The Insider

Democracy gets a facelift

October 23, 2014

The county's proposed touch-screen voting machine would print out paper ballots with voter choices.

Envisioning a future that would make the founding fathers proud, Los Angeles County is investing $13.6 million to revolutionize its voting system and possibly set the standard for the rest of the country, too.

After decades of putting up with the clunky InkaVote and its even clunkier predecessors — Votomatic punch cards, anyone? — the Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to develop a prototype with a touch screen and other high-tech innovations designed to serve the different needs of the county’s nearly 5 million registered voters.

Barring any serious glitches, the new “ballot marking machine” will be field tested in 2017 and mass produced in 2018, in time for the gubernatorial election.

“If this works well in L.A. County, it could be a game changer for the nation,” said Pamela Smith, president of Verified Voting, a nonpartisan organization that advocates election accuracy, transparency and verifiability.

Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk Dean Logan said the machine’s engineering specifications, intellectual property and functional prototypes would be nonproprietary and remain in the public domain.

“From the beginning, we’ve adopted the principle of doing this in a very transparent manner so other jurisdictions can take advantage of the data,” he said.

The project’s first priority is to upgrade the county’s voting system but Logan added, “If we can do that in a way that is transferrable to other jurisdictions, that can advance voting systems across the country, it would be icing on the cake.”

It may not have a catchy name, but the proposed new voting system is state-of-the-art, sophisticated and intuitive.

The touch screen can be customized to display foreign languages, larger fonts and high-contrast backgrounds. Voters can also select candidates by pressing buttons on an attached handheld device.

Other advanced features include the ability to process voice command and to “read” interactive sample ballots on smartphones. Voters would simply hold their smartphones over the scanner, and the names of their pre-selected candidates would appear on the touch screen to be printed on the official ballot.

The machine also would allow ballots to be cast in conveniently located “voting centers” over an extended period of time, instead of in a specific polling place and only on Election Day. It would print the names of the candidates on the ballot, so poll workers would not have to interpret marks like on the InkaVote.

“This is a critical needs project because the environment and demands under which the county administers elections have become increasingly complex, challenged by a growing and diverse electorate, an aging voting system, and a fluid regulatory environment that has limited the development of voting systems,” Logan said.

InkaVote has been in use only since 2003 but its vote-counting system was based on a program developed in 1968—that’s 46 years ago, when the Vietnam War was still raging, Lyndon Johnson was in the White House and the original Star Trek was on the television.

“It has become increasingly difficult for the registrar/recorder to source replacement hardware, as well as for staff to support its outdated technology,” said a recent analysis by county Chief Information Officer Richard Sanchez. “(And) the lack of system flexibility places the county at risk of noncompliance of election requirements.”

The county launched the Voting Systems Assessment Project in 2009 and began consulting with technology, security and elections experts, as well as different kinds of voters to determine what upgrades were necessary.

When none of the existing off-the-shelf voting systems were found capable of meeting the county’s complex needs, the prominent design and innovation consultancy firm IDEO was recruited to develop a prototype.

The firm’s name may not be familiar to most but its work certainly is. IDEO helped design Apple’s first computer mouse, Crest’s standup toothpaste tube, and TiVo’s thumbs up and thumbs down buttons.

IDEO Director Blaise Bertrand said he hopes the “human centered design” of the new voting system will boost turnout at the polls.

“We tried to improve the voter experience by understanding the voters’ needs and providing a solid technology platform,” he said. “We hope it will make people more engaged.”

Still, not everyone was impressed by the changes. David Holtzman, founder of Los Angeles Voters for Instant Runoff Elections, sought to delay the project. “There’s no pressing need now for a new system,” he told the board, “unless you want to provide for improved election methods like using ranked choice voting to have instant runoff elections.”

Ranked choice voting would allow voters in a primary election to identify their favorite candidates in order of preference, which would eliminate the need for a runoff election.

Given the rapid pace of technological advances, there are worries the new voting machines would be rendered obsolete when, say, online voting becomes a reality. Logan, however, believes that may be years or even decades away

“In order to have a truly online or paperless voting system, you have to get over the barrier of the secret ballot,” he explained.

“When you bank online, for example, and somebody hacks into the system, it can be corrected because you and the bank both know what should be in the account,” he added. “With voting, it doesn’t work that way. Once you put that ballot into the ballot box, we’re not supposed to know your identity, so tracking mistakes would be difficult.”

Smith said the importance of having secured voting systems cannot be overstated.

“It’s participation in our democracy, the peaceful transfer of power,” she said. “To have an obscure, opaque voting system that nobody understands just doesn’t make sense.”

“Voting systems need features that would provide us with justifiable confidence that election outcomes are correct,” she added. “It’s not enough for those running the elections to say, ‘Just trust us, it’s working.’ ”

Registrar-Recorder Dean Logan says the new system will help the county deal with an increasingly complex electorate.


Posted 10/23/14

New counsel has taxing background

September 26, 2014

New County Counsel Mark Saladino, L.A.'s longtime Treasurer-Tax Collector.

After his appointment this week as Los Angeles County Counsel, Mark Saladino braced for the lawyer jokes. He knows only too well the consequences of assuming a less-than-crowd-pleasing job title after serving for 16 years as the county’s Treasurer and Tax Collector.

“The worst reaction I ever had was a gentleman telling me, ‘You’re the tax collector? In the Bible, you’re lower than prostitutes,’” Saladino, 56, said with a laugh.

Despite its perceived notoriety, Saladino is excited about becoming the County Counsel and taking over a public law office that has had three “permanent” and two “interim” leaders just in the last five years because of back-to-back retirements.

The Board of Supervisors approved his appointment Tuesday and will administer his oath of office on October 15. Saladino will supervise a staff of about 600 — half of them lawyers — and receive an annual salary of $288,915.

“I think one of the biggest challenges facing the Office of County Counsel is management,” Saladino said in an interview Tuesday. “One of my distinguishing characteristics is that I’ve been a department head for 16 years so I’m familiar with all the administrative functions of county departments, and most lawyers don’t get that kind of background.”

During his tenure at the Office of the Treasurer and Tax Collector, Saladino made operations more efficient by providing taxpayers with online payment options and by automating various processes.

“Our department suffered significant budget cuts during the recession, and the only way we could keep up with our increasing workload was to do more with fewer people,” he said.

“It used to be that during tax time, we would hire more than a dozen people just to open envelopes and process checks, and then we had armored cars take those checks to the bank,” he added. “Now, the mail is opened by machines and checks are deposited electronically, which is faster and safer.”

Saladino also took credit for helping to boost the county’s credit rating in the midst of the recession, when several jurisdictions nationwide went bankrupt.

“Our board and CEO exercised the budget discipline necessary during that very difficult time,” he said. “My role was to make sure that our investments were sound.”

Saladino holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Finance with High Honors from the University of Illinois, and a Juris Doctor degree from New York University. What he doesn’t have is recent legal experience.

Throughout the 80’s and much of the 90’s, Saladino worked as an attorney for Hawkins, Delafield & Wood in New York City; Jones Day, Reavis & Pogue in Los Angeles; and the Office of County Counsel  — the same one he’ll now oversee.

But he hasn’t practiced law since becoming Treasurer and Tax Collector in 1998. According to the State Bar of California, Saladino returned to active status only this June.

Still, once a lawyer, always a lawyer.

“You don’t forget it,” Saladino said. “You don’t cease being a lawyer simply because you’re not actively practicing. I don’t think it’ll be a very big challenge to get back up to speed.”

As County Counsel, he will be responsible for providing legal advice to the board and for managing an office that serve as in-house counsel for the county’s many departments and agencies.

His lawyers could be called upon for a wide variety of duties, everything from defending Sheriff’s Department deputies accused of abuse to helping the Department of Health Services implement the Affordable Care Act.

Saladino believes helping to establish the Office of Child Protection—and figuring out how to keep the mentally ill out of jail and on a path to recovery—will be among his most important tasks.

“The District Attorney has a new initiative to divert mentally ill inmates away from incarceration into treatment and getting that right is going to be extremely important,” Saladino said. “I think the County Counsel will have a very important role to play in that process.”

Saladino, whose father and sister are both attorneys, said he’s looking forward to practicing law again. Returning to the Office of the County Counsel, he said, is like “going back home.”

Posted 9/26/14

Time to grin and bear it for CEO

September 25, 2014

Two bear cubs scamper across L.A. County CEO Bill Fujioka's Bradbury backyard. Photo/Darlene Kuba

This is the story of Bill and the three bears.

Last Sunday afternoon, the county’s chief executive officer was pursing his usual weekend pasttime—terracing his sprawling, hilly backyard with bricks—9,000 of them , so far—when his wife bolted out of the house. She announced that three sheriff patrol cars were blocking the driveway and that officials from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife were there, too.

Why the commotion? A mother bear and two cubs had shimmied up an oak tree in front of Fujioka’s house in the tiny city of Bradbury, nestled at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains near Monrovia. They’d been spotted on a busy street in the area and were being guided back towards the mountains by authorities when the parched and hungry animals decided to hole up at Fujioka’s place.

“Holy smokes,” Fujioka exclaimed as he saw for himself what was unfolding out front.

Wildlife officials told Fujioka that because of the severity of the drought, the bears had wandered from the mountains looking for food and water. “It was sad,” Fujioka said. “The mother’s fur looked bad and the cubs looked malnourished.”

The CEO does a man-in-the-neighborhood interview, with his name misspelled.

At one point, Fujioka said, he started walking towards the tree when the mama bear “started hitting the branches.”

“Back up!” a wildlife official told Fujioka. “She’s warning you. If you keep going, she’ll come down that tree and charge you.”

After more than an hour, the bears did climb down but quickly jumped Fujioka’s fence and high-tailed it into another tree, a birch that was even closer to the house. “From my bedroom window,” the CEO recalled, “I could look at the bear eyeball-to-eyeball.”

By now, the news crews had arrived, hoping for footage of the bears’ descent.

As they waited, a reporter for KABC-TV interviewed Fujioka, who admittedly was “as filthy as could be” from his backyard brick work.

Usually when he makes the news, Fujioka is seen unveiling the county’s budget or taking part in other official business. This time, his name was misspelled as “Fugioka” and there was no mention of his position with the county. He was just another neighborhood man in the news. And that neighborhood is no stranger to attracting media attention for its occasional bear visitors. A few years ago, one made headlines for taking a dip in a resident’s hot tub.

On Sunday, in the end, the bears waited out almost everyone—the deputies, the fish and wildlife people, even the news hounds. Everyone except Fujioka and his wife, Darlene Kuba. After more than two hours in the branches, at about 4 p.m. the trio inched down and literally hit the bricks, ambling across Fujioka’s prized, terraced backyard and then back into the hills—leaving Darlene as the lone chronicler of the moment. Here are some of her pictures of the bears on the lam:

On Bill's bricks...

In the birch tree...

And Mama Bear on the wall.

Finding justice in the stacks

September 11, 2014

Martha Jimenez has used the Law Library to fight legal battles from L.A.'s eastside to Zacatecas, Mexico.

Perhaps no one knows how to use the Los Angeles County Law Library better than Martha Jimenez.

Since her college days at UCLA, the 45-year-old community activist has been taking advantage of the public facility in L.A.’s civic center to research an array of legal topics, from environmental regulations and landlord-tenant laws to city planning issues and Mexican civil procedure.

“This is like the international safe haven to address issues,” Jimenez said.

In the 1990s, she used the library to fight back when the Mexican government tried to take her grandparents’ house by eminent domain. Jimenez researched the relevant statutes and procedures and her family filed suit. In the end, they emerged victorious over the then-governor of Zacatecas.

“The governor did not know how to write his court document,” Jimenez said. “It was here that I learned that process.”

More recently, Jimenez used the library to protect her local community of City Terrace on the eastside from becoming a waste storage site for the City of Santa Clarita and a private trash hauler. After researching environmental regulations, she appealed to the City of L.A. and the Sanitation Districts of L.A. County. Again, she won.

“I empowered my community and collected 5,000 signatures,” Jimenez said. “We organized and said, ‘You cannot come into our community.’ And they stopped.”

Jimenez is one of an increasing number of self-represented litigants who’ve discovered the L.A. Law Library, said Sandra Levin, the library’s executive director. Since taking the position 19 months ago, Levin estimates that daily attendance has risen about 50%, from 200 to 300 people per day.

“I told my board that my goal is to come with a request to replace the carpet because we wore it out,” Levin said.

Hiring a lawyer simply isn’t an option for a growing segment of the population, Levin said. She and her librarians want to bridge the resulting gap in access to justice.

“There’s a real crisis right now in our society and our courts because many people are faced with legal issues and can’t afford representation. Most average citizens don’t know where to turn,” Levin said, adding that about 70% of litigants in family law cases now do not have attorneys “and the numbers are growing in basic civil cases, too.”

Over the past few years, the library has made significant upgrades, including a reorganized reference desk and computers, a renovated exterior and a new training center. “It looks totally different than before,” Levin said.

To improve outreach, Levin is offering classes and workshops taught by library staff, attorneys and nonprofit organizations. Topics include how to clear criminal records, researching with online legal databases, preparing for family law trials and how to file for a legal name change. All are provided free or for a small fee, ranging from $10 to $35.

Her reference staff handles the front lines, where people come in with all sorts of legal problems. Among the most common are evictions, divorces and child custody matters. Others, like the man who sued a boating company after being left out at sea for 12 hours, require digging a bit deeper into the public collection, the second largest in the United States after the Library of Congress.

Levin recalls two parents who came in because their child’s school wouldn’t allow them to visit during the day. “They wanted to see the school in operation and check on their child,” Levin said. “The librarians here helped them find the statute that says that you have a right to go into a public school to see your child.”

Ralph Stahlberg, the head reference librarian, remembers one homeless man who filed a lawsuit against the police for taking his belongings. “He came here and got resources,” Stahlberg said. “He fought it and won.”

Neel Agrawal is the research librarian in charge of the global law collection. He said small business owners often show up seeking assistance with the complex legal requirements regarding exporting products, trade routes and other concerns that large businesses typically hire law firms to handle.

Librarians direct their patrons to books written for non-lawyers or, if a visitor is more sophisticated, to more complex reference books. Still others need advice on the basics, like how to address a judge (“your honor,” rather than “sir” or “madam”.)

While unrepresented litigants have been on the rise, the trend was spotted by the State Bar of California back in 1997. In response, the California Commission on Access to Justice was created “to explore ways to improve access to civil justice for Californians living on low and moderate incomes.” Later, the Judicial Council of California—the state’s policymaking body for the courts—formed a Task Force on Self Represented Litigants. In 2004, the task force issued a Statewide Action Plan for Serving Self-Represented Litigants. Central to the plan was the creation of courthouse self-help centers to provide one-on-one assistance with family law and eviction cases.

Business is booming. According to Superior Court spokesperson Mary Hearn, more than 200,000 “incidents of service” have been provided annually during the past few years at centers across the county, including in Santa Monica, San Fernando and Van Nuys. The law library, meanwhile, collaborates with them to identify what kinds of services are most needed.

“The courthouses are wonderful but they have limited scope,” Levin said. “They offer a pretty wide range of family law issues and some landlord-tenant issues, but beyond that there isn’t much assistance.”

Nonprofit organizations like Public Counsel and Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles also help people who can’t afford an attorney, but still can’t meet the enormous demand.

The law library also serves people who aren’t facing litigation, as well as those who can afford an attorney. Understanding legal rights in advance can resolve or prevent costly court battles. Levin gives the example of a worker who believes she may have been sexually harassed, but isn’t sure. One hour of research at the library could prevent an unnecessary fight that might damage the person’s career interests.

“Someone has to teach people how to understand their rights, represent themselves in court and do legal research,” Levin said. “That’s what we do.”

The sweeping exterior renovation of the downtown Law Library was completed in 2012.

Posted 8/14/14

A Grand party—unless you were green

September 11, 2014

The Made in America concert in Grand Park caused nearly $50,000 in landscape damage.

The fans were ecstatic and the downtown boosters were declaring victory.

But as Grand Park awoke this week from its most ambitious gathering so far, it was clear that for at least one constituency, last weekend’s Made in America extravaganza was no party.

Ladies and gentlemen, give it up for the poor shrubbery.

Although cleanup crews said this week that the new park rebounded surprisingly well from the 70,000-plus fans who stomped, jumped and danced their way through the Civic Center park over Labor Day weekend, a damage assessment prepared for the county offered the sordid details.

Some 10,000 square feet of lantanas, bougainvillea, aloes, drought-tolerant grasses and other greenery—drawn from around the world to reflect the diversity of L.A.—will have to be pulled out and replaced in the aftermath of the two-day concert. In the section of the park closest to the main stage in front of City Hall, more than 1,500 separate plants, many of which had been growing into maturity for nearly two years, must be replaced.

“The trees weren’t too damaged, but a lot of the plants in the planters were completely smashed and broken,” said Sergio Hernandez, manager at ValleyCrest Cos., the Calabasas-based landscaping contractor that maintains the 12-acre park for the county.  “It almost looked like people were standing on some of the shrubs.”

The botanical casualties were estimated by ValleyCrest at about $50,000 park-wide. Hernandez said the new plants will probably take until next spring to reach the same size as they were before concertgoers arrived.

The two-day MIA concert drew roughly 70,000 people to Grand Park for its biggest event.

Live Nation, the concert promoter, is contractually obligated to cover the costs of the landscaping and other damage, including the replacement of  six thick tiles in the popular Arthur J. Memorial fountain splash pad, which were broken during the construction and tear-down of a stage.

Despite the damage, the event—curated by rapper Jay Z and headlined by such international names as Kanye West, John Mayer and Steve Aoki—won wide praise from its many boosters, including Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. Among other things, it generated some $600,000 in fees for the county and $500,000 for the city, while showcasing Grand Park as a potential rival to the Coliseum, the Rose Bowl and other signature Southern California gathering spaces.

A spokeswoman for the mayor said his office still is assessing last weekend’s economic impact, but press interviews with downtown merchants indicated that their businesses had gotten a much-needed boost, and park planners said the event, overall, was a net benefit to the public.

“You want the park to be used, and you want it to be used for different things,” said Dawn McDivitt, who managed the development of Grand Park for the county Chief Executive Office before leaving to become chief deputy director of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County this year.

“When a big ticketed event actually rents the park, you get not only the side benefit of additional revenue for more public programs, but also the ability to reach a different type and age of audience, who will come down and enjoy other, free, events at the park later.”

But, she added, “a big, ticketed event also can be a concern because the park was established for the public, and you have to make sure that the public will still be able to enjoy it afterward.”

Grand Park officials said that the landscaping should be restored by next week, along with the completion of repairs on the fountain and a damaged irrigation line.

The preliminary assessment, prepared by ValleyCrest, estimated that $38,898 in damage had been caused near the park’s main event lawn, between Broadway and Spring Street.

Irrigation repairs and plant replacement elsewhere in the park will probably cost an additional $14,000, said Christine Frias, a program manager in the CEO’s office who coordinated the county’s Made in America involvement. She said the county was able to keep landscape costs lower by fencing planters that weren’t in the flow of foot traffic.

Grand Park Director Lucas Rivera said that, given the size and scope of the event, the impact was considerably lighter than anyone had anticipated.

“Made in America provided Angelenos with amazing entertainment and put Grand Park on the national stage,” said Grand Park Director Lucas Rivera. “With any event held in a public space, and with the amount of people who attend, there’s always going to be some wear and tear on the venue.”

The park's popular "splash pad" was damaged by the construction and tear-down of a stage.

Posted 9/4/14

An even grander place to play

August 14, 2014

The hard hats were pink, like Grand Park's benches, and the groundbreaking was kid-powered.

If you build it, they will play.  At downtown’s Grand Park, that has been the lesson so far when it comes to kids’ amenities.

From the park’s big, cartwheel-friendly lawns to its spouting splash pool, the wildly popular 2-year-old gathering space has been jammed constantly with children. So far, though, it has lacked one of the most fundamental attractions—a place for children to slide, climb and swing.

That’s about to change. This week, the park broke ground on a 3,700-square-foot, $1 million play area that’s intended to make Grand Park even more of a kid magnet.

Designed with a fanciful forest theme by Rios Clementi Hale Studios, the park’s designers, the fenced play area will anchor the park segment known as Block Four, between Broadway and Spring Street, near City Hall and at the opposite end of the park from the splash pool and fountain.

“Grand Park strives to live up to its mission to be the ‘park for everyone’ in ways that engage, surprise and delight,” said Lucas Rivera, the park’s director. “Now with a children’s play area, we hope to exceed the expectations of even our smallest guests.”

The playground is expected to be completed by this November. That’s not a moment too soon for downtown’s residential community, which has become increasingly family-oriented and reliant on Grand Park for green space.

“I’ve been waiting for it,” said artist Lola Gayle, who was knitting in the park on Tuesday with her 9-year-old daughter, Milo Sandgren, as her 3½-year old son, Kian Sandgren, played in the water.

“How many years has Grand Park been open now? Let’s do it!”

In foreground, Lola Gayle relaxes with daughter Milo. Alyssa Ochoa grabs a quiet moment on the bench at left.

Park officials said the play area was in the park plans from the beginning, but had been postponed because of limited funding.

The playground is being jointly funded by First 5 LA, which is providing a grant of $500,000, and by Supervisor Gloria Molina, who is matching that amount with Proposition A/Los Angeles County Regional Park and Open Space District money.

Aimed at children aged 12 and under, the play area will include a 20-foot-high hardwood tree house with platforms and roller and tube slides. The area also will have berms with rock-climbing handles, a rope climber and a tunnel, and curved hardwood benches for parents and caregivers. Mature sycamore trees will frame the space and provide shade.

Though the playground is expected to take up only a small portion of the 12-acre park’s lawns, its supporters predict a big payoff.

“Grand Park serves, in essence, as L.A.’s Central Park, and one big piece that has been missing is a children’s play area,” said Jennifer Pippard, interim director of First 5 LA’s community investments department.

“We want to be about promoting physical health and good mental health and social interaction, and play areas like this provide those kinds of opportunities.”

Artist Gayle said the play area will make life easier for the growing constituency of young families who have populated downtown Los Angeles in recent years. She said that when she moved in 12½ years ago with her husband, also an artist, families with children were few and far between. “It was just dog parks,” she recalled.

Now, she said, at least five families in her building have kids and Grand Park provides an essential downtown gathering place.

“It’s brilliant, it’s a sense of community,” Gayle said. “I’ve met some really cool moms here.”

The park clientele’s diversity—economic, social, racial and otherwise—also is a big draw, she added.

As Gayle spoke, the sound of families chattering—in English and in Spanish—filled the air, along with the universal language of squealing wet kids. Some parents had driven to get to the park, while others, like Alyssa Ochoa, arrived via public transportation.

Ochoa said she first heard about Grand Park when she was staying at the Union Rescue Mission with her daughter, Nylah Green.

At first glance, they were underwhelmed.

“There was no playground, so I was disappointed,” Ochoa said. Then 2-year-old Nylah discovered the splash pad, and the park became one of their favorite attractions.

They have since moved to a women’s shelter in South Central but, whenever they travel downtown to pick up some free diapers, they make it a point to drop by Grand Park as well.

“When you don’t have any money,” Ochoa said, “you have to find something that’s free.”

The playground design features a tree house and tube slide. Image/Rios Clementi Hale Studios

Posted 7/30/14

Cracking the ER “Code”

August 13, 2014

The acclaimed Code Black captures the intensity and complexities of ER medicine at County-USC.

In the beginning, the idea was simply to produce some archival footage—a project pitched by a young medical student to document life-saving efforts unfolding amid the controlled chaos of the emergency room at Los Angeles County’s old General Hospital.

It was there, on the edge of downtown, that the concept of emergency medicine was born in 1971 and, in some respects, had remained the same in theory and practice throughout the ensuing decades.

Despite medical modernizations that had become the norm at most hospitals, the emergency crew at the renamed Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center still operated more like a battlefield MASH unit. Crowds of doctors and nurses swirled around patients suffering the most catastrophic of injuries. Side by bloody side, the stricken were packed into a cramped trauma bay in the ER called “C-booth,” with barely a curtain between them.

But in 2008, all that was about to change, and first-year resident Ryan McGarry, who also had a keen interest in filmmaking, wanted to capture the era before it was gone. Because of earthquake damage to the old county hospital, the emergency department was moving next door to a new state-of-the-art facility that would rocket the doctors into 21st century medicine, complete with its emphasis on patient privacy and layers of paperwork.

Although initially modest in scope, McGarry’s ambitions for the project soared with the support of top Los Angeles County officials and the help of a producing team that included USC Distinguished Professor Mark Jonathan Harris, who has won three Academy Awards for documentaries.

Director/Writer Ryan McGarry, an ER physician.

McGarry’s film, Code Black, opened nationwide in June and has become a critical success, a gripping and graphic look at the shifting world of emergency medicine for the destitute and working poor who rely on public hospitals, such as County-USC, for their care. The term Code Black refers to the hospital’s designation for the highest level of emergency room crowding. Among other honors, the film won the Jury Award for best documentary at the 2013 Los Angeles Film Festival.

Focusing on a cadre of idealistic young residents, including himself, McGarry explores the challenging new realities for the next generation of emergency room physicians as they remain committed to maintaining a personal connection with patients while confronting the escalating regulatory demands and settings that emphasize patient privacy.

Dr. Sean Henderson, chairman of the hospital’s emergency department, says his 21-year-old daughter saw the documentary at a film festival in Santa Barbara and was so inspired that she changed her major.

“She decided to become a physician’s assistant because of that movie,” he said.

“Often, doctors are portrayed as overpaid snobs who don’t really care,” he continued the other day, sipping a caffeine-free Coke in his office in the old county hospital. “But I think you’ll see in this movie that this is not always the case. There are people doing things because they really care about the people they serve.”

Still, Henderson said he has some personal reservations about the film—a project he inherited from his predecessor, Edward Newton—and isn’t sure he would have green-lighted it himself.

“I’ve never believed in cameras in the hospital,” he explained. “The fact that you’re in an emergency room with an unplanned, unscheduled, unanticipated event—stressed, waiting, probably less informed than you’d like to be—I think that’s a very vulnerable place to be.”

That said, Henderson praised the filmmaker for getting two sets of consents from patients whose emergency room visits are shown in the film—everyone from a drunken man belting out a romantic ballad in the waiting room to the family of a patient whom doctors unsuccessfully fought to save as they cut into his chest to keep his heart beating.

Henderson, who became department chair in 2012, also appears in the film, but mostly to defend a prominently featured action he imposed in the face of a severe nursing shortage. In a dramatic segment of the documentary, he shut down an area of the new emergency department, creating a monumental patient backlog, to make the point “that we couldn’t continue to care for all these people with inadequate resources.”

“I caused the crisis and I had to defend the crisis. I was the villain,” he said, and then offered a fuller explanation of his actions than he did in the film.

He said that in the past, before Health Services Director Mitchell Katz’s arrival in 2011, “the way you got attention in the county system was to create a crisis. It wasn’t just me. It was throughout the system…If you have a crisis, resources are pulled from someone who’s not having a crisis to take care of your crisis. And so, without permission from the school [USC] or the county, I created a crisis knowing full well that it would create a pushback downtown that would allow them to hear my pleas that heretofore had gone ignored.

“It was manipulative, it was sneaky, and mea maxima culpa. But it worked,” he said, noting that more funding was soon made available for the desperately needed nurses.

Another top L.A. County emergency department official, Dr. Erin Wilkes, said she’s seen her good friend McGarry’s film more than a dozen times in various stages along the way. The two were residents together, beginning in the old hospital’s emergency department. Today, she’s the director of Emergency Medicine Systems Innovation & Quality.

Wilkes said she helped organize various Code Black screenings for county officials, including the Health Services executive team. The feedback was mostly positive, she said, although “there were a lot of questions about what the consent process was like.” Wilkes said McGarry obtained his first consents at the hospital and then got a second round of permissions after showing people the actual footage he wanted to use.

Wilkes said she’d now like to build on Code Black’s positive buzz by holding a panel discussion event at USC that would include McGarry, now an assistant professor of emergency medicine at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical College.

In a recent interview with the emergency medicine publication ACEPNow, McGarry talked about the demands of simultaneously pursuing his residency and filmmaking. “It was three years of no vacation,” he said. But he said he had no regrets.

“One thing that I feel very lucky to have experienced,” he said, “is nonmedical people sitting through some pretty tough stuff in cases we show. And at the end of the film people give us a standing ovation. I wish I could share that with every physician, nurse and X-ray tech who leaves a really tough shift.”

C-booth at the old L.A. County hospital operated more like a MASH unit than a modern ER.

Posted 7/17/14

A park vote to keep the green flowing

August 6, 2014

The restored Griffith Observatory is one of the most visible projects funded by Proposition A.

From the Malibu Pier to trails running through the Santa Monica Mountains, from a dog park in La Crescenta to a skate park in Downey, two L.A. County park measures have generated nearly $1 billion in improvements over the past two decades for some of the region’s best-loved gathering places, great and small.

The measures—Proposition A in 1992 and a follow-up initiative known as “Baby A” in 1996—have helped to fund 1,545 projects across the county including “tot lots,” tree planting, swimming pools, soccer fields, bikeways and fitness gardens, along with facilities for seniors and youth, wildlife habitat projects and graffiti abatement services.

Among the measures’ most broadly visible success stories: a new shell installed at the Hollywood Bowl, a county park, in 2004; the extensive restoration of the Griffith Observatory, which reopened to the public in 2006; and expansion of the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area, with amenities including a play area and ball fields. Prop. A funding also has helped transform El Cariso Community Regional Park in Sylmar, which now boasts new features including soccer fields and a 15,000-square-foot community center and gymnasium. And it is allowing kids to make a splash this summer in the new Olympic-sized pool at Belvedere Park in East Los Angeles.

A chocolate Lab has his day at La Crescenta's dog park.

But the flow of green amenities to parks in L.A. County’s unincorporated areas and its 88 cities could be coming to an end, with Prop. A set to expire next June 30. (Its 1996 counterpart will finish in 2019.)

Concerned about derailing a successful program of investing in local parks and recreation facilities, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors decided this week to place on the November ballot a measure that would essentially carry on the 1992 Prop. A for 30 more years, generating a similar $53 million per year.

“We need to do this if we want to keep the momentum going,” said Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who along with Supervisors Don Knabe and Gloria Molina voted to place the measure on the Nov. 4 ballot. “The public has benefitted from this. They like the parks that have been built. They like the recreational opportunities that have been provided. I don’t think they want to see this come to a grinding halt on June 30 of this coming year.”

But Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, who joined Mark Ridley-Thomas in opposing the action, said it was too soon to place what he called a “half-baked tax” before the voters, especially since Prop. A ’96 is continuing for several more years and some unspent funds remain in Prop. A coffers.

Russ Guiney, the county’s director of Parks and Recreation, acknowledged that there is a current balance of $154 million in Prop. A funds, but said $20 million of that is committed to upcoming projects. Unless the proposed continuation of Prop. A passes, the remaining funds will be spent down rapidly on park projects and maintenance demands that run around $55 million annually, Guiney said.

The average homeowner currently is assessed $13 a year for Prop. A ’92 and $7 annually for Prop A. ’96, for a total of $20 a year. The measure now heading to the Nov. 4 ballot would replace the Prop. A ’92 assessment with a flat tax of $23 a year per parcel. If passed by the required two-thirds of county voters, that would bring the average homeowner’s total tab for park improvements to $30 per year.

Guiney noted that 64% of voters approved the 1992 measure, and even more—65%—voted in favor of the 1996 proposition.That bodes well, he said, especially since so many projects built with funds from the previous parks measures are now visible and being used enthusiastically by the public.

“I think the voters understand and appreciate this, based on past history,” he said. “We’re optimistic.”


Belvedere Park has a new Olympic-sized pool, East L.A.'s first. Photo/Los Angeles Times

Posted 8/6/14

Voting’s future: #FixIt

June 19, 2014

The #LAVote Twitter feed was busy on Election Day, sharing updates and photos from around the county.

After Tuesday’s primary election, Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk Dean Logan noted the irony of his role the night before: He was using new technology—that is, tweeting—to explain to voters why the county can’t post instant election results on the Internet.

One of his tweets, also posted on the Registrar-Recorder/Clerk’s website : “L.A. County covers a large geographic area.  It will take time for secure transport of ballots to HQ (that’s headquarters in Norwalk) for tabulations.”

During the evening, Logan and other county officials kept the Twitter generation entertained with updates and photos of bright red boxes of paper ballots security-sealed and ready for transport.  Logan loves the real-time dialogue with constituents, but pleads for patience from those among the county’s 4.8 million registered voters who may blame reporting delays on county staff.

Secure transport of ballots doesn’t begin until the polls close. “Once that’s done, the counting process is fast — but we have to get them to Norwalk,” he said. (Still, as of Wednesday, thousands of “provisional” and last-minute absentee ballots remained to be counted.)

Both tired and exhilarated on Wednesday morning, Logan said it might be a long time before voters can cast their vote online or get instant election results.  That’s hard to explain to a public that’s used to doing everything online, from paying bills to voting for the next American Idol.

“What it really comes down to is the value of the history of the secret ballot,” Logan said.  He explained that while an online activity such as banking is a secure transaction, it still requires that the identity of the individual be linked to the account so the bank knows who you are. At the polls, the voter signs in so he or she can’t vote more than once, but once the paper ballot is placed in the box it can no longer be connected to any individual voter.

But Logan is more confident that the county can streamline the current voting process to better serve the demands of a new generation of voters in other ways. “We’re looking at modernizing the voting systems,” he said. Tuesday’s startlingly low voter turnout, he said, is one more indicator of a voting process that is “at the end of its life cycle.” (Only 13.1% of eligible county residents voted, the lowest turnout in the state.)

Last year, the county launched a massive updating of the voting apparatus to be more user-friendly, with updated equipment to be available at the polls in 2016, part of a broader effort that includes research into the future needs of an increasingly large and complex population.

And on Wednesday, the county passed an ordinance—initiated by Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky —that will require candidates to file their campaign finance reports electronically, with the goal of eliminating the slow, labor intensive data entry process and providing quicker, more complete access to the public.

By the November 4 general election, Logan said, campaign donor information will be available online for all candidates. While optional electronic filing has existed for several years, he said, only 50% of L.A. County candidates have been filing online.   Some information was only accessible on paper at Norwalk headquarters.

“And some candidates have done a hybrid, sometimes electronically, sometimes paper,” he said. “The first step is to make that an even playing field. All of the candidates will be filing in the same manner.”

He adds that it’s not enough to post campaign finance information: the county plans to make sure it’s presented in a searchable, user-friendly format.  (One minor downside:   Because the information will be entered online by the candidate’s campaign management, errors or violations will be publicly visible before the county has a chance to see the entry and notify the campaign of the problem.)

Logan called the move significant because “it’s one step in updating the whole process.” The goal of the county, he asserts, is “transparency, security and accountability.”

Logan said his department also is looking at new ways to bring younger voters to the polls, including the opportunity to vote at any polling place, rather than having to make it to a designated polling location during voting hours.

And the poll worker pool needs to be expanded beyond the current demographic, which skews heavily toward older people and retirees. “There is not the population available that’s willing to put in a day’s work for what is essentially a civic volunteerism act,” he said. “Some do it for the stipend, which I think is $175, but there are certainly areas of this county where that’s not an incentive.”

Logan says the department will carefully consider each update to the system.  “People are now used to getting information on a real-time basis and our system isn’t designed for that,” he acknowledged. “But we need to make sure we’re not duplicating [problems] with a newer version of the old process.  We need to make sure there’s value added, and a flexibility to change with the times.”

Posted 6/5/14

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