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Reform, Hucksters 

And stop running City Hall like an ad agency

Wednesday, Sep 13 2006
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THE BEST WAY TO UNDERSTAND some of the bizarre behavior at City Hall is to view its politicians not so much as policy experts or as community advocates, but as advertising executives. How else to explain the name of Councilman Dennis Zine’s monthly newsletter, the Zine Line? Or his annual thank-you to the community, the Z Awards? Or his public-safety group, POSSE — People Organized for a Safe, Secure Environment?

Sometimes the marketing pitches are zippy, like council President Eric Garcetti’s fight against graffiti, known as UNTAG. And sometimes they fall flat, like the unfortunately titled press release from Councilwoman Wendy Greuel — “Greuel questions whether seniors have enough time to cross the street safely.”

These catchy but frequently cheesy slogans are the sound of our city’s political elite trying to get an uninterested public to turn their attention, even for a few seconds, away from Paris Hilton’s DUI arrest. And that may explain why it was so satisfying to see a judge take the council to the woodshed last week, yanking from the November 7 ballot a measure that sought to roll back municipal term limits by exactly one notch.

Superior Court Judge Robert O’Brien said Proposition R improperly combined two unrelated topics — the council’s bid to weaken term limits, giving them a shot at three terms instead of two, and a passel of tangentially connected ethics proposals that could complicate life a tiny bit for the city’s lobbyists.

Yanking Proposition R from the ballot wasn’t in itself the watershed. After all, a three-judge panel decided a day later to put the measure back on the ballot, at least temporarily, so it can sort out the legal arguments itself. No, the real triumph was seeing someone, anyone, blow the whistle on reform, a concept that has been flogged to death at City Hall.

You see, the “R” in the term-limits ballot measure stands for “reform,” as Garcetti pointed out. And in the massive advertising agency that is City Hall, reform is the catchiest jingle of all, played over and over again shamelessly, until political consumers can’t get it out of their heads.

By choosing the letter “R,” the council, directly or indirectly, sought to send voters a subtle message — that each element of the ballot measure, from term limits to the wording used in campaign phone calls, is inherently good for city government. Ban lobbyists from fund-raising? That’s reform! Give the council a chance at a third four-year term? Hey, that’s also reform! But wait. Wasn’t the original term-limits measure, passed more than a decade ago, reform too?

And that’s where the judge came in. O’Brien said Proposition R disenfranchises the voters by forcing them to choose some parts of the measure but not others. What if, for example, voters want to screw lobbyists but screw the current council members too, by denying them a third term? Under the wording of Proposition R, they can’t. In other words, voters may have very different views on what reform is and isn’t.

And who can quibble with reform? In political circles, the word signifies the opposite of status quo, which any politician wants to get the hell away from. That’s why Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger tried unsuccessfully last year to describe his four ill-fated ballot measures — including one to strip unions of their financial power — as reform. That’s also why Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, an occasional Schwarzenegger ally, billed his plan for gaining power at Los Angeles Unified School District as “school reform” in e-mail blasts sent by his campaign apparatus, one funded by the very symbols of the status quo — business leaders, real estate developers and high-level Republican contributors.

“It is a time-honored tradition in political campaigning that if you call it reform, voters will fall for it,” said former Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, who was forced out of office by term limits — the city’s big reform initiative of 1993 — and spent years advising her constituents to run the other direction from anything with the word “reform” attached to it.

Garcetti, the politician taking the heat for the term-limit ballot measure, said an extra four years in office will give council members greater success in achieving long-term goals, from construction of a regional transportation network to costly efforts to clean up the ocean. And he argued that Proposition R will indeed bring reform — reform of the city’s ethics rules, its lobbying system and term limits, at least as they apply to the council. Reforms are incremental but necessary changes to a system, added Garcetti, one of six council members who took office in 2001 (the year municipal term limits finally kicked in) and will lose their posts in 2009.

“?‘R’ is not for ‘revolution,’?” he explained. “Maybe getting rid of term limits is revolution. Maybe clean money, or full public financing of campaigns, is revolution. In my work in the council, most of what we do is reform. It’s rare that you do wholesale change of a system 180 degrees overnight, and that’s probably a good thing.”

Backers of Proposition R talk of the word “reform” as if it were a verbal life preserver, helping voters grasp otherwise impenetrable issues. “I don’t know of a better word to get the public’s attention,” said Ron Gastelum, who heads the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce, a group bankrolling the term-limit measure.

One of the people not buying Garcetti’s argument is Greg Nelson, a spokesman for Not PropR and a onetime aide to former Councilman Joel Wachs, who stepped down a year before term limits would have ended his three-decade political career. Nelson said the very concept of reform has been rendered meaningless at City Hall, and that the ballot measure’s ethics proposals are too minor to be considered reform.

Maybe the concept of reform is already beginning to crumble. Teachers unions didn’t buy Schwarzenegger’s pitch last year, spending millions to crush his four “reform” ballot measures. And many teachers individually voiced doubts about Villaraigosa’s school-reform bill, which lacks any proposals for reducing the dropout rate or addressing the achievement gap facing Latino and African-American students.

“There’s not a thing in it about education or children or learning,” said high school teacher Warren Fletcher. “It’s a political bill. You can consider it a good political bill or a bad political bill, but it’s a political bill.”

SO IMAGINE WHAT WOULD HAPPEN if the city’s elected officials kicked the reform habit, calling things for what they are instead of wrapping them in gauzy verbal tissue. Garcetti would describe Business Tax Reform as something more straightforward, like lower taxes or even tax breaks. Greuel would call campaign-finance reform something more precise, like taxpayer-funded candidates. And City Controller Laura Chick, who embraces the word “reform” the way junkies turn to crack, would explain why reform means a municipal audit of L.A. Unified’s budget but not the district’s massive $19 billion school-construction program.

The irony is, term limits have only intensified politicians’ voracious hunger for publicity, which in turn causes them to embrace dumbed-down marketing strategies, from Councilwoman Janice Hahn’s endless press conferences on Reggie the Alligator to Villaraigosa’s use of confetti cannons. With both eyes focused on their next four-year term or their next step up, politicians are locked in a perpetual campaign.

“They figure that in order to stay in the public eye, they have to keep proposing things, as opposed to making the stuff that exists work,” Galanter said.

There’s something fitting in seeing Galanter and Nelson — fixtures on the council floor from the 1980s and 1990s, booted by term limits in this decade — pooh-poohing the council’s over-reliance on reform as a sales strategy. With 40-plus years of political experience between them, they are among the few who remember how reform has been used to help politicians get ahead.

Former Mayor Tom Bradley proposed the creation of the Ethics Commission to divert attention away from his own misdeeds; he had been steering City Hall business to a bank where he served on the board of directors. The City Council put on the ballot a package of ethics reforms once they were able to include a provision that put their salaries in line with judges’, a move that has doubled their pay to $150,000 in 15 years.

Then there’s former Mayor Richard Riordan, a political neophyte who worked hard in late 1992 to put himself in the public eye. With his first campaign for mayor looming, Riordan spent nearly $500,000 on a ballot measure limiting each of the city’s elected officials to two, four-year terms — a political campaign that got his name and face into newspaper articles and campaign mailers.

Riordan recanted a few months ago, telling the Los Angeles Daily News that he was dead wrong about term limits for the council. Yet only a day later, the former mayor wrote an op-ed for the same newspaper urging Angelenos to back Villaraigosa’s plan for L.A. Unified. But if he was so wrong about the term-limit thing, why should we trust his judgment now on the school plan? Oh, right. It’s reform.

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