By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Martin Gomez, who heads the Los Angeles Public Library system as city librarian, has worked at public libraries across the country, including a stint in Brooklyn. He says L.A., with its large, poorly educated immigrant population and high unemployment, faces challenges unlike any city in the nation.
"L.A. has such an educational need," Gomez explains. "The educational needs of its citizens, whether they are formal students in public or private school, or they are people who are engaged in lifelong learning or kind of retraining themselves because they're out of jobs or putting job applications in ... the public library has a role, a very significant role, in helping the community become better educated."
Some Angelenos may think Gomez is simply defending an outdated, soon-to-be-extinct institution, with its jammed bookshelves of hardcover books and packed archives of magazines and newspapers. They would be wrong.
Reflecting the effects of the recession, visits to Los Angeles public libraries jumped from 16 million in 2007 to 16.6 million in 2008 and 17 million in 2009. In a city of 4 million, there's a major demand not just for free books to read but for free wireless and Internet access.
Riordan, who has floated the idea of a volunteer program to help with staffing shortages, says with some frustration: "I want to get a lot of people to march on City Hall, and I'll join them, and ask the [city fathers], 'What are you doing to this city?' "
One answer to Riordan's question might be that Los Angeles City Hall's bureaucracy, and the political leaders who run it, are not merely clinging to expensive pet projects like GRYD and excesses like their vast personal staffs. They are also proving unable to collect the basic monies owed to city coffers.
In July, City Controller Greuel revealed that the city has not created a centralized billing process — after years and years of talking about it — and managed to collect only 53 percent of its bills in fiscal year 2008-09, losing $260.4 million that year.
"L.A.'s elected officials ignore fundamentally challenged [city] departments," says Paul Hatfield, a city budget expert who's treasurer of Neighborhood Council Valley Village. "They have no desire to face reality. Now it's caught up with them. They can't avoid it anymore."
The 73 libraries needed only a relative pittance this year — just $8 million — to remain open on Mondays, for example. But no council member, including the six up for re-election next March — Krekorian, LaBonge, Cardenas, Parks, Wesson and Huizar — has a plan to fix a bill-collection system officials have long known is largely inoperable. Krekorian can be forgiven as a council newcomer, but the rest have been on alert for much longer.
In 2007, then-Controller Laura Chick warned that hundreds of millions of dollars had been lost. Recently, the council finally approved a plan for collecting a fraction of that — about $2 million in unpaid ambulance bills per year. A broader plan to collect $274 million in other unpaid bills over six years was never approved.
Press aides for Villaraigosa and Garcetti maintain a firm public relations line to explain how Los Angeles earned its new black eye as the only big U.S. city to shutter its library system twice weekly in response to the recession: "The mayor was trying to do what needed to be done to keep the city solvent," says Villaraigosa spokeswoman Sarah Hamilton.
Garcetti's spokesman, Yusef Robb, says: "The council moved heaven and earth to keep the libraries open five days a week. ... Tough choices were made."
Librarians' Guild President Stone, who represents some 350 library workers, doesn't buy any of this. Stone says Villaraigosa is "unconcerned" about the library system. He also feels that Garcetti, Budget and Finance Committee members Bernard Parks, Greig Smith and Bill Rosendahl, and the other 12 council members are "browbeaten by the mayor."
Stone says of the City Council: "They did nothing. Zero."
A look at the 2010-11 budget approved by the City Council shows that the mayor's library cuts sailed through unaltered. Nothing remotely like that occurred in New York, Chicago or Boston, where budget fights waged by concerned mayors or vibrant city councils restored substantial amounts of library funding.
But Los Angeles does not have what most people would call a "vibrant" city government. An eye-opening report by the think tank Center for Governmental Studies this year revealed that 14 council members — Reyes, Zine, LaBonge, Koretz, Cardenas, Alarcon, Parks, Perry, Wesson, Rosendahl, Smith, Garcetti, Huizar and Hahn — voted unanimously 99.993 percent of the time in nearly 1,854 votes studied in 2009. (Krekorian is too new to be part of the study.)
Now, the group Los Angeles Clean Sweep, led by former Los Angeles Daily News Editor Ron Kaye, is planning to field grassroots candidates in the March 2011 primary to take on the unanimous voting bloc that controls the City Council and takes almost all of its important cues from the mayor.
Fed-up taxpayers like Jason Reynolds of Atwater Village might be open to listening to Clean Sweep. A music-industry consultant with a house payment and a 4-year-old son, Reynolds is very unhappy about the Monday closure of the library where his boy loved the now-canceled free art classes. "I don't believe for a second they couldn't find the money," he says of the Los Angeles City Council.