March 31, 2004 - From the March, 2004 issue

Councilman Weiss Opines On Homeland Security And L.A.'s Cable Franchise Renewal Process

The train attack in Spain earlier this month is a reminder of the need for disaster preparedness among our first responding agencies. MIR is pleased to present this interview with Jack Weiss, Los Angeles City Councilmember, in which he addresses the state of homeland security preparedness in the Los Angeles area as well as the ongoing process to renew cable television franchises in L.A.


Jack Weiss

Homeland security and the protection of our interests here in Los Angeles has clearly become one of your priorities since 9/11. How safe are we in Los Angeles? What needs to be done? And, what is being done?

Los Angeles is somewhat safer today than it was on September 11, 2001 in terms of terrorism preparedness. But there's still so much more left to do. One of the principal issues that I have focused on recently has been this administration's failure to provide adequate financial support to our nation's major cities. This issue becomes most acute during those times when the nation moves to a heightened threat level, a so-called "Orange Alert." In mid-December, for example, the Department of Homeland Security notified major cities that the threat level was going to be raised because of what apparently had been credible threats, reviewed by American intelligence, to use airplanes in an offensive capacity against a major city. On December 21, the threat level was raised to orange, and cities ramped up their counter-terrorist activities. In L.A., for example, LAPD increased its surveillance of 650 high-profile targets within the city, and enormous expenses were incurred tightening the security in and around LAX.

The long and short of it is, L.A. was on Orange Alert for several weeks, and to this day hasn't received one dime from the federal government for its efforts. It is only now, in early February, that we are receiving reimbursements from Orange Alerts from a year ago. For reasons that are just hard to explain, this administration has talked tough when it comes to homeland security overseas, but has pinched pennies in our major cities closer to home.

In an interview last month with Supervisor Knabe, he indicated, as well as the Secretary of Homeland Security in his visit to L.A., that it's difficult to alter the formula because the House of Representatives tends to spread this around geographically, rather than by population and need.

That's a cop-out. This administration has been willing to lead, even when leadership has been unpopular and has come with a price. Iraq is a great example of that. Every time the threat level is raised, the Department of Homeland Security contacts a dozen or so of the nation's major cities-L.A., Las Vegas, Miami, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, etc. Clearly, major cities are the prime targets, and it's an absolute scandal that this administration hasn't used its political muscle to provide real federal dollars to make them safer.

I gather then that you are in favor of the budget introduced recently by President Bush increasing homeland security funding by more than 7%?

I haven't had a chance to look at it yet. But, I wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times recently in which I called on the administration to create an Orange Alert Fund to provide immediate dollar-for-dollar repayment to major cities when the threat level is raised to orange. I'm going to look in the President's budget and see if they've responded. Unfortunately, their policy in the past has been that they did not believe they could trust the bookkeeping of cities for overtime reimbursement, which essentially amounts to the contention that accountants in our nation's major police departments are a greater threat to the nation than Al-Qaeda. It's obviously an absurd position and I hope they've changed it.

Why don't you focus on our hard assets here in Los Angeles and your comfort level with whether the general managers-at the airport, the harbor and at DWP-have the resources that are required to take care of our security needs?

It's stretched pretty thin here. One thing that I have been in favor of is an increased level of local police intelligence capabilities. The reality is that the terrorists and terrorist cells that I believe are in our nation's major cities now are likely committing low level crimes while they're here-identity theft, marriage fraud, immigration violations, and so on. So, if you cast a wide enough and smart enough net, you may capture some of these really bad guys while they're committing some fairly mundane crimes. But I'm only willing to see an increase in police intelligence capabilities if accompanied by increased civilian oversight of police intelligence activities. Because the memory is not that dim at all of the abuses of the LAPD intelligence sections just a decade or two ago.

Having said all that, the police department is static– it's not growing. Moreover, due to the budget crisis, things will likely get even worse. It's very difficult to suggest to my colleagues that resource allocation should be increased in the areas of terrorism preparedness, since there will be a zero sum gain if that means a decrease in the ability to fight street crime in their districts.

On a broader scale, I prepared a ten-point plan on L.A.'s preparedness about a year-and-a-half ago, and one thing that I wanted to see was the creation of a Homeland Security Czar in Los Angeles-one person whose job is to oversee all preparedness activities. This isn't John Miller or even Chief Bratton. There are still far too many "chiefs" who purport to have a role in homeland security. I want to get a better handle on things by consolidating authority in one place. That still has not been done.

Jack, let's segue into telecommunications, in which you've also taken a leadership position. Bring us up to date about the issues of reorganization and leadership in that arena for the city.

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One of the most interesting and complicated regulatory matters in which the city gets involved is the regulation of cable television. The city has some discreet regulatory capability by virtue of the Federal Communications Act.

The city issues franchises to cable television companies to operate cable TV in different parts of the city. With the contracts expiring in August, those franchises are currently up for renewal. The Information Technology and General Services (ITGS) Committee, which I chair, is conducting a series of hearings relating to this issue of cable franchise renewal. This committee is going to play an active role in making these decisions, since ultimately it is a decision granted by the Charter to the Council to decide what the terms and conditions are for operating cable television in Los Angeles.

The issue has gotten more complicated in the past ten years by the advent of competition in the cable television arena, namely from direct broadcast services (DBS), such as DirecTV. Under federal law the city of LA cannot regulate DBS providers. DBS providers don't generate any income for the city of Los Angeles, whereas cable companies do. So, in broad strokes, the cable industry contends that further regulation and mandates on cable only make it less competitive with DBS, and thus reduce revenues to the city.

One reason that I find the situation very interesting is because I have been a fairly harsh and regular critic of the Adelphia cable company, which was run into the ground by the Regis family, and which ran itself into the ground with unfair rates charged to customers in my district. Adelphia has since attempted to try to build out its network in my district and other parts of the city to provide high speed services such as cable internet and high definition television. But they're still not there yet, and there is an enormous level of distrust of Adelphia in the community.

Is there support from the Mayor's Office for the Council taking a lead role in these telecommunications discussions?

As far as I can tell, the Council is the actor that's playing the key role here. That's the role the city charter has set out, and that's probably appropriate since the Council is directly accountable to the people of the city. There was some mention a ways back that certain members of the Information Technology Commission felt cut out of the process. That's not true-we look forward to having their input. But in the end, the vote that matters is the Council's, and that's where the action will be.

In that regard, I wonder what your thinking is about community, civic and political affairs programming, especially with the demise of the Bill Rosendahl show on Adelphia. How do you get your message out? How do we have a civic conversation now?

That's a very good question. One thing that is up for discussion is whether the public, educational and government broadcasting requirements (PEG) ought to be revisited. Everyone who gets cable TV gets one of those junky public access channels that no one watches, which has always carried fairly borderline material in terms of quality, if not taste. It just seems like an enormous waste of resources. On the other hand, stations such as Channel 36 have been broadcasting some fairly innovative community programming, such as the high school football game of the week, which really does a better job of bringing the community together. Having said all that, I don't think that our number one priority ought to be figuring our how to provide more politicians with free airtime. God knows we get plenty of that on channel 35, and I doubt all that many people watch it anyway.

Jack, let's turn to the budget. There seems to be, with the governor's budget and the bond measures on the March ballot, fewer and fewer discretionary resources available to local government. What's your take on the present and future prospects for implementing the initiatives you think are very important for this city?

It's a very difficult time to serve at any level of government. We just witnessed a fairly cynical election campaign in the state of California, where the prevailing candidate in the race for governor won largely on the claim that government was easy. That administration has since tried a number of means to literally switch out revenues from local governments and transfer them to state government. If they are successful, it could mean a very significant reorientation of revenues in this state unless someone gets a larger, more holistic, handle on it. It makes you want to call, literally, for a state constitutional convention. You could call for that in an initiative, so I guess if we paid petition gatherers to go out to a supermarket right now, we could probably put that on the November ballot. All that is one way of saying that it's a rather difficult, and at times disappointing, time to serve in government when you see the sort of cynical shenanigans that people are getting away with these days.

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