Ron Kaye: Valley COG shifts leadership gears

As the San Fernando Valley Council of Governments celebrated its third anniversary last week, one thing was perfectly clear: It was set up to fail by Los Angeles city and county officials and succeeding spectacularly at doing so.

Utterly nothing was achieved in those three years, so the politicians, as usual, found a fall guy to blame for their failure, the guy who did the work, Robert Scott, a longtime Valley business and community leader who served as the council's executive director from its inception.

Without so much as a thank you for his efforts, Scott, a prominent figure in the Valley secession movement, found out he was being dumped in the same short email sent to other rejected applicants:

"The board considered each applicant's proposal with a great deal of scrutiny. Ultimately, a unanimous decision was reached, which directed staff to commence negotiations with another firm…We once again thank you for your interest in working with the San Fernando Valley COG. If you have any questions or concerns, please feel free to contact me. Thank you."

It doesn't get much colder than that.

So who did the elected officials who sit on the COG board — seven L.A. Council members, county supervisors Michael Antonovich and Zev Yaroslavsky and one council member each from Glendale, Burbank, Santa Clarita and San Fernando —choose to replace him?

A lobbyist!

The audacity of the decision to hire Steven Afriat Consulting to lead a government agency created to bring more public transit and economic development to the region, to get grants and funding to solve the community's problems, is astonishing on its face.

Afriat reported billings of $9.8 million over the last 10 years for lobbying L.A. City Hall and has a team of lobbyists currently registered to represent clients that include billboard companies, West Side developers, trash haulers and Walmart.

The Afriat website boasts it helped the adult entertainment industry force L.A. to repeal an anti-lap-dance ordinance, construction companies to win the subway tunnel and station contracts and advertising companies get "lucrative" street furniture and public transit contracts.

Now don't get me wrong: Steve Afriat is a more honorable guy than most in his profession, but lobbyists are part of the process of money and favors that has corrupted our political system.

The meeting Thursday at Van Nuys City Hall began as these quarterly events usually do nearly half an hour late as board members straggled in.

Only six of the 13 elected officials who sit on the board attended, including Antonovich, who arrived late. Three L.A. council seats were filled by staff members, while the San Fernando member and L.A.'s Bob Blumenfield, Paul Koretz and Mitch Englander were no-shows.

Two-term COG Chairman Ara Najarian of Glendale set the tone at the outset by asserting they had made "some progress" and expressing hope that there will be "modifications to our voting procedures" — a reference to the fact that the COG is paralyzed by a unanimous vote rule that gives veto power to any of the 13 members to make sure those little cities don't get away with anything.

It was then time to elect a new chair. Only L.A.'s Paul Krekorian was nominated, prompting concern from Antonovich aide Jarrod DeGonia who asked if he could abstain.

"You need it unanimous," he was told.

Antonovich arrived at that moment and murmured his assent, so Krekorian took over as chairman.

Acknowledging there had been "growing pains," he promised he was "ready to focus on substantial priorities," such as transportation and economic development.

With that, Santa Clarita's Marsha McLean nominated herself for vice chairwoman, but the one-for-all, all-for-one unanimity rule came up again when Burbank's Jess Talamantes also was nominated. McLean got only two votes and graciously withdrew.

Talamantes talked about how they had "gone through a lot of tough terrain," but he "sees a bright future for the San Fernando COG working together. We can make this happen…if we work as a team."

It was time, then, to ratify the hiring of Afriat Consulting, specifically Jaime Rojas, a former head of the state Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, as executive director for just under $46,000 a year.

The COG's year-end financial report was presented showing it has $75,000 in the bank — an amazing figure considering that each city and the county puts up only $10,000 a year without regard to size or number of votes, a total of just $60,000.

Most of the surplus came from the highly successful "Mobility Summit" that the ousted Robert Scott organized last fall to get funds so the COG could get grants and hire experts. But the board couldn't agree unanimously on how to spend the money.

"What a pleasant surprise to have $75,000 in our account balance," Najarian said disingenuously, since the surplus was old news.

I talked at length last week with Afriat and Rojas, who both have deep roots in the Valley community, and swear they didn't take this gig for the money. They think they can help move it forward and avoid the conflict-of-interest problems inherent for a firm that does so much business in the various government agencies in the area, including representing Santa Clarita in fights with L.A. city and county.

"We know what the reality is with the COG, but we owe it to where we live and where we work to see what we can do to make things better," Rojas said. "We see it as an opportunity to build on the foundation Bob Scott built to make this as important an agency as the COGs elsewhere in the county."

Time will tell but the plain fact is the COG has been a waste of time and money, only lightly attended by elected officials, with rules and funding that ensure failure.

It will be another three months before the COG meets again, so we won't know if anything will change at least until then and whether the promises to get the Valley region a fairer share of public resources are real, or just more hot air.


RON KAYE can be reached at Share your thoughts and stories with him.

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