Why Do Secret Citizens Control the Gang Contracting?
Editor's Note: The mayor released the names of the 50 anonymous citizens cited below on Tuesday evening after L.A. Weekly went to press. On January 8, LA Daily blog will publish the list.
'“AT NIGHT, IT’S LIKE, BAM, BAM, bam, bam!” Art Pulido says of gang gunfire in the badly tattered neighborhoods of Cypress Park and Montecito Heights. The area is part of 12 zones across the city, established by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who has direct control over a new $24 million Gang Reduction and Youth Development (GRYD) task force.
As president of the Community Leadership Coalition and a 13-year veteran of the gang wars, Pulido is on the ground trying to stop the violence. On December 1, he brokered a truce between the Avenues and Cypress Park, two gangs which have turned the long nights in the northeast L.A. neighborhoods positively “Iraqi,” he says.
But when he is asked about the potential effectiveness of GRYD — quietly designed by the mayor and a handful of insiders and consultants — to stop that violence, Pulido’s response is scathing: “I think it started wrong, with the wrong guy, and the wrong vision.”
His bleak summation is already hinted at in Villaraigosa’s unprecedented decision to create a committee of about 50 anonymous private citizens — whose own backgrounds and conflicts are unknown — to decide where to award $24 million in taxpayer funds. Under a shroud of secrecy, Villaraigosa’s committee is handing out huge infusions of money to local contractors, all of whom claim their programs will keep kids out of gangs.
Wary gang experts find it hard to believe that placing the $24 million directly under Villaraigosa’s control is much different from the City Council’s own famously failed L.A. Bridges antigang program.
Villaraigosa chose as GRYD’s director the Rev. Jeff Carr, an evangelical minister who works with tough kids but, not unlike those who ran the disastrous L.A. Bridges program, has never publicly produced hard evidence that he, himself, has actually kept kids from joining gangs.
“With GRYD, somebody is going to end up very wealthy, and there won’t be a stop to gang violence,” says Richard Valdemar, a retired Sheriff’s Department sergeant with 33 years’ experience fighting gangs, and a frequent critic of local government.
Valdemar points to the murky way in which contracts are awarded. As L.A. Weekly recently reported, the 50 or so anonymous committee members, selected by equally anonymous “recruiters” from the Office of the Mayor, oversaw the GRYD contracting selections.
In one troubling twist, Carr and the Office of the Mayor are now giving different versions to justify their secrecy. Carr makes the argument to the Weekly that the 50 citizens are being kept anonymous because gang members might retaliate against those deciding who gets “prevention” grants of $500,000, or “intervention” grants of $250,000.
In fact, experts contacted by the Weekly find Carr’s spin unsupportable by facts. “Hell, no!” says Ron “Cook” Barrett, program coordinator for New York State Gang Prevention in Albany. There, the mayor’s office uses Barrett’s program to coordinate prevention services for at-risk youth. Sounding disbelieving about what is unfolding in L.A., Barrett scoffs: “I am yet to see the CEO of General Mills get a death threat for funding a gang-prevention program.”
Carr pinned the decision to suppress the names of individuals charged with doling out funds — $5.1 million in taxpayer cash in the go-round just completed — on the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office, and in particular on a dead attorney named Richard Bobb.
But there is no paper trail showing that Bobb took a formal legal position backing the unusual idea of letting unnamed citizens direct millions of dollars in public money. “Richard [Bobb] has passed away, so we can’t ask him what was said,” City Attorney spokesman Nick Velasquez says in an e-mail to the Weekly. “But I can tell you that it would be unusual for an attorney from this office to say that names could not be released. More typically, in situations such as these, the client [GRYD] might seek our counsel on the establishment of a basis for withholding such information.”
Velasquez suggests that if the advice was really given, Bobb probably conveyed it in a conversation — further casting doubt on whether GRYD is on solid legal ground.
City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo’s general policy against anonymity, as described by Velasquez, suggests that it was Carr’s decision. But Villaraigosa spokesman Matt Szabo retorts that Delgadillo’s spokesman, Velasquez, is not a lawyer and does not “understand what he was talking about.” Carr and Villaraigosa are not lawyers, either, however. (Villaraigosa studied law but failed the California bar exam four times.)
Szabo offered the Weekly an entirely different reason for the secrecy: to protect the selection-committee members from influence by nonprofits hungry for grants from the city’s fiscally stressed treasury. “We have inoculated the process from political pressure,” Szabo insists. In other words, residents are expected to trust the mayor not to pressure the 50 unnamed citizens.
Later, Szabo provided the Weekly an e-mail, apparently sent to the Office of the Mayor by the City Attorney’s office after the death of Richard Bobb, to help the mayor’s people justify the anonymity. The e-mail states: “The process of keeping RFP [Request For Proposals] materials confidential until time of award has been upheld by the California Court of Appeal in Michaelis v. Superior Court, 38 Cal. 4th 10065 (2006).”
In that e-mail, one of the late Bobb’s bosses suggests that the obscure appeals-court decision could be taken to mean that “the RFP review process is designed to protect proposal reviewers from any attempts to influence or bias their scoring decisions. ... Therefore, the names of the individual reviewers are kept confidential until the mayor and council have awarded contracts.”
But outside experts question City Hall’s tangled spin. David Gehrig, a San Francisco–based attorney who represents public agencies in contract negotiations, says a so-called “deliberative-process privilege” does allow for anonymity in public-agency decisions — when there is ample reason to believe that debate will be chilled by publicizing contract negotiations. However, the Michaelis ruling protected bidders — not selectors — from having their proposals and ideas publicly aired.
Gehrig says, “They [Los Angeles City Hall] are stretching the meaning [in order] to withhold information.”
Whether City Hall’s rationale is a shaky claim that gangs might retaliate, a belated reading of an obscure court decision, or an assertion that influence-peddling could hurt the process, the question remains: How does the public know that the money being showered on local nonprofits is not political payback doled out by the mayor and his friends?
“Suggesting this process is secret is totally misleading,” says Szabo. “This is the most meticulously transparent process for awarding grants.”
But even a gang specialist whose research was extensively referenced in the development of GRYD is at odds with the city’s process. “Transparent implementation would be appropriate,” says University of Chicago gang expert Irv Spergel, and prominent players in the nation’s gang-reduction efforts should be selecting the grant recipients, not private citizens handpicked by Villaraigosa.
Contact Daniel Heimpel at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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