With reporting by Tibby Rothman and Daniel Heimpel
(And don't miss the sidebar, "How L.A. City Council Got Those Huge $178,789 Salaries.")
On a Wednesday morning, January 28, Karoline Steavenson, a blond, middle-aged substitute teacher and single mother of grown children, drove to downtown Los Angeles from Burbank with a five-page speech she wanted to deliver at a City Council meeting. The night before, Steavenson had watched news reports from Wilmington, where Ervin Lupoe had slain his wife, five children, then himself, after being fired over alleged workplace fraud. The Lupoe bloodbath hit a nerve with Steavenson, who is struggling in the job market, and has a learning-disabled brother. She decided to confront the 15 members of the L.A. City Council in person.
“I came to talk to them and let them know help is not easy to find,” Steavenson said later.
Yet the part-time teacher had no idea what awaited her — “Elephant Day” at the John Ferraro Council Chamber, where the City Council would decide if the construction of a multimillion-dollar elephant exhibit at the L.A. Zoo should move forward. The elephant controversy had soaked up hundreds of hours of time, even as city officials faced the worst financial crisis in decades.
Animal-rights activists, who vehemently opposed the elephant enclosure, brought in hundreds of supporters, with Cher, Bob Barker and Lily Tomlin sitting in the first two rows of the public gallery. Zoo employees and labor union members, who just as vehemently wanted the enclosure built, also jammed the room. Serious Hollywood money backed them, too, in the form of wealthy Laura Wasserman, wife of Casey, rich grandson of the late studio titan Lew.
Elephant Day unfolded over the next three hours. At various points during testimony, the heavyset, swell-suited Council District 4 representative Tom LaBonge excitedly conferred with Maria Elena Durazo, the powerful county federation of labor chief, while Westside Councilman Bill Rosendahl and Valley Councilman Tony Cardenas consulted with Cher, who wore wraparound sunglasses as she sat beneath the council chambers’ huge chandeliers. At different points, Rosendahl loudly declared that he would “like to make a point that Cher made to me” and also held a powwow with Tomlin. Valley Councilwoman Wendy Greuel, the pixie-ish and très ambitious handmaiden to Antonio Villaraigosa, chatted up union chief Durazo — big labor being a fat source of Greuel’s cash in her campaign to replace Laura Chick as city controller.
City Council President Eric Garcetti, the likable liberal who represents District 13 and struggles to focus this powerful body on anything of importance, told Tomlin at one point to stand down. Later, Rosendahl had his chief of staff, Mike Bonin, hold up a poster-sized photo of Billy the Elephant, pointing to his huge, pachyderm toes, and interrogating L.A. Zoo personnel:
“Beginnings of a foot issue, true or false?” Rosendahl demanded.
“I’m telling you right now,” a zoo employee said, “that elephant is in good condition.”
The theater of the absurd didn’t end with the council vote to finish building the zoo exhibit: Cardenas escorted Cher to a nearby photo op, then whisked her away to a private elevator refurbished by L.A. taxpayers — yet off-limits to all but City Hall insiders. LaBonge stood on the steps of City Hall, excitedly saying, “I could talk all day, but I really need to get back to work!” then vanished into a side room, never to return to the chambers, where business, such as it is, was still being conducted.
When Steavenson finally spoke her mind about the Lupoe massacre, she told the remaining council members, “I am doing this because I worry that you are out of touch with your constituents.”
Steavenson was more accurate than she could imagine.
With the highest city council salaries in the nation, at $178,789 per year, Los Angeles City Council is possibly the highest-paid elected city body on the planet. Its pay far outstrips that of councils in costlier New York City, whose members earn a mere $112,500, and San Francisco, whose members earn $95,868. Los Angeles council members earn about 70 percent more than the piddling pay of the Chicago City Council, at $110,556.
On March 3, seven L.A. City Council members are up for re-election. Each will be easily re-elected in a primary election few Angelenos know is taking place. The rest will be recrowned in 2011, barring some natural disaster that focuses blame on City Hall. The one seat truly up for grabs March 3 is the tony Fifth Council District, being vacated by Jack Weiss, who is running for city attorney in a wide-open race (See separate story, “They Just Don’t Like Jack Weiss,” by Christine Pelisek, in News).
The L.A. City Council salaries are not just overinflated in an era of belt-tightening. They are only a hair below the salaries of Congress, and are higher than those of federal judges. They amount to a staggering 400 percent of Los Angeles’ median household income of $46,000 — and no other city council, in cities poor or rich, comes even close to that troubling disparity between public servant and the public. (Garcetti, Greuel, Janice Hahn and Weiss are paid $171,648, having refused a $7,100 raise in 2007.)