August 3, 2009
Let’s start by mentioning a few of the wonderful things that the Los Angeles Business Council and its fabulous President, Mary Leslie, are doing: They are corralling the city’s public and private heads of agencies and businesses into a forum where they can engage in conversation. This corral has taken place at the Getty Museum for the past 3 years under the moniker of the Los Angeles Business Council’s Sustainability Summit.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, Photo by Paige Donner
On August 10th, Leslie hosted a similar event specifically for our film industry. The LABC is shepherding our City’s prominent, if not still #1, industry – the film studios – and getting them all together to talk about the business of sustainability.
I’m all for conversation. When we sit down and talk with each other, a wealth of information can get shared if all parties engage and are engaged. Personally I’m convinced that it was through these types of pow-wows that the notion of “creating fire” was spread among humankind.
But talk, as they say, is cheap, and unless it’s backed by action, giving business and industry leaders yet another forum upon which to pontificate and sing their own praises only furthers the spin – not the “change.” So far, the summits are being used for both purposes: dialogue for spin and dialogue for change.
Paige Donner and President Bill Clinton, 2009
There couldn’t be a better President for the Los Angeles Business Council than Mary Leslie. By her own account, she is “obsessed with the business of sustainability. It’s a better business practice; it’s not philanthropic,” she says. Her pedigree spans from Clinton’s West Coast Finance Director in ’91, to Riordan’s Deputy Mayor for Economic Development during the Northridge earthquake era (i.e. the influx of $11B in Federal Aid funds into L.A.), to her present day position of liaison between L.A.’s public and private sectors. And let’s not forget her ties to D.C. that now span a generation and reach to the highest echelons.
Recently I was afforded the opportunity to have a sit-down conversation with Ms. Leslie, who was fresh off a family cruise vacation in Alaska. Reinforced during this meeting, was, once again, the value of person-to-person discourse.
In her own words, Leslie wrote in the LABC special supplement to the Los Angeles Business Journal about the Getty Summit Corral: “…the event also made clear the need for the public and private sectors to collaborate in achieving solutions.”
So now the real, overarching, question is, Are we going to go about this public-private collaboration as “business as usual”? Or are we going to open up the closely-guarded, lobbyist dominated pipeline to something else like, best practices, open bids and a transparent, city-wide procurement mechanism here in Los Angeles?
Case in point: Water Conservation
“Water conservation” is the phrase that, without exception, our various City and Municipal water kings refer to when they point to our greatest water resource in the face of declining water reserves. They refer to the fact that our citizens’ conservation efforts have resulted in our water usage rates remaining at the same level for the past decade despite the significant rise in population in our city.
One would think, then, that an agency such as LADWP would have a mechanism by which they can explore and vet new products and vendors that could help save even more water in city-wide public-private partnerships. Right? Especially now that they have been under such fire for using the “stick” of fines and tickets for wasteful water usage – some even calling the leadership of LADWP as orienting itself towards “police state” tactics.
Well – let’s see – Is there an open procurement procedure at LADWP? Hmmm…if there is, after a full year of texting, emailing, meeting with and having the Czar of DWP over to my house to talk about the issues, I can honestly and confidently say, No, there’s not. Even after I was able to pointedly make this issue clear at The Israel Conference attended by Nahai and a number of his business associates from Israel, I was dismissed out of hand for bringing to their attention such a low-tech, low-investment business proposal that was U.S. borne as opposed to originating elsewhere. [My business proposal involves a waterless carwash product which replaces the need to use water – even a drop of water – for washing vehicles. Likewise, it requires no investment in machinery and it’s locally manufactured, is non-toxic and is biodegradable. It also offers a partnership with Youth Employment services to give youth green jobs.]
After a year of talks, emails, phone calls and even an in-office pitch at LADWP have I been successful in getting anyone from the DWP to even look at a demo of the product? No. I have not. However, I was invited recently to watch a demo of a competing product that a) requires the investment of $10 - $15K in machinery per car wash location and b) is manufactured in Korea that LADWP had sent its representative on a Saturday to check out. Of course, LADWP has money to burn now; they are lending the bankrupt City of L.A. money from their $4B kitty while pledging to aggressively go after Federal stimulus money. Someone please explain this to me?
In my discussions with Mary Leslie, two questions regarding this sort of “business as usual” behavior arose: 1) What’s it going to take to establish a transparent procurement mechanism for agencies operating under and answerable to the City of L.A.? How can we get this up and running now? Now, when the economy and entrepreneurs and small business owners need a shot at staying in business and feeding their families.
And 2) Do we need Charter Reform? This, of course, has to do with renewable energy generation and feed-in tariffs. But are the days of DWP being the sole owner/operator of electricity in the City of L.A. numbered? For example, Safeway Inc., with its owner-operated, self-sustaining, solar generated feed-in tariff system for its vast California grocery store operations, could not implement their very successful sustainable energy business model within the city of L.A. – because of DWP’s lockhold on electricity generation. Historically, whenever there’s been an attempt towards distributed energy generation, that attempt gets squelched or killed here in Los Angeles. Are we ready for some change? People, are we really ready for some change?
Another example – this week’s Brand X publication, put out by the L.A. Times has a story about Sylmar-based lithium-ion battery manufacturer, Quallion. The owner of the company, Alfred Mann, has a personal net worth of $1.4 billion. His company expects to earn more than $25 million this year thanks to their U.S. military contracts. But that hasn’t stopped him from getting the support of the L.A. Board of Supervisors in going after $220M in Fed. Stimulus Funds from the D.O.E. to set up a battery manufacturing plant in Sylmar. My question: If he gets this money from our taxes, are we, meaning EVERYBODY in the State of California, automatically paid shareholders in Quallion?
The answer, I hope for all our sakes, is Yes.
This closed door, backroom handshake way of doing business is a mindset. It’s not capability. It’s not a question of good business. It’s not best practices in business. It’s not a matter of philanthropy vs. profit-yielding methodology. And it’s certainly not a question of a better energy efficiency (or water conservation for that matter). It’s a mindset. Does that mindset any longer have any place in our city if we are going to be, as our Mayor has stated on many occasions, “coal free” by 2020, use 40% renewable energy for the city by 2020 and be the center of a Clean Tech Corridor with a healthy, employed population who can pay their mortgages and feed their children? Another accomplishment: L.A.’s Green Building Ordinance. Read here about L.A.s Green Building Ordinance
Indeed, one of the keys to L.A.’s economic development is the growth – and support of – indigenous renewable programs for our city. This is the Next Wave. Everyone who voted for change, here’s your chance. Let’s see some change.
Paige Donner writes the popular Greening Hollywood Blog and is also the Owner-Operator of the eco-consulting business, Greening Hollywood. She is the Founder/Publisher of The Green Blog Network.