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A $50K Shell Game?

Have you ever had this experience? You’re talking to a newcomer in town, someone who’s moved here from Chicago or Philadelphia. One of the old cities.

And they’re saying they don’t understand the thing with local government out here. It’s like it doesn’t really exist , they say. The mayor doesn’t act like a real mayor, he’s more like a stage prop. And then the supervisors. Who are these people?

So you try to explain. It’s not like back east, blah blah. It takes a while to get the hang of it, blah blah. But in your heart you don’t believe your own line. Because, in your heart, you don’t think local government really exists, either.

There are reasons for this belief. Good ones. Today let me offer one story as illustration. The story of the county’s $50,000 reward to end gang violence.

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That’s right. $50K to anyone with an idea good enough to put the kibosh on drive-bys forever.

Most likely you have never heard of this reward. Few have. But it was approved six months ago before the full board, in open session. What happened next constitutes our story and our lesson.

The idea was born of Supervisor Kenneth Hahn at the May 7 meeting of the board. Does it figure that Kenny Hahn would be the one? I guess. But if it had turned out to be Deane Dana or Mike Antonovich, that would have figured, too.

Anyway, it was Hahn. He took the floor to announce that the number of gang-related deaths had hit 200 through April, constituting a crisis of “brutality and bloodshed.” What was the answer? Hahn said he knew. The county should offer $50,000 to any person or persons who came forward with an idea that would “reduce gang violence, or eliminate gangs in Los Angeles County.”

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We don’t know why Hahn believed gang violence in L.A. could be cured by the introduction of a novel idea. We don’t know the nature of the ideas that Hahn had in mind.

Was he thinking, perhaps, of a snappy jingle? Or homeboy focus groups? Or something more direct, like mounting machine guns at strategic street corners? We don’t know these things because, as is often the case with the supervisors, they were not discussed.

We do know that Hahn’s brothers on the board quickly extended their approval. Dana voted aye. Antonovich voted aye. Ed Edelman voted aye. Gloria Molina abstained. Bless you, Gloria, for that gesture of skepticism. But it slowed down nothing. The county had its new anti-gang program.

In the days that followed, the old, Kremlinesque rituals were observed. Committees were formed and Hahn released a picture showing him standing behind one of those oversized checks, the amount showing $50,000.

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Now for the really good part. It’s been six months. So where are the new ideas? Who’s up for the big money?

I’m afraid we can’t answer those questions. The $50K reward program has disappeared from view. Three week ago, after being prodded by a county mole, I began inquiring of certain offices, asking for copies of the gang-zapping proposals.

Nada . I first reached one Rosemary Gutierrez, management analyst in the office of Richard Dixon, chief administrative officer of the county. Gutierrez cheerily promised to send the copies and even named their number. There were 23 ideas competing for the top prize, she said.

I could hardly wait. Then Gutierrez called back. A problem, she said. CAO Dixon had decided to delay. The difficulty was only technical, she reassured, and made a new promise that copies would be sprung in 48 hours.

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A week later, still no copies. Gutierrez became unreachable. I began to call around. No one seemed to know anything about the reward program. Finally Gutierrez returned one of my calls.

The proposals had left Dixon’s office and now resided with Kenneth Hahn, she said. The whole matter was out of her hands. I should inquire of Hahn’s office.

I so inquired. Hahn staffers said they would search and call back. They did not call back. Finally, on my third try, one staffer spoke to me in this code: “I am trying to tell you what I can’t tell you. Do you understand?”

No, I do not understand. Was this a program intended to have a beginning but no end? Were the rest of us supposed to just forget? Or did those 23 proposals contain ideas that the county would rather we didn’t see? Certain, um, embarrassments?

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I don’t know. I genuinely don’t know. Meanwhile, the number of gang-related dead has hit 700. And we still wait for the $50K idea that will save the rest of us.


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