By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
Each council member enjoys a free car, maintenance and gas costing $6,000 to $15,000 annually (Garcetti’s electric-car lease costs taxpayers $3,900 but saves on fuel); each gets a petty-cash fund of $5,000; and each receives a dubious, $100,000, yearly taxpayer-financed slush fund, which amounts to walking-around money that they can dole out to anyone — family members or gangbangers if they choose — as long as they don’t spend it on religious proselytizing or political races.
Added up, L.A.’s council members get by on about $300,000 a year. Roughly another $1.3 million annually — per council district — pays for each of their personal staffs of 16 to 32 people, up to eight more free cars and more free gasoline.
“$179,000!” Repeating their salaries out loud, Fred Siegel, professor of history at the Cooper Union, Humanities and Social Sciences, in New York, and an authority on U.S. city government, is appalled. “I’m left incredulous whenever I hear these things.” L.A.’s voters, he says, are handing its City Council a level of cash and perks that represent “maximum return — for minimal effort.”
There is nothing in the world like the Los Angeles City Council, and some suggest that’s the problem. By law, it is the chief legislative body here, and its core duty is to hammer out major policies and enact laws to improve L.A.
Taxpayers are showering the 15 with the salaries, staffs and tools to accomplish just that. But there is little evidence that L.A. gets what it pays for.
The past four years are a litany of City Council failures at the most basic level. The members admit that they never discussed what a digital billboard was, or its intrusive impact, before quickly approving them citywide; they okayed a $2.7 million payout for the hazing of Los Angeles firefighter Tennie Pierce so fast they never looked at files on their desks, which showed photos of prankster Pierce hazing others; many now admit they had no idea what made up the $1 billion to $3.6 billion solar plan, Measure B, but stuck it on next week’s ballot anyway.
Even basic infrastructure problems stump this council. They squabbled over selling valuable city land throughout the run-up in land values, and now that they’re desperate for funds, council members plan to hold an embarrassing fire sale of the public’s land. For years, police have wasted precious time responding to thousands of false burglar alarms, yet the council’s 2004 “fix,” exacting a noncollectible fine, is a disaster: 33,000 unpaid fines worth $11 million — enough to hire 175 cops for a year.
On top of that, the City Council blows $9 million a year on sending firefighters to fake fire alarms. A year ago, Greuel maneuvered for easy press attention by declaring a “crackdown” on false fire alarms, then dropped the ball; Greuel’s aide Ben Golombek today dismissively says fixing the fire alarm mess wasn’t a “key piece to her agenda.” The council woefully underfunds a 50-year backlog of ruptured sidewalks, and Janice Hahn shrugs it off as a “plague” even as she and her colleagues continue doling out public money — to injured pedestrians and bicyclists.
While Los Angeles visibly falls apart, its illegal graffiti, illegal billboards and illegal street peddlers metastasizing, its remarkable congestion clogging each new block that’s been targeted by speculators with a “transit-oriented” project — while all this unfolds, the council burns up time on Band-Aid responses and self-congratulations. It assiduously avoids its actual job: dealing with overarching issues, such as traffic, a chronic lack of parks, and overdevelopment, which have residents fuming.
“If someone did a ride-along with a City Council member for a day,” insists Garcetti, noting that he’s on the job 24/7, “and saw the work we do, I think they would be very moved.”
Unlikely, as the council exists far less as a legislative body than as an inept bureaucracy. The 15 members and their huge staffs focus on — and continually congratulate themselves for — performing “constituent services” that in well-run cities are generally handled by the parks, street, sanitation and other city departments. The result here is twofold: a failing system of favor-peddling that has convinced L.A. residents they must go around the rules and seek action from the 15 council members, and a minutia-focused body that avoids tackling the really serious city problems.
Noreen McClendon, of Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles, says it took Saint Odilia Church eight years to get Councilwoman Jan Perry to help them get a street light at 51st and Hopper, where she says children had been hit by cars. Last year, McClendon notes, Perry announced she would grant the ultimate City Hall favor: She would “expedite” the process. McClendon smelled a rat. “Of course, Jan is running for office [on March 3]. If you could expedite it in 2008, why didn’t you expedite it in 2004?”
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