Mayor Eric Garcetti has eschewed a grand vision (such as Tom Bradley's call for globalization) or single issue (education reform under Antonio Villaraigosa) as his political raison d'être at City Hall.
Instead, his is a multi-pronged approach, "Back to Basics," that involves addressing every day problems: good jobs, reliable city services and safe neighborhoods.
But Garcetti's even-keeled approach doesn't seem to acknowledge that being able to drive down the street without getting a flat tire from potholes is pretty basic. And so is being spared the damage that comes with being flooded by 20 million gallons of water, as happened to UCLA earlier this summer.
In other words, infrastructure is the basics. Being able to afford a place to live is pretty basic too. And not only is Los Angeles failing miserably by these metrics, but Garcetti seems downright unconcerned with using City Hall to fix them — or his bully pulpit to get the City Council, and the voters, to act.
The national traffic research group TRIP, which already had declared that L.A. has the worst roads in America, last week released a report on California that said Angeleno motorists each pay nearly $2,500 a year as a result of "higher vehicle operating costs, traffic crashes and congestion-related delays."
"L.A. has huge needs," said Will Kepton, the former Caltrans honcho who is now executive director of the group Transportation California. "If you own a home and the roof leaks, you gotta fix it. We don't have that sense about our public infrastructure."
In July a 90-year-old, 30-inch main connector broke in two different places and flooded Sunset Boulevard and UCLA.
Even the New York Times this month weighed in on the story, and on the sorry state of L.A.'s infrastructure, calling the main break "apocalyptic" and noting that our water pipes are on a 300-year-plus replacement cycle:
... It was the latest sign of what officials here described as a continuing breakdown of the public works skeleton of the second-largest city in the nation: its roads, sidewalks and water system.
Where was Garcetti? Rather than refusing to let a good crisis go to waste, the mayor seemed intent on downplaying the water pipe problem.
That month the mayor's office was busy putting the finishing touches on Made in America, a two-day street concert in August that brought $500,000 to city coffers, but that probably cost taxpayers more for police, traffic officers, street closures and other services. During the second day of the downtown festival, the mayor got to dance with Jay Z and Beyonce as they watched Steve Aoki DJ.
Basics? Not quite.
In recent weeks Garcetti fought for a $330 million a year tax giveaway to one of California's wealthiest industries, Hollywood, and backed a bill that would limit when police could use drones to peek into your backyard. He welcomed the NHL Stanley Cup to City Hall, celebrated Mexican Independence Day and discussed the impacts of the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement.
Mayors do a lot of things, and it's not as if Garcetti has ignored L.A.'s festering infrastructure problems. But he's been in office more than a year already, without that much to show for it. And all that talk about the basics doesn't always translate into work on the basics.
Garcetti sat on his hands when the idea was floated this year to put a half-cent sales tax hike before voters. The cash would have been used to, as Councilmen Joe Buscaino and Mitch Englander put it, "Save Our Streets" (and sidewalks).
And while the UCLA flood made national news, Garcetti failed to use the occasion to ask for the public's support for the major infrastructure repair and maintenance this city needs.
Kempton of Transportation California says selling the public on infrastructure upkeep is an uphill battle in politics. It's certainly not as cool as doing a photo op with Jay Z.
The public believes "they're paying enough money and that if we spent the money better, there wouldn't be a problem," he said.
L.A. is also the most unaffordable big city in the nation for housing expenses, according to a recent UCLA study. Garcetti himself has said that one out of four Angelenos lives in poverty. Yet there's no grand push for affordable housing in the city — or even just to build more housing to relieve pent-up demand.
Fernando Guerra, director of the Thomas and Dorothy Leavey Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University, thinks Garcetti has done a good job of taking care of business, but he admits that infrastructure is a political burden.
"He's been talking streets and sidewalks and DWP [the Department of Water and Power]," Guerra says. "That's what got him elected. There's nothing more basic than streets."
But even Guerra was a little surprised that Garcetti did not get on board with the idea to put a half-cent sales-tax increase before voters in order to pay for some infrastructure improvements.
The problem is the streets and sidewalks and where does that money come from. There's no budget for it. But I don't think he's running away from it.
The professor thinks Garcetti will get behind a possible extension of Measure R, the 2008 sales tax measure projected to bring about $40 billion to L.A. County transportation projects during its first 30 years.
That cash could help to solve some of the street issue, Guerra said. "I think he's genuine about back to basics," he said.
The professor gives Garcetti credit for spearheading a $13.25 minimum wage citywide.
"Poverty, the great divide between haves and have nots, homelessness and housing affordability—those are the big things, and they're tough to handle," Guerra says.
But going after the minimum wage is a huge step in the right direction—"a huge vision," he said. "I give him kudos."
Garcetti spokesman Yusef Robb says an extra 200 miles of road will be repaved next year. But he says that "repair is a massive, multi-year, multi-billion-dollar undertaking, and it can't be done overnight."
He said that the mayor has been fixing the city beginning with City Hall, so that departments are efficient and the public trusts its government again. Pothole filling, water-pipe replacement, and sidewalk repair are all on the horizon.
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But Robb credited his boss with focusing on jobs and pay. "Nothing is more basic," he said. "than lifting someone out of poverty."
The Made in America concert was a job creator, he said, and the minimum wage proposal is a tide that could lift all boats.
Just so long as those boats aren't floating down Sunset because of a water main break.