Activists Challenge L.A. City Council's Expensive June Junket to Israel
-This article describes an issue in L.A. where the Mayor used city money in a junket to promote LA-Israeli relations as well as security contracts given exclusively to the Israeli firms to provide security for LAX and other ports. I especially liked the cellphone bit, showing that even though people have the right to speak or complain, even our officials don't necessarily have to listen. It sounds as if the activists may also be able to use the law to counter the Mayor and City Council's actions.
Section: Southern California Chronicle
History was made June 25 in Los Angeles City Council chambers when 16 citizens protested the $225,000 purported public relations junket Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa made to Israel in mid-June. In tow were three other council members, Dennis Zine, Jack Weiss and Wendy Greuel, as well as a gaggle of children, spouses and other city officials.
While it's nothing new for Mayor Villaraigosa to travel, this time his trip was to launch agreements with the Israeli government on water conservation and security of Los Angeles's port and international airport. This set a precedent for the nation's second largest city to contemplate granting a foreign power control over its sensitive ports of entry.
The expensive junket also hit a sensitive public nerve. Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez criticized the trip as Villaraigosa pandering to win Jewish votes in the next election. Newspaper editorials voiced cynical objections, as did local radio talk show hosts.
The City Council was broadsided June 25 when polite dissidents stood up one at a time during the public comment session to protest the council's negotiating with a foreign power before seeking bids from American security services.
As council members largely ignored the testimonies by talking on cell phones or drifting in and out of the chamber, Greta Berlin of Women In Black admonished the city officials:
"Please put down your phones and listen to what I have to say. I've witnessed what Israel does at its airport in the name of security. My 80-year-old Holocaust survivor friend was subjected to a cavity body search and I was detained and interrogated for eight hours because both of us advocate justice for the Palestinians. Now our mayor wants Israeli security to turn LAX into this apartheid system where Jews, dignitaries and the rich stand in one line and everyone else in the other line?"
Averred Lillian Laskin of Democratic Westside Progressives: "There are plenty of security consultants in the U.S. to secure our ports without seeking advice from Israel, which has a murky reputation on human rights and labor relations."
Marcy Winograd, co-founder of L.A. Jews for Peace, wondered: "Why is it these security agreements you signed are making me increasingly insecure? Is it because these consulting agreements are really just a foot in the door to more extensive security agreements with a foreign power implicated in espionage scandals?"
Jeremy Rothe-Kushel questioned the efficacy of Israeli security firms, pointing out that Israeli firms were in charge of security at Logan Airport in Boston and the Newark airport on Sept. 11, 2001, when the terrorists were allowed to board the doomed passenger planes.
Human rights attorney Patricia Barry dropped a bombshell when she stated that federal regulations and the L.A. City Charter probably will pre-empt any agreements Villaraigosa and other council members signed.
"Section 370 of the City Charter stipulates the principle of competition," she explained, "and that all contracts exceeding $1,000 must have bids from vendors. The mayor excluded this and arbitrarily gave the Security contract for our port and LAX without asking for bids from local vendors."
At the close of the proceedings, Councilman Zine insisted on addressing the dissenters before they left the chambers.
"I paid for some of my trip and it wasn't a junket," said the councilman, who described himself as an ex-cop of Lebanese Christian heritage. "We did go to Bethlehem and we did talk to some Arabs."
However, although in June 2007 Zine led a city council delegation to Lebanon for a Sister City ceremony between Los Angeles and Beirut, he has yet to condemn Israel's 2006 blanket bombing of southern Lebanon.
Peter Thottam, one of the June 25 speakers, plans to research just who Zine's political backers are. Carol Smith of the National Lawyers Guild is researching documents to verify if there was a misuse of L.A. Department of Water and Power, international airport and port funds to finance the costly trip.
By Pat Twair and Samir Twair
Pat and Samir Twair are free-lance journalists based in Los Angeles.
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Activists Challenge L.A. City Council's Expensive June Junket to Israel. By: Twair, Pat, Twair, Samir, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, 87554917, Sep/Oct2008, Vol. 27, Issue 7
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