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Some officials go far and wide for new ideas

But can L.A. really benefit from Tom LaBonge's trips to Lyon, San Salvador, London and two visits to Berlin?

September 17, 2007|Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles City Council returned from its three-week recess last week and wasted little time diving into difficult issues.

Even before lunch, four members -- Eric Garcetti, Wendy Greuel, Tom LaBonge and Jan Perry -- stepped outside the heavily air-conditioned City Hall to hold a news conference and take a provocative stand against power outages.

LaBonge told the press that he was in Germany on a city-related trip during the outages. There's nothing wrong with going to Germany, of course. . . .

But exactly how many days has LaBonge traveled abroad for city business this year?

Thirty-two, including three trips to Europe -- an impressive number by City Hall standards.

Among his travels: an April trip to Lyon, France; a May trip with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to San Salvador and Mexico; a July trip to London and Berlin; and a late August trip back to Berlin.

The man does not sit still.

Why the frequent travel?

LaBonge is the longtime president of the local chapter of Sister Cities, the group whose mission is to promote cordial international relations. Three of his trips were for Sister City events and the fourth -- to London and Berlin -- was to promote Los Angeles as a tourist destination and to attend a festival in Berlin called Volksfest.

LaBonge provided an itinerary for his Berlin trip in August. Among the activities were a bike ride, a boat ride on the Spree River, a guided tour of Berlin's Olympic Stadium, a visit to the national gallery and a chance to meet various city officials at Berlin's city hall.

Not exactly Truman, Stalin and Churchill at Potsdam. On the other hand, by all accounts, LaBonge adopted the same frenetic schedule he has in L.A. -- lots of running around, snapping photos and persuading the masses that L.A. isn't such a bad place. At one point, he gave a Berlin library 40 books about Los Angeles.

LaBonge also spends time barking orders to the council deputies that he takes with him on each trip.

Two staffers went with him to Central America, another two to Berlin in late August and his legislative deputy Young-Gi Kim went to Berlin in July and stayed there for six-plus weeks as part of an exchange program.

Sounds nice. But how do LaBonge's constituents benefit from these trips?

"I work a lot, all the time and have for 33 years with the city and I am sensitive to the fact that I'm out of the city," LaBonge said. "But this has been an exceptional year. I think that every time one travels and you're open to the sights, you can have an impact on the decisions you make." LaBonge said, for example, that he was impressed with how bicycle friendly Berlin is and believes some ideas can be imported to L.A.

He added that he was invited on each trip and the two Berlin trips were initiated because this is the 40th anniversary of sister city-hood between L.A. and Berlin. LaBonge, too, emphasized that the city didn't pay for any of his or his staff's travel.

The trips, he said, were paid for by the Sister Cities organization, politician contributions made to his officeholder account or LA Inc., the nonprofit that contracts with the city to act as its tourism bureau.

Is he the only council member who travels overseas for city business?

No.

Last summer, for example, Eric Garcetti and Dennis Zine traveled to Lebanon when Beirut and L.A. became sister cities. And last December, Ed Reyes and Greig Smith both traveled to a policy summit in Stockholm organized by the computer firm Cisco Systems.

Reyes, by the way, stuck the city with the bill on that one, according to one of his deputies. The trip was arranged by Cisco's lobbyist -- just weeks after voters approved a council-backed ballot measure that promised to reduce the influence of lobbyists.

Of course, it can be argued that bringing home ideas to L.A. -- the place where urban planning went to die -- from across the world is an admirable goal. But let us throw out an idea. There's another way to make people feel warm and fuzzy about Los Angeles: Stay home now and actually make it better.

Moving on, does anyone out there have a plan to pay for the subway to the sea?

Real estate developer Ken Kahan does and it involves the always fascinating world of tax increments. Here's an example of how it would work:

Kahan, president of California Landmark Group, recently bought land at Wilshire and Barrington on the Westside for a residential high-rise (check it out at www.californialand mark.com). He paid $5.5 million for the site, triggering an increase in property taxes from about $10,000 annually to $60,000.

Kahan plans to build a 25-story residential tower. When those units are sold, Kahan expects the building will generate about $2 million in property taxes annually. Under his plan, the overall increase in property taxes would go to a fund, which in turn finances a bond to pay for the subway.

In essence, this is similar to how redevelopment zones work, but currently state law would have to be changed to allow such an infrastructure along Wilshire.

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