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Andrew McCabe’s Book Ignores FBI Abuses

In our national effort to hold Trump accountable, it’s dangerous to accept at face value Andrew McCabe’s uncritical praise of the FBI without remaining alert to the bureau’s serious constitutional violations.

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The Threat: How the FBI Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump
By Andrew G. McCabe. St. Martin’s Press.

“Between the world of chaos and the world of order stands the rule of law.”

So begins The Threat: How the FBI Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump, written by Andrew G. McCabe, whose tenure at the FBI as its deputy director culminated in the tumultuous period when he briefly served as acting head, after President Trump fired James B. Comey. In March 2018, McCabe himself was fired as Trump tweeted it was “a great day for the hard working men and women of the FBI — A great day for Democracy.”

Andrew McCabe (Photo: FBI)

McCabe traces his 20-year career at the FBI in a breezy and engaging style, starting as a street agent in the New York field office and later investigating Russian organized crime, the Boston Marathon bombing, a plot to bomb New York subways, the Benghazi attack and Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server when she was secretary of state. Unfortunately, McCabe’s respect for the FBI borders on glorification as he sweepingly characterizes its “rigorous obedience to the Constitution, fairness, respect for those we protect, compassion, uncompromising personal integrity and institutional integrity, exemplary leadership, accountability, and embracing diversity.”

His dedication to the FBI is matched by his devotion to his family, which he warmly describes at key moments throughout his book. He exhibits real anger in describing how Trump falsely attacked his wife, Jill, during her unsuccessful run for a seat in the Virginia State Senate. Later, in the Oval Office, McCabe can barely contain his fury as he is forced to endure Trump calling Jill “a loser.”

The book is riveting as McCabe chillingly describes several firsthand encounters with Trump that led him to conclude that the “president has stepped over bright ethical and moral lines wherever he has encountered them.” Trump’s “unpredictable, often draconian behavior is dangerous — a threat to both the Bureau and the nation.”

McCabe’s book arrives on the heels of Comey’s A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership, and during a moment when the FBI is enjoying the unalloyed respect of most Americans — and high praise from all but Trump’s diehard base and his kitchen cabinet at Fox News. But the FBI has not always displayed the “rigorous obedience to the Constitution” that McCabe touts.

Let’s not forget that under J. Edgar Hoover’s leadership, the FBI engaged in blatant and systematic violations of civil liberties — rounding up and detaining dissidents without charges; infiltrating political organizations with undercover informants; opening 500,000 domestic security investigations; and planting defamatory stories to discredit activists such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Between 1956 and 1971, the FBI installed 2,305 warrantless phone taps and 697 warrantless bugs, and conducted 23,800 “black bag jobs” — stealing information from offices and homes. All these were directed at civil rights groups, black power militants and political dissenters.

Despite this official wrongdoing, exposed in 1976 by a U.S. Senate Committee chaired by Senator Frank Church, the abuses have continued to this day through the War on Terror. In the wake of 9/11 the FBI also detained 1,200 resident aliens of Middle Eastern descent, holding some for up to a year without charges; infiltrated mosques and domestic Muslim organizations; and gathered personal information on Muslim students at 200 colleges and universities. The FBI also expanded the Joint Terrorism Task Force, which used paid informants posing as protesters during Occupy Wall Street and, since 2014, has been monitoring and apprehending Black Lives Matter activists. As recently as August 2017, the FBI’s Domestic Terrorism Analysis Unit coined the term “Black Identity Extremists” to resume the monitoring and disruption of civil rights and anti-racism organizations and movements.

Just last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in California ruled that three Muslims can proceed with their civil rights lawsuit against the FBI, alleging that for 14 months in 2006 and 2007 the bureau used a paid informant to conduct covert surveillance of mosques and Islamic centers, and planted secret recording devices to gather information on Muslims, solely based on their religious identity. The court warned that threats posed by terrorism cannot be addressed by the FBI “fueling a climate of fear rooted in stereotypes and discrimination.” Ahilan Arulanantham, senior counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, argued the case, calling it a “shameful chapter of FBI surveillance of Muslims.”

In our headlong national effort to hold Trump accountable, it’s dangerous to accept at face value Andrew McCabe’s uncritical praise of the FBI without remaining alert to the ever-present risks of its serious legal and constitutional abuses, summed up by Senator Frank Church’s prescient warning. “If during a time of crisis,” Church said, “we ignore the wise restraints created by the Constitution and laws to keep us free and keep us safe, we’re going to not only make ourselves less free, we’re going to make ourselves less safe.”

Paraphrasing McCabe, between the world of government abuse and the world of a free society stands the Constitution.


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Immigration

How Trump’s ‘Invisible Wall’ Frightens Legal Immigrants Out of Medical Care

Diseases don’t respect borders, nor do they care about passports, citizenship or residency.

Eric Pape

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Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

Immigrants of all stripes seem to be holding off on the medical visits they need.


 
President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant tweets and provocative border talk, along with his drive to toughen immigration enforcement around the nation, is scaring many immigrants away from medical care, claim a growing number of medical executives and health care professionals.

“Every other day he reminds us [with] all this talk about the Wall, the Wall, the Wall,” says Castulo de la Rocha, the head of AltaMed Health Services, whose medical networks serve large numbers of undocumented people in Southern California. “People see images of children caged by this government. It all spreads like wildfire in immigrant communities. Think about what it means for people who hear that they will be picked up by an ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] agent. The rage that they have to deal with day in and day out accumulates very quickly.”

The end result is that more immigrants of all stripes seem to be holding off on medical visits they need.

Medical experts highlight some of the reasons that California’s clinics offer free health care to people who cannot otherwise afford it in the first place. Namely, public safety.


The White House clearly aims to make it easier to reject legal immigrants’ efforts to extend visas, obtain green cards or secure citizenship.


“Diseases don’t respect borders,” explains de la Rocha. Nor do tuberculosis, AIDS, Zika and countless other infectious diseases care about passports, citizenship or residency.

“The health care system is a backstop for society, to make sure that everyone receives at least a minimum level of attention so that they don’t undermine the health of others.”

*   *   *

Medical executives at several prominent Los Angeles-based organizations that provide free medical care to immigrants in need suggest that the Trump presidency’s most detrimental impact on immigrant health may lie in what is sometimes described as the “invisible wall.”

They point to the administration’s longstanding efforts to officially change the immigration-adjudication process so that large numbers of legal immigrants can be prevented from securing long-term or permanent status in the U.S.


Trump’s new rules have jolted many immigrants who are awaiting decisions on their legal status, inspiring shock waves that continue to destabilize immigrant medical care.


On October 10, 2018 the administration formally proposed new rules expanding the definition for immigrants of a “public charge”—i.e., someone deemed to be dependent on the government.

Whatever its final policy might look like, the White House clearly aims to make it easier to reject legal immigrants’ efforts to extend visas, obtain green cards or secure citizenship, based partly on their health care. Factors that may be given new weight in making immigration decisions include whether someone accessed children’s health insurance, used food stamps or benefited from Obamacare.

While the new policy hasn’t yet become official, it has jolted many immigrants who are awaiting decisions on their legal status, inspiring shock waves that continue to destabilize immigrant medical care.

Medical executives don’t keep track of exact numbers, but say that many immigrants suddenly began calling early in the Trump presidency to see if they could have their names scrubbed from health clinic and Medi-Cal rosters. They were afraid that cross-referencing might put an end to their time in the country.


‘Parents are coming in and asking for extra bottles of diabetes medication and extra copies of their children’s medical records in case they are deported.’


Other reactions have been more palpable, whether for undocumented immigrants fearful of ICE raids or for documented immigrants unable to convince immigration judges to let them remain in America.

“Parents are coming in and asking for extra bottles of diabetes medication and extra copies of their children’s medical records in case they are deported,” explains Joe Mangia, the president and CEO of St. John’s Well Child and Family Center in Los Angeles.

He speaks of the stress that many patients are under, citing an anecdote about a person hurrying into one center’s waiting room and announcing that they thought they saw ICE agents outside, sparking panic.

Immigration agents are allowed to visit the lobby of federally qualified health centers, but they are not supposed to violate the medical “safe haven” beyond without a warrant or some other form of special permission. Those rules, put in place during President Barack Obama’s first term, have already been stretched under Trump.

To soothe patients’ nerves at St. John’s network of centers, staff members have been trained to respond to possible immigration enforcement actions by forming a human chain around their clinic to protect patients from ICE, Mangia says.

*   *   *

The tug of war often revolves around the president’s tough-sounding pronouncements. After Trump hyped up new immigration-related measures at the start of 2018, Mangia says St. John’s centers endured a decline of 5,000 patients over the first six months of the year compared to previous years. That marked a 10 percent drop.

“The drop was really all about fear,” says Mangia. “We started calling all of our patients and saying [these primary care clinics] are safe spaces and we did the human chain training.”

Thanks to such outreach, he says, the center was quickly able to convince its patients to return, but that hasn’t necessarily been the case for other clinics. “The fear is still palpable and the tragedy—the heartbreak—is the people who do not come in.”

Odilia Romero, an indigenous-language translator and interpreter who frequently works in the medical sphere, says that many of the people she translates for are shaken and confused. “With all the news about the undocumented, people think they are not allowed to get services,” Romero says. “At the end of the day, people are always afraid things will affect their immigration status.”

The Trump administration is working to limit legal immigration on a plethora of fronts. The National Foundation for American Policy recently found that the State Department rejected 39 percent more visa applications — along with another five percent drop for non-immigrants who sought temporary visas — during the second fiscal year of Trump’s presidency. The justifications for many of those decisions remain unclear.

But there is little doubt that pitting immigration against public health affects U.S. citizens in ways that go far beyond the threats from infectious diseases. People who end up in emergency rooms because they didn’t get basic primary care tend to cost the health system far more money.

And many immigrants in California, whether legal or undocumented residents, have children who are citizens. Health care officials note that “invisible wall” policies help create difficult situations where parents must balance the risks to their time in this country and the health of their children.

“Instead of creating walls,” says de la Rocha, “we should be talking about bridges, particularly in medicine and health care.”


Copyright Capital & Main. This story was produced with support from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

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Environment

Is Environmental Law to Blame for California’s Housing Crisis?

Developers blame a half-century-old law for slowing development. Studies show there are other factors at work.

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The debate intensifies over how much the California Environmental Quality Act is an impediment to the construction of affordable housing.


 

 

Since it was enacted in 1970, California environmentalists have hailed the state’s most sweeping environmental law, the California Environmental Quality Act, as a bulwark against destruction of California’s natural resources and endangerment of its most vulnerable residents. The law requires developers to involve the public in their building plans, and to minimize damage to the environment in accordance with public input and scientific study.

But now, with Governor Gavin Newsom’s push to see 3.5 million homes built by 2025, CEQA may be in Sacramento’s crosshairs. Developers and trade unions have long complained that the law was written so broadly that neighborhood groups and certain unions have used it to start litigation that slows or stops necessary projects. Newsom’s goal, which would require a six-fold increase in current housing production over the next seven years, could lead to their complaints overriding environmental concerns.

Cesar Diaz, legal and political director of the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California, confirmed to Capital & Main that that his union was working with builders and legislators to streamline CEQA. But he denies that their plans amount to gutting the landmark law. “We have been fighting to protect CEQA for years,” Diaz says, “and we will fight to make sure any changes to CEQA are done surgically, rather than getting rid of it.” In January Diaz signed on to a letter, with environmental justice and low-income housing advocates, urging the governor and legislators to not weaken CEQA.

Diaz says his union and the California Building Industry Association were instead working to refine two already-introduced housing bills, SB 50 and SB 4, both aimed at spurring high-density housing near jobs and transit centers. The additions to those bills, and possibly more, Diaz said, would “provide certainty to developers and stronger labor protections and pay increases for construction workers.” Certainty for developers, he clarified, would mean relief from impact fees and construction defect litigation that can entangle builders in litigation. In exchange, construction workers would receive higher wages and benefits.

But the fact that environmental groups and low-income housing advocates, thus far, are not at the table concerns Caroline Farrell, Executive Director of the Center for Race, Poverty and the Environment. “Discussions between the building trade and developers have led to a lot of confusion and frustration among environmentalists. The people who would be impacted by any change [to CEQA] have to be heard.”

* * *

There is significant debate over how much CEQA is an impediment to development. Environmental interests worry that views expressed by two researchers in recent New York Times op-ed, arguing that CEQA alone is a significant contributor to the housing crisis, will prevail in any housing legislation. David Pettit, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) says that there are already CEQA speed-ups and work-arounds for some large construction projects, including a 27-story development in Los Angeles’ Chinatown.

“There has been the occasional abuse of CEQA, as with any area of the law, like locals in Venice using the law to fight a homeless shelter,” he says. “That’s appalling, but you don’t get rid of the whole law.”

A recent (and continuing) study of nine California cities conducted by the University of California, Berkeley has so far concluded that CEQA is not the primary driver of delays in new developments. Eric Biber, a UC Berkeley law professor who was involved in the study, says local governments and local zoning restrictions have more to do with lengthening the development timeline.

“We don’t say CEQA itself is not important, but [reforming it] is not the silver bullet to solve the building crisis. CEQA lawsuits are triggered when local governments impose judgments on whether their own standards are met.”

Jennfier Hernandez, a partner at the Holland & Knight law firm, disagrees with that assessment. “CEQA is tremendous, but it has been used as a tool to stop any project at any time.” Suggesting that CEQA reformers and low-income housing activists should be on the same side, Hernandez cited her study, which concluded 100 percent of Bay Area CEQA lawsuits and 98 percent of Los Angeles CEQA suits targeted “infill” development in existing communities. CEQA, she says, is “an excuse by NIMBYs to preserve the status quo.”

Yet other data back up Biber’s findings. A 2018 survey from the Association of Environmental Professionals looked at over 140,000 housing projects that went through CEQA review from 2015 to 2017 across California, and found that exemptions to or streamlining of environmental law were used in 42 percent of the projects. As with Biber’s study, the survey concluded that the top inhibitors to housing production were not related to CEQA.

Alexander Harnden, a housing policy advocate for the Western Center on Law and Poverty, agrees that CEQA has been occasionally abused by exclusionary neighborhood groups and city councils. But he argues that lengthy legal challenges under CEQA account for a small fraction of projects. “The rest of the projects are altered in appropriate ways and getting approved.”

Harnden says that streamlining housing development should include incentives for developers – such as eliminating parking requirements – in exchange for commitments to build a larger percentage of affordable units. He also advocates expanding rent-control measures and prohibiting landlords from refusing Section 8 vouchers, subsidize housing for low-income tenants. But he emphasizes that supply-side solutions like building houses at more than six times the current rate won’t fix everything. No matter how many millions of units go up in the next seven years, he says, “it won’t solve the increases in homelessness and rent gouging.” Nearly everyone in the debate agrees that there’s no single solution to the housing crisis. And they say taking on all of these aspects requires both compromise and political will.


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Culture & Media

There Will Be Blood: The Rise and Fall of Theranos’ Elizabeth Holmes

Alex Gibney has become the filmic Freud of frauds, a master at dissecting sparkly but flawed personalities.

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Elizabeth Holmes photo courtesy HBO.

The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley
Written and directed by Alex Gibney. HBO.

Tomorrow’s dreams are designed in Silicon Valley. And in the last 40 years some of those ideas have blossomed into riches and fame, and, sometimes, resulted in a better life for all. In Alex Gibney’s new feature documentary,  Elizabeth Holmes personifies this quest for wealth and well-being. Her single-minded passion for a life-changing invention is contagious, but, in the end, it is a sickness that brings about her professional demise.

Holmes’ story is well known. A Stanford student who drops out in 2003, she unveils, in 2007, the prototype of a machine called the Edison that uses small amounts of blood, at a fraction of the cost of conventional needle draws, for early detection of diseases and infections. Decked out in black turtlenecks à la Steve Jobs and sporting a baritone voice (allegedly affected), the lanky Holmes is a real character: Olive Oyl reimagined by Modigliani as a tech hipster. Curiously, she rarely blinks, figuratively or literally.

Her company, Theranos, shoots into the zeitgeist and is suddenly a white-hot commodity in the venture capitalist world. Investors swarm Holmes, who appears on countless magazine covers. Partly due to her relationships with such influential private investors as Rupert Murdoch and members of the Walton family (and a board that included Henry Kissinger, George Shultz and James Mattis), Holmes raises over $700 million. She also secures a deal with Walgreens to open up Theranos wellness centers in its drug stores to service customers with her life-changing invention. By 2014, the company has a $9 billion valuation and Holmes is the millennial poster child for changing the world while also becoming rich.

There is just one problem. The technology behind Edison doesn’t exist. It never did.

There is a prototype, but, like the game Holmes was playing, it is a shell. The machine is useless in performing the vast majority of the promised tests because it is largely a figment of Holmes’ imagination (and presumably of her lover and co-conspirator, Theranos president and COO Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani).

Patients who give blood at Walgreens have no idea that when their samples are sent to Theranos labs they are secretly processed on standard blood-testing equipment. And because some of the samples are of inadequate amounts, the resulting data are often inaccurate, disseminating incorrect diagnoses to patients. Elizabeth Holmes has put the con in Silicon Valley.

*   *   *

One of this cautionary tale’s most fascinating aspects is just how long Holmes was able to deceive the world. It wasn’t until a 2015 Wall Street Journal article by John Carreyrou, acting on a whistleblower’s tip, that Holmes’ sham was exposed. It serves to underscore how gullible we all can be when offered a dream we want to be real.

Whether it’s the leaders of a church in Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, hedge fund hucksters in Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, the eponymous doper in The Armstrong Lie, or the plethora of charlatans in his excellent Netflix series Dirty Money, Gibney has become the filmic Freud of frauds. He is a master at dissecting sparkly but flawed personalities and using their own archival material and words to crack open their dark, rotten cores.

The Inventor amalgamates a wide array of vérité tapes from Theranos’ lifespan, from internal video of staff meetings to footage shot by noted doc filmmaker Errol Morris (who was hired by Holmes to make Theranos commercials – as he had for Jobs’ Apple). Throughout the film, we see the wide-eyed Holmes expertly woo investors and try to placate a skeptical staff, as if trying to convince herself that the Edison really exists.

As it becomes clear that her scam is being exposed to the world, the delusional Holmes refuses to succumb to reality, steadfastly claiming (or perhaps idealistically hoping) that the Edison is not a work of fiction. But the gig is up, and as her dream is crumbling around her, the camera settles on a beleaguered Holmes. And she blinks. In an instant, her whole bloody invention has vanished, and the con is gone.


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Environment

Who Pays When Polluting Companies Shut Down?

Financial assurance flaws leave taxpayers potentially liable for massive clean-up costs.

Dan Ross

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Former Exide facility in Vernon. (Photo: Joanne Kim)

Operating a hazardous waste facility can be a messy business that often leaves soils, groundwater and drinking water aquifers polluted with some of the most dangerous substances used in industry.

To shield the public from possible health risks and financial liabilities, battery recyclers, landfill owners and others are required to provide financial assurance, a sum of money similar to an insurance policy for cleaning these facilities up when it’s time to close them down. If the contamination is especially difficult to remediate, operators must put up enough money to pay for cleanup costs long after a hazardous waste facility stops operating—decades, potentially.

California, however, has a long history of failing to make hazardous waste operators provide adequate financial assurances, leaving taxpayers to pick up a tab that can bloat into millions of dollars. Over the last 15 years alone, multiple oversight agencies and panels have criticized this aspect of the state’s approach to financial assurance.

A Capital & Main review of California’s 106 permitted hazardous waste facilities listed on the state website has found that the Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC)—the state agency responsible for overseeing hazardous waste facilities—still repeatedly fails to require adequate financial assurances from operators of hazardous waste facilities, leaving taxpayers potentially liable for massive clean-up costs.


Multiple oversight agencies and panels have criticized California’s approach to financial assurance.


One example of this problem is the former Exide lead-battery recycling plant, a hazardous waste facility in the City of Vernon notorious for causing extensive lead contamination in neighboring communities. In 2016, then-Governor Jerry Brown had to direct $176.6 million from the state fund to expedite the testing and clean-up of residential properties surrounding the plant. Exide, which had declared bankruptcy, simply could not or would not provide the money for its own clean-up. That same year, a bill was passed and signed that added a consumer purchase fee of $1 per lead-acid battery, with the revenue earmarked for lead contaminated sites such as Exide.

“It is long past time to make the polluter pay and hold them accountable for the irreparable damage they have caused to the health and well-being of our children and families,” Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis wrote in a statement to Capital & Main. Solis’ district includes communities near the former Exide plant.

* * *

Gideon Kracov, an attorney who specializes in environmental law, was part of a three-member Independent Review Panel (IRP) established by law in 2015 to review and make recommendations about the DTSC’s approach to things like permitting and fiscal management. During its more than two-year lifetime, the panel made repeated critical observations about the DTSC’s financial assurance program.


California’s hazardous waste facilities are often located in low-income communities already unevenly burdened by the impacts from pollution.


Kracov says the state should review, “every few years,” the financial assurances for all permitted hazardous waste facilities, and make sure the available funds reasonably address the “full cost” of cleaning up a contaminated site.

Without adequate funds upfront, clean-ups at hazardous waste facilities can “drag on too long,” says Kracov, prolonging health risks to the public. California’s permitted hazardous waste facilities are frequently located in low-income communities already disproportionately burdened by the impacts from pollution. What’s more, the taxpayer can be left holding the bag if the financial health of the operator deteriorates before the clean-up begins, as happened with Exide, Kracov warns.

According to the DTSC’s public information officer, Russ Edmondson, the agency has made “much progress to strengthen the way the department handles financial assurances.” Indeed, earlier this year, a new law made changes in a number of different areas. Large companies, for example, that use their “tangible net worth” as proof that they can cover clean-up costs must now show a net worth of at least $20 million rather than $10 million. They must also meet a minimum corporate credit rating.

However, Ingrid Brostrom, assistant director of the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, claims the new law fails to fix the “fundamental” problems with the system. “These were minor changes,” she added, “though I think the changes do reflect the DTSC’s knowledge that this is a concern.”


“We have a permitting program where nobody is really anticipating the worst-case scenarios.”


According to Edmondson, the state also reviews “post-closure” financial assurances every five years now instead of every 10 years at facilities where the hazardous waste is left in place, such as landfills. That change mirrors an IRP recommendation to increase the frequency of the review system.

But Jane Williams, executive director of California Communities Against Toxics, says that while formal reviews appear to be conducted more regularly, “It’s not protecting the taxpayer because more bonding and more financial assurance is not being required by the department” during that process.

It’s not just hazardous waste facilities for which financial assurance is required. Operators of surface mines and solid waste facilities, including certain landfills, are similarly required to show in advance that they have the money to properly clean up their properties. According to the state’s Division of Mine Reclamation, there are currently 1,127 active surface mines in California, while the Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery says that a preliminary review showed 133 solid waste “disposal” facilities in the state.

* * *

The regulatory framework for financial assurance is complicated, with different rules governing different facilities. Nevertheless, “it’s pretty intuitive” why financial assurance is typically inadequate at hazardous waste sites, says Sean Hecht, co-executive director of the University of California, Los Angeles’ Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment. “We have a permitting program where nobody is really anticipating the worst-case scenarios.”

When he was a California deputy attorney general, Hecht litigated cases against operators of contaminated facilities that had not provided adequate financial assurances. One of the biggest problems, Hecht says, is that during the permitting process state officials don’t always make use of the kinds of information needed to make accurate financial assurance decisions, such as a facility’s full enforcement record and history of violations. “In an ideal world you would have a permitting staff really understand all of those dynamics,” he says.

In instances where hazardous waste facilities are responsible for chemical releases that pose unacceptable risks to human health and the environment, California doesn’t require plant operators to front clean-up costs until a workplan is in place. But there are risks to doing it this way. For one, it can take years for the workplan to be finalized, during which time the financial health of the company can crumble, potentially shifting responsibility to regulators and taxpayers. According to Hecht, companies can also “use to their advantage” threats of bankruptcy or job losses so as to avoid “providing as much financial assurance as ideally would be necessary to protect the public.”

These kinds of threats aren’t new — nor are they idle. In 2006, the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office released a damning report warning that financial assurances “do not account” for all the clean-up costs at closed facilities, and as such, the state “will likely bear part or all of the burden.” Seven years later, Exide filed for bankruptcy.


Companies can use threats of bankruptcy or job losses to avoid providing adequate levels of financial assurance.


Rho-Chem is a solvent sales and recycling company operating in Inglewood that has leaked highly toxic chemicals into the soil and groundwater, causing extensive contamination. The pollution stems from nearly seven decades of industrial activity at the facility. Rho-Chem is a serial violator responsible for 10 Class 1 violations since 2000 alone. Last September it reached a $473,500 settlement with the EPA for violations from a 2015 inspection. Rho-Chem hasn’t yet been required to front financial assurance to remediate most of the polluted soil and groundwater.

“In the case of Rho-Chem, financial assurance will be required following the selection and approval of a clean-up remedy,” wrote the DTSC’s Edmondson, who added that “even in the event a company files for bankruptcy, costs are covered as potential responsible parties are sought.”

According to Williams, however, in bankruptcy proceedings, “Clean-up costs and clean-up liabilities are at the bottom of the barrel. They’re almost never funded.”

With Exide’s closure, the Quemetco battery recycling facility in the City of Industry remains the only such plant operating west of the Rockies. Last December, the DTSC ordered expanded soil sampling for lead in residential areas around the facility, after testing to a quarter-mile radius found elevated levels of lead contamination. According to the DTSC, the state has not yet required Quemetco to front the money needed to remediate any off-site contamination as a clean-up remedy is not yet identified.

“Quemetco and other toxic waste facilities should be requested to have enough financial assurance so that taxpayers are not left on the hook for cleaning up contamination,” warned L.A. County Supervisor Janice Hahn in a statement. “This is a matter of public safety, and the State has to hold these companies accountable.”

Philip Chandler is a senior engineering geologist at the DTSC who spoke to Capital & Main not in an official capacity, but as a citizen. A longtime critic of the state’s approach to the issue, Chandler says that his department doesn’t always apply “common sense” when it seeks financial assurances from plant operators. “That’s why we wind up underfunded at site after site after site.”


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Society

Beyond Feinstein: A Twelve-Year-Old Climate Activist Finds Her Voice

Bay Area seventh grader helps to organize San Francisco student protests as part of Friday’s “Climate Strike.”

Sasha Abramsky

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Samantha, center, with fellow members of her school's Warriors for Justice club. (photo: Barni Ahmed Qaasim)

“If I were in her place, I would not be threatened by 12 youths. I’d listen to what they were saying. I’d say, ‘I’ll think about it,’ and I’d leave it at that,” states Samantha, one of the young environmental activists who recently challenged Senator Dianne Feinstein for not endorsing the Green New Deal. Instead of listening, however, Feinstein got testy with the schoolkids, pushed her own, more limited policy proposals and pulled rank on them by noting how many times she had successfully won re-election to the Senate. The kids, in turn, told California’s senior senator that “we’re asking you to be brave” and to support the Green New Deal.

Not surprisingly, footage of the confrontation between the 85-year-old senator and the tweens went viral.

Samantha, who was amongst those present at Feinstein’s office, is a 12-year-old seventh grader who will be part of today’s Climate Strike, in which kids plan to stay out of school to protest governmental inaction on climate change (she asked that her last name, and the name of her middle school, not be used in this article). Extraordinarily politically savvy, she is fast becoming known in the Bay Area for her organizing skills and ability to articulate what is at stake for her generation in the climate change struggles. “I didn’t understand why she [Feinstein] was telling us how many years she’d been in office and how many times she was elected,” she says. “She gave us her own resolution, which we were not very fond of. There were conflicting feelings in that office. She wasn’t following what science said. I’ve read both Green New Deals, and hers has less information.”


1,000 students will convene at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s San Francisco office Friday to talk Green New Deal


Since that meeting, Samantha’s life has been something of a whirlwind. In many ways she is just a regular 12-year-old – she likes hanging out with her friends, singing songs, retelling jokes found online – but her routine is now interrupted by requests for interviews; by people asking her if she has political ambitions; and by invitations to attend conferences and activist workshops.

Samantha will be helping coordinate today’s walkout at her school. The activists will join an expected 1,000 youth from around the region as they convene at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s San Francisco office to talk Green New Deal, and then march through the streets to Feinstein’s office. They will be part of a global mobilization of young people participating in a range of climate-related actions.

“I would describe myself as an artist and a writer and a warrior,” says Samantha. “I’m more comfortable saying my opinion because I have something to stand for now.”

As young people around the world increasingly turn to school walkouts and strikes to highlight the urgency of global warming, Samantha, whose ancestry is a mix of Cambodian and Mexican, has found her voice on this truly global issue; and, in turn, local activist groups – her school’s Warriors for Justice club as well as a Bay Area organization called Youth vs. Apocalypse — have found that her voice is a powerful one to have on board.

“I was blown away,” Carolyn Norr, of 350.org, the parent group to Youth vs. Apocalypse, recalled of the essay Samantha wrote, while in 6th grade, about how she would protest the situating of a coal terminal at the Oakland port. Samantha’s teacher had been so impressed by the writing that she passed it along to Norr, who works with kids in Oakland schools on a range of environmental issues.

Norr encouraged Samantha to apply for a Youth vs. Apocalypse fellowship. Even though she was technically too young for the program, her speaking and writing skills were such that Norr was willing to bend a little to bring her into a space where she could work on building her activist and organizing efforts with children her own age.


Young people around the world are increasingly turning to school walkouts and strikes to highlight the urgency of global warming


It was a wise call. In the year since, Samantha has confronted politicians such as Feinstein on global warming and, most recently, was part of a group invited to Harvard University to hold a workshop on youth organizing efforts. She has shot YouTube segments explaining the urgency of tackling climate change, and has become a leading local presence in preparations for today’s Climate Strike.

“They’re really owning their power,” Samantha’s teacher, Cory Jong, says of Warriors for Justice. “And using their voices and talking about how youth are powerful. Samantha is fierce and passionate and focused – and extremely talented. She’s determined to fight to make sure this is a shift in political discourse.”

Samantha’s mother, Eunice, agrees. “She’s more aware than I am,” says Eunice. “She’s enlightened me more. I believe she’s going to be a really positive leader; she’ll be up there. Hopefully a president – someone who makes a really good contribution to our country.”


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Corruption Exposed in College Admissions Indictments

Wealthy parents caught gaming the system. Eli Broad spends on privatization. The price of each vote for L.A. school board race.

Bill Raden

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Photo by Ken Lund

“Learning Curves” is a weekly roundup of news items, profiles and dish about the intersection of education and inequality. Send tips, feedback and announcements of upcoming events to  braden@capitalandmain.com, @BillRaden.


Californians made up a telling majority of those charged in Tuesday’s sensational, 50-person federal bust of a $25 million, Newport Beach-based college admissions bribery ring. The indictment, which also names five coaches from USC and UCLA and wilts the ivy at revered elite schools ranging from Yale and Stanford to Georgetown University, netted Hollywood stars Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, along with 23 more of the Golden State’s most privileged and allegedly cheatingest parents. The Los Angeles TimesTeresa Watanabe and Andrew Khouri frame the crackdown as the illicit tip of a higher ed inequality iceberg that includes the largely unregulated, multibillion-dollar college admissions prep sector.

“I hope that this whole coaching industry gets a closer look,” University of California, Santa Barbara American studies professor Christopher Newfield told Learning Curves about the policy implications of the scandal. “Because it’s really expensive, it’s skewed toward affluent people and makes the playing field even less level than it was before. … And it’s constantly gaming the [admissions] process so that people lose confidence in its validity, which is not that hard to begin with.”

Newfield, whose books and research have focused on how 40 years of privatization and state divestment has undercut the public university’s goals of providing broad access and high quality, added that states like California also need to look at why quality college seats have not grown with the population of college students. (He recommends erasing the degree differences that underpin a perceived Cal State/UC diploma caste system.) The final piece to eliminating bad behavior is admissions reform: “When you are rejecting 95 percent of your applicants, you’re rejecting a whole bunch of great people, and the rejection process is somewhat arbitrary. You introduce these odd categories that [are] not fair, and they’re really gameable. That’s what people try to do. It’s crazy.”

The first big-dollar charter donation in L.A. Unified’s special school board election was spotted last week by the L.A. Times’ eagle-eyed Howard Blume, and to nobody’s surprise it bore the signature of L.A.’s own free market-ed megadonor, Eli Broad. Neither was it surprising in a primary distinguished by the determination of pro-charter candidates to remain in the privatization closet until the last possible moment that the $100K check, made out to a PAC supporting former Eric Garcetti aide Heather Repenning, was inked on Election Day.

There’s much at stake for Broad. The billionaire is not only a close, longtime political ally of LAUSD superintendent Austin Beutner, he also paid for much of Beutner’s portfolio district transformation plan, which risks being dead on arrival should progressive Jackie Goldberg repeat her overwhelming first-place finish in what looks like a May 14 runoff.

Goldberg’s runoff challenger won’t be known until a final ballot tally confirms whether or not Repenning’s now-razor thin, 35-vote lead over March 5’s current third-place finisher, Huntington Park Councilperson Graciela Ortiz, is sustained (fewer than 100 uncounted ballots remain). But intrepid data cruncher Sara Roos ran the committee expenditures of the March 5 primary race on her RedqueenInLA blog earlier this week to come up with a preliminary per-vote price tag.

The costliest votes of the race went to Repenning, whose underwhelming 13.13 percent outcome cost her backers roughly $352 for each vote; Ortiz’s 13.02 percent set her supporters back $109 per; and the best bargain of the race proved to be Goldberg, whose 48.2 percent cost a mere $63 each.

That leaves billionaires like Broad and Reed Hastings with an interesting campaign-finance calculation on their hands: After throwing $50 million at failed bids to elect pro-privatization candidates as governor and state schools superintendent in the last cycle, do they now risk another expensive confirmation at the polls of voter disenchantment with “school choice” while Sacramento is in the midst of reigning in California’s unregulated charter marketplace?


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Safety Issues and Lax Oversight Plague Immigration Detention Centers in California

State investigations raise concerns about human rights abuses in federal detention facilities.

Robin Urevich

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Adelanto detention center (Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

Stonewalling by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement prevented California’s attorney general from fully investigating immigration detention in the state as a 2017 law now requires, but it didn’t prevent the state auditor from slamming California cities for lax oversight of detention and for subsidizing federal detention in the state. On February 26 both the AG and the state auditor released investigative reports that raised concerns about human rights abuses in federal detention facilities in California. The state holds some 4,500 immigrant detainees for ICE, more than any other state except Texas.

The state auditor recommended the legislature pass a bill that would take effect immediately and require California cities that contract with ICE to ensure that detention centers meet federal standards.


Orange County lost $1.7 million last year because it neglected to charge ICE the full cost of jailing immigrants in two lock-ups


Both reports flagged conditions at the Adelanto detention center, where a detainee hanged himself and three others recently attempted suicide. A surprise federal inspection revealed that braided bedsheets, like the ones used in the suicide and two of the attempts, were hanging in 15 cells in the facility in violation of detention standards. Both guards and detainees referred to them as nooses.

“When you have suicides and attempted suicides, that raises red flags,” said Assemblyman Rob Bonta. Bonta said he’d like to include the auditor’s recommendation in a budget bill or possibly in private prison legislation he’s introduced this year.

The AG wrote short reports on seven facilities while providing in-depth investigations of three county jails that also house ICE detainees — Theo Lacy in Orange County, Yolo County Juvenile Detention Facility and West County Detention Facility in Contra Costa County, which has since terminated its ICE contract. The AG failed to break new ground in its probe of the state’s four private facilities where 80 percent of immigrant detainees are held; its report described the limited access ICE provided to those lock-ups.

Among the attorney general’s findings:

  • Some detainees are locked in cells for 22 hours a day.
  • Language barriers lead to arbitrary or abusive discipline or treatment of detainees by staff.
  • Medical care has been delayed or denied.
  • Unsafe suicide watch and solitary confinement practices were discovered.
  • Contact with family members is sometimes difficult because of financial or geographic barriers.

California’s auditor discovered the following:

  • Orange County lost $1.7 million last year because it neglected to charge ICE the full cost of jailing immigrants in two lock-ups. Orange County disputes the finding, arguing that it would have incurred the extra costs even if had not jailed ICE detainees.
  • Yolo County spent an estimated $700,000 more than it was paid by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, failing to recoup its costs for holding immigrant youth in its juvenile detention facility.
  • The cities of Adelanto, McFarland and Holtville failed to adequately oversee the detention centers they contract with ICE to operate, despite serious health and safety issues raised by ICE’s own inspectors.

*   *   *

The federal government opposed the state attorney general’s investigation and waged a court battle to invalidate AB 103, the state law that mandates the AG’s probe. The government argued that the inspections would preempt federal authority over immigration; however, a federal judge disagreed and dismissed the government’s case against AB 103. The government continues a court fight against provisions of one other state sanctuary law.

Still, even after Assembly Bill 103 survived its court challenge, ICE stymied the AG’s inspections. For instance, investigators from the attorney general’s office had requested a two-week site visit to the 1,940-bed Adelanto Detention Facility in San Bernardino County, but its report noted that ICE provided only a “limited tour and did not permit us to speak with detainees or facility staff informally, or to conduct formal detainee or staff interviews.” AG inspectors took similar day-long tours of the three other private facilities in the state but were only permitted to talk to detainees at two of them.


City officials couldn’t answer basic questions about the detainee population in their facilities.


However, ICE’s lack of cooperation didn’t hinder the state auditor, whose findings were based on reporting by California cities and counties. The auditor was sharply critical of Adelanto, Holtville and McFarland, which have contracted with ICE to run detention centers, but which neither operate the facilities nor adequately oversee the for-profit firms that do. The ICE contracts, known as Intergovernmental Service Agreements, allow the agency to bypass federal contracting rules that require competitive bidding and transparency.

The auditor noted that city officials couldn’t answer basic questions about the detainee population in their facilities. They didn’t demand reports or accountability from the for-profit prison firms with which they subcontract and rarely set foot in the detention centers, although they have a right to do so.

In addition to its recommendation to the legislature, the auditor recommended that counties avoid spending county monies on immigration detention, and instead recover the full cost of detention from federal agencies.

The attorney general’s office stressed that its investigation continues. It has $1 million dollars to report on immigration detention in California over 10 years.


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Can Airbnb Be Regulated?

Co-published by Fast Company
As cities struggle to rein in the short-term rental service, a detente in San Francisco may show the way.

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Airbnb's San Francisco headquarters. (Photo: Dllu)

Co-published by Fast Company

From Barcelona to Santa Monica, cities alarmed by the proliferation of short-term rental homes have attempted to rein in Airbnb and its competitors with regulations. They have taxed them. They have limited them to certain neighborhoods or building types. They have banned them altogether. In December, after three years of debate, Los Angeles capped the number of days hosts could rent out their homes at 120.

But do these rules work? One test of the effectiveness of cities’ regulatory efforts is their impact on Airbnb’s growth. Two years ago, UBS, the Swiss investment bank, analyzed data from 127 cities and attributed slowing growth in listings at Airbnb to the emergence of local regulations. A November survey of travelers by Morgan Stanley lists their concerns about home sharing’s legality as one of several factors explaining the company’s plateauing growth. That said, Airbnb, which has a $30 billion valuation and is planning an initial public offering as early as this year, is still experiencing user growth in the double digits.


There are myriad ways for Airbnb hosts to elude cities’ regulatory efforts.


The success of cities that have been able to regulate tech-enabled tourism owes to the powerful coalitions that have mobilized to challenge these data-driven platforms and to the fact that they are beginning to fight with their own digital weaponry.

One major challenge is simply finding and monitoring illegal rentals. Traditional code enforcement methods — door knocking and taking photos — have been supplanted with “web scrapes” and other high-tech approaches. Without these tools, “it’s like bringing a knife to gun fight,” says Ulrik Binzer, a former Airbnb host from Marin County who now runs San Francisco-based Host Compliance, a company that helps cities develop and enforce short-term rental regulation. “There are just too many of them.”

In addition, a “city has to be able to go to a platform that ignores its law and hold it accountable,” says Dale Carson, a hotel industry lobbyist and co-founder of Share Better San Francisco, a coalition of sometime adversaries — tenants, apartment owners, hotels and hotel workers — who advocate for regulations of the behemoth Airbnb and other home-sharing platforms. (Disclosure: Share Better New York is a financial supporter of this website.)

In a landmark 2016 case, a U.S. District Court upheld San Francisco’s ability to hold Airbnb liable when hosts operate illegal rentals. Airbnb can now face fines if it charges a booking fee for units that are not legally registered with the city.


San Francisco shed about half of its short-term rental listings after its rules were updated in 2017.


But there are still myriad ways for hosts to elude cities’ regulatory efforts, including setting up fake host names and shell companies, or registering on multiple platforms. The hardest violators to root out, according to some researchers, are hosts who run de facto hotels and take permanent housing off the market. “The biggest problem are the commercial short-term rentals” since “the risk might be worth it to stay operating,” says Shirley Nieuwland, a doctoral candidate at Erasmus University in the Netherlands who co-authored a study on cities’ attempts to regulate Airbnb.

*   *   *

San Francisco has been held up as a regulatory success story, in part because it shed about half of its short-term rental listings after its rules were updated in 2017.

City Attorney Dennis Herrera notably secured $2.25 million in penalties from property owners Darren and Valerie Lee, who, after being caught once in 2014, returned to illegally renting out 14 other apartments on Airbnb until being caught again last year. (Only permanent San Francisco residents may let their homes as a short-term rental — and for not more than 90 days in a year.)

More tellingly, what was once an adversarial relationship characterized by battles at the ballot box and legal sparring between the city and Airbnb is now a cooperative one. “I think we have a system in place that is very effective,” says Kevin Guy, director of San Francisco’s Office of Short-Term Rental. “We have a regular cadence of email communications back and forth” between the various platforms and the city.

Airbnb spokesman Christopher Nulty says that regulations help bring stability to the platform. “We think that to be regulated is to be recognized,” says Nulty. Over the last five years, Airbnb has worked with “hundreds and hundreds of governments globally” to establish tax and regulatory partnerships, he adds.

Dale Carson credits a legal settlement between San Francisco and Airbnb for the new spirit of cooperation — after Airbnb and its competitor HomeAway/VRBO challenged a 2016 law requiring hosts to register with the city.

Even after the enforcement battles, Airbnb officials are sanguine about its prospects in its hometown. Revenue from bookings in the city have remained steady since the tougher enforcement regime was put in place. Meanwhile, the company has seen a 44 percent annual growth in guest arrivals in the five counties surrounding San Francisco. But what has watchdogs on alert is the sizable growth in listings of units that can rent for 30 days or more, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Unlike other short-term rental hosts, the owners of such units are not required to be permanent residents.

And a study by McGill University researchers raises questions about the law’s effectiveness, claiming it merely purged Airbnb of hosts who rarely rented their homes and had “relatively little impact” on those hosts renting out multiple units or a single home with great frequency. “This suggests that few if any Airbnb listings in San Francisco have been returned to the long-term rental market,” according to the report, which was published in January.

*   *   *

Meanwhile, New York City remains a legal battleground for Airbnb. Typical New Yorkers saw their rents rise by $384 in a three-year period – and by more than $700 in some Manhattan neighborhoods, according to another McGill University study, published last year. While San Francisco allows its residents to rent their homes for months at a time when they leave town, New York City’s stricter law bans short-term rentals in most buildings unless the home sharer is present.


Data activist: “Airbnb is constantly suing cities or threatening to sue them.”


That has not stopped short-term rentals in Airbnb’s largest domestic market from proliferating. Last month, the New York Times recounted an elaborate scheme undertaken by local real estate brokers who allegedly raked in more than $20 million from thousands of illegal rentals.

There were more than 56,000 active daily Airbnb listings in New York City last year, according to the 2019 McGill University study, which also estimated that 68 percent of host revenue came from illegal reservations.

Airbnb has fought back hard against the city’s tough regulatory regime. After New York passed a law that required platforms to provide regulators with hosts’ names and addresses, Airbnb sued, arguing the city had violated Fourth Amendment protections from unreasonable search and seizure. In January, a U.S. District Court judge in Manhattan placed an injunction on the law. The city has since subpoenaed Airbnb for data on 20,000 listings that regulators believe may be in violation of local laws.

“Airbnb is constantly suing cities or threatening to sue them, and so there’s a lot of hesitancy from cities” to regulate them, said Murray Cox, a New York-based data activist who runs a website called Inside Airbnb.

Airbnb’s Nulty counters that the number of lawsuits that Airbnb has brought is small relative to the 88,000 cities where the platform operates, and objects to New York’s desire to have “unfettered access” to host data “without due process.”

At least one host is not impressed by cities’ regulatory efforts. Gene Dexter owns seven short-term rental properties in Thailand and in cities across the U.S., from Los Angeles to New Orleans, and manages rentals for clients. He takes great pride in carefully designing each of his units with items from his travels. He said that tougher regulations in a city would not be a major factor in his deciding where to operate. “They are kind of a cool challenge for me,” says Dexter. “With the tech, I could easily play the game to the point where — catch me if you can.”


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Los Angeles School Board Race: Jackie Goldberg Triumphant

An election reversal for L.A. charter school forces. Oakland teachers’ uneasy victory. Betsy DeVos backs a bill everyone hates.

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Jackie Goldberg on election night. (Photo: Bill Raden)

“Learning Curves” is a weekly roundup of news items, profiles and dish about the intersection of education and inequality. Send tips, feedback and announcements of upcoming events to  braden@capitalandmain.com, @BillRaden.


 
The future of L.A. Unified supe Austin Beutner’s plan to remake the Los Angeles Unified School District into a charter school portfolio district got considerably cloudier Tuesday with Jackie Goldberg’s whopping 48 percent first-place finish in LAUSD’s special school board election. Goldberg, a well-known education progressive who campaigned on a vow to lead the fight for a charter moratorium and for restoring pre-Proposition 13 levels of school funding, could still win the seat outright if she takes enough of the remaining 4,700 uncounted mail-in ballots. Otherwise, she’ll face either Huntington Park councilmember Graciela Ortiz (at 13.3 percent) or former Eric Garcetti aide Heather Repenning (13.09 percent), who remain in contention for a distant second place spot, in a May 14 runoff. Stay tuned.

A charter moratorium was also at the center of this week’s settlement to the seven-day Oakland teachers strike. That deal pledges that OUSD school board chair Aimee Eng will introduce resolutions for a charter moratorium and for a five-month hold on further school closures. (It also includes an 11 percent raise, modest class size reductions at “high needs” schools and a district promise to hire more counselors, psychologists, speech pathologists and other support staff.) Up to 24 OUSD public schools have been slated for possible shuttering or consolidation as part of a district austerity plan to slash spending.

The Oakland Education Association’s narrow (1,141 to 832) ratification margin reflected rank and file unease that the district might pay for the contract by moving ahead with $20.2 million worth of cuts in staffing and programming as part of a state bailout — a vote that strikers and community members had already blocked three times during the walkout. Those fears were realized when the board met during the resumed school hours to pass the cuts, which will decimate the district’s restorative justice and Asian Pacific Islander support programs, and generate 100 pink slips that include 33 support staff members, three counselors, three teachers and one police officer. However, with the vote coming three days after the March 1 deadline set by a 2018 law that ties a state bailout to draconian spending cuts, it remains unclear whether the money can legally be released to OUSD.

After over two years of threatening to launch a big-ticket federal school voucher program, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos last week did the next best thing — she backed a Republican proposal for a $5 billion private-school scholarship tax credit sponsored by Representative Bradley Byrne (R-AL) and Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX). The credits, which are already allowed by about a dozen states (California is not one of them), are meant to pay for private and religious schooling without directly using tax dollars. The program would most hurt lower-income kids by further siphoning enrollment and resources from the underfunded public schools that most are attending.

The proposal has already run into bipartisan hot water. Ultra-conservatives worry that conditions placed on the money would penalize schools that racially discriminate or teach creationism and climate denial. Democrats are even less enthusiastic. “This proposal is dead on arrival,” said Patty Murray (D-WA), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Education Committee.

The right of hate groups to recruit on campus received a ringing endorsement last weekend when President Donald Trump, speaking at CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference), threatened to issue an executive order barring federal research dollars to “colleges and universities that do not support free speech.”

In a response, Terry Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, called the presidential threat “a solution in search of a problem.”


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Can an L.A. Ordinance Give Workers Schedule Stability?

A UCLA study found that 84 percent of the city of Los Angeles’ 147,000 retail employees lack fixed schedules.

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The Los Angeles City Council introduced a motion March 1 to ensure that hourly employees at some large companies know exactly which hours they’ll be working weeks in advance, and what they’ll be paid. Los Angeles could join Bay Area cities San Francisco, Emeryville and Santa Clara – as well as New York, Seattle and Philadelphia, and the state of Oregon – in mandating predictable work schedules.

The proposed Fair Workweek ordinance is a suite of six regulations guaranteeing these workers receive at least two weeks’ notice of work schedules, along with predictable pay, access to additional work hours if they need them — and the right to request flexible schedules and to refuse hours without retaliation. It would also prohibit “clopenings,” where a worker closes a store only to open it the next morning, often without receiving at least 10 hours in between shifts. It would apply to retail, grocery and pharmacy companies with at least 300 employees worldwide that operate in the city of Los Angeles. Those industries, studies have shown, have some of the most erratic employee schedules. The bill’s co-sponsors say they may eventually expand regulations to cover fast-food restaurants.

A 2018 UCLA Labor Center study, Hour Crisis, found that 84 percent of the city of Los Angeles’ 147,000 retail employees lacked fixed schedules. Retail is the second-largest employer in Los Angeles County: One in 10 workers in the county work in retail either part- or full-time. As Fair Workweek initiatives have been debated across the country, employers have typically resisted the measures, claiming that they cost businesses more money, hinder job growth and limit employee hours.

Stuart Waldman, president of the Valley Industry & Commerce Association (VICA) said that such an ordinance would be disruptive to business. “We support a flexible workweek that benefits both employer and employee, and any way that can be done is a positive,” Waldman said. “But a predictable schedule is not realistic. You will have long lines at retailers who don’t schedule people for fear they will have people sitting around not doing any work but getting paid.”

*   *   *

The Fair Workweek LA coalition, which includes the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, claims more predictable scheduling makes employees happier — and their jobs easier.

Rachel Reyes, a manager for a luxury lifestyle brand in L.A., told Capital & Main that the ordinance would force managers to use best practices in scheduling workers. “You sit people down and say, ‘What are your time constraints, are you in school?’ You collaborate with your staff. You want your employees to be happy. The easiest way to do that is to make sure everyone knows when to come into work.”

Los Angeles City Councilmember Paul Koretz, a co-sponsor, called the ordinance a minor inconvenience for businesses. “But it’s absolutely critical for employees,” Koretz said. “I can’t imagine how one might feed their family on a 20-hour-a-week minimum wage job. So a person has to usually get a second job. It’s impossible to do that when your hours on the first job are fluctuating and totally unreliable.”

In 2015 L.A. passed a minimum wage increase that will reach $15 in 2020. But City Councilmember Curren Price, who co-sponsored that increase and the Fair Workweek ordinance, said more money per hour doesn’t matter if a worker can’t get enough hours.

VICA’s Stuart Waldman argues that increased predictability for workers could mean unpredictability for business. “A schedule two weeks in advance is a difficult thing to do, because if one person changes then everybody who would potentially be working has to change as well,” he said.

A soon-to-be released Duke University study of retail workers in Emeryville, which passed a fair workweek ordinance in 2017, will show that employees there are enjoying substantially more schedule stability under the new law, according to study co-author Anna Gassman-Pines.

“Not having enough advance notice of their schedules, shifts that changed at the last minute and wanting to have more hours — our study found that those problems were alleviated,” Gassman-Pines said. “Especially for working parents.”

In 2017, Oregon became the first — and so far only — state to regulate employee schedules. No related bills are pending in Sacramento. State Senator Connie M. Leyva (D-Chino) introduced a scheduling bill of rights for hourly workers in retail and restaurants in 2016. Senate Bill 878 was shelved in the Senate Appropriations Committee after pushback from the California Chamber of Commerce. Her office said that she doesn’t plan to introduce any similar bills in the current session.

L.A.’s Fair Workweek ordinance sponsors say it’s written in broad strokes, and that business will have a seat at the table when a final bill is crafted.


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