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The Mayor Blinked 

And for L.A. it came just in time

Wednesday, Jan 13 1999
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Photo by Virginia Lee Hunter

After two years during which the Los Angeles city-charter-reform process had all the exhilaration of the America’s Cup race, the game suddenly turned into tournament pingpong last Friday, with what seemed like a new serve every moment. Most of the action involved our mercurial mayor, who, having started the day like Attila the Hun, went to bed that night as sweet as Bunny Pit-Pat.

When we last tuned in, Dick Riordan was still kicking up the warpath, demanding that the new charter include an unmitigated provision that would give his successor firing powers over city managers that virtually no other mayor of a major Western U.S. city happens to possess. This was not what you might call a casual request: It was more like those "non-negotiable" mandates the Black Panthers used to issue back when.

The mayor wanted the power to hire and fire managers without City Council interference, even though this would not become law until after his final term is up in 2001. The next best thing, of course, would be to award such powers to his successor, whoever that person might be. In any case, perhaps because Riordan is so determined to stick it to the City Council he’s so long detested, manager fire-power became the mayor’s primary goal in charter reform.

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The problem was that once the mayor decided he wanted those powers in the charter, he didn’t seem to care how he got them there. Thus Riordan, long the poster boy of the weak-mayor system, waxed aggressively nasty. He behaved not just like a strong mayor, but like a strong mayor with a deep, personal grudge. Impersonating the kind of bullying executive our fair city has long learned to do without, he leaned on Elected Charter Commission members with all his might.

Commissioner Richard Macias, who was appointed by Riordan to replace an elected member who had resigned, sustained the deepest cleat marks. By several accounts, Riordan sidekick Bill Wardlaw actually influenced the boss of Macias’ law firm to order Macias to vote the mayoral line. Macias did so, but since his was the ninth and last vote cast for the mayor’s proposal last week, Macias’ zeal appeared substandard to the mayor. With the possibility of a repeat vote coming up this week, Deputy Mayor Kelly Martin asked Macias to resign Friday morning. Now, as it happens, the mayor can’t make his elected-commission appointees resign. Macias didn’t bail. So coming up around noon, the question was whether the mayor would feel obliged to call Dr. Kevorkian on Macias’ behalf.

Then, in midafternoon, everything suddenly changed. Dick Riordan sent out a clement message of compromise (which, notably, reached the Los Angeles Times’ newsroom before it reached the chair of either charter commission). The message asked that the joint conference committee of both commissions meet again, possibly to remove the supposedly sacrosanct manager-firing provision from the charter and make it a separate initiative on the same ballot. Riordan said he trusted the electorate, even though recent advance polling of likely June voters on this topic suggests that such a proposal might fail. But at least its failure would not drag the entire new charter down with it.

So the mayor blinked. And the possibility of a single new charter proposal going before the voters in June is once again before us. On Monday night, the Elected Charter Commission went back to the well and agreed, by a 12-1 vote, to substitute the joint, unified "compromise" document for its own proposal. It also voted at the same time to put a separate mayor’s-powers amendment on the ballot and, for good measure, a further separate amendment that would give the voters a chance to decide whether they wanted elected neighborhood councils.

There are people who will say the mayor’s wimped on this one: that his U-turn shows his innate irresolution on the basics of city government. Well, I don’t know. As one who firmly believes that Dick Riordan was way off-beam with the fire-power demand, I’m scarcely wont to condemn him for changing his mind. He should have done it earlier, but he did it. And that’s good for him, for the city and for the further independence of the charter process.

In Another Part of the Valley

Winter can be paradise in the Northeast San Fernando Valley. The days are mild, and as evening draws near, gentle winds gnaw away the light smog, leaving the air so clear that it seems to pull the twilight mountains right into your back yard. Best of all, in Sylmar, San Fernando and Pacoi ma, this is barbacoa time.

Barbacoa is much more than barbecue: You sink a carcass in a pit full of coals and let it roast for days. When its aromas fill the neighborhood, everyone knows it’s time to eat. There’s jarocho music on the backyard stereos, and as the wonderful stuff is ladled out with beans and salsa, the sun sinks and living becomes a celebration of itself.

But the barbacoa I attended Saturday near the city of San Fernando celebrated even more. It was the fiesta of a new cycle in Latino electoral politics.

It’s now five years since hundreds of Chicanos and Chicanas protested UCLA’s uprooting of its Chicano-studies programs. There were hunger strikes too, and, since it’s nearly impossible to mount obedient civil disobedience, some unruly moments. These included a sit-in at the Faculty Club that resulted in a police charge, arrests and property damage. Not to mention some ultraright fulminations about the Sanctity of the University that sounded right out of 1968.

But today, at a mature 24, Cindy Montanez remains proud of her role in the 1993 UCLA actions. That’s why she stresses her campus involvement in the literature for her maiden campaign for the San Fernando City Council. "The demonstrations did create a great deal of awareness among many of us," she says, "particularly on education issues." But, she adds, it also helped many Hispanic students of her age to rediscover what the previous generation had learned during demonstrations in the ’60s and ’70s: the strength of solidarity and organization.

It may seem ironic that someone whose first political action was starving herself for 14 days is kicking off a campaign with $10-a-plate all-you-can-eat ox roast. But Montanez has obviously learned a lot in the past six years, both about politics and about her own little city of 24,000. Although she is careful to highlight the importance of programs for senior citizens, she also observes that San Fernando, the only independent municipality entirely surrounded by the city of Los Angeles, is — besides being nearly 90 percent Latino — a young place, with an average resident age of 26. There are many working families with small children. And Montanez wants to make San Fernando a better place for such families.

"We want to attract quality, well-paying jobs," she says, allowing that the town hasn’t exactly been a high-tech business magnet. She’d also like to see a major municipal make-over, a move away from the fenced-and-gated shopping-center look that now dominates business thoroughfares. She wants more "bookstores, art galleries, restaurants . . . even a playhouse–performance center."

Looking around San Fernando, you wonder if anyone ever before asked for such amenities. Unless you happened to notice how the five-digit Los Angeles street numbers shrink down to three digits, you might drive completely across the city, from Pacoima to Sylmar, without realizing you’d ever left L.A. San Fernando has its own police, but it’s in the LAUSD, and San Fernando High is one of the district’s most crowded schools. Then again, you sense the community’s youth, in youth’s fashion, want more from their community than their elders did. Montanez is the youngest council candidate; Richard Ramos — another of the five contenders in the three-seat, at-large, March 2 race — is 29.

Montanez backs increased voter registration, but also notes that because there are "only 7,000 voters in San Fernando, it’s feasible to meet everyone. You can visit them all at home." She expects to expend $10,000 on her campaign for the $5,000-a-year seat.

She also suggests that, as evidenced by the success of other local Hispanic candidates, Latino political awareness is finally reaching critical mass in the east Valley. Tony Cardenas is now well-established in his second Assembly term, and Richard Alarcon, after less than two terms on the Los Angeles City Council, has just been appointed majority whip in the state Senate. There is a long-delayed sense of increasing enfranchisement. Listening to Montanez as you devour that succulent beef, you realize there are far more important political developments going on in the San Fernando Valley than the noisy, Anglo-centered secession movement.

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