With all 73 Los Angeles libraries shuttered two days a week, targeted by the City Council and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in an unprecedented budget-slashing in 2010, a former police chief–turned–City Council budget hawk is rescuing the maid abandoned at the budget ball.
Days ago, Councilman Bernard Parks pushed through the City Council a measure that, if passed by Los Angeles voters on March 8, 2011, will permanently increase the public library system's slice of the city budget pie.
Parks tells L.A. Weekly what he learned as police chief: "No matter how good [the police are], they cannot compete with the library system — in terms of intervention [with] and education" of Los Angeles youths.
Despite the libraries' crucial role in the city's civic health, "Having worked on [numerous] budget cycles, libraries cannot win the battle of the June meeting on the budget, when [the council] is deciding whether it's police, fire or libraries," he says.
"I have watched all the rhetoric," Parks says, as L.A. City Council members praise public libraries on camera, then do nothing to replace library funding cut by Villaraigosa.
Parks' solution, which will appear on the March ballot if Villaraigosa signs the measure on Nov. 29, does not increase taxes. Instead, it raises the funding floor, using taxes already being collected from property owners. Libraries would get 0.03 percent of the assessed value of property citywide, increased from 0.0175 percent. That means bigger city departments could see small trims to offset the slight shift in funds.
Parks' plan, approved on Nov. 16, was among 10 measures OK'd by the City Council for Angelenos to consider in March, pending Villaraigosa's signature.
Villaraigosa and the City Council were the subject of national criticism following L.A. Weekly's Sept. 16, 2010, cover story, "City of Airheads: Villaraigosa Dismantles L.A.'s Vaunted Library System, Mirroring Detroit's Disastrous Choice."
It details how Villaraigosa shredded the library system's budget without a fight from the City Council, closing all 73 libraries two days a week and making L.A. the only significant U.S. city — except Detroit — to darken its grand Central Library two days out of seven.
Villaraigosa has forced the libraries to repay the city general fund for their overhead and utility costs of $22 million this year — yet only one other city department must pay this punishing fee.
City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana says restoring the libraries will leave a budget gap of $6 million. That's less than Villaraigosa pays his vast personal staff of 206 aides and deputy mayors.
Roy Stone, president of the Librarians' Guild, credits the Weekly's Patrick Range McDonald for bringing the library system's situation to light, saying, "Without the Weekly caring about the libraries, I don't want to think about where we would be." That effort, he says, is "saving the library, putting the information out there for people."
Another major issue to be placed before voters is a crackdown on the controversial Department of Water and Power, a public utility owned by all L.A. residents.
Activists and reformers credit City Councilwoman Jan Perry for not allowing the measure to be sidelined by weaker members of the City Council after DWP union leaders tried to kill it several days ago.
The measure gained steam after a debacle last spring in which Villaraigosa's political appointees on the DWP board refused to transfer $73.5 million in funds to the cash-starved city general fund — unless the City Council agreed to a stiff 28 percent electricity rate hike on city ratepayers.
The move, believed to have been orchestrated by DWP union honcho Brian D'Arcy, was decried as the utility holding the city hostage.
The dustup earned Los Angeles a national black eye.
On Nov. 16, hoping to head off the March ballot measure that would crack down on the DWP, the union played hardball again.
Members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers bought full-page ads in the Los Angeles Times and Daily News and packed the council chambers. The IBEW is headed by D'Arcy, who controls kingmaker-sized campaign contributions to local candidates.
D'Arcy's "lobbyist was there, talking to the various council members and all their little aides," says Jack Humphreville, a DWP reform advocate and co-owner of the Recycler. He singled out Eric Garcetti, Ed Reyes, Dennis Zine, Tom LaBonge, Richard Alarcon, Herb Wesson, Jose Huizar and Janice Hahn as the council members voting to oppose "meaningful reform in return for future campaign contributions" from D'Arcy's DWP union.
Activists say City Council President Garcetti buckled to D'Arcy, watering down a plan to create a DWP watchdog by stripping out a provision for an inspector general — and even leaving out specific funding for an oversight office.
Garcetti disagrees, saying he merely removed language that was not clear or which was so specific it reduced the scope of the proposed office's power.
But Garcetti got extensive bad press for the move. The next day, Garcetti and Jan Perry met with angry reformers Humphreville and Chuck Ray, and spoke to former DWP board president Nick Patsaouras, who has long called for a DWP cleanup. Garcetti agreed to include a figure for funding the oversight office — something he had refused the day before.
Garcetti tells the Weekly that if he is conspiring, it's to help the activists. "We did meet behind closed doors ... with the people who wanted [reform]!"
He says rumors that he cut a deal with D'Arcy are "factually untrue."
Garcetti refused to restore the inspector general, saying a "ratepayer advocate" can conduct the same consumer-protection duties and wield investigative powers.
Humphreville and blogger and Save L.A. activist Ron Kaye say, however, that a ratepayer advocate will not have investigative powers. Kaye calls Garcetti's resulting measure worthless. But Garcetti calls it "95 percent of everything we wanted."
Humphreville doesn't think Garcetti was being duplicitous, saying, "He ended up putting together the best deal that he could do."
Patsaouras says, "We did not get what we wanted, but it's progress."
Through it all, Perry made sure the measure survived, according to Patsaouras, who says, "The unsung hero of this whole thing, which has been going on for months, is Councilwoman Jan Perry."
One touchy DWP reform won't appear on the March ballot because Villaraigosa has promised to veto it if the council approves it at a Dec. 7 meeting. The measure would dramatically weaken mayoral control of the DWP, giving the City Council the power to fire the general manager and remove commissioners appointed by the mayor, with a two-thirds vote. The idea has split the City Council, with roughly the same group of council members who voted to water down the other DWP reforms proving unwilling to defy Villaraigosa.
While the library funding protection and DWP watchdog crackdown are among the more important measures facing voters, the council approved several others.
One requires the DWP to hand over its budget to the City Council much earlier, so that the council is not met with surprises, such as DWP's claim that it could not afford to transfer $73.5 million to the general fund.
Another measure is a much-discussed medical marijuana tax that would charge dispensary owners $50 for every $1,000 in sales at medical marijuana dispensaries.
Other measures headed to the 2011 ballot:
a new tax on oil companies that drill within the city limits;
a ban on campaign contributions or fundraising for city council or mayoral races by top employees from companies bidding for contracts, or holding contracts, with the city;
a modest reduction in pension benefits of police officers and firefighters hired after July 1, 2011;
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a change in city law to align with the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission by ending campaign contribution limits from independent expenditure groups, such as corporations and unions;
creation of a city emergency reserve, with the city council banned from raiding it unless 10 council members agreed it was an "emergency" (a provision viewed with some disdain by council watchers, since the council votes unanimously 99.993 percent of the time); and
a change to the definition of which city jobs fall under civil service.
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