Last Friday was a festive day at City Hall and inside City Council chambers. Native American Indians were chanting and talking about being the original people of Los Angeles. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, hosting a lunch near the Spring Street steps, proudly proclaimed he had some Indian blood in him, and two men performed a dance in the 90-degree heat.
The events also took up much of the City Council meeting, as such festivities do almost every Friday, leaving pressing issues in the background during one of only three days per week that the full council actually meets.
It was a typical day, with just 11 of the 15 council members at work, or about 73 percent of the team. Imagine the Dodgers with about six players on the field, or the Lakers with three and a half on the court.
But a November 17 legal deadline looms for the highest-paid city council in the United States: The 15 politicians must decide which municipal issues to put on the March 2011 ballot for consideration by L.A. voters.
Depending on the choices made by the City Council, those 10 to 14 ballot measures could ask Los Angeles residents to nearly double the permanent budget for the city's 73 city libraries, which Villaraigosa targeted for severe cuts this year, closing them down two days each week. Or the council might ask voters to crack down on the unpopular Department of Water and Power by giving teeth to an independent DWP watchdog. Or the council might ask voters to forever protect the city's thicket of as many as 4,000 illegal billboards — by taxing billboard ads and thus turning the illegal signs into an integral part of the city's budget.
But this year, a host of angry critics began demanding that the City Council stop behaving this way — stop rushing to approve a wish list of intricate ballot ideas that sound good on paper but are so poorly thought out that they spawn unforeseen problems.
Critics say the council members — who earn $178,789 a year, employ personal staffs of 15 to 22 people, and are provided special $100,000 accounts to spend on anything they wish — waste every Friday handing out plaques and holding ceremonial events, and spend their time on such matters as deciding which Arizona companies to exempt from their "moratorium" on doing business with Arizona.
Yet only now are they hurriedly finalizing more than a dozen complex ballot measures that they expect voters to untangle in 2011.
Former DWP Commission President Nick Patsaouras has been lobbying council members for more than a year to place before voters a measure that creates a ratepayer advocate–inspector general to act as an independent watchdog over the DWP.
"My proposal has been on their desks — god, for seven or eight months," says Patsaouras. "It's badly, badly needed. I even threatened to get 250,000 signatures so I could put it on the ballot [without them], but that's almost impossible. I need the City Council to put it on the ballot. But they are each a fiefdom of one."
Three council members — Eric Garcetti, who hopes to run for mayor, Dennis Zine, who hopes to run for controller, and Greig Smith — began struggling over whose vision for a DWP watchdog would prevail.
As a result, the watchdog measure, long demanded by numerous DWP critics, may be scuttled entirely.
One newspaper editorial demanded an end to City Hall's perpetually eleventh-hour ballot-measure writing, noting, "One measure almost certain to appear in March is meant to overturn a pension provision that was adopted with too little thought just 10 years ago."
Some of the message got through to the council. In a flurry of quiet moves, several half-ready ideas have been abruptly abandoned.
The City Council was primed to put a medical marijuana tax before voters in 2011, but City Attorney Carmen Trutanich's team begged Councilwoman Janice Hahn to back off her plan.
After news coverage and blog reports questioned whether Hahn and the City Council actually understood the legal implications of the tax, the idea was yanked shortly before a scheduled hearing November 8.
William W. Carter, chief deputy of the City Attorney's Office, says L.A. and its voters dodged a bullet: "To accurately find out what someone should be paying in taxes on an illegal activity, to send people out to find out how much they were making, would cost more money than the taxes brought in," Carter told the Weekly.
"You would have to set up an enforcement agency to find out how much people should be taxed," he says. "People making money off of marijuana are not going to accurately tell how much they are making — that's not going to happen," because it's illegal to profit from selling medical pot.
Hahn originally proposed exploring a weed tax in July 2009 and was backed by Zine and Rosendahl.