Just a few months ago, leaders of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy were bracing for an attack. A Sacramento-based opposition research firm often hired by conservatives had blanketed Los Angeles public agencies with requests for information about LAANE, an influential nonprofit that works with labor, environmentalists, immigrant rights groups and others to shape local public policy. The inquiries were almost certainly aimed at unearthing some embarrassing tidbit that would, at best, make LAANE look bad or, at worst, cast some doubt on its tax-exempt status.
But LAANE’s executive director, Madeline Janis, decided not to sit back and wait for the blast. Instead, LAANE submitted its own requests for copies of any information that had been turned over, and collected the material at its offices near downtown. Now, LAANE has collected all the documents and made them publicly available, opening itself to scrutiny rather than letting someone else do it.
The resulting papers fill a file cabinet, which sits in a corner of a small, spare conference room that LAANE employees call “the library.” In addition to correspondence and other material turned over in response to the public records requests, LAANE has volunteered its tax returns, lists of donors, outside audits, even staff salaries. Anyone who wants to scour the organization’s materials merely has to show up at the front desk and ask.
I spent a recent morning perusing the documents and found some interesting tidbits. I learned that Janis makes less than half the salary of a Los Angeles City Council member, that the entire organization survives on an annual budget of about $4 million, that many public officials misspell Janis’ name “Janice” and that LAANE is not perfect. In 2008 and 2009, it underreported the amount of time and money it spent on lobbying, but it corrected those figures in its 2010 tax return, and the mistake did not result in any change to the bottom line of the return.
It’s also clear from the voluminous correspondence that was unearthed by the requests that there are people who don’t like LAANE. City Councilman Bernard C. Parks accused Janis of making remarks about him that were “not only offensive but fundamentally flawed.” Some city officials — and some lobbyists — were annoyed by LAANE’s work to revamp the city’s recycling system. One lobbyist alerted the city that LAANE was taking aim at recycling and warned that a video by the group “makes it seem like you guys have done nothing.” Two months later, a city official conceded, “I am getting frustrated by the messaging.”
And some potential allies, including the American Diabetes Assn., flinch at LAANE’s connections to labor (though, as LAANE’s records make clear, labor is a relatively small contributor to the organization’s budget; most of the money comes from foundations and private donors). The diabetes association considered teaming up with LAANE to promote better food options in poor neighborhoods but said it was “struggling to find common ground” with LAANE because of LAANE’s backing for union labor; that, an association representative said, “is not an area we weigh in on.”
It’s fascinating to read through the private correspondence of officials dashing off emails to colleagues and associates, never imagining they would show up in a public file, but what’s most striking about the LAANE library is how benign, even boring, most of it is. There are lots of invitations to events, scripts for presentations, requests for meetings. It’s the humdrum work of a group that is fighting — effectively — for change. It pushes for better food options, for better working conditions, for a cleaner environment and, yes, for union representation.
What these documents portray is a scrappy group of dedicated activists, none of them in it for the money, pressing a controversial agenda with energy, creativity and verve. Yes, it rubs some people the wrong way, but it wouldn’t be much of a cause if it didn’t.
Indeed, about the only thing LAANE’s critics could be upset about, at least in these documents, is that the group often persuades public agencies to agree with it. Not only is that not embarrassing; it’s ennobling.