Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Back in Black

The blog is back.

Because there’s not always time to thoroughly examine issues at City Council meetings and because it sometimes seems that discussion or debate isn’t always welcomed, the blog is back.

This may be a “kinder and gentler” blog, but I will continue to try to let my musings be guided by straight talk and it will at least give me the opportunity to share my thinking and reasoning in a more detailed fashion with any interested residents.

Because of recent developments at the Council, and since the last blog posting (it’s still up there) had to do with the issue of ZIP codes, it only seems appropriate that the re-launched blog should start with a discussion of 90210.

In the future, expect to see musings on other subjects, including public employee pension reform, the impacts of medical office space on our City, lobbyists and holiday decorations. But for now, let’s take another look at the issue of ZIP codes and our City.

ZIP-ity Doo Dah

At the Aug. 4 Council meeting, my colleagues, who voted 4-1 against my proposal to examine clarifying the boundaries of the 90210 ZIP code, which now extends to a large part of Los Angeles, and consolidating the City under the 90210 ZIP code, told me in as many words to ZIP it.

“I’m not interesting in looking at this subject now or anytime, for that matter,” said one of my colleagues.

Since there aren’t enough votes to push forward, the subject likely won’t come up anytime soon. But that doesn’t mean it can’t and shouldn’t be discussed. Since, thank G-d, we have a free market of ideas, I’m happy to use the blog to make my case as to why ZIP adjustment is and should be a matter of concern to our residents and, consequently, the City Council, and why punting on the issue is an example of a blown opportunity for local government to show that it is better, more effective and more capable of actually working for the citizens than the state and federal governments.

And, yes, in the free marketplace of ideas, I’d like to answer the arguments that were used to summarily shoot down the subject of ZIP reform.

By the way, in refuting arguments, there’s no reason for me to mention by name which councilmember made a specific point. I’m fond of each of my colleagues personally; all of them have great qualities, all are earnest and extremely dedicated in serving our City and all of them are great dancers. This is about issues and arguments, and it’s the issues and arguments and only the issues and arguments that I’ll be tackling.

Here we go…

The issues of clarifying the boundaries of the 90210 ZIP code and uniting the City under 90210 are separate, but there is good reason to combine the two. However, it’s not an all or nothing proposition. If, for example, for technical reasons the City can’t have only one ZIP code, it still doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to clarify the ZIP boundaries in 90210. There are three main and powerful reasons to proceed.

1) Safety.
2) Avoiding unnecessary confusion and promoting “Truth in Advertising”.
3) Increasing the sense of Community and connecting our residents more closely.

Safety Last

Safety Last was the title of one of the most well-known films of BH pioneer and resident Harold Lloyd. While his estate Greenacres was built before the advent of ZIP codes, today Lloyd would be a resident of Beverly Hills, 90210 and when I say that I mean the real Beverly Hills and not the faux Beverly Hills in Los Angeles.

“Safety Last” also, unfortunately, seems to be the motto of the Council when it comes to the issue of the confusing 90210 ZIP code. In fact, about a month ago someone living in Los Angeles, but with a Beverly Hills post office 90210 address, came before the City Council with a request that their property be annexed by Beverly Hills. Their primary argument was “safety.” They claimed that they had called the LA police on a number of occasions, only to be told by the LAPD that the Beverly Hills police were responsible, and this was clearly on the basis of the postal address and ZIP code. Upon calling the BHPD, the LA 90210 residents were naturally informed that LA was indeed the responsible agency. The applicants related similar tales about trying to get various city services from LA.

Ironically enough, one of my colleagues agreed that the arduous and unnecessary process of annexing this Los Angeles property into the City of Beverly Hills would be appropriate due to the stated “safety” concerns. This same colleague described my efforts to address the issue and to do so in a much simpler way as a waste of time.

Clearly, the annexation applicants weren’t the only people who have been the victims of confusion resulting from the misnomer “Beverly Hills, 90210” for a sizable number of houses in Los Angeles. Residents from Los Angeles, 90210 also mistakenly call the BHPD and City Hall requesting services.

Clearly, the potential for serious problems, or worse, exists if nothing is done to address the problem, as shown by the experiences of the applicants who wanted their property annexed into BH.

Clearly, the easiest and most logical way to avoid confusion and potential safety problems would simply be to call LA LA. Yes, it was for this radical and totally maverick idea that my four colleagues dismissed the idea out of hand, not considering it worthwhile to fix a problem of mistaken identity through relatively simple means.

On the other hand, as I am finding out, who ever said that government was logical or easy?

The Counter-Arguments

I heard some very interesting arguments from my colleagues. “Very interesting,” to quote Arte Johnson, but, well, let’s just say that they don’t hold much water, in my opinion. Let’s try to examine them one by one.

The money argument

“It’s a waste of money” is always a great argument at any level of government to stop something dead in its tracks. Who thinks that there isn’t already enough wasteful spending at all levels of government? So perhaps it isn’t surprising that my idea was hit with the notion that fixing the problem would be costly and, ultimately, a waste of money. Presumably the main expense referred to was “staff time” and the efforts on the part of the City’s paid lobbyists.

The problem with this argument, however, is that fixing this problem would actually save the City money in the long run. The City’s lobbying firms are all on retainer, so asking them to get engaged in the issue wouldn’t result in any incremental expenses. And while City Staff would indeed have to invest some time in going through the proper procedure with the USPS to move forward with ZIP code and postal address clarification, this would be a short-term investment to solve a long-term problem.

If it became clear to all concerned: residents, city officials, service providers, etc. that Beverly Hills is Beverly Hills and Los Angeles is Los Angeles, this would ultimately result in City staff not having to waste time dealing with ongoing issues resulting from the unnecessary confusion, or, worse yet, having to mop up potential damage in the future.

I also find it more than a bit ironic that councilmembers are pointing to the expense as an impediment to doing the right thing in this case, while at the same time they have no qualms about spending a million dollars on unnecessary holiday decorations at a time that the City is reducing our library’s opening hours, slashing our programs for senior citizens and gutting the City’s CPR program, just to name a few sacrifices we’ve been forced to make.

Another argument I’ve heard from outside the Council is that the loss of BHPO from the 90210 ZIP code would be bad for Beverly Hills, because it could potentially reduce the median sales price for houses in the area, since it would mean losing the Beverly Park mega-million estates sales figures. However, this argument doesn’t really hold water either. First of all, there are a lot less expensive houses in some of the canyon areas of 90210 that would counterbalance the Beverly Park properties in terms of price. Second of all, by this logic we should actively engage in lobbying efforts to try to include Holmby Hills and Bel Air in the 90210. But the main reason why this argument doesn’t wash is that the City of Beverly Hills naturally gets zero property tax from Beverly Estates or any other properties in LA 90210 or outside of the City limits. Consequently, the “average sales price” in 90210 is of no relevance to Beverly Hills.

In fact, I would argue that if instead of the blurry lines we have today, the city boundaries were reflected in the mailing addresses, many potential property buyers would be more careful to move into the real BH, which would actually have the effect of increasing the median sales prices of properties that actually are in Beverly Hills, with the additional resulting benefits to the City of increased property taxes.

The bad neighbor argument

One of my colleagues was quoted as saying: “If we went down this road (i.e. ending the ZIP confusion), it would disenfranchise thousands who use our City.” This sounds eerily similar to arguments that have been used and repeated in connection with our schools to try to justify continued preferential treatment of non-Beverly Hills kids who attend our schools on a permit. This pro-permit mentality makes absolutely no sense in the context of our schools and it makes no sense when looking at the residents of LA 90210, a number of whom, incidentally, feel just as entitled to send their kids to BH schools on – you guessed it – permits.

Suggesting someone is “disenfranchised” is to suggest that their legitimate right to vote is being taken away. How can an LA resident be disenfranchised in BH? Los Angeles residents have no more right to vote in BH than BH residents have a right to vote in LA or Chilean citizens have a right to vote in American elections. Very simply: there can be no question of “disenfranchisement” because Los Angeles residents never were enfranchised in BH in the first place.

But, yes, it’s obvious that Los Angeles 90210 residents would be none too happy if the “Beverly Hills” appellation that falsely adorns their properties were changed to “Los Angeles”.

Los Angeles 90210 resident, homeowner group member and real estate agent Barbara Nichols made that much very clear during remarks before the Council. She threatened the Council that her homeowners’ groups as well as a mob of real estate agents, presumably armed with pitchforks and brooms, would fight any efforts on the parts of BH to reserve the 90210 ZIP code and the name “Beverly Hills” for Beverly Hills itself. While making clear her sense of entitlement to continue having her property in Los Angeles falsely labeled as “Beverly Hills” she didn’t give any cohesive arguments about why any of this made any sense and why we shouldn’t try to fix it. Yes, she did mention that many people living in BHPO shop in Beverly Hills (in a parallel from some of the permit-parents who love to repeat how active they are in the PTA) and that property values in BHPO could be negatively impacted if the properties were correctly referred to as “Los Angeles” rather than incorrectly referred to as “Beverly Hills.”

And, in direct contradiction to the case of the LA 90210 residents who had been so upset and flustered by the confusion that resulted from their address and ZIP code that they went to the extreme of trying to have their property annexed into BH, Ms. Nichols asserted that there “isn’t any confusion” that results from the Beverly Hills name and ZIP code extending to a significant portion of another city.

Oh, please.

First of all, there is a great deal of confusion, as a separate, unrelated letter from an LA 90210 resident to the Council last week confirmed. City staff and the police have also confirmed the not infrequent confusion that has resulted from and does result from the false labeling, despite Ms. Nichols’s assertions.

Second of all, just because BHPO residents shop in BH, this is hardly a reason that they should possess an entitlement to suggest that they live in Beverly Hills. If shopping in BH were a criterion, then we could extend the Beverly Hills mailing address to Westwood, Beverlywood and West Hollywood. Heck, I’m sure we even have residents of Anaheim and West Covina who shop in BH and use the City, so why not just let them claim the 90210 ZIP code as their own, as well?

Third of all, real estate agent Nichols’s claim that real estate agents are always careful to distinguish between BH and BHPO is both irrelevant and also a case of “methinks the lady doth protest too much.” Whether honest real estate agents make the distinction or not, the confusion remains and there is no reason not to take action to end it.

However, I do get the distinct sense that there are those who use, take advantage of, and silently encourage the confusion. And the motive is all too clear: money. Ms. Nichols said it herself: if LA 90210 were no longer falsely labeled “Beverly Hills,” property values in BHPO would decrease. But why? The houses are exactly the same. The views are the same. The city services are the same. Why would property values decrease even a penny if there weren’t those arbitraging the confusion? Is it such a wrong thing to demand truth in advertising?

By the way, before we moved into BH, my wife and I looked at numerous houses in BHPO. Nowhere in any of the materials did I see a disclaimer to the effect of: “Please note that while the postal address lists ‘Beverly Hills, 90210,’ this is for postal delivery purposes only and the listed property is not in Beverly Hills, but in Los Angeles. As such, no services will be provided by the City of Beverly Hills and residency does not grant admission to Beverly Hills schools.” When we made our decision, we opted for a smaller house than we could have gotten for the same price in BHPO, because we wanted to be full-fledged residents of Beverly Hills, the City I grew up in.

Oh, sure, under the sub-heading “schools” on the materials we saw when looking at houses in BHPO, it listed either “check with city” or “Warner Avenue” or nothing at all, and as a local boy I obviously am aware that Warner Avenue isn’t BH. But how many people move to Southern California from other places, other countries, who have no idea if Warner Avenue is in Beverly Hills? It certainly is not made clear on the MLS or on most of the materials used by realtors. And if the materials say “check with city,” how will potential buyers know the city to check with is Los Angeles and not Beverly Hills? Perhaps the City of Beverly Hills should at least solicit such a standardized disclaimer that realtors should be required to use and which would be prominently included in all advertising materials in the hopes of avoiding unnecessary confusion, not to mention irate customers, such as the lady who called City Hall for coyote abatement, only to find out that she lived in BHPO and not BH. “But I paid $3 million for my house!” was her response. You can read more about this incident in a Steve Lopez LA Times column:

Indeed, prominent disclaimers and truth in advertising could probably also help to reduce such misconceptions. “Beverly Hills adjacent,” which is also used in the real estate world, is a far more accurate and descriptive term, especially since houses marketed as Beverly Hills adjacent don’t have a Beverly Hills ZIP code or city address. Heck, even using “Los Angeles, 90210” for the parts of the ZIP code area that are in Los Angeles would be a step in the direction of ending the confusion.

Interestingly enough, Beverly Hills Police Chief Dave Snowden, who is all too aware of the unnecessary confusion resulting from the false labeling, asked Ms. Nichols a pointed question after the Council meeting. “If by some quirk of the postal service, you had a Burbank ZIP code and it listed your city as Burbank, would you also be fighting to keep the ZIP and city designation?” Not surprisingly, Ms. Nichols didn’t give Chief Snowden any answer.

I’m not sure if it’s always true that “good fences make good neighbors” and I certainly don’t want to put a fence around Beverly Hills but neither would I consider myself a bad neighbor for putting safety first and for wanting to avoid all confusion through some simple truth in advertising.

And shouldn’t we also have the right to expect the principle of neighborliness to be a mutual one? We’ve lent our best clothes to our neighbors for all these years and now may be realizing that there is confusion resulting from this case of mistaken identity and that, as a result, we might like them back. What good neighbors, who have gussied themselves up in our finest all these years, come into our house and threaten to fight us when we are trying to solve a problem with significant safety ramifications?

I heard no potential solutions or willingness to work with us from Ms. Nichols. I only heard denial and threats. I’m not sure that these threats, filled with a massive dose of self-entitlement to trade on our good name and with no desire to help solve the issues and confusion that she is in total denial about, is the stuff of a good neighbor.

The “we don’t want to tee off LA” argument

Some of my colleagues also made the argument that ending the ZIP confusion would upset LA’s city fathers and mothers and make our negotiations on acquiring the orange groves above Coldwater Canyon Park all the more difficult. For those of you not in the know, the City has for several years tried to add the orange groves, which are controlled by the LA Department of Water and Power, to the park.

Aside from the fact that there has been seemingly no movement in these negotiations in any event, I completely fail to see why the LA authorities would see themselves as tweaked if BHPO got a new ZIP code with a Los Angeles address. After all, BHPO is in Los Angeles, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of.

Yes, as we’ve established, some self-entitled homeowners in BHPO along with realtors might oppose the move, but presumably the Los Angeles city authorities would welcome any measures that led to increased safety and decreased confusion. Presumably, Los Angeles would want to provide their own residents with the highest standards of service and presumably Los Angeles would want to correct any problems that could lead to safety issues.

Furthermore, I am guessing that the city officials in LA are very proud of their own city, as they should be, and would not look at asking for a correct identification of property in Los Angeles as actually being in Los Angeles as anything negative or punitive. If anything, I’m guessing they wouldn’t have a great deal of sympathy for a group of their own residents for whom the “Los Angeles” name is evidently just not good enough.

In fact, why not try to find a new designation for the “Area now known as BHPO” which could include the words “Los Angeles” or other distinct and unique Angeleno connections? “Mulholland Hills,” “Los Angeles Heights,” “Canyon Country” or some other appropriate and fitting designation could surely be found. There’s absolutely no reason why this area shouldn’t have an independent, less confusing identity. However, if a more geographically appropriate name is out of the question as a suburban designation for the LA 90210, and the self-entitlement displayed by one homeowner group leader is indicative of a majority of the residents in the area (which it very well may not be), and incorrectly including “Beverly Hills” in the name for their part of Los Angeles is a must, then they might at least consider the following more accurate designations than BHPO. How about FBH (Faux Beverly Hills), WBH (Wannabe Beverly Hills), BBH (Bogus Beverly Hills), or NQBH (Not Quite Beverly Hills)?

I have to apologize if the blog is beginning to sound a bit “acerbic” for some, but if the position of one homeowner group leader is truly representative of the residents of LA 90210, as she claims, then their monumental sense of self-entitlement to cling to a name that is not their own calls for at least a little bit of satire. As I wrote to a BH resident to comment on the matter: “I guess that Jones Cola would love to sell their drink under the name of ‘Coke’ and Smith shoes would love to call their stuff Gucci. That’s just false advertising. When it comes to safety, it’s an even more serious issue: imagine if Tylenol were labeled Vicodin. It’s pretty simple: Beverly Hills is Beverly Hills and there’s nothing wrong with wanting labels to be accurate, to want to protect the integrity of the name and City boundaries and to unite the City, if possible.” And, personally, I think that BBH sounds a lot better than BHPO…

The elitist argument

Finally, one of my colleagues on the Council rejected my idea as “elitist” with an accompanying tirade against elitism. I’m not quite sure where to go with this. Does not being elitist mean that any other group or entity should feel free to use the Beverly Hills name? Does that mean that we’re no longer going to try to develop our cachet or protect our brand? Does that mean that anyone or any city that wants to use our trademarked shield is now free to do so?

In my opinion, there is nothing at all elitist about asking for and creating clarity. Los Angeles is Los Angeles, and Beverly Hills is Beverly Hills. It’s that simple. Yes, I love my City and think it’s the greatest place in the world, but a lot of people feel that way about their own cities and there is nothing even remotely elitist about that, especially since we welcome all kinds of people into our Community.

In fact, I have proposed finding a property to house diverse foreign consulates, visitors’ bureaus, chambers of commerce with the intent of attracting high-end international companies and institutions to our City and enhancing Beverly Hills’s status as the place where the world comes to meet and feels at home. And while all the visitors, employees, shoppers and other people who come to our City are as welcome as can be, they cannot have the same status as the residents who call Beverly Hills home. Yes, Beverly Hills is our home and our Council should always consider the needs and welfare of our own residents first. Period. And there is nothing elitist about that.

The insurance argument – putting residents last

One argument that wasn’t brought up at the brief Council slap-down was insurance. From the initial sole and express usage as a tool to deliver the mail more efficiently, ZIP codes have over time developed a number of alternate uses – none of which, of course, are sanctioned by the USPS. But the setting of auto and homeowners’ insurance rates is one of these functions which have come to use residents of ZIP codes as discrete groups. As a result, Beverly Hills residents in 90210 are paying higher insurance rates because the ZIP code includes a large part of Los Angeles.

“How can that be?” I hear you cry.

It’s very simple. Beverly Hills has the highest possible rating when it comes to our police and fire services. Beverly Hills is a safer community because of this, with a lower incidence of unsolved crime, in addition to better maintained roads. By mixing the Los Angeles portion of 90210 into the pool by which insurance rates are determined, Beverly Hills residents are forced into paying higher insurance premiums than they would if the ZIP code were solely within the City of Beverly Hills.

I find it somewhat disturbing that the Beverly Hills City Council majority would choose to prioritize the narrow interests of a few self-entitled radical-permit-parent mentality property owners in Los Angeles over the broader safety and security concerns of the entire area covered by the 90210, both in BH but primarily in LA, as well as the financial well-being of the residents and City of Beverly Hills. This is not even to mention the potential benefits that a Beverly Hills unified under the 90210 ZIP code could have in tying the Community even more tightly together and helping to end, once and for all, the “below the tracks mentality” which still divides our City.

Beverly Hills is more than just a series of numbers. In fact the combination of digits 90210 is famous because of our City (and the TV show), not the other way around. If the postal system revamped all the ZIP codes and Beverly Hills were assigned 11438, then rest assured, this ZIP code would eventually become known, as well. Who today still identifies the City with the area code “213”?

But we have a chance through a single 90210 ZIP code to enhance the unity in our City, and it’s certainly an opportunity worth exploring. For all too long, have many residents in the area South of Santa Monica felt that they are “the forgotten part of Beverly Hills” and often gotten a sense that the needs of the Northerners were tended to before those in what has sometimes facetiously been referred to as the “slums of Beverly Hills.”

I am committed to try to upgrade the South and Southeast parts of Beverly Hills along the axes Olympic Blvd., Robertson Blvd. and Wilshire Blvd. East of Doheny. We need parking, green space, boutiques, restaurants and areas that are inviting for leisurely strolls. I’ve made a proposal to upgrade Horace Mann to a Beverly Hills-like standard and I am proposing developing the Southeast part of our City into an Arts and Theater District.

But symbols can sometimes have a potent effect and when councilmembers say “I grew up in the South” or “I once lived in the South” it really only skirts the issue if they’re not prepared to do something to make the residents of the South feel like an integrated and valued part of our Community. While hardly the sole and ultimate solution to all issues dividing parts of our City, at least unifying our City under the 90210 ZIP code that is so associated with our City would have been a step in the right direction towards having our Community truly come together. When all four councilmembers who live north of Santa Monica summarily blew of my proposal, they booted an opportunity to bring all of us in BH just a little closer together. And they did so without any solid arguments, with the end result of placing the interests of Los Angeles residents above those of our City and our own residents.

As Rudy Cole intimated in a recent column, it seems like some of my colleagues may be harboring ambitions to run for higher office and don’t want to upset potential constituents in the LA portion of 90210.

But that’s not my way of thinking.

When I ran for office earlier this year, because I felt the residents had been blown off all too long by City Hall, I made it clear that my priority was “putting residents first.” Perhaps I should have clarified that mission statement. The resident to whom I responded with the quote above asked me about my proposal to unify the City under the 90210 ZIP code: “Is this on your own personal agenda?”

As I wrote to her: “Yes, putting all Beverly Hills residents first is indeed on my own personal agenda.”

The blog is back. Welcome to the blog.