By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
Y ou know an endorsement is tepid when it starts, "Citizens should vote, even if they're not wild about the choices they face."
So began the Los Angeles Times' official endorsement of Joe Buscaino, the LAPD officer from San Pedro running for City Council in District 15 against state Assemblyman Warren Furutani. They'll face off on Jan. 17.
The Times' editorial board was frustrated by the lack of specifics when it asked Buscaino and Furutani what they would cut to balance the city's budget. In the end, the Times gave the nod to Buscaino, making it the fourth Los Angeles City Council race in the last year in which the paper went against the establishment's candidate.
In other words, even the establishment — a newspaper that has played a major role in elevating lifer politicians and handpicked establishment candidates to office — is fed up with the connected crowd at City Hall.
And it's not alone.
"What I find disturbing," says Joel Kotkin, an expert on the evolution of cities and a presidential fellow at Chapman University, "is the lack of discourse. Los Angeles did not always have a perfect democracy, but you had arguments.
"Now they're like the Stepford Wives. They're a bunch of zombies."
L.A. Weekly has found that among the City Council's blizzard of 5,223 votes in 2011, the council members voted unanimously 97.5 percent of the time.
Each of these 15 politicians was elected as an establishment candidate with a big campaign chest, and many beat promising newcomers. Among the 15, serious debate was rare in 2011, as it has been for the past decade — a time during which the council neglected L.A.'s famously decaying roads, water system and other infrastructure.
Mimicking politicians in the dying city of Detroit circa the 1980s, the Los Angeles City Council closed all city libraries two days a week in 2010, making L.A. the only major U.S. city to take such a radical fiscal step. Angry L.A. voters overturned the library closures at the polls last March.
The Weekly's findings of a 97.5 percent unanimous voting pattern in 2011 hew closely to a widely discussed 2010 study by the Center for Governmental Studies finding that, of 1,854 votes during seven months in 2009, the City Council voted unanimously 99.3 percent of the time.
In 2011, the City Council had more than 75,000 chances to disagree (15 elected officials multiplied by 5,223 votes).
But the Weekly found just 133 no votes.
Under outgoing City Council president and mayoral candidate Eric Garcetti, real debate is a rare sound inside council chambers. Garcetti's trademark has been to speak of wanting peace in the "city family."
"Nothing is done on the floor," says former L.A. Times City Editor Bill Boyarsky, who covered government in the 1980s and '90s, when City Hall debate benefited the public — and the city. "The floor is just a travesty, a front. And the public has very little sense of what's going on."
Today, when a real issue is barreling forward and a council member disagrees, he or she may simply call in sick — so as not to break the image of tranquility.
A few council members make a show of discontent, tapping a method perfected by former L.A. Councilman Nate Holden, famed for criticizing his colleagues and calling for more discussion — and winning quotes in the Los Angeles Times. When the vote was finally called, however, Holden often fell in line with the majority.
Now there are more Nate Holdens. Last year's vaudevillian display of civil discourse during the Farmers Field NFL stadium hearings featured Councilman Bill Rosendahl offering token skepticism. Rosendahl was widely quoted in the media as a tough questioner — before adding his assent.
The council is more ideologically homogenous than ever before, thanks to the tightening grip of the L.A. County Democratic Party, led by Eric Bauman, and the city-employee labor unions that pour in money to elect establishment candidates.
Before term limits, politicians would cling to the same seat for 20 or 30 years. Today, a new form of clinging involves city politicians winning office in the state Legislature, then running for City Council again, then higher office again — with perhaps a stop as controller, district attorney or mayor.
"They are people who just love being an elected official," says former Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, who served from 1987 to 2002. "So it doesn't matter to them what office they're in."
Galanter should know. She is the only nonestablishment outsider — somebody without major political connections — to beat an incumbent on the Los Angeles City Council in the past three decades.
In Galanter's day, council members had varied backgrounds and were far more receptive to the public because of it. The outspoken Joel Wachs was a tax attorney. Rabble-rousing Ernani Bernardi was a bandleader. Robert Farrell was a reporter. Hal Bernson ran a clothing store. Gil Lindsay's first job at City Hall was as a janitor.
"I'm not saying they were all great," Kotkin says, "but you had characters who were not just reading from the script."
Today, City Hall is about political lifers. And without the media alerting Angelenos to this trend, voters have continually elected the lifers with their big-money campaign chests. Of 14 sitting City Council members (the seat sought by newcomer Joe Buscaino and political lifer Warren Furutani is vacant), five are former City Hall staffers and five are former state legislators.
"If that's what your life experience is, how are you gonna learn the experiences and concerns of your constituents?" Galanter asks.
Councilman Tom LaBonge was a City Hall staffer for 25 years before grabbing his old boss John Ferraro's seat in 2001. Richard Alarcon has held four offices in 18 years, ping-ponging from City Council to state Senate to state Assembly — where he served just 102 days before running again for the much higher paid L.A. City Council. Alarcon recently moved to another house so he can run for the Legislature — again.
Paul Koretz was a near-lifer on the West Hollywood City Council, then did a forgettable stint in the state Assembly, then moved inside the L.A. city limits — and got heavy establishment backing — to beat promising newcomer David Vahedi.
"I was thinking the other day," Nelson says: "What would they do to earn an income if they weren't an elected official?"
In fact, neither LaBonge nor Koretz has ever worked in the private sector; Alarcon spent a year teaching.
"You would think that having state legislators who've been dealing with bigger problems would broaden the outlook of the council," Boyarsky says.
Instead, "Politicians who go from one elected office to another, they're not looking at the long-range view of what the city needs in terms of finances and infrastructure. They have a real short-term mentality."
Two other politically well-connected insiders are councilmen Jose Huizar, a former elected LAUSD school board member, and Garcetti, son of former District Attorney Gil Garcetti. Councilmen Dennis Zine and Bernard Parks are former LAPD — not wholly an outsider category. Rosendahl is the councilman with the most mixed experience: He's a former political talk show host and cable executive.
This group has stalled for more than nine months on the basic task of appointing a DWP ratepayer advocate to protect consumers, something L.A. voters demanded and approved in March 2011.
Says Galanter: "Other than Ed Reyes and [his push to regreen] the L.A. River, I'm not sure I could identify anything any of them wants to get done."
Today, up to five sitting assemblymen in Sacramento are eyeing lucrative spots on the L.A. City Council, which pays $178,789 annually. Even if Warren Furutani loses to Joe Buscaino on Jan. 17, the lifers intend to angle for every new opening at City Hall.
Reach the writer at email@example.com.
What is wrong with a politician being well-connected? It's not the same as being corrupt. Not by a long shot. It's what politician are supposed to be. Does anyone remember what happened to New Orleans when Katrina struck its un-connected newbie pols?
Give me a break, LAW — and The LA Times — this is just the only thing you can bitch about at the moment.
koretz worked as an insurance adjuster so I don't think you can say he never had a private sector job
By the way, have you actually taken a look at the votes in city council? I have gone through a lot of the votes that the council takes on a daily bases and a CLEAR MAJORITY of the votes are procedural votes such as:
"Continued Consideration of Hearing Appeals or Objections to Building and Safety Department report and confirmation of lien to cover the cost of cleaning the lot at 10952 North Whitaker Avenue."
"Continued Consideration of Hearing Appeals or Objections to Building and Safety Department report and confirmation of lien to cover the costs of barricading of all openings and cleaning and fencing of the lot at 3029 North Eva Terrace"
'Ordinance Second Consideration relative to a 15-year lease and the sale of an access easement to Randy W. and Becky Marie Scott for City-owned property located at 156 Short Street, Bishop, California."
"Budget and Finance Committee Report relative to the City Treasurer's Investment and Cash Management Reports for the months of May, June and July, 2009."
The list goes ON AND ON AND ON. I am NOT defending the city council or saying they are doing a great job but can you HONESTLY see someone disagreeing or having passionate debates over issues such as THESE? I was legitimately not nit-picking voting results that favored my viewpoint. I was literally just randomly choosing vote entries. If you want to see it for yourself, use this website and search the votes: http://cityclerk.lacity.org/cv...
I am honestly not surprised that there is such a high level of agreement if these are the kinds of issues they are voting on..
Mr. Karapetyan. The items you point out are the mundane workings of making laws and what gives this process the likeness of making sausage. There are bigger issues the Council agrees on 99 percent of the time.Here's a glaring example of council members jumping on the train that will take them to their next political office. The Council rushed to judgment when it agreed unanimously to give AEG carte blanche to build an NFL stadium downtown without ever investigating the cost to the city of building the facility. The Council keeps saying the AEG stadium will cost the taxpayers nothing. That is a lie. The Council never bothered to find out what it was going to cost taxpayers to renovate streets to make this private stadium workable. Some transportation experts say the public will be on the hook for paying upward of $100 million for street upgrades to downtown. The Council ignored the fact that there are some serious transportation issues that need to be addressed. The Council preferred to believe "AEG" when the company said "there is no traffic on Sunday when there are NFL games. You could stand on the 110 Freeway and roll a bowling ball and you wouldn't hit a car on Sunday." The Council ignored the fact that 300,000 cars a day pass by the junction of the 10 and the 110 where the stadium will be built. That seems like a lot of traffic.The Council ignored all the warning signs and voted unanimously to let AEG build the stadium. The ulterior motive -- Council members want to say in campaign literature that they brought NFL football back to LA which would give them something to tout when they run for future office. You are right, sir, on one point. The sausage making at city hall is an ugly affair -- and voters ignore it at their peril.
Of course you miss the obvious connection to LA's unusual campaign finance laws which are the real reason no incumbent ever loses an election.
Here's a link to the CGS report, Money and Power in the City of Angels, mentioned in this article:
The CGS report, also found that incumbents have an overwhelming contribution advantage. "Incumbents have an overwhelming fundraising advantage over challengers. Incumbents raised a combined total of $5.3 million in private contributions, compared to challengers who raised a combined total of $285,000, a ratio of over 19-to-1."
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