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Others count seven activists versus three, lumping Galatzan in with carpetbaggers Krekorian and Essel. “There’s the Machine Three: Krekorian, Essel and Galatzan, and there’s the rest of us, the Grass-roots Seven,” says Frank Sheftel of North Hollywood, a 48-year-old Valley resident and custom chocolate purveyor.
But it says something about this race, and how much it is worrying City Hall, that an elected school board member like Galatzan openly prefers to be counted as part of the Grass-roots Eight, with people like Zuma Dogg, rather than as part of the Machine Two, with Krekorian and Essel.
Civic activists generally do not win City Council seats in L.A. The often quietly handpicked candidates with deep pockets behind them tend to win. But neighborhood activists like Michael McCue have watched as the City Council and Antonio Villaraigosa ignored Valley infrastructure year after year during flush times, spending the city’s new revenues on pet projects and failing to save for a rainy day — and then the recession hit. Now, 90-year-old water mains are creating sinkholes. As McCue told an appreciative audience Monday, fed-up residents need to “elect one of our own.”
One of those pet projects now being floated by speculators and downtown insiders would vastly expand the Fashion Square Mall in Sherman Oaks, where Bloomingdale’s is located. The expansion was derided at the Sherman Oaks forum, with McCue crying out: “Infrastructure first!”
One widely suspected cause of the City Council’s isolation: its members’ $178,789 salaries, which make them the highest-paid city council in the U.S. by far, placing them at 400 percent of L.A. household income. The winner of this election will rake in more than $2.5 million if that person serves the full 12 years allowed under term limits, which were watered down in 2006.
As the Weekly reported in its February cover story, “Los Angeles on $300,000 a year,” each council member also gets a huge personal staff of 17 to 25 employees, an annual pot of $100,000 to dole out as each wishes, exemption from parking tickets, eight free cars each, and free gas — all taxpayer-covered perks. Despite all this, council rarely succeeds at addressing the city’s pressing problems, such as illegal billboards, traffic and the explosion of hundreds of unvetted, unregulated pot dispensaries near public schools.
At Monday’s debate, Zuma Dogg proposed eliminating entire city departments if they don’t deliver critical municipal services, and he pushed for 10 percent cuts in compensation for city workers in order to make up a huge deficit that the council has failed to resolve. He says mass layoffs could result if the council doesn’t cut now, warning, “Ten percent of something is better than 100 percent of nothing.”
Each of the 10 candidates has been pressed about whether they’ll take a 50 percent pay cut, reducing their pay to about $90,000, if elected, and San Pedro–based activists are organizing an effort to let voters make such a cut permanent via the ballot box.
Galatzan, one of only two CD 2 candidates to oppose the 50 percent–cut idea, concedes that the raise she’d get from her current school board post — which pays just $25,000 — is one factor in her decision to run. She pledges to take an immediate pay cut of 20 percent to 30 percent and to continue her policy of not using a government car if elected to City Council. (In her day job as a neighborhood prosecutor, Galatzan works with petty criminals, transients, belligerent dogs and illegal RV parkers, and, she says, “There’s nothing wrong with my 2006 Honda Civic hybrid.”)
The Grass-roots Seven (or Eight) are raising the possibility that one or even two of them could survive the September 22 special election. If no single candidate wins 50 percent plus one vote next week, the top two of the 10 will face each other in December.
“The ones who raise the most money are not the ones who will get the most votes,” says candidate Benson, who started her own computer business and raised two kids, then discovered a new calling when she fought to stop the Army Corps of Engineers from dumping “bad stuff” at Hanson Dam. Benson, a calm, popular figure in Sunland-Tujunga, was also part of a boisterous community victory that stopped a proposed big-box Home Depot there. “I know how to get things done, how to get past the bureaucratic hurdles,” she says.
At a forum Monday sponsored by the Sherman Oaks Neighborhood Council, Benson, McCue and Sanchez each said they had enough momentum to offset the big money behind Essel and Krekorian. They, Zuma Dogg, Sheftel and other candidates note that the Valley is a petri dish of civic rebellion, an incubator that created the Valley Secession movement more than a decade ago. San Fernando Valley residents played the key role in forcing city fathers to create the Neighborhood Council system, and Valley voters recently helped to sink controversial solar Measure B and elect underdog outsider Carmen Trutanich as Los Angeles city attorney.