Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

A bad idea on two levels: Hiring a law firm with private donations to do research on school reform (and a bit on government contracting more generally)

According to the Washington Post ("Catania hires law firm to help craft D.C. school legislation"), Councilmember David Catania, chair of the DC City Council Education Committee, is seeking private donations to pay the Hogan Lowells law firm to research school improvement issues, so that he and his committee can be better prepared to deal with the issues before their Committee.

From the article:

The chairman of the D.C. Council’s Education Committee is using private donations to hire an outside law firm to help him craft a package of school-related legislation that would aim to lift student achievement and address points of friction between the city’s traditional and charter schools.

Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) said he wants to improve upon “uncoordinated and often haphazard” efforts to retool public education in the city since the advent of mayoral control in 2007. Catania said he hopes to introduce a comprehensive bill this year that would address a broad variety of education issues, some of which are likely to provoke controversy.

I am the last person to argue against research, reports, and great preparation.

But... I don't understand the new ethics laws in DC, which in all likelihood, still aren't that robust, to see how this is legal.

1.  A "contract" like this should be bid out.  Although DC City Council, technically, is exempt from DC's laws about contracting and procurement and so they can pass laws that are basically contracts, without having to first have a process of soliciting proposals.

This was an issue with the Council's designation of a preferred re-developer of the Florida Market, now called Union Market, district in Northeast DC.  At the time, I called the process the dirtiest one that I had observed in my various local involvements.

2.  Public officials soliciting private donations to pay for research generally is a bad idea.  It sets the stage for undue influence, which by the way is a big problem with national education policy now anyway.  Much private money, including foundations, funds "research" provided to school districts to set policy, mostly with regard to teaching, evaluations, union contracts, and charter schools.

More recently, this kind of money is ending up being spended on campaigns for School Board candidates supporting the so-called "reform" agenda.  This was a big deal in the recent elections in Los Angeles, where among other funders, a Political Action Committee associated with former DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, now running her own nonprofit called "Students First", pumped lots of money into specific campaigns.  More than $6 million was spent on the campaigns for three positions.  These forces are likely to see victory in two of the three seats that they were contesting.  See the Reuters story, "Reform candidates see mixed results in Los Angeles school board race."

3. Besides, with a $440 million "budget surplus," you're telling us that there isn't a few hundred thousand dollars around to conduct research?

4.  Who is to say that Hogan Lowells, sure with a practice group in the education field, is the best organization out there to research the issues?  That's why an RFP process is a good thing, a public and vetted "scope of work" is necessary, etc.

5.  Plenty of organizations produce reports--"for free"--to influence public policy.  And it's paid for by private donations. But it's a private process. And ultimately, the ideas still have to "compete" for attention and confirmation in the public issuespace.

The kind of report that Catania is seeking should be paid for by the public.

It's also damning that the DC City Council lacks the capacity to do this level of research on their own.

But it is a step forward that CM Catania recognizes the necessity of research-based legislation, rather than just shooting from the hip, which is more typical.

Digital billboard in the Comstock Hills neighborhood, Los AngelesA different but not unrelated issue in Los Angeles: private contracts and digital billboards

The Los Angeles Times has an incredibly long editorial, "Building a better billboard law in L.A.," that is amazing, about the necessity of a public process for dealing with the digital billboard issue there.

It seems that the Los Angeles City Council passed legislation in private session a couple years ago, giving special treatment to two billboard companies--in part to avoid lawsuits--and abrogating many laws and requirements for public processes with regard to the siting of billboards. The agreements were only disclosed after a third company sued, because they wanted to get in on the deal ("77 digital billboards ordered to go dark by Monday evening: Clear Channel Outdoor and CBS Outdoor lose ruling over a deal they made with the city of L.A. in 2006).

At least on this matter, the LA Times stands up for the public process in the editorial.  By comparison, the Washington Post editorial board continually advocates for less public process with regard to local government in DC.

Caption for image above: A home rented by Eazaz Dar, Commercial Consulate to the Consulate General of Pakistan, in the Comstock Hills neighborhood of L.A., has a glow cast into it from a digital billboard on Santa Monica Blvd, Dec. 17, 2009. Dar, who wasn't told about the glow or view of the billboard before renting, says he is still looking for thicker curtains for his bedroom window.(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

Note with regard to digital billboards: approvals and public finance

I have been meaning to write about this issue separately. I don't have a problem with advertising and with billboards, although I do agree with various scenic and design restrictions placed on billboards.

What's interesting is that apparently digital billboards are much more lucrative for the companies. This seems obvious, because they can run many more ads in the same space. Because it's more profitable, companies are offering to share part of the revenue with the various local government permitting authorities. Because so many local governments are pressed for revenue, going forward with such agreements is very alluring.

Different issues, but they raise similar concerns about public contracting, ethics, and decision-making.

See "Electronic billboards attractive to cities: Debate over digital signs spreads across North County" from the San Diego Union-Tribune. From the article:

Critics say allowing digital billboards along North County freeways would create blight in the community. Supporters say they would give local businesses an opportunity to attract more customers.

They would also allow cash-strapped municipalities such as Vista to grab a slice of the advertising revenue the signs would generate.

Bret Schanzenbach, executive director of the Vista Chamber of Commerce, said digital billboards offer too many advantages to pass up, including promoting community events and boosting the city’s income. ...

In January, the Vista City Council asked its staff to begin negotiations with CBS Outdoors, one of the largest billboard companies in the world, to build two digital billboards along state Route 78.

On Tuesday, the council will review a draft agreement with the company and give city staff directions on how to proceed. Under the terms of the agreement, the city would get a 52 percent share of the billboards’ revenues, about $300,000 to $400,000 a year, according to a city report.

Meanwhile, Supervisor Bill Horn was approached last year by billboard industry officials about allowing such signs on county property, his spokeswoman Anita Lightfoot said.

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At 8:35 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Going back to the intregtity issue, it is tough one.

Doubly so in Washington, where there is a lot of money laying around.

As I said, if you take that list as the "Growth Machine" (and lets be fair, DA is the human face of the Growth Machine, But I don't want the GGW lynch mob after me,) it is very different than the real elites in DC.

Cantania represents a bit of crossover. HE is at a law firm now. And in DC, a good chunk of your law firm clients aren't people or coporations, they are other lawers.

And outsouricng legal function to outside firms is a classic way of making new friends (and donors) as well as rewarding previous donors.

400K doesn't sound like a lot, but some some types of practices (lobbying) it is enormous. As opposed to the usual 1000 a month retainer. As an example, if you can bring 500k worth of business into a firm you've got a lot of traction.

So, yes, extremely problematic. As was Zimmerman working for AECOM, and other examples. Bonds workiing for Ft. Meyers just makes me sick, as clearly the roads in DC are not well paved at all.

At 9:23 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Re: Bonds... Catania used to work for MC Dean, also a big contractor (street lights etc.) for the city.

To build business for their practices, lots of consulting groups publish their work-research-reports.

I get email from McKinsey a few times a week.

IBM has a big global practice center on cities. So does Philips, etc.

I read that stuff from time to time.

Nothing prevents Holland & Knight (I mean Lovells) from doing the same and using that to tout their credentials...

Or from bidding on research contracts...

At 9:25 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Re integrity... my original mentor on this stuff is a conspiracy nut. Figures JOhn Wilson was murdered, etc.

While there is likely some truth to conspiracy, mostly it's a lot of money sloshing around and people seeking out like minded people.

But contracting is a problem, it has been it will be, e.g., today's obituary on Joseph P. Yeldell...

And it's not like it's unique to DC.

I just don't understand why we can't do somewhat better than we do.

At 10:18 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Your point is doubly so with Hogan since this is a classic pro-bono project.

If we look at singapore, it si ultra-high wages for city employees (500K+) and zero tolerance for corruption. Same is true for HK. Carrot and stick.

At 3:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thought you might enjoy this...

They grow 'em right in the real North Country.



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