Demanding Accountability from our Public Officials

Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas has asked for an audit to determine if Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department officials violated the law by reportedly sending  hundreds of bulletproof vests to Cambodia through the city of Gardena.

A total of 173 used and unused vests worth a total of more than $8,000 were sent through Gardena to Cambodia nearly ten years ago inside Sheriff’s Department patrol cars.  The ballistic vests were apparently not declared to customs officials, as required by federal law, and circumvented the rigorous procedures normally taken by U.S. government agents to prevent the transfer of body armor to the wrong people.

Chairman Ridley-Thomas said he was concerned federal, state and local laws may have been violated in the exchange. He has called for the county’s auditor-controller to determine if any sheriff’s or Gardena officials committed any “fraudulent or illegal activity.” The audit is expected to be concluded by the end of March and the results will be sent to the U.S. Attorney and District Attorney for review.

“This case is troubling on a variety of levels,” said Chairman Ridley-Thomas. “We must find out how this occurred and why taxpayer funded equipment was sent to unknown entities in other countries. It is utterly important to have transparency and accountability when it comes to matters of public safety and trust of government officials.”

Board Seeks $1 Billion Owed to Superior Court System

The Board of Supervisors Tuesday took an important step toward securing more funding for county’s beleaguered Superior Court system, which faces cutbacks and closure due to state budget difficulties, by seeking new ways to collect an enormous backlog of court fees and fines.

The value of uncollected judgments issued by the Los Angeles Superior Court totals more than $1 billion, a sum representing a significant loss of revenue to the County of Los Angeles.

Acting on a motion by Board Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas, the supervisors have instructed the auditor-controller’s office to conduct a comprehensive audit of the county’s existing court collections contract with an eye to maximizing the effort.

Each year, approximately 480,000 cases of uncollected court fines and fees, valued at $380 million, are referred to a contract collection agency whenever a fine or fee has not been paid, a court appearance date has been missed or restitution is not paid after a court appearance. On the average, one-quarter of these cases are settled judicially, and for those that are not, the collection agency attempts to obtain the delinquent amount for three years. Typically, up to 30% is collected and after three years, the remainder is referred to the state Franchise Tax Board for collection. The state has a 10% collection rate.

Given the significant volume and value of delinquent accounts, it is crucial that the county identify and understand how it can increase the efficacy of its collections efforts.

“We must make this effort,” said Supervisor Ridley-Thomas. Over the past several years, the Los Angeles Superior Court has had unprecedented reductions in its services and has laid off hundreds of employees, closed courtrooms and curtailed or eliminated crucial services to the public. This isn’t just a decline in service though, it’s a decline in justice.”

For the fiscal year beginning July 1, the Superior Court is projecting a shortfall of between $50 million to $80 million, which would result in further staff reductions, more courtroom closures and a reduction of services to the public.

“Collecting this money is only the first step toward shoring up the Superior Court system,” said the Supervisor. “But in this economic environment, we cannot afford to ignore $1 billion of potential revenue.”

Perspectives on Gun Violence

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Like people all across the country and indeed around the world, residents of the Second District have been engaged in debating the appropriate role of guns in American society and culture. Here in the United States, there is division on many points regarding gun control and agreement on few. Around the world, however, other nations are baffled that we accept 100,000 gun shot victims a year as a normal part of life. If there’s one thing I know, it is that there is no problem either in personal or public life that is best resolved with a gun. I’ve written about my support for Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s proposed ban on assault weapons and President Obama’s sensible package in opinion pieces posted on HuffingtonPost.com here and here. Now I would like to hear from you. In the video above, you’ll find a small sampling of diverse opinions from around the Second District, from Culver City to Carson, Compton to the University of Southern California and places in between. Please weigh in with your opinion as well. All comments that maintain a level of civil discourse, regardless of point of view, will be posted. With hope — MRT

A Season for Nonviolence

Mohandas Gandhi, who employed nonviolent civil disobedience to win India’s independence from Britain, and who inspired civil rights movements around the world, was assassinated on January 30, 1948. Twenty years later, on April 4, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Nobel Prize winner and the greatest advocate of nonviolent action in the United States, also was killed by an assassin. The influence and example of both leaders live on, however, and for the past 16 years, the 64 day-period between the tragic anniversaries marking their deaths has been designated as the Season for Nonviolence. The world-wide campaign was co-founded in 1998 by the Association for Global New Thought, and Arun and Sunanda Gandhi; Arun Gandhi is Mohandas Gandhi’s grandson.

At its meeting Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors acted unanimously on a motion brought by Board Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas, declaring Jan. 30 through April 4 as the Season for Nonviolence in Los Angeles County. The purpose of the Season for Nonviolence is to put into practice the belief that every person can move the world toward a more peaceful existence through daily nonviolent choices and actions. “The principles of nonviolence are as relevant today as they were in 1948,” said Supervisor Ridley-Thomas. “As a disciple of Dr. King’s, I truly believe that changing the world for the better begins by committing to the struggle to improve our lives through direct, powerful and peaceful means.”

Days of Dialogue: Gun Violence Prevention on Gun Violence Prevention

Isis Attoia, a 15-year-old high school student from Hawthorne, does not walk around his neighborhood at night because he fears he might be shot. This is not mere speculation; relatives of his have been shot. He would like to see an end to gun violence. And so Attoia took time on a recent Saturday to attend the 21st Annual Empowerment Congress Summit Days of Dialogue discussion on gun violence prevention, an event co-sponsored by Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas.

Attoia was one of hundreds who sat around a table s at the University of Southern California and attempted to find solutions to the epidemic of gun violence both here in Los Angeles and across America.

What he heard made him optimistic that he could help lead his friends and fellow students away from violence.

“I will tell my friends not to use guns and I will not use guns,” he said.

The Days of Dialogue initiative is a non-partisan forum founded nearly two decades ago after the civil unrest that erupted in Los Angeles with the Rodney King beating verdict. Spurred by the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut last December, the Days of Dialogue at the Empowerment Congress Summit focused on how communities can band together to end gun violence.

Others like Jerilyn Stapleton of the advocacy group The Peace Alliance, said it was productive to hear the points of view from people of all backgrounds and ages. For example, her baby boomer generation did not grow up playing video games, she said, and she is leery of their influence. Yet she shared her perspective with a young person at her table for whom video games are as familiar and common as records or cassettes were for her. People of all backgrounds, however, seemed to find a common sense of purpose and a lot of agreement, Stapleton said.

“People here understand that gun violence is a public health issue,” she said.

The statistics on gun violence are haunting. In 2010, more than 31,000 Americans died as a result of gun violence. The United States accounts for 5 percent of the world’s population and 35 percent of all civilian gun ownership. A gun in the home makes the likelihood of homicide three times higher, suicide three to five times higher and accidental death four times higher, according to the Children’s Defense Fund.

Participants at the Days of Dialogue forum ranged from high school students to ministers to teachers, all with the objective of asking why gun violence prevention seems controversial, how the Second Amendment relates to gun violence and how individuals could contribute to reducing gun violence. Avis Ridley-Thomas, co-director of UCLA’s Institute for Non-Violence in Los Angeles, moderated the event.

At one table, Michael Harris, an elder at the Metropolitan Church of Christ in Carson, speculated why so many people in the country are resistant to discussing ways to prevent gun violence.

“They don’t see the everyday violence that goes on in our communities,” he said. If they could see it, they would not shrug off the devastating consequences of gun violence for families, neighborhoods and whole communities, he noted. “So, how do we get dialogue?”

But Angeles Echols Brown, a teacher at an Upward Bound Program, said she was not interested in trying to convince the National Rifle Association to discuss reasonable ways to reduce gun violence. She said it was more important to educate people in her community so that solutions could be found on a grassroots level.

“I don’t need to dialogue with the NRA to address what is going on in my community and with my kids,” she said. “We must empower ourselves and bring that to our children.”

Donna Cassyd, a former principal at local continuation school, agreed with Brown.

“We can talk to the NRA but I don’t think they are going to do the right thing,” she said.

Others, however, were ready to take on the gun lobby. Occidental College student Emily Pelz, said the lingering sadness and anger of what happened in Newtown should motivate people to brave the NRA and engage in civic action so that the gun lobby would lose its power.

But the Rev. N.W. Martin of the New Life Institutional Baptist Church took a note of caution. It would not be easy to move the needle.

“The gun lobby is very strong in our state houses and in our Congress,” he said, adding, “This Newtown issue is a watershed moment. If we are ever going to do it, this is the time.”

Pelz said she had recently re-watched Michael Moore’s documentary “Bowling for Columbine,” made in the aftermath of the 1999 Columbine, Colorado school shooting and had felt re-energized.

“This may be naïve,” she said. “Because, yes, the gun lobby has tons of money, but we have voices and the vote. If we make a loud enough racket, maybe we can change things.”