How the L.A. 2020 Commission Screwed Up
How can the L.A. 2020 Commission fix City Hall when one of City Hall's biggest problems is sitting on it?
Photo Courtesy of LA Weekly Flickr Pool/Calvin Fleming
The L.A. 2020 commission is back. Three months after issuing "A Time for Truth," its term-paper jeremiad about the decline of the city's economy and finances, the commission has now issued the follow-up report, "A Time for Action."
Finally, after a year, the commission's agenda is becoming clear: to empower the powerful.
The commission is drawn from the leadership of the city's business and labor communities, and its reports reflect the insularity and self-interest of its membership.
Let's start with the DWP. As you may recall, last year's mayoral election largely turned on the issue of DWP union money. Brian D'Arcy, the head of the DWP union, spent $4 million trying to elect Wendy Greuel. That backfired. The voters elected Eric Garcetti, sending a clear message that D'Arcy should not be allowed to control City Hall.
And yet, for some unfathomable reason, D'Arcy was put on the L.A. 2020 commission. Worse, it looks like he was allowed to write the section on the DWP. In fact, the commission's report might better be titled: "A Time for Action: Brian D'Arcy's Plan to Restore Faith and Confidence in the DWP."
The report's flaws begin with the diagnosis. Quick, what do you think is the big problem at DWP? Out of control salaries? Rates that go up 5 percent a year? The union is too powerful?
Not according to the L.A. 2020 Commission. No, the commission believes that the big problem at DWP is "political interference" from the mayor and the City Council, who lack the "experience and expertise" to make decisions for the utility.
What a coincidence - that's also Brian D'Arcy's big complaint! He hates politicians meddling in his domain. According to D'Arcy, the big problem at DWP is that D'Arcy isn't powerful enough. That's also the conclusion of this report.
From a flawed diagnosis we proceed to a flawed prescription: establish a commission to set utility rates, which would be "independent from politics." The membership would be appointed by the mayor and approved by the council, but the council would not have a say over utility rates. "It's time to take the politics out of DWP," the reports states.
You can see what's wrong with this. Currently, the "political" pressure on the DWP Commission is to keep rates down. No council member wants go back to his constituents and say "I voted for higher utility bills." If you take that pressure away, rates will go up higher and faster than they otherwise would.
Higher rates means more money to pay higher salaries to DWP workers. So it works out great - if you're Brian D'Arcy.
If you're really worried about DWP salaries, the commission says you shouldn't be. "To put all the headlines about DWP in some perspective, if one assumes every DWP employee's wage was immediately cut 10 percent (a rather draconian proposal), the result would be a reduction of about $1.50 per month in the average ratepayer's electric bill," the report states. "Nice, but not life-changing."
Many voters would quibble with the idea that a 10 percent DWP salary cut is "draconian" - probably a lot would call it a good start. But the report clearly believes that such concerns are a distraction. "A reduction in time and effort spent on DWP by the Mayor and City Council would allow them to focus on other, larger issues," the report states.
Yes, wouldn't it be great if the council and mayor would focus on bigger issues, and just let Brian D'Arcy run the DWP? This is monumentally stupid.
Let's now turn to the Port of Los Angeles. The commission has a radical idea to merge the ports of L.A. and Long Beach into one port authority. Why? Well, that could help the side-by-side port complexes cooperate with each other, rather than competing against each other for the same business.
But the commission's hands aren't clean here, either. In "A Time for Truth," the commission complained that it had taken eight years to win approval of the $500 million BNSF project at the Port of L.A. Mickey Kantor, the commission's co-chair, represented BNSF in its efforts to build the project. That means he's not impartial on port-related matters.
As it happens, the major opposition to the BNSF project these days comes from the City of Long Beach. In fact, Long Beach is suing L.A. over the project, arguing that it will harm Long Beach residents. So if Long Beach and L.A. were to become more cooperative - if they were to go so far as to merge their port complexes into a single entity - wouldn't that be great for BNSF?
Whether that's Kantor's true agenda here or not, it's impossible to take this as a helpful suggestion from a disinterested observer, because it isn't. The animosity between Long Beach and L.A., which is on display in the BNSF lawsuit, also makes it hard to see how this merger could ever happen.
Some of the commission's other proposals are not terrible. The proposal to create a new "Office of Transparency and Accountability" to offer objective analysis of budgets and legislation probably couldn't hurt, though one wonders why they couldn't just beef up the existing offices of the Chief Legislative Analyst and the City Administrative Officer.
The commission also seeks to address low voter turnout by moving city elections to November. This would certainly solve the problem of low turnout. However, if one believes that low turnout is just a symptom of the deeper problem of lack of civic engagement, then moving the election date would only mask the problem. But at least it probably wouldn't make the problem worse.
Some other items are at least worth a hearing, but so much of the report is so badly misguided that it's hard not to see the entire effort as a missed opportunity.
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