Saturday, December 8, 2018

Microsoft sounds an alarm over facial recognition technology

Microsoft sounds an alarm over facial recognition technology

How Chinese-style monitoring could come to the United States
By Casey Newton@CaseyNewton Dec 7, 2018, 6:00am EST
Alex Castro

The Interface is a daily column about the intersection of social media and democracy. Subscribe to the newsletter here.

Sophisticated facial-recognition technology is at the heart of many of China’s more dystopian security initiatives. With 200 million surveillance cameras — more than four times as many in the United States — China’s facial-recognition systems track members of the Uighur Muslim minority, block the entrances to housing complexes, and shame debtors by displaying their faces on billboards.

I often include these stories here because it seems inevitable that they will make their way to the United States, at least in some form. But before they do, a coalition of public and private interests are attempting to sound the alarm.

AI Now is a group affiliated with New York University that counts as its members employees of tech companies including Google and Microsoft. In a new paper published Thursday, the group calls on governments to regulate the use of artificial intelligence and facial recognition technologies before they can undermine basic civil liberties. The authors write:

Facial recognition and affect recognition need stringent regulation to protect the public interest. Such regulation should include national laws that require strong oversight, clear limitations, and public transparency. Communities should have the right to reject the application of these technologies in both public and private contexts. Mere public notice of their use is not sufficient, and there should be a high threshold for any consent, given the dangers of oppressive and continual mass surveillance.

The AI Now researchers are particularly concerned about what’s called “affect recognition” — and attempt to identify people’s emotions, and possibly manipulate them, using machine learning.

”There is no longer a question of whether there are issues with accountability,” AI Now co-founder Meredith Whittaker, who works at Google, told Bloomberg “It’s what we do about it.”

Later in the day, Microsoft’s president, Brad Smith, echoed some of those concerns in a speech at the Brookings Institution:

We believe it’s important for governments in 2019 to start adopting laws to regulate this technology. The facial recognition genie, so to speak, is just emerging from the bottle. Unless we act, we risk waking up five years from now to find that facial recognition services have spread in ways that exacerbate societal issues. By that time, these challenges will be much more difficult to bottle back up.

In particular, we don’t believe that the world will be best served by a commercial race to the bottom, with tech companies forced to choose between social responsibility and market success. We believe that the only way to protect against this race to the bottom is to build a floor of responsibility that supports healthy market competition. And a solid floor requires that we ensure that this technology, and the organizations that develop and use it, are governed by the rule of law.

The paper comes a day after news that the Secret Service plans to deploy facial recognition outside the White House. Presumably, what the agency calls a “test” will not stop there:

The ACLU says that the current test seems appropriately narrow, but that it “crosses an important line by opening the door to the mass, suspicionless scrutiny of Americans on public sidewalks” — like the road outside the White House. (The program’s technology is supposed to analyze faces up to 20 yards from the camera.) “Face recognition is one of the most dangerous biometrics from a privacy standpoint because it can so easily be expanded and abused — including by being deployed on a mass scale without people’s knowledge or permission.”

Perhaps Americans’ enduring paranoia about big government will prevent more Chinese-style initiatives from ever taking root. But I can also imagine a scenario in which a populist, authoritarian leader, constantly invoking the twin specters of terrorism and unchecked illegal immigration, rallies popular support around surveillance technology.

It feels like a conversation worth having.

Who’s Tracking Your License Plate?

Automated license plate readers are collecting and sharing tons of data across state lines, according to records from nearly 200 police departments nationwide.

Over the last decade, cities have increasingly embraced the crime-fighting potential of automated license plate reader (ALPR) technology. These camera systems are now ubiquitous at malls and train stations; they appear on street signs and perch on the dashboards of police cars. ALPRs can snap up thousands of geotagged photos per minute, and can help construct an incredibly detailed picture of a driver’s whereabouts over time.
For law enforcement, ALPR represents a powerful tool that can track suspects in real time. Let’s say the police are pursuing a robber fleeing in a vehicle. They can add the suspect’s license plate to a “hot list” and receive alerts whenever an ALPR camera in their city snaps a picture of it. Using what’s essentially a real-time map, the police can track and intercept the suspect.
But critics of the technology—including civil liberties and privacy groups—argue that license readers gather too much sensitive information about people who have nothing to do with crime, and it’s not always clear with whom it is being shared and to what end.
“In a nutshell, it’s like face recognition—except every single face comes in a standard format and is directly linkable to a government identity record,” Alvaro Bedoya, the executive director of the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law, said via email. “It allows mass tracking and because plates are issued by the government, we’re a bit desensitized to the idea that they’ll be tracked. It’s powerful stuff, and it’s not under control.”
This year, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a digital rights organization, filed hundreds of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests via Muckrock, a government transparency platform. The organization was looking for information on deals local and federal agencies have made with Vigilant Solutions, the largest private company selling ALPR technology and data. Recently, EFF released results from 200 responses.
“We found a staggering amount of data that agencies are collecting on people—very little of which is of public interest,” said Dave Maass, senior investigative researcher at EFF.
A total of 173 entities (largely police departments and sheriff’s offices, but also some federal agencies) in 23 states scanned a total of 2.5 billion license plates in 2016 and 2017. On average, 99.5 percent of scans belonged to cars that weren’t associated with crimes.
This information was widely shared. EFF also found that, on average, each agency was directly sharing this information with 160 other jurisdictions at various levels of government. These could be police departments, university police units, airports, or Customs and Border Protection (CBP), for example. In addition, several agencies on the list also subscribed to Vigilant Solutions’ central database, which pools its own trove of ALPR data with that collected by various local agencies with which it has agreements, and sells access to this dataset to an undisclosed list of entities. What that means is even if your plates were shot in Georgia, your location data may be accessible to cops in say, Illinois. Or it may be bought by private companies or Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
The Burr Ridge Police Department in Illinois, which sought to install ALPR and facial recognition technology in their squad cars back in 2016, now shares this data with 851 other agencies—the highest of any other in this dataset. “It sounds futuristic,” city board trustee Janet Ryan Grasso said in support of the technology at the time the department proposed the program. “It would provide cutting edge technology for our patrol officers to protect residents. I like the idea.”
Although heavily redacted, records provided by the U.S. Forest Service suggest that the federal agency, too, shares information—with around 390 entities, according to EFF.
Below is a map of all the agencies EFF has requested information on. You can click through to explore the map, or look up your local police department in the data here.
A map of all the agencies EFF has requested data from on their deals with Vigilant Solutions. (EFF)
So, if you’re a law-abiding motorist, how worried should you be about this technology—and what exactly should you be worried about?
One big concern, says EFF’s Maass, is data security. Sharing such sensitive information across state lines makes it harder to conduct appropriate oversight because the data and privacy laws in one place may differ from another. It also makes that information more susceptible to breaches. “Every time you create an access point to your data, that’s another vector where it can be used gain information on people,” Maass said. “If you’re the city of Sacramento and you’re sharing with 800 agencies, that’s 800 points of vulnerabilities.”
If hackers get a hold on what is essentially a geotagged map of your movements, they could sell that stalkers, robbers, or other individuals who wish you harm. Or, a large trove of that data for multiple people—law enforcement officials or political leaders, for example—could fall in the hands of foreign adversaries.
Vigilant Solutions advertises this technology to law enforcement as a much-needed modern upgrade to scribbling down license-plate numbers by hand. “The technology in use today basically replaces an old analog function—your eyeballs,” Chris Metaxas, then-chief executive of Digital Recognition Network, a subsidiary of Vigilant Solutions, said in 2014. “It’s the same thing as a guy holding his head out the window, looking down the block, and writing license-plate numbers down and comparing them against a list. The technology just makes things better and more productive.”
Law enforcement officials seem convinced. But how effective is this tool? The “hit ratio”—the total number of “hot list” license plates detected per the total number of scans—is one useful metric. This number has been minuscule in past examinations—often less than 1 percent. In this new trove of data, too, EFF found that on average, the hit rate was 0.5 percent. In other words, law enforcement cast a very wide dragnet, for a very tiny catch of suspects.
The exact number of crimes ALPR technology has helped solve is unclear. Vigilant believes it’s a lot. “[T]he success stories are so frequent, I can’t even keep up with them all,” writes Tom Joyce, a retired NYPD officer who works at Vigilant Solutions, on the conpany’s website. Police officials who defend this technology despite the low hit ratio also highlight individual cases that were assisted by ALPR investigations: a shooting suspect in Cincinnati, Ohio; a U.S. postal service robber in Alexandria, Virginia;
In the dataset, the Kansas City Police Department in Missouri stood out with an abnormally high hit ratio—7.6 percent of the 37 million license plates it scanned in 2017. Maass doesn’t know what’s going on there, but guesses that it may be because they keep a large hot list based on very broad criteria. “I can only speculate that it could be related to court fines or proof of insurance,” he said. “It’s alarming that they’re keeping such close tabs on so many people.”
That itself raises a huge red flag about hot lists: Police departments have wide discretion in creating them, which may leave a lot of room for abuse. EFF has previously found that Vigilant has been incentivizing local police departments in Texas to focus on debt collection. Free Vigilant technology would alert police when people with pending court fines drive by. After they pulled the driver over, they could offer two choices: Go to jail, or pay the fine … plus a 25 percent “processing fee” that Vigilant largely pockets. In 2016, Buzzfeed found that Port Arthur’s sheriff used similar technology to shake down black and brown motorists who owed the city money. Remember that exploitative practice of squeezing the poor for municipal revenues that came to light after the Justice Department’s investigation of Ferguson, Missouri? These practices were high-tech variations on the same idea.
Then, there’s also the fact that ordinary citizens with potentially nefarious motives can often obtain this license-tracker data through a public records requests in some places, or by having the police give it to them as favors or in exchange for bribes. They may then use it to target violence survivors, political organizers, journalists, or abortion-seekers.
Police and other government agencies have a long track record of disproportionally surveilling populations of color, immigrants, and the poor, and ALPR offers another means of pursuing that practice. In 2015, EFF mapped how ALPR was used in Oakland. Police cars equipped with cameras would patrol low-income neighborhoods, snapping up more plates in these areas. That meant the residents of these neighborhoods were more likely to end up in the ALPR system—even though their neighborhoods weren’t necessarily correlated with higher crime.
ALPR scans (blue) correlated with Hispanic and African-American population (red). (EFF)
Surveillance tools like ALPR are often first used against vulnerable communities. But those who aren’t used to being singled out because of their skin color might want to remember that every driver on the road is fair game for this technology. To reduce the potential for abusing ALPR, advocates suggest purging the scans that do not generate a match on the hot list immediately, or at least after a few days. But underlying it all is the question: Should police have access to this kind of data at all?
”The government makes us put license plates on our cars,” Maass said. “They have a responsibility not to exploit it.”

Friday, December 7, 2018

A Tax Revolt in France

A Tax Revolt in France


December 6, 2018 3:18 PM

A French riot policeman stands next to a burning car as youth and students protest against the French government’s reform plan in Nantes, France, December 6, 2018. (Stephane Mahe/REUTERS)The democratic peoples of the West have tired of the politics of the sensible center and are demanding change.

Finally, France has a bona fide working-class riot. Rather than the usual, a riot of bourgeois students on behalf of a notional working class.

They are wearing the yellow vests that all motorists are required to possess in case their car is disabled. The protest began with outrage against the imposition of new fuel taxes that hit those outside the metropolis particularly hard. The government has already delayed the taxes, but people are still in the streets, and their grievances are multiplying.

French truckers and farmers are calling a strike in support of the Yellow Vests. The Macron government is seeking out “leaders” who can speak for this movement, and with whom it can negotiate. This is French politics as we know, love, and fear it; where faith in the efficacy of democratic institutions is low, and faith in demotic anger somewhat higher.

Finally, a Color Revolution comes to a Western government, one that is definitely not supported by or coordinated from the U.S. State Department.

Oh, I know that is quite a thing to say. But what else to call the Yellow Vest protest? Like the Color Revolutions of Eastern Europe, it is now a catch-all brand for a variety of causes being advanced against a centralized state that is felt to be unresponsive. You can get a sense of the panic from a Guardian editorial that begins, “For Europe’s sake, Emmanuel Macron needs help.”

Macron has proven to be a fantastically unpopular French ruler, although many believe his unpopularity is a sign of his political courage. Long before the Yellow Vest protests started, Macron vowed that, unlike other French leaders, he would not let his agenda of reforming the French economy be stalled by popular protest. The Yellow Vests are putting him to the test.

The fear in the air is that, like Italy, France is vulnerable to a populism that combines the grievances out on the peripheries of left and right and advances them against the liberal center. The background issues are the same as they usually are in France: rising costs of living set against sluggish or non-existent growth in wages. Demographic change, fear of losing French national identity, resentment at the intrusion of powerful corporations into commercial or even social life.

It is also precisely because the Yellow Vests do not have a single leader or vision that makes them so dangerous for Macron’s government. They are an expression of dissatisfaction with the government, and so people of many and contrary political dispositions can project their hopes and ideas onto the Yellow Vests.

We live in odd times, when many conservatives see working-class people pitching a riot in France and instinctively sympathize with them. And at the same time, many liberals are tempted to defend the political leader who started the uproar with the imposition of a regressive tax, and who finds his primary support among financial workers in London and the establishment at home. Liberals will admit that some of the protesters have legitimate concerns, but then they rush to assure you that most just suffer from a false consciousness induced in them by Facebook, or by some other nefarious force in the world.

Emmanuel Macron was supposed to be the rallying figure for the “liberal world order.” He was the establishment’s populism. He was the man who denounced liberalism, tried to demonstrate his hope in a grand, bold, regenerated, and federal European Union. He condemned nationalism in front of Donald Trump. He was the Socialist-party member who was loved by high finance.

But he’s been a dead man walking for months politically. There is no firewall in France. Maybe it is a mood, or the harbinger of some awful collapse. Maybe it is just one generation rejecting the certainties of a previous one. The democratic peoples of the West have tired of the politics of the sensible center and are demanding change. And in France, that change usually begins in the streets.

MICHAEL BRENDAN DOUGHERTY — Michael Brendan Dougherty is a senior writer at National Review Online. @michaelbd

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Shall Marinwood Outsource like Sandy Springs?

While cities across the country are cutting services, raising taxes and contemplating bankruptcy, something extraordinary is happening in a suburban community just north of Atlanta, Georgia. Since incorporating in 2005, Sandy Springs has improved its services, invested tens of millions of dollars in infrastructure and kept taxes flat. And get this: Sandy Springs has no long-term liabilities. This is the story of Sandy Springs, Georgia—the city that outsourced everything. Approximately 8 minutes.

Is Harrisburg's Nightmare America's Future?

The city of Harrisburg is Ground Zero for America's municipal debt crisis. Pennsylvania's capital city has liabilities estimated at $610 million, which is nearly ten times its annual budget. The city is so deep in the red that last year it attempted to file for bankruptcy. Reckless spending did more than ruin Harrisburg's balance sheet; it crowded out private industry and distracted from the city's core functions. Today, Harrisburg is a dangerous, poverty-stricken city, with failing schools and a shrinking population. Harrisburg's fiscal nightmare may be a harbinger of things to come for American cities. In the mid-90s, local governments embarked on a spending binge, bringing total municipal debt in the United States to more than $2.8 trillion. Along with Harrisburg, Jefferson County, Alabama, Vallejo, California, and Central Falls, Rhode Island have filed for bankruptcy in the past few years. Several more cities are on the brink of default, largely thanks to taxpayer-financed stadiums, museums, housing, commercial complexes, other misconceived economic development projects, and runaway public sector salaries, pensions, and benefit packages. Is your hometown the next Harrisburg?

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

YIMBY Sonja Trauss trashes Local Democracy

Falling transit ridership poses an ‘emergency’ for cities, experts fear

Falling transit ridership poses an ‘emergency’ for cities, experts fear 

Number 7 subway cars are parked at the MTA's Mets-Willets Point rail yard, February 4, 2018 in New York. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
By Faiz SiddiquiMarch 24

Transit ridership fell in 31 of 35 major metropolitan areas in the United States last year, including the seven cities that serve the majority of riders, with losses largely stemming from buses but punctuated by reliability issues on systems such as Metro, according to an annual overview of public transit usage.

The analysis by the New York-based TransitCenter advocacy group, using data from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Transit Database, raises alarm about the state of “legacy” public transit systems in the Northeast and Midwest, and rising vehicle ownership and car-based commuting in cities nationwide.

Researchers concluded factors such as lower fuel costs, increased teleworking, higher car ownership and the rise of alternatives such as Uber and Lyft are pulling people off trains and buses at record levels.

[Metro is mulling a major redesign of the bus system. But first, officials need to figure out why people aren’t riding.]

The data also showed 2017 was the lowest year of overall transit ridership since 2005, and bus ridership alone fell 5 percent.

“I think it needs to be considered an emergency,” said Jarrett Walker, a transit planner who served as a consultant on a top-down bus network redesign to curb declining ridership in Houston. “When we don’t share space efficiently, we get in each other’s way. And that is a problem for the livelihood, the viability, the livability and the economy of a city . . . . It means more traffic, more congestion.”

The Washington region’s overall ridership fell in the middle of the pack with a 3.4 percent decline in overall trips between 2016 and 2017. Specifically, Metro’s ridership dropped by 3.2 percent. The trend was largely driven by a 6 percent decline in bus ridership. Dramatic losses to subway ridership, including a 10 percent decline in 2016, had appeared to level off by 2017, when the total number of trips fell by about a percent and a half.

Metro has said about 30 percent of its ridership losses are tied to reliability issues, with teleworking, a shrinking federal workforce, Uber and Lyft, and other factors to blame for the rest.

Exceptions to the trend: Seattle, Phoenix and Houston, which either expanded transit coverage and boosted service or underwent ambitious network overhauls, as in Houston’s case. (New Orleans ridership stayed flat.) In 2015, the Houston bus system was transformed overnight from a traditional hub-and-spoke design focused on downtown to a grid that apportioned equal service to other parts of the city. In the aftermath of the redesign, the system saw significant weekend ridership gains and quelled a trend of dramatic losses that included losing a fifth of its ridership over a little more than a decade.

That was not the case for the majority of U.S. cities. Between 2016 and 2017, ridership fell in each of the seven largest transit markets: New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, D.C., San Francisco, Boston and Philadelphia.

Transit researchers said it is crucial for cities and transit agencies to slow the losses even amid declining revenue, as alternatives threaten to lure people back into cars, particularly as shared rides become cheaper with the arrival of autonomous vehicles. The problem: The declines mean a decrease in farebox recovery, which can often lead to fare increases and reduced service, as in Metro’s case.

How do riders feel about carpets in Metro trains?

We asked some evening commuters on Feb. 7 about their feelings on carpet in Metro trains. (Video: Patrick Martin, Elyse Samuels/Photo: Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

[What city bus systems can tell us about race, poverty and us]

“The thing that’s perhaps a little bit more scary about this downturn [is] the prospect of technology will continue to nibble away [riders],” said Steven Polzin, program director for mobility policy research at the University of South Florida’s Center for Urban Transportation Research. He laid out the factors responsible: online shopping, distance learning, teleworking, ride-hailing apps and alternatives such as bike sharing.

Polzin described what he called a “tough political sell” for agencies faced with decreasing ridership.

“Ridership declines, and then fare revenue declines, and then you have to cut service which means ridership declines more,” he said. “So folks get nervous about the cyclical nature of the decline because of lost fare revenue. But [ridership declines] also undermine kind of the public will to invest additional subsidy dollars and service as well. It’s very hard to go to your government and say ‘My ridership is down 10 percent, and I need more money to subsidize 10 percent less riders.’ ”

Planners warn that cities simply do not have the capacity to handle a wholesale shift to other modes — whether today’s version of ride hailing, driving or eventual ride sharing through autonomous vehicles. Those alternatives, Walker said, are no match for “the basic geometry problem that only transit can solve — which is to move large numbers of people through a city in very little space.”

But some researchers said declining ridership is not always indicative of transit’s failures.

Los Angeles-area transit agencies have seen dramatic bus ridership declines since the mid-2000s, with overall bus ridership falling about 30 percent over the course of a decade, according to the Transit­Center analysis.

Michael Manville, an assistant professor of urban planning at the University of California at Los Angeles, co-authored a January 2018 study that found many of the losses could be attributed to increased car ownership, particularly among low-income and immigrant populations, who were in a better position to afford cars following the Great Recession.

“I think it puts transportation planners in a bit of an unusual position . . . if in fact the reason for that departure is low-income people are doing better, getting the ability to move around like everyone else, it’s hard to say that what we should do is get them to remove themselves from their cars and back on trains and buses,” Manville said. “Transit systems should deliver quality service to low-income people. But low-income people do not owe us a transit system.”

[Are Uber and Lyft cutting into Metro’s ridership?]

(Researchers also pointed out the increased ease of obtaining a car, through factors such as subprime auto loans.)

Walker warned of the future the trends could portend.

“That can’t just be a free-market­ conversation of transit losing ridership, that’s fine, let the best mode win,” he said. “City governments have an urgent imperative to do what’s necessary to make it attractive for people to use modes that use space efficiently.”

Metro and other systems’ reliability issues have hit low-income riders hardest, and now those systems are having a tough time winning them back in the face of increasing alternatives, advocates say.

Kristen Jeffers, founder and editor of the Black Urbanist blog, said riders are leaving because of declining service and the increased availability of other options to fill the gaps.

“Now that you have a car or a bike or a scooter on an app in your hand, and it’s right there — in a lot of major cities, why not use that?” Jeffers said. “Now you don’t have the indignity of being stuck on the side of the road for a bus that never comes.”

She said transit systems need to regain trust through community outreach and going out of their way to cater to riders who might previously not have had a choice.

“Treating the bus like a prestige system,” she said, similar to their treatment of heavy-rail systems in the past.

Metro is pondering a wholesale redesign of its bus system, with a study “to examine travel patterns, customer demand, technology opportunities and how to most cost-effectively deliver Metrobus service to riders,” according to agency spokeswoman Sherri Ly. The agency has yet to award a contract for the study, she said.

Meanwhile another West Coast city, Seattle, is viewed as the model for how transit agencies can recoup ridership in an era of population growth, an improving economy and rapid technological change — in part because of the popularity of buses. The city’s bus ridership has steadily grown from 92 million trips to 119 million over 16 years, the TransitCenter analysis shows. Meanwhile light-rail ridership ballooned amid expansions, from 3 million trips in 2002 to 32 million in 2017.

The city, which has some of the worst traffic congestion in the country, hosts about 45,000 Amazon employees and had added 60,000 workers to its center city core since 2010, according to Andrew Glass-Hastings, director of transit and mobility for the Seattle Department of Transportation.

Meanwhile Seattle voters have approved three high-dollar, ­transit-friendly initiatives that in the eyes of public officials have paid dividends and will continue to boost ridership: a $50 million annual funding boost to bus service, a billion-dollar Bus Rapid Transit expansion and a $54 billion light-rail expansion plan that would build 62 miles of light-rail in a project that will extend into the 2030s.

The improved bus service has meant the build-out of priority bus lanes and higher frequencies, with buses coming every four to six minutes, Glass-Hastings says. The state also requires large employers to enact programs that encourage alternatives to workers driving alone to work, resulting in ­commuter-benefit programs.

[Is riding the bus finally becoming cool?]

The lesson, says Glass-Hastings: “You can’t neglect your transit system for decades, have it be in disrepair and expect people to continue to use it, especially in a day and age when alternatives are so readily available.”

The Washington region, like many transit-centric cities, is a major player in the battle for Amazon’s second headquarters, which brings the promise of about 50,000 jobs. Glass-Hastings said HQ2 could be a coup for whichever city lands it. About 95 percent of workers to Seattle’s new center city jobs commute by a mode other than driving alone, he said, and in Amazon’s case, its workers’ transit costs are ­company-covered.

But Amazon’s preference of Seattle should be a message for the cities, he said:

“You can’t just drop 50,000 people in sort of a transit desert and expect them to seek out the bus.”

How overparenting backfired.

Monday, December 3, 2018

How our laws in California are really made

How our laws in California are really made

PUBLISHED: July 6, 2010 at 12:07 pm | UPDATED: August 13, 2016 at 9:29 pm

SACRAMENTO — Imagine: At a time when California is lurching from crisis to crisis, a legislator has an idea to make life better. He puts together a bill, gathers support and shepherds it into law.

If only Sacramento worked like that. Instead, it often works like this:

A lobbyist has an idea to make life better — but only for his client. The lobbyist writes the bill, shops for a willing lawmaker to introduce it and lines up the support. The legislator? He has to do little more than show up and vote.

This is the path of the “sponsored bill,” a method of lawmaking little noticed outside California’s capital but long favored on the inside. In many states lobbyists influence legislators; in California, they have — quite baldly — taken center stage in lawmaking.

Although lawmakers in recent years have routinely failed to grapple with health care, the state budget and other matters of public interest, they’ve managed to do the bidding of the private interests who tout sponsored bills at an impressive clip.

A Mercury News analysis found that in 2007-08, the most recent complete two-year legislative session, more than 1,800 bills — about 39 percent of the total — were sponsored by outside interests. And those sponsored bills made up 60 percent of the legislation that was passed into law.

This is how plumbing manufacturers ensured that industry-friendly labs — and not state regulators — would conduct the testing that determines whether drinking faucets sold in California are lead-free. This is how a Los Angeles County billionaire crushed a legal challenge over whether his plans for a new football stadium violated the state’s long-standing environmental protection law.

Recalling his first encounters with lobbyists seeking legislative backing for their bills, former Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla said, “It’s like being in a Middle Eastern bazaar. You are surrounded by hawkers saying, ‘Take this one, no, take this one, no, I’ve got a better one over here.’ The openness of that — the ‘oh yeah, that’s the way things are done’ attitude — was the most shocking.”

Legislators, continued Pittsburg funeral home director Canciamilla, “are supposed to be the buffer between the interest groups and the public — and that buffer no longer exists. Now, they’re a direct conduit.”

The Mercury News analysis, the first ever undertaken of sponsored bills in California, revealed:
Sponsored bills swamp the Legislature. They amounted to 42 percent of the bills introduced in the Assembly and a third of the Senate bills.

Profit-seeking bills abound. While advocacy groups, trade associations and government agencies also sponsor legislation, more than 500 of the sponsored bills introduced in the 2007-08 session came from private industries and industry trade groups, often seeking to increase market share, repel regulations or limit lawsuits.

Sponsored bills succeed. Almost half of the 1,883 bills that were sponsored in the last session became law; about one in five of the 2,982 bills that had no listed sponsor became law.

Everybody does it. Out of 122 legislators who served at least partial terms in 2007-08, just one — Sen. Tom McClintock, R-Thousand Oaks — refused to introduce any sponsored bills. Democrats introduced more sponsored bills than Republicans, but Republicans introduced a larger percentage of bills sponsored by private interests.

Lobbyists have long been known in California as the Third House, referring to their entrenched status alongside the Legislature’s two official houses, the Assembly and Senate. But through interviews with current and former legislators and aides, as well as lobbyists and outside government experts, the Mercury News documented a changed pattern: Today, lobbyists function almost as a shadow legislature, pulling the strings at every turn for short-term lawmakers who have become accustomed to letting private interests monopolize the public debate. At the center of this reality is the sponsored bill.

“You don’t learn this in American civics class,” said Derek Cressman, a regional director for the nonpartisan group Common Cause. “You don’t learn that some interest group drafts this and gives it to a legislator along with a contribution and says, ‘We would like a law introduced.’ “

Cressman said the result is that “organizations with deep financial pockets can present their issues to the Legislature, and those that don’t are in essence invisible.”

James Wedick goes further. Now retired, Wedick was the lead undercover FBI agent who established a phony shrimp processing company in California in 1985, then documented lawmakers taking bribes to support a sponsored bill crafted to help his fake business.

The FBI’s sting operation known as Shrimpscam landed five legislators in prison but — he concedes — had little long-term effect. “It’s been going on forever and it lends itself to corrupting the whole process,” Wedick said of sponsored bills. “The whole process has been hijacked.”

Maneuvers at midnight

Here’s one example of how sponsored bills hijack the process of lawmaking — allowing private agendas to overwhelm the public interest.

In 2007, the Legislature took up a bill to authorize the spending of a $2.8 billion affordable housing bond approved in a voter referendum. The bill initially sought to ensure that projects would be efficient and geographically diverse, and that they would reduce homelessness.

But at the urging of a lobbyist for the sports and entertainment giant Anschutz Entertainment Group, a different, sponsored version of the bill suddenly appeared — amid a flurry of bills on the last days of the legislative session. Several legislators whose names were attached to the bill dropped off, leaving only Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez, D-Los Angeles, as legislative backer of the amended bill. It cleared the Senate after midnight, and the Assembly at 3:26 a.m.

Hugh Bower, the lead staff member of the Assembly Committee on Housing and Community Development, was stunned when the bill came up that night; he had been told the issue was dead. There was such chaos, Bower recalls, that one committee member still thought the next day that the amended bill had died.

What was Anschutz’s interest? Its version of the bill allowed some affordable housing funds to be used for parks, landscaping and fancy sidewalks in the neighborhood around the company-owned Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles.

Anschutz insisted its changes would let any “Business Improvement District” — a specially created association of property owners and government agencies — apply for the funds. But only the district near the Staples Center did, receiving the maximum award of $30 million, according to state housing officials.

Christine Minnehan, director of legislative advocacy for the Western Center on Law and Poverty, lamented the award, saying many affordable housing projects were awarded less than half that amount. She called the outcome “a theft of public funds, and a deception of the voters.”

A California tradition

For as long as anyone now in Sacramento can remember, the California Legislature has identified outside parties pushing bills.

Legislative historians asked by the Mercury News to research the practice say it dates to at least the 1940s.

Officials in some other states, told of California’s practice, greeted it as an admirable form of public disclosure.

In Mississippi “there is no mention of groups who support the bill, even if they drafted the bill and requested a legislator to sponsor it,” said Barbara Powell, lobbyist for Common Cause Mississippi. Jane Pinsky, director of the North Carolina Coalition for Lobbying & Government Reform, said, “We really have no transparency on who is behind legislation in North Carolina.”

But in California, it is quite clear that full disclosure has reinforced the system of sponsorship, legitimizing the influence of special interests.

Where other states, and the U.S. Congress, use the term “sponsor” to mean the legislators who carry the bill, in California the term refers to the outside party; the legislator who introduces the bill is called the “author.”

“Author is really a misnomer because the real author is the special interest group,” said Keith Richman, a health care executive and former Republican assemblyman from Granada Hills. “Essentially, the legislators are simply prostituting.”

Many legislators say they take only ideas and guidance from sponsors, but maintain control over the bill. “Our job is to be deliberative and have our legislative hat on so we can make good judgments,” insisted Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, one of the leading authors of privately sponsored bills.

But dozens of interviews inside and outside the capital reveal that legislators have often surrendered their role.

Lobbyists working on behalf of sponsors craft original bill language.

They write fact sheets for legislators and their staff.

They even write the speeches lawmakers deliver on the floor extolling bills. “It’s common knowledge that the floor statements are written by lobbyists,” said lobbyist Jackson Gualco, previously a special assistant to former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown. “Some staff members change it, other times it’s word for word.”

Lobbyists solicit votes, suggest and evaluate amendments, and seek to win support from the governor’s office.

When the legislator who introduced the bill goes to committee hearings to present and defend the proposed legislation, the lobbyists and sponsors typically sit alongside, and often commandeer the proceedings.

The legislator “may get a question that he’s not prepared for because he’s not as knowledgeable about the issue as I am,” said one lobbyist who represents many private interests. “I may nudge his knee a bit or lift my left hand up on the table rather than having him answer a question incorrectly.”

Commonly, the lobbyist added, he lets the legislator know “I’d like to answer the questions.”

Help for the 49ers

The Mercury News analysis identified outside sponsors for 39 percent of bills introduced in the last session. But that does not capture the complete number.

Official disclosure of the sponsors is left to the legislative committees and their staffs. Most committee analyses explicitly list the sponsors, but some, like the Senate Local Government Committee, do not. And sometimes — even when a bill clearly benefits a private party — legislators describe the ideas as their own.

That was the case with Senate Bill 43, introduced last July by Sen. Elaine Alquist, D-Santa Clara, to assist the San Francisco 49ers in their effort to build a $937 million publicly subsidized football stadium in Santa Clara.

The team was frustrated that the city’s charter required them to put the contract to build the stadium out for competitive bid. Alquist’s bill exempted the stadium from the bid mandate.

Alquist said she came up with the idea herself. That surprised some local officials: “It’s hard for me to believe the 49ers didn’t go in and ask for this bill,” said Santa Clara Councilman William Kennedy, a stadium opponent. What’s more, city staff said the team had mentioned during negotiations that it might turn to the Legislature for help.

“I have no idea what the 49ers said to people at City Hall,” Alquist said, explaining that she simply wanted to help expedite the process. “I had nothing to do with that.”

Whatever the bill’s origin, the 49ers became the driving force. The team spent $73,779 on lobbyists who schmoozed the governor and the Legislature on the bill, according to reports filed with the secretary of state. The bill sailed through both houses, although legislative staffers cautioned of “a bad precedent,” noting that 125-year-old “competitive bidding requirements exist to prevent favoritism, corruption and waste of public money.”

Bills for profit

Outside sponsorship breeds success; sponsored bills are far more likely than bills without sponsors to become law.

The Mercury News analysis shows that success was especially likely when the bills were sponsored by businesses and industry groups. Almost half of those bills ended up signed by the governor — a far higher percentage than bills that had no sponsor.

For the 2007-08 legislative session, 177 of the 347 bills sponsored by private interests that were introduced in the Assembly — 51 percent — were passed into law. In contrast, 326 of 1,793 bills introduced in the Assembly that had no sponsor — or 18 percent — became law.

On the Senate side, the disparity was modestly smaller. About 43 percent of the bills introduced on behalf of private-interest sponsors in the last session became law; 24 percent of Senate bills that were introduced without a sponsor became law.

Peter Detwiler, who as the longtime staff director of the Senate Local Government Committee is one of Sacramento’s most seasoned bill analysts, said the findings demonstrate the power outsiders have gained as legislators arrive in office facing a ticking clock on their terms in office.

“In a term-limited legislative environment, the attention goes to those who can focus attention narrowly on a topic or interest,” Detwiler said.

Private vs. public

The narrow purpose of a sponsored bill is rarely a secret in the Capitol; the committee analyses make sure of that.

Those analyses, written by legislative staff, often bluntly note that the legislation has a private rather than public benefit. And while at times those warnings help to defeat the bills, other times the legislators approve them — and insist they have done the right thing.

Consider these examples from the 2007-08 session.

When the PowerFlare Corporation of Atherton sponsored a bill to require that electronic roadside beacons replace all standard flares now in use by the state Highway Patrol, the bill was pitched as a way to enhance motorists’ safety. But the bill analysis noted that it would “significantly increase demand for electronic beacons, which are manufactured by the sponsor of the bill,” and that the cost to the taxpayers of replacing flares with beacons would be high. The bill died in committee.

When MySpace sponsored a bill bolstering its ability to prevent individuals with certain criminal records from using its site, it extolled the legislation as a way to keep children safe from sexual predators on the Internet. But nestled in the bill was a provision that would have given the online social networking site broad immunity from lawsuits as a result of its efforts to restrict access.

A committee analyst wrote that the bill “raises troubling issues of manipulation of the legislative process to protect the financial and business interests of corporate entities, under the thin guise of providing additional tools to law enforcement.” The bill passed the Assembly, but later died in the Senate.

And when the Plumbing Manufacturers Institute sponsored a bill giving labs reliant on industry funding the authority to test drinking faucets and fountains, it promised the system would better protect Californians from lead in their drinking water. But a committee consultant characterized the plumbing group’s intention as “a not-so-subtle process for subverting what legislators thought they were enacting” — a way to protect the public from a harmful substance.

Despite protests from more than 50 public health and consumer organizations, the bill was signed into law in September 2008.

Sen. Ron Calderon, D-Montebello, who introduced the bill, said in an interview that he has “no concerns” with the industry overseeing testing. “As a matter of fact, I believe the problem with regulatory boards in general is that they don’t recruit or appoint enough people from the industry that they regulate.”

Calderon received $13,900 from the institute and member faucet makers during the 2007-08 term.

Some observers argue these private interest bills do, ultimately, benefit at least a portion of the public. Thad Kousser, associate professor of political science at UC San Diego, said legislators who introduce sponsored bills on behalf of industries are doing exactly what they are sent to Sacramento to do: represent the interests of their district. “What better way,” he asked, to help “the employers of their constituents?”

But former state senator McClintock, the sole legislator who did not introduce a single sponsored bill in the last session, argues that constituents’ interests have little to do with it. McClintock, now a congressman, said: “It’s a general rule that sponsors are bureaucracies seeking more power, or companies seeking more money.”

In a system where more bills fail than succeed, critics complain that many of the proposed laws are harmful even when they fail because they further clog an overloaded Legislature.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said in a speech this session that the state has become a “bill factory,” with too many unnecessary bills proposed and too little analysis of the impact of bills already passed. Treasurer Bill Lockyer, a former legislator, put it more bluntly at one recent hearing: “There’s too much junk.”

Everyone’s a sponsor

As the influence of lobbyists has grown, plenty of groups, in addition to private companies and industry organizations, have taken up sponsoring bills.

Unions do it. Government agencies do it. Environmental groups do it. “We sponsor bills and I’m very proud of them,” said Sierra Club California director Bill Magavern. The Sierra Club, for instance, was co-sponsor of a bill that revamped the process for recycling and disposing of mercury-tainted thermostats.

“There’s nothing wrong with sponsored bills conceptually,” said Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, who introduced 25 sponsored bills last session, seven of them sponsored by private interests. “There are lots of sponsors from the Sierra Club to the oil and gas industry — and everyone in between who think up good ideas and bring them to legislators every year.”

Huffman is one of many legislators who argue that not all sponsored bills are created evil. But even if liberals might applaud sponsored environmental legislation, and conservatives might cheer bills from the California District Attorneys Association, government experts say these efforts have the same problems as the more brazen pursuits of the Anschutz Entertainment Group.

Lawmaking is supposed to involve a balancing of competing interests in the public good: Make the regulation tight enough to protect the environment, for example, but not so tight that it squelches economic activity. But when an interest group writes a bill, there is no such balance. Only its interest is represented.

“It’s undemocratic to have interest groups writing legislation,” said Dorie Apollonio, assistant professor at UC San Francisco’s School of Pharmacy and an expert on influence peddling. “If we’re unhappy with what legislators are doing, we throw the bums out,” she said, in contrast to lobbyists who do not answer to the public.

But in Sacramento today, some legislators say they’ve become dependent upon the role assumed by lobbyists.

When state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, carried a bill last year to ban the use of toxic flame retardants in children’s products, he faced opposition from the powerful American Chemical Council. The help of bill sponsor Friends of the Earth was critical, he said.

“The chemical industry lobbyists can be in 10 member offices simultaneously while I’m going to offices one at a time,” he said. “So a lot of it comes down to math — a good sponsor is of value.”

Other legislators depend on sponsors for technical support as well as political skills.

And so the Sierra Club’s Magavern finds himself crafting bill language, providing legislators’ talking points and cajoling support for votes — not out of preference, but out of necessity.

“There still are some staffers that do some of that, but that number has declined,” Magavern added. “More and more, sponsors are expected to do most of the work.”

Mercury News news research director Leigh Poitinger, former staff writer Edwin Garcia and intern Sarah Yokubaitis contributed to this report.

Inside Hong Kong’s Cage Homes

Sunday, December 2, 2018



TWO TRAVELLERS, walking in the noonday sun, sought the shade of a widespreading tree to rest. As they lay looking up among the pleasant leaves, they saw that it was a Plane Tree.

"How useless is the Plane!" said one of them. "It bears no fruit whatever, and only serves to litter the ground with leaves." 

"Ungrateful creatures!" said a voice from the Plane Tree. "You lie here in my cooling shade, and yet you say I am useless! Thus ungratefully, O Jupiter, do men receive their blessings!"

Our best blessings are often the least appreciated.


The Marinwood CSD has many options with PreEngineered and Kit buildings that are attractive, save space and are "right sized"

All of the following buildings are preengineered "pole barn " construction.  As you can see, most of these would be comfortable on a private estate, yet the costs are a small fraction of the currently proposed Marinwood CSD design.  All of these designs can be lengthened to increase the storage space and add an office.  

The Marinwood CSD architect, Bill Hansell is understandably upset with these designs as it is competition with his plan. Most cities do not hire architects for utility buildings. They order them from catalogs of pre-engineered buildings and customize them.  The Hansell design is completely inadequate for our landscaping department due to the constrained access and sprawling footprint.   Unfortunately,  Bill Hansell has refused to meet with concerned residents to make improvements and has resorted to personal attacks on NextDoor and other social media.  This is completely unnecessary and counter productive for our community.  

I sincerely hope that Izabela Perry, Jeff Naylor, Leah Green, Bill Shea and Irv Schwartz will conduct a fair and open review of alternative designs with the public before approving a final design as has been promised in 2017 and 2018.   Tonight at the CSD meeting on September 11, 2018, Eric Dreikosen CSD Manager is seeking approval of the Hansell design which will allow him to request a "Design Review Exemption" and ignore all public input . 

This is profoundly wrong. The Marinwood CSD has not considered alternative designs nor has it divulged the budget for this project.  We requested story poles and lot markers from the CSD so that we could have an honest discussion of the design merits and defects.  They refused and so we installed our own.  Most people we meet in the park are surprised at the size of the facility and have signed the petition.  

We love our Marinwood Park and want the best building for generations to come.
This design mimics the "Marinwood " style homes.

This reminds us of the Eichlers.

Barn style buildings fit well in the rustic setting

This would look great next to the path.

Accessory buildings can exhibit style even while assuming utilitarian uses.

This basic shed is $11k installed.

This shed is $30k installed and will meet the space requirements of our department.

Every government agency in Marin County from Sausalito to Novato uses this type of side access garage. It is affordable, spacious and efficient.  

Mid century architecture is possible too.

These look like homes on Quietwood.

A rustic split rail fence can keep pedestrians from wandering behind garage doors without blocking the view.