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Power Failure 

An Orwellian day at City Hall, with congrats all around for Villaraigosa’s school-takeover failure

Wednesday, Apr 18 2007
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YOU’D THINK FROM READING the blogs and the newspapers that Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was having his Worst Week Ever, as the wags at VH1 might say, failing in his bid for the 2016 Olympics and then seeing his bid for power at L.A. Unified struck down in yet another courtroom.

In person, however, Villaraigosa was as victorious as ever. You see, the mayor greets defeat in the same way that he handles success — by surrounding himself with his closest allies and holding a pep rally. So the mayor had plenty of friends on hand Tuesday to praise him as he informed reporters that the ruling was a mistake.

The thing is, it’s a mistake that just keeps getting made. The state’s legislative analyst warned last summer that the school plan ran afoul of the law. A Superior Court judge said the same thing in December. And now, the 2nd District Court of Appeal says Villaraigosa bypassed the voters when he persuaded the state Legislature to strip the school board of much of its power.

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In the spectacle that followed Tuesday’s ruling, Villaraigosa and five members of the City Council couldn’t stop congratulating one another on their latest legal setback. Thank you, Mayor. No, Councilman, thank you. No, Mayor, thank you! Councilwoman Wendy Greuel — did you know she’s a mom? — sent Villaraigosa a thank-you from her 3-year-old son. Councilman Jack Weiss, a candidate for city attorney, heaped compliments on Villaraigosa’s lawyer, the one who crafted the ill-fated school bill.

Even City Council President Eric Garcetti, the son of a district attorney, took the ruling head-on. “Nobody wins from defending the status quo. And in many ways, that’s what was defended today,” Garcetti declared.

Uh, technically, it was the state Constitution that the judges were defending. But who needs that crusty old document? It’s not like elected officials in California take an oath to uphold it or anything. And who reads that fusty City Charter cited by the judges? The thing could bore a guy to death with all its blah-blah about who runs what in L.A. government.

The ruling arrived just three days after Villaraigosa watched stonily as Chicago, a city best known for its wind-chill factor and its heavy drinking, ran off with the nation’s bid for the 2016 Olympics. But while L.A.’s Olympic hopes consumed his time for a couple of months, the mayor’s school fight is now stretching into two long years.

Villaraigosa launched that fight in 2005 by uttering the words “ultimate control” — words thrown back at him this week by the three-judge panel. The court tartly dismissed the mayor’s effort to intervene in the hiring of school superintendents, saying such a change must be sent to the voters, the ones who decide what goes in the City Charter.

As he hugged a parent wearing a Green Dot charter school T-shirt, Villaraigosa talked up another appeal, this time to the state Supreme Court. Villaraigosa promised to press ahead with his campaign for a new school-board majority and claimed the two-year battle has already spurred L.A. Unified to make urgent changes. “There won’t be that urgency unless we keep the heat on,” he declared.

And yet, at the heart of the mayor’s position lies a certain hubris: the idea that City Hall runs so well that it is ready to take over another troubled bureaucracy. Because once you see the city struggle in so many places — traffic congestion, graffiti removal, protection of affordable housing — a city-supervised school district looks less like a reason for celebration.

If Villaraigosa declared himself the winner while losing, school-board President Marlene Canter somehow sounded like the loser, even as she won again in court. Sitting at her desk, Canter couldn’t see why an education-oriented mayor spent so much time tagging her district as a failure. And she said the prolonged legislative combat only kept the two sides from forging a substantive working relationship. “Twenty-one months have passed, and we’ve missed an opportunity,” she said.

For all his bravado, Villaraigosa showed little interest in taking to the ballot a school-reform plan, saying such a campaign would cost up to $40 million and would need to go statewide. And yet, the 44-page ruling wasn’t all bad news.

The decision arrived, after all, one day before Villaraigosa’s State of the City address, in which the mayor planned to unveil his plan for tackling street gangs. If nothing else, the ruling helped the mayor’s speechwriters fill in a few blanks in their passage on L.A. schools.

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