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Political integrity tossed in the trash

I didn’t know quite what to make of Dennis Keene when I heard him scold the Los Angeles City Council on Tuesday. The 73-year-old Atwater Village resident testified that he was upset about Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s plan to hike trash fees again.

“I believe this type of fee is an end-run around Prop. 13,” he said, telling the council that he’s paying city taxes on his cable bill, his natural gas bill, his phone bill and more. Add them all up, he said, and it’s roughly equal to his property taxes, $674.83.

Keene’s arguments didn’t carry the day: The council voted 11 to 1 in favor of a $10 monthly fee hike to $36.

In our brief conversation, Keene didn’t strike me as an antitax kook. It just ticked him off that Villaraigosa had reneged on a promise to use all of the money from the last trash hike to hire more cops.

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I wanted to hear more, so the day after his council appearance, I went to Keene’s house and we sat in the shade on his patio to chat further.

I asked him if he thinks City Hall wastes money and could get by with less.

Not exactly, he said, but there’s definitely waste. Why should so many city officials have city cars? And what about City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo’s wife banging up his city vehicle while driving without a license or insurance?

Keene was just getting warmed up. Do street sweepers accomplish anything, or is the whole point to collect revenue from tickets? Do we need the city to pick up yard trimmings during the winter, when there’s little growth?

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Good questions. But in truth, the real problem at City Hall is the way in which corporate lobbyists and other players write campaign checks in return for sweetheart deals that cost taxpayers a bundle.

Keene said he understands that it costs a lot of money to provide the services people expect. And, as city officials argue, trash collection fees were comparatively low here.

Still, Keene argued, trash fees will have tripled in just two years with this latest hike.

“A $10 increase isn’t going to make me a pauper,” he said. “But they lie to you. . . . I can’t believe the city and state say their costs are going up. Well, mine are too.”

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Keene is a registered Republican and fiscal conservative who is fed up with the deception coming from both sides of the aisle. He’s got problems with Gov. Schwarzenegger’s bogus promise to take a pair of scissors to the state credit card, and with a Democrat-dominated Legislature that has no self-restraint.

It’s a travesty, Keene said, that the Bush administration has run up the deficit while waging an ill-advised war, borrowing from China and “making trillionaires” of Mideast oil barons “who hate us.”

Keene longs for more moderation in politics and public discourse, arguing that California’s budget problems stem from gerrymandered districts that guarantee a Legislature full of extremists.

That’s got to be fixed, Keene said, and we need tax restructuring to balance revenue streams from year to year.

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Will any of it ever happen?

Maybe, if enough people get as angry as Keene.

As we spoke, a trash truck worked the street, its meter running and the price rising.

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steve.lopez@latimes.com


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