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Monuments to Me 

Legacy-obsessed L.A. politicians are covering buildings and parks with their names

Thursday, Jan 6 2011
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Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich represents the Fifth District, a huge geographical area larger than the county's four other voting districts combined. The Fifth stretches from northern desert communities surrounding the Michael D. Antonovich Antelope Valley Courthouse down to the 2,326-acre Michael D. Antonovich Regional Park at Joughin Ranch and the 500-acre Michael D. Antonovich Open Space Preserve in the Santa Clarita Woodlands.

After 30 years in office, Antonovich is the Southern California king of Monuments to Me — public buildings, parks and other institutions paid for by taxpayers but named after politicians still living and/or in office.

Taxpayer groups call it the "edifice complex." The five-member Board of Supervisors has the biggest edifice complex of any elected group in Los Angeles.

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In addition to Antonovich's trifecta, there's the Gloria Molina–Para Los Niños Child Development Center, the Mark Ridley-Thomas Constituent Service Center, the Don Knabe Pediatric Program at the Los Amigos Rehabilitation Center and the Zev Yaroslavsky Las Virgines Highlands Park.

The 15-member City Council has at least two projects named after current councilmen: the Councilman Greig Smith LAPD Devonshire Youth Center in Northridge and the Garcetti-LaBonge Parent Education and Childcare Center at the Santa Monica Boulevard Charter School, named after Hollywood-area council president Eric Garcetti and Hollywood-area City Councilman Tom LaBonge.

In this angry new age of voter revolts, premature honoring of elected officials for merely doing their jobs — such as steering money to the institutions honoring them — is drawing more criticism than ever.

"They really should wait at least until they've retired permanently, and preferably until they're dead and buried. Just let other people decide those kinds of legacy issues after they're gone," Steve Ellis of the Washington, D.C., Taxpayers for Common Sense tells the Weekly. "It's an unseemly and inappropriate use of taxpayer money. It should be banned."

The Los Angeles City Council and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors have no policies to prevent self-naming. Former Councilman Joel Wachs, who found the practice shameless, tried in 1998 to get the City Council to ban all future Monuments to Me. His chief of staff, Greg Nelson, says it's time for the City Council and Board of Supervisors to explicitly ban self-naming until members are permanently retired or, better yet, dead.

"The absence of a policy to guide how public facilities are named is a blank check for the politicians to name every [stationary object] after themselves," Nelson tells the Weekly.

"The politicians are getting things named after themselves for basically doing their jobs. Aren't their high salaries enough?"

LaBonge tells the Weekly he feels a building named for him is appropriate because of his long history working with the Santa Monica Boulevard school before he was elected. He says Supervisor Kenneth Hahn and Mayor Tom Bradley had buildings named for them during their terms in office.

But LaBonge says he understands why this is the right time to review the policy and perhaps adopt a new one.

"Guys like Kenny Hahn and Tom Bradley were giants in L.A. history, but I don't see any giants walking around L.A. now," LaBonge says. As chairman of the City Council's Arts, Parks, Health & Aging Committee, he adds, "I would be willing to conduct a review of our policy."

In 1995, the Orange County Board of Supervisors banned naming buildings after living members.

"It doesn't matter what Orange County does," Republican Antonovich tells the Weekly. "We don't need a policy like that."

His political opposite, Democrat Ridley-Thomas, agrees. "Orange County is free to do whatever it wants," Ridley-Thomas says.

Emboldened taxpayer groups argue that courthouses and parks and other edifices and outdoor spaces are providing permanent campaign billboards for lifelong pols like the 71-year-old Antonovich, who plans to run for a final four-year term in 2012.

"That's free, taxpayer-funded campaign advertising. It's wrong on so many levels," activist Ellis says. "It's a sneaky way of using their office to keep their incumbency. It smacks of self-aggrandizement. We elected them to serve us, not to build memorials to themselves."

Antonovich disagrees that the Antonovich signage dotting his district serves as permanent advertising, even suggesting — in all apparent seriousness — that it could hurt him: "If a voter has a bad experience in a courthouse named after me, that could be a political negative."

Antonovich has plenty of company in using taxpayer money to build his brand.

The glory hogs span the spectrum, from conservative Republicans like David Dreier (the $36 million Congressman David Dreier Water Treatment Facility in Baldwin Park) to liberal Democrats like supervisors Ridley-Thomas and Molina.

In every case, those who discussed their "honors" repeated a curious mantra: Parks and buildings were named after them — rather than after legitimate local heroes or lifelong civic volunteers — in a spontaneous gesture of gratitude from the people.

"I accepted the honor," Antonovich says of having his name on the $109 million, state-of-the-art Antelope Valley courthouse. "The judges and the communities of Palmdale and Lancaster wanted to recognize my hard work in getting that courthouse built."

Ridley-Thomas also was helpless against a tsunami of gratitude when he was leaving the City Council in 2002 and his rebuilt council office was named for him: "I didn't want to insult the community," he tells the Weekly. "I couldn't say, 'Thanks but no thanks.' That would have been ungracious."

Councilman Smith insists he was surprised by his honor: "It was done without my knowledge," he says in a prepared statement. "We helped them secure Community Development Block Grant funding to build that facility, with no discussion, understanding or expectation of any naming at all."

Yet these politicians are mostly performing typical political duties rather than actions that would prompt a major honor. The supervisors and City Council members each are paid $178,789 annually, the highest pay for elected municipal leaders in the country.

A debate over Monuments to Me was sparked in part by U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., after a bizarre incident on the floor of Congress in June 2009.

Democratic budget leader Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin refused to approve earmark money for anything named after a member of Congress, rejecting $1 million in help for the long-named Maxine Waters Employment Preparation Center in L.A.

Waters confronted Obey. According to reports in the newspaper The Hill, the conversation grew heated and Obey shouted, "I'm not approving that earmark!"

He stalked off as Waters followed, saying loudly, "You're out of line!" Obey fired back: "You're out of line!" Finally, there was physical contact. Waters immediately huddled with her Black Congressional Caucus colleagues, and was overheard telling them: "He touched me first!" before some of them escorted her into the cloakroom.

The $1 million did not flow to the 400-student training school, named for Waters in 1989, two years before she went to Congress. She felt the long-standing name made it exempt from Obey's ban.

"It's a distinction without a difference," Ellis says. "Of course it's a monument to her."

Another argument against such self-aggrandizement is more practical: A rascal might get into trouble after a park, trail, hall, service center, day-care center or other structure is branded with his or her name.

Exhibit A: Art Snyder, a former L.A. city councilman and a scrappy spokesman for the Eagle Rock–Boyle Heights area for 18 years. When he retired in 1985, the city named a new taxpayer-financed senior-housing complex the Arthur K. Snyder Villa.

As a lobbyist in 1996, Snyder was convicted of conspiracy and money-laundering. Now 78 and living in Long Beach, he tells the Weekly he had nothing to do with the center's naming.

"That came from some of the senior residents that were grateful for the work I did in the district," Snyder insists. "I was a real fighter for those people."

He assures the Weekly there's been no civic contamination from his notoriety. "Last time I drove by, a couple of years ago, my sign was hidden by an overgrown tree. No one there knows who Art Snyder is."

But at the pace they're going, it will take more than overgrown shrubbery to make people forget conservative Michael D. Antonovich or his liberal counterpart, Mark Ridley-Thomas, who's just getting started on his own Monuments to Me.

Reach the writer at paulteetor@verizon.net.

Reach the writer at paulteetor@verizon.net

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