By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Last year, a Van Nuys community activist named Maria asked her councilman, Cardenas, how to fight crime in Van Nuys. “He said we have a wonderful program called Adopt-a-Basket,” she dryly recalls. Residents “adopt” a trash can and empty it as needed; the city provides the basket. In recounting Cardenas’ kiss-off response, Maria asked L.A. Weekly not to use her full name because she’s worried about local criminals.
Thanks to the council’s system of handing favors to residents and groups who act as their cheerleaders, many residents won’t publicly criticize a Los Angeles City Council member. To do so might mean not getting “expedited” attention. Council members spend taxpayer money to crow about these favors, oblivious to the fact that when 15 politicians decide who gets what, they badly distort the city’s ability to deliver municipal services without favoritism.
Along with Greuel, Cardenas and Rosendahl, one of the worst back-patters is José Huizar, whose Eastside Council District 14 has the largest illegal immigration population, and desperate problems.
Alvin Parra, who was once Huizar’s field director and ran an unsuccessful race to topple his boss, recalls how Huizar decided to distribute 10,000 free, energy-efficient light bulbs from the Department of Water and Power. In fact, the “free” bulbs were financed by Angelenos. Cardenas’ office passed out the bulbs using community organizers — and of course called the press to take credit for it.
Huizar, who tools around in a taxpayer-financed Toyota Highlander hybrid that costs $40,000-plus, got media coverage painting him as a “green” councilman. But behind the scenes, when Huizar saw the wrappings covering the light bulbs, Parra says, he ripped into his staff. Why? The packaging didn’t say “Compliments of José Huizar” or have his picture on it.
Huizar is viewed by some of his colleagues as the laziest council member, and his personal schedule obtained by the Weekly bears out such sentiment: It is filled with empty blocks of time, light weekends and workdays that sometimes end at 4 p.m. Huizar sits on the powerful Planning & Land Use Management Committee, or PLUM, where Los Angeles residents go to beg its three sitting council members to tone down multimillion-dollar projects.
Huizar says, “My passion is my job.” But his former field director Parra says that when it came to debriefing Huizar on key issues, “he didn’t want to be bothered.” Today, Huizar has a huge staff — averaging 27 people, who cost taxpayers a cool $1.48 million last year.
Despite the City Council’s massive support system of about 320 personal staffers — by comparison, the White House office staff is about 448 — it can be a strain to name this council’s accomplishments. Trying to list its top achievements in 2008 — a year of national catharsis and, locally, of growing resistance to Villaraigosa’s and the council’s embrace of billboards, density and congestion — Council President Garcetti touts a “green building” ordinance; a tinkering with the city’s recycling law; and the “anti-gang” Summer Lights program, in which city parks kept the lights on after dark. “I have no doubt we have saved lives this summer,” he says.
“At the end of the day, what do they do” to justify salaries that dwarf those of other city council members in the U.S.? asks Matthew J. Parlow, a Chapman University professor of law who has written extensively on Los Angeles governance. “They start with a breakfast with somebody who wants to do something in their district, or meet with a group in their district, then they go to meetings at City Hall, and they end the day with more meetings with constituents, then home. ... I cannot fathom that the Los Angeles City Council puts in 64 percent more hours for the great differential in pay” over New York City Council salaries.
At 400 percent of L.A. household income, the city council’s $178,789 salaries instead appear to feed a double-standard approach in which what is good for residents is not, generally, good for the 15 at City Hall.
Garcetti lives on a peaceful, little-known street on a hillside in a rapidly gentrifying area of Echo Park. His sleek 1950s home has been renovated to perfection — so much so that Dwell magazine wrote that the Daniel Dworsky–designed house “is now a study in openness, simplicity and light.”
To the right of the amply-sized home, with its long, curving driveway and its spacious lot, is a large garden, where Garcetti and his wife, Amy Wakeland, grow vegetables for dinner. Nearby, steps lead up a hill and to Elysian Park, where Garcetti, whose neighbors describe him as “nice” and “busy,” hikes. When he returns from the park, Garcetti sees an awesome 180-degree view of the Valley, Hollywood sign, Griffith Observatory and Century City — even the Pacific Ocean, 18 miles away.
Garcetti, like most of the council, has dramatically different plans for how other Angelenos should live. In his district, encompassing much of Hollywood and trendy Silver Lake, high-density projects loom, ultrabright digital billboards have appeared without public notice, and parking is growing scarce. Historians have yet to take note, but classic views of the Hollywood sign and Hollywood Hills are being permanently obstructed by sky-scraping construction that Garcetti bills as “smart growth.”
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