City Council (D4): Steve Veres
Steve Veres led the turnaround of America’s largest community college system. As the president of the Los Angeles Community College District Board of Trustees, he increased fiscal accountability, promoted transparency, and cleaned up the district’s construction problems. Under his leadership, the L.A. Community College District has balanced its budget, improved credit ratings, and expanded critical job training programs.
Top three goals
List the top three things you would seek to accomplish as a city council representative.
1. End the Land Use War in CD4. Virtually every neighborhood council, homeowners association and business interest is frustrated with the current state of planning and development. Too many Community Plans are out of date. Recent updates have been dismissed by courts because of critical errors by the city. All parties are frustrated by the process and Council discretion is the rule and not the exception. Density development and concessions are greater in Los Angeles than surrounding communities compounding the frustration. Recode LA is a positive step forward and it needs a champion to carry it forward and commit to it. I’d like clear and meaningful planning rules and a transparent process to be the new normal. Over 60% of the city’s geography is covered by special overlays and site-specific designations, but through the years many completed projects didn’t even conform to those classifications.
2. Make city services accountable and effective. Improving the transparency and accountability of the DWP is critical. The public has lost confidence and respect for the agency. In the middle of one the harshest droughts of my lifetime, watching water main breaks spilling millions of gallons onto the streets because of poor system upkeep while the city controller has to sue the non-profit worker safety and training programs funded by the agency doesn’t sit well. The elected officials overseeing the DWP have been asleep at the wheel on this issue. Maintenance is costing us ten times what it should. A 300-year water main replacement cycle is unacceptable. The City must commit to regular deferred maintenance and should use technology and pilot projects to help prioritize where precious resources should be committed. Waste, fraud and abuse must be rooted out. LAPD uses Crime Mapping and Compstat stats to determine effectiveness and deployment of resources. I believe others departments should be held to similar expectations of performance.
3. Protect neighborhoods and Improve Traffic Management. CD4 neighborhoods are host to the Hollywood Bowl, Ford Amphitheater, NBCUniversal, Hollywood Heritage Museum, Runyon Canyon, Greek Theater, Griffith Park, The Zoo, The Griffith Observatory, LACMA, The Grove, The Hollywood Sign, The Autry, etc. With all the excitement it’s easy to forget that there are real neighborhoods with families that are concerned with the quality of their lives. Some work in local businesses, others are in the tourism industry, some are creative types but whatever they do they all confront traffic, crime and the impacts of being neighbors to regional, national and international destinations. Among the destinations there isn’t sufficient coordination. September and October witness the 101 crush of Universal’s Halloween Horror nights, concert season, the start of school among others things. There is no real attempting to manage, coordinate and mitigate the activities. Each effort is a one off and that has to change.
Is City Hall doing a good job handling development projects? If so, why? If not, how would change it?
No. See my comments in question number one.
Planning in Los Angeles is an exercise in run around. Residents and developers are both frustrated. I’d like to pursue common ground instead of dealing with litigation as the constant final arbitrator. Planning is dictated by lawsuits and that has to stop. Government needs to do its due diligence to ensure projects follow rules that respect the size and scale of neighborhoods and can be supported by local services and infrastructure. When there was funding for Community Plan updates like the one in Hollywood everyone that participated was slapped in the face because of poor technical follow through by the city and its elected representatives.
I believe mass transit is a critical effort for the future of the city but it is still 30 years from being substantially built out and integrated. Land use density is happening faster than the current infrastructure and transit system can bear. I believe it is necessary to revisit the city’s density bonuses and concessions that are 10% higher than the state mandate. Additionally, parking ratios are of concern to me. Force feeding limited parked projects when the transit system isn’t integrated causes local parking problems. Hollywood gets more parking tickets than anywhere else in the city because the planning code encourages development without sufficient supportive parking. The creative economy uses space differently. They are more efficiency and tend to have more workers in their spaces which is contrary to the effort to reduce parking required per square foot.
City Hall power
Do you believe any particular interest – labor, business, or something else — has too much power at City Hall? If so, how would you counteract that power?
City Hall is an interest group driven place. Virtually every issue has interest groups on both sides of the issues. In the past Big Business dominated, today Labor wields great influence. Over the years things have changed. City Hall is deluged with broad issues beyond its grasp and control. Lobbyists and expeditors have made themselves an aggressive part of the decision-making process.
I would advocate for full transparency in decision-making, a detailed real-time city budget online and new redistricting effort that not only doubles the size of the council but also places the drawing of districts into independent hands. I believe that the size of council districts which are currently the largest in the nation need to shrink. The council does not act locally because they are spread too thin. In the case of CD4 where several neighborhoods are broken up with artificial lines the council does not have to approach policy making holistically.
Council District 4 includes an unusual array of neighborhoods, from Sherman Oaks to Los Feliz to Hancock Park. Do you believe any parts of the district have been underserved, and if so, how would you rectify that?
The 4th Council district is a meandering exclamation point for gerrymandering. Given the seemingly jumbled collection of neighborhoods it’s difficult to create a truly district wide agenda, but instead CD4 should be more a neighborhood focused collection of challenges.
You could break issues down into three geographies perhaps, the flatlands in the Valley, the hills, and the flatlands not in the Valley. A common concern is traffic uniting all three areas, with the 101 being the most common connector. We need more rail options, the Metro needs to complete the Orange line enhancements and transition from bus to light rail.
I think some neighborhoods do play second-fiddle and I’d like to change that. Places like Sherman Oaks, Studio City, Silver Lake, or Toluca Lake probably don’t get their fair share of city services. Residents in the Hollywood Hills streets are in a sorry state of disrepair. The Council office recently used $80,000 in discretionary funds to pay for an Elvis Presley birthday celebration. I’d use those funds to pave streets, trim trees, and address real neighborhood concerns.
What do you see as the three biggest issues facing CD4, and what concrete proposals would you make to address those issues?
I explained these in question 1.
(1) Lack of accountability at the DWP. The inability to fix aging infrastructure and provide better customer service.
(2) Land use.
(3) Stabilize the city budget to improve the quality of services.
What three steps would you take to help balance the city budget?
Over the next three years, City Hall is projecting a cumulative deficit of $425 million, including next year’s budget deficit of $165 million. But these estimates of red ink may be understated as the leaders and labor interests are demanding raises that are contrary to the City’s assumption of no increases in compensation for the next three years.
The City also has long term liabilities of $25- to $30-billion, an amount equal to an incredible five to six times the city’s General Fund budget of $5 billion. These obligations include unfunded pension liabilities, deferred maintenance on our streets, sidewalks, and the rest of our failing infrastructure, and existing long term debt.
I am in favor of requiring a baseline budget to actually be published, like the CEO does for the federal budget or the LAO does for the State Budget. I agree with the 2020 commission’s recommendation that we should look at a three-year budget, not a one-year budget. This year’s budget has ignored nearly $100 million of police overtime that shows up somewhere in the future to be paid—it’s owed. It doesn’t make sense to me. You shouldn’t be able to say the budget is balanced even though they’re putting that payment off.
About a decade ago, retirement costs were 4% of the city’s budget. This year, they’re approaching 16%. It has a crowding out effect. If we’re paying 16% for retirees, that means we have 16% fewer dollars to pay for current service. That is not a sustainable position, nor is the trend of retirement costs ever increasing and becoming a bigger share of the budget a sustainable proposition.
I’m also concerned with the discount rate budgetary practice that takes a future cost and discounts it to today. The higher the discount rate, the lower the number appears today. The other problematic city assumption is that is going to earn 7.75% on its savings forever.
We’ve got to start being honest about what our city costs to run and what the services cost to deliver.
I will be an advocate for truth in budgeting, long term budgeting and data driven budget efforts. Splitting budget into 15 equal pots doesn’t focus attention into areas of greatest need.
Are there any major decisions in CD4 over the past three years that you would have opposed?
Tom LaBonge recently suggested that the city purchase the lot where the DaVinci building burned down. This would be very expensive and unnecessary. Paying an obscene amount for land that can be planned better is ridiculous.
Also this past month, the L.A. Times reported that Mr. LaBonge sponsored an Elvis party at the Avalon in Hollywood. Apparently, the sponsorship came from council discretionary funds. I completely disagree with this. I believe every council member’s use of discretion funds should be fully transparent and listed on their website.
His record on the deeper issues of city government, however, is thin; he votes the conventional line on the budget — meaning that, along with many of his colleagues. The council’s inability to evaluate the true cost of government and inability to recast government within its existing budget represents a failure of imagination and practicality.
In such a crowded race, what makes you different?
It’s easy to get confused with this wide field of candidates. Many will say and do anything to get elected. They’ll tell you one thing and another group something completely contradictory. I won’t. Few have a track record to offer proof of their work and positions.
Several candidates have been part of L.A. City Hall and claim their experience is an asset. There are two Council member LaBonge staffers, one Council member Koretz staffer, two Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa staffers including one that was a lobbyist for DWP. Over the years, this group of City Hall employees is more hype than substance. They have not significantly changed the city’s path to a more positive direction. I believe their experience amounts to continued bureaucracy.
Los Angeles is suffering. Today’s City is nothing to be proud of, and if you are then you’ve seriously got something wrong with you. If you think being a chief of staff, commissioner, press aide, or whatever else you think qualifies you as experienced in L.A. government is a good reason you should run for the 4th, I disagree.
I have real experience that is measurable. As an elected member of the L.A. College Board, I took charge of a failing institution and made it work by cleaning house and holding people accountable. Standard & Poors recently raised our district’s credit rating to AA+ and our recent performance and a recent financial audit show the district having performed a significant turnaround. No longer do you see the LACCD as a laughingstock and disgrace in the local media.
Additionally as the L.A. Director to Senate President Pro Tem, I was recently staff lead for the $330 million dollar film tax credit that will keep thousands of entertainment jobs in Los Angeles. Many in the L.A. Chamber that have worked with me know I care about jobs and that I provide an important voice of pragmatism and reason wherever I work.
I have real experiences and the ability to get things done, without having been a part of the problems for so many years. I’ll bring a fresh perspective and proven leadership experience. It’s time for a change in Los Angeles.
What steps would you take to address L.A.’s failing pipes and other aging infrastructure, and how would you fund those steps?
DWP water main breaks are one of the most infuriating issues I see. It appears that little is being done about it and it’s the ratepayers footing the bill for this deplorable inaction by our local elected officials. This is a problem we could be attacking in a few ways, from the simple proactive regularly scheduled pipe replacement instead of the 300 year cycle we are on now. Additionally we should look at new ways of identifying weak pipes, such as using the Sewerin Aquaphon leak detector deployed by teams to examine older pipes by sound waves and triage immediate threats. The neglected state of affairs and pass the buck leadership over decades has left us a mess that is a real fiscal and legal liability.
Do you support increasing the citywide minimum wage, and if so, to what amount and by what year?
I believe that no person working full time should live in poverty. I generally prefer wage rates connected to the cost of living. The cost of living in Los Angeles merits a minimum wage increase, but I believe it needs to done at a regional level. Unlike San Francisco that is both a city and county the boundaries that divide Los Angeles from our neighboring cities is too thin. Minimum wage increases must include our neighbors. In CD4 Toluca Lake is both L.A. and Burbank. To have different wages on one side of the street versus the other would create inequity. Similar to big box retail land use policies of the past that saw placement of big box retailers based on taxes or concessions, the city-wide minimum wage debate could have unintended impacts. For example, the ranges of wage increases proposed by the council didn’t keep in mind salary scale integrity. For example if worker pay is raised to $15.25 how would that impact supervisor pay. Minimum wage will and should increase in ways commensurate with the cost of living but it must also consider the general and specific impacts to local business.
Do you think the city should reduce or eliminate its gross receipts tax on businesses? If so, how quickly should it do so, and how can the city replace the revenue it provides?
I am in favor of eliminating the gross receipts tax, but I will not go halfway over many years like some officials. A reasonable approach would be to reduce it significantly over the next three years to complete elimination by 2018, although I would be in favor of a complete elimination by 2016.
Do you support returning control of LA/Ontario International Airport to the city of Ontario? Why or why not? Should the airport be sold or simply be transferred back? If you support a sale, what do you think is an appropriate price?
Ontario can do more to aid in the Regional movement of goods and people. It is already an important hub for UPS and FedEx, but I believe more can shift away from LAX to help facilitate higher value efforts. LAX is limited by access. Ontario can be reached by northern, southern, eastern and western routes. A focus on goods movement there makes sense because of available space.
Los Angeles officials have said Ontario can buy it for about $400 million. Ontario countered using an audit that contends that the sale price offered by Los Angeles is inflated by at least $181 million. Like the port of Long Beach intelligent coordination is necessary for regional success. I would support a limited regional joint powers authority like the Bob Hope Burbank Airport. Ontario and others can buy a seat on a local government authority, but for the sake of quality of life on the Westside of Los Angeles other regional hubs need to take more responsibility from LAX.
Which company do you believe should be awarded the Greek Theatre contract – Nederlander-AEG or Live Nation? Why?
I believe in true competition for private vendors using publicly owned resources. The city seems to have issues every time a big contract goes out to bid, Council has a fiduciary duty to the taxpayers to provide the highest return on investment of public funds. Whichever entity, be it Nederlander or Live Nation, that provides the better deal for Angelenos over the long term should win the contract.