Harrison tells L.A. Weekly, "I like Zine a lot more than other politicians, and I think it is awesome that he decided to take the money out of the office budget to fix streets that need fixing. Zine clearly took note that the people want to see less money spent on bureaucracy and more money spent on making their cities a better place to live. ... It's taxpayer money in any case, but wouldn't the taxpayer prefer it be spent on them rather than unions and pensions which have already ruined this state, or on a better office for himself?"
Zines transferred $1 million from public funds that he solely controls over to the Bureau of Street Services, and announced his move Monday at an orchestrated event in front of a reconstructed sidewalk at Oso Avenue and Hart Street in Winnetka.
The Bureau of Street Services has 50 locations lined up to repair in Zine's Council District 3.
Of course, Nazario Sauceda, director of the Bureau of Street Services, welcomed the money. But Sauceda insists that under city municipal code Chapter VI, Section 62.104, in most cases the city sidewalks are supposed to be repaired by adjacent homeowners and building owners, not the city.
"Councilman Zine has continued to prioritize core service needs in the Third Council District," said Sauceda.