Council Overboard 

Blame the irrational behavior on planning issues

Thursday, Apr 14 2005
Any dedicated and talented urbanist who applies to become the next planning director of Los Angeles is either brave, foolhardy, or never heard about the recent City Council display of righteous-indignation one-upmanship over the entire troubled department.

It’s been put to rest now, but it started with Councilman Ed Reyes’ concern that the controversial Planning Department was quietly lining up employees to fill top jobs before the departure of Con Howe, the general manager who announced his retirement in December but is staying on the job until his successor is chosen.

Reyes filed a motion to track the department’s personnel moves, then Cindy Miscikowski came back with a call to keep the council from sticking its nose into civil service matters.

Miscikowski, the only member of this council who will be leaving in June due to term limits, almost carried the day. But then Martin Ludlow wanted to talk about the department’s legacy of unequal treatment of the city’s neighborhoods, and Dennis Zine demanded to know why Howe wasn’t rushing up to the podium to answer questions. Turns out Howe was at a conference, on city business by the way. But Zine, the council’s Personnel Committee chair, came back with a demand to know where a soon-to-be retired GM gets off attending a conference when he should be answering the council’s questions.

Before you knew it, city officials were printing up and preparing to distribute copies of the 14-year-old, 300-plus-page Zucker report, which detailed allegations of racism and cronyism in the Planning Department in the 1980s and ’90s. Has anything changed? We were going to have this out once and for all.

The following week, Howe was in chambers and ready to go, but the council by then had thought better of the whole thing and accepted Reyes’ request to receive and file the matter, which is City Council speak for “never mind.”

Even scarier than the council was the South Los Angeles Area Planning Commission meeting, which like the other six area panels held sessions for community members to weigh in on what the next planning director should do.

“You’re not listening to us,” an angry resident told Deputy Mayor Renata Simril. “We want a say in who the next planning director is.”

“Yes, the mayor wants to hear from the communities so we have made this opportunity at the area planning commissions to hear from you,” Simril replied. “What qualities are you looking for in a planning director?”

“We want to be able to give our input,” the resident insisted. “We want a community forum where we can do this.”

“What is this?” said an exasperated Simril, gesturing around the roomful of assembled city staff and officials.

The exchange showed how estranged from City Hall some L.A. neighborhoods have become, and how frustrated they are at a Planning Department that has managed to anger everyone developers, residents, environmentalists, City Council members, even many of the city planners themselves. Simril was there to listen, but residents who wanted to talk about what a new planning director should do were also handed Personnel Department forms with little circles that had to be filled in with pencil or black ink. Anyone who bothered with the form had to rate the importance of bare-minimum qualities like vision, leadership and financial-management skills as if your next planning director could only be expected to have one of those.

Belatedly, but to his credit, Mayor James Hahn finally gave into a near-universal demand to extend the application period from early March to May 20 three days after the mayoral runoff. Now, at least a new planning director will know what mayor he or she will be working for.

The new director will also know and might as well learn it now rather than later that even before the next community plan is updated or the next conditional-use permit is denied, there are decades of mistrust and frustration that extend far beyond the city planners’ desks in City Hall, far beyond the council chambers downstairs, out into the traffic-jammed streets lined with fast-food drive-thrus, liquor stores and soulless, center-less neighborhoods.

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