December 14, 2008

Web site keeps watch on Lakewood government

from the Long Beach Press Telegram
12/14/2008 edition

Steve [the LAAG editor] does not consider himself an investigative reporter.

"I am not a great writer," he says. "I kind of hack my way through it."

But he sees a place in the local media landscape for his not-for-profit news Web site,

The site is the online voice of Lakewood Accountability Action Group, a residents group that organized in the aftermath of a March 2006 house explosion caused by an illegal fireworks stash.

"I am not a true news source," Steve, a former City Council candidate, says. "We're sort of a commentary site."

Indeed the site's slogan, "Times change, politics don't," is a play on the Lakewood city motto, "Times change, values don't."

Commentary aside, there is plenty of information - some would call it citizen journalism - on the LAAG site.

A recent post bemoans how no one challenged three City Council incumbents seeking re-election in March 2009.

Another story asks questions about the delay of the Costco store planned for Lakewood Center.

Favorite topics include government pensions, public employee unions, travel by public officials, the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, redevelopment, noise, zoning, traffic safety, utilities and, of course, one of Lakewood's oldest issues and most explosive issues - legal fireworks.

"That's why I support independent journalism," Steve says. "Everyone talks about national and state politics but no one talks about local issues."

Content comes from LAAG e-mail and phone tips from residents, business owners and city sources.

"People come to us to see if we can help them with problems," Steve, says.

A Lakewood resident since 1964, Steve says he started the site because public information that should be easily accessible sometimes is not.

"I say they like to hide stuff in plain view," he says. "One of my big topics is open government. I'd like to see more transparency."

An example, LAAG says, is the spring election.

LAAG says the candidate filing dates were not well publicized.

On that issue, Councilman Todd Rogers says there was an announcement about incumbents seeking re-election on the front page of the Lakewood Community, a Chamber of Commerce Publication that goes to every home in the city.

"It clearly told everybody in town that there was an election," Rogers said.

Another LAAG post on the topic criticized the city's low voter turnout, saying it amounted to government appointments made by the community's most influential members.

"Even Iraq has elections!" the post states.

LAAG is nonpartisan, and the organization does not consider itself liberal or conservative.

"We're anti-stupid spending," Steve says. "We like small government, which is what Lakewood is supposed to be, as a contract city, but we don't like waste, and we don't like secrecy."

Rogers, the city's vice mayor, counters the notion of secrecy. He says that city government is open, despite some of the assertions he has read online.

"I think our City Council does a pretty good job, and we have a history of honest, stable, responsive government," Rogers says. "And that's not going to change any time soon."

In addition to original content, LAAG picks up news stories from the Press-Telegram, Los Angeles Times and other media, but national and global topics are avoided.

Lakewood City Hall has taken notice.

"The biggest visitor to my site is the city of Lakewood," LAAG says of its online tracking that shows a few hits from City Hall on a typical day. He gets about 100 hits every week day.

Lakewood city spokesman Don Waldie says that LAAG's viewpoints are welcome in the "marketplace of ideas."

"In an open, democratic society with robust political institutions, local government wants to hear every opinion," he says.

Before the electronic age, Waldie says traditional media have challenged City Hall positions. The now-defunct Lakewood Clarion was known to take shots.

"LAAG's blog fits into a long tradition of talking about what local government does and why it does what it does," Waldie says.

But most important, Rogers says, is that constituents are, in his estimation, pleased with city government.

He believes LAAG's views are out of sync with the majority of residents. As an example, he cited LAAG's suggestion at a City Council meeting to look into the possibility of creating a city police department.

"The city of Lakewood doesn't do anything in secret, based on the surveys and feedback we get from the community," says Rogers, who is a captain at the Sheriff's station in Carson. "I think we're tuned into what the community wants, what the community values are, and they seem to trust and be happy with their government."

Rogers says he responds to inquiries from LAAG and is comfortable with criticism that goes with being on the council.

But he doesn't always like what he reads on the LAAG site.

"I think Lakewood's pretty transparent," he says. "I think a lot of his criticisms are unfair, and some of them are not true."

LAAG does not accept advertising.

"We're not interested in taking ads from some local businesses," says LAAG, a corporate consultant by day. "Every time you start taking ads, you get into the issue about advertisers complaining about things.", 562-499-1273

Lakewood Accountability Action Group™ LAAG | | Lakewood, CA
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