With reporting by Tibby Rothman and Daniel Heimpel
(And don't miss the sidebar, "How L.A. City Council Got Those Huge $178,789 Salaries.")
On a Wednesday morning, January 28, Karoline Steavenson, a blond, middle-aged substitute teacher and single mother of grown children, drove to downtown Los Angeles from Burbank with a five-page speech she wanted to deliver at a City Council meeting. The night before, Steavenson had watched news reports from Wilmington, where Ervin Lupoe had slain his wife, five children, then himself, after being fired over alleged workplace fraud. The Lupoe bloodbath hit a nerve with Steavenson, who is struggling in the job market, and has a learning-disabled brother. She decided to confront the 15 members of the L.A. City Council in person.
“I came to talk to them and let them know help is not easy to find,” Steavenson said later.
Yet the part-time teacher had no idea what awaited her — “Elephant Day” at the John Ferraro Council Chamber, where the City Council would decide if the construction of a multimillion-dollar elephant exhibit at the L.A. Zoo should move forward. The elephant controversy had soaked up hundreds of hours of time, even as city officials faced the worst financial crisis in decades.
Animal-rights activists, who vehemently opposed the elephant enclosure, brought in hundreds of supporters, with Cher, Bob Barker and Lily Tomlin sitting in the first two rows of the public gallery. Zoo employees and labor union members, who just as vehemently wanted the enclosure built, also jammed the room. Serious Hollywood money backed them, too, in the form of wealthy Laura Wasserman, wife of Casey, rich grandson of the late studio titan Lew.
Elephant Day unfolded over the next three hours. At various points during testimony, the heavyset, swell-suited Council District 4 representative Tom LaBonge excitedly conferred with Maria Elena Durazo, the powerful county federation of labor chief, while Westside Councilman Bill Rosendahl and Valley Councilman Tony Cardenas consulted with Cher, who wore wraparound sunglasses as she sat beneath the council chambers’ huge chandeliers. At different points, Rosendahl loudly declared that he would “like to make a point that Cher made to me” and also held a powwow with Tomlin. Valley Councilwoman Wendy Greuel, the pixie-ish and très ambitious handmaiden to Antonio Villaraigosa, chatted up union chief Durazo — big labor being a fat source of Greuel’s cash in her campaign to replace Laura Chick as city controller.
City Council President Eric Garcetti, the likable liberal who represents District 13 and struggles to focus this powerful body on anything of importance, told Tomlin at one point to stand down. Later, Rosendahl had his chief of staff, Mike Bonin, hold up a poster-sized photo of Billy the Elephant, pointing to his huge, pachyderm toes, and interrogating L.A. Zoo personnel:
“Beginnings of a foot issue, true or false?” Rosendahl demanded.
“I’m telling you right now,” a zoo employee said, “that elephant is in good condition.”
The theater of the absurd didn’t end with the council vote to finish building the zoo exhibit: Cardenas escorted Cher to a nearby photo op, then whisked her away to a private elevator refurbished by L.A. taxpayers — yet off-limits to all but City Hall insiders. LaBonge stood on the steps of City Hall, excitedly saying, “I could talk all day, but I really need to get back to work!” then vanished into a side room, never to return to the chambers, where business, such as it is, was still being conducted.
When Steavenson finally spoke her mind about the Lupoe massacre, she told the remaining council members, “I am doing this because I worry that you are out of touch with your constituents.”
Steavenson was more accurate than she could imagine.
With the highest city council salaries in the nation, at $178,789 per year, Los Angeles City Council is possibly the highest-paid elected city body on the planet. Its pay far outstrips that of councils in costlier New York City, whose members earn a mere $112,500, and San Francisco, whose members earn $95,868. Los Angeles council members earn about 70 percent more than the piddling pay of the Chicago City Council, at $110,556.
On March 3, seven L.A. City Council members are up for re-election. Each will be easily re-elected in a primary election few Angelenos know is taking place. The rest will be recrowned in 2011, barring some natural disaster that focuses blame on City Hall. The one seat truly up for grabs March 3 is the tony Fifth Council District, being vacated by Jack Weiss, who is running for city attorney in a wide-open race (See separate story, “They Just Don’t Like Jack Weiss,” by Christine Pelisek, in News).
The L.A. City Council salaries are not just overinflated in an era of belt-tightening. They are only a hair below the salaries of Congress, and are higher than those of federal judges. They amount to a staggering 400 percent of Los Angeles’ median household income of $46,000 — and no other city council, in cities poor or rich, comes even close to that troubling disparity between public servant and the public. (Garcetti, Greuel, Janice Hahn and Weiss are paid $171,648, having refused a $7,100 raise in 2007.)
Each council member enjoys a free car, maintenance and gas costing $6,000 to $15,000 annually (Garcetti’s electric-car lease costs taxpayers $3,900 but saves on fuel); each gets a petty-cash fund of $5,000; and each receives a dubious, $100,000, yearly taxpayer-financed slush fund, which amounts to walking-around money that they can dole out to anyone — family members or gangbangers if they choose — as long as they don’t spend it on religious proselytizing or political races.
Added up, L.A.’s council members get by on about $300,000 a year. Roughly another $1.3 million annually — per council district — pays for each of their personal staffs of 16 to 32 people, up to eight more free cars and more free gasoline.
“$179,000!” Repeating their salaries out loud, Fred Siegel, professor of history at the Cooper Union, Humanities and Social Sciences, in New York, and an authority on U.S. city government, is appalled. “I’m left incredulous whenever I hear these things.” L.A.’s voters, he says, are handing its City Council a level of cash and perks that represent “maximum return — for minimal effort.”
There is nothing in the world like the Los Angeles City Council, and some suggest that’s the problem. By law, it is the chief legislative body here, and its core duty is to hammer out major policies and enact laws to improve L.A.
Taxpayers are showering the 15 with the salaries, staffs and tools to accomplish just that. But there is little evidence that L.A. gets what it pays for.
The past four years are a litany of City Council failures at the most basic level. The members admit that they never discussed what a digital billboard was, or its intrusive impact, before quickly approving them citywide; they okayed a $2.7 million payout for the hazing of Los Angeles firefighter Tennie Pierce so fast they never looked at files on their desks, which showed photos of prankster Pierce hazing others; many now admit they had no idea what made up the $1 billion to $3.6 billion solar plan, Measure B, but stuck it on next week’s ballot anyway.
Even basic infrastructure problems stump this council. They squabbled over selling valuable city land throughout the run-up in land values, and now that they’re desperate for funds, council members plan to hold an embarrassing fire sale of the public’s land. For years, police have wasted precious time responding to thousands of false burglar alarms, yet the council’s 2004 “fix,” exacting a noncollectible fine, is a disaster: 33,000 unpaid fines worth $11 million — enough to hire 175 cops for a year.
On top of that, the City Council blows $9 million a year on sending firefighters to fake fire alarms. A year ago, Greuel maneuvered for easy press attention by declaring a “crackdown” on false fire alarms, then dropped the ball; Greuel’s aide Ben Golombek today dismissively says fixing the fire alarm mess wasn’t a “key piece to her agenda.” The council woefully underfunds a 50-year backlog of ruptured sidewalks, and Janice Hahn shrugs it off as a “plague” even as she and her colleagues continue doling out public money — to injured pedestrians and bicyclists.
While Los Angeles visibly falls apart, its illegal graffiti, illegal billboards and illegal street peddlers metastasizing, its remarkable congestion clogging each new block that’s been targeted by speculators with a “transit-oriented” project — while all this unfolds, the council burns up time on Band-Aid responses and self-congratulations. It assiduously avoids its actual job: dealing with overarching issues, such as traffic, a chronic lack of parks, and overdevelopment, which have residents fuming.
“If someone did a ride-along with a City Council member for a day,” insists Garcetti, noting that he’s on the job 24/7, “and saw the work we do, I think they would be very moved.”
Unlikely, as the council exists far less as a legislative body than as an inept bureaucracy. The 15 members and their huge staffs focus on — and continually congratulate themselves for — performing “constituent services” that in well-run cities are generally handled by the parks, street, sanitation and other city departments. The result here is twofold: a failing system of favor-peddling that has convinced L.A. residents they must go around the rules and seek action from the 15 council members, and a minutia-focused body that avoids tackling the really serious city problems.
Noreen McClendon, of Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles, says it took Saint Odilia Church eight years to get Councilwoman Jan Perry to help them get a street light at 51st and Hopper, where she says children had been hit by cars. Last year, McClendon notes, Perry announced she would grant the ultimate City Hall favor: She would “expedite” the process. McClendon smelled a rat. “Of course, Jan is running for office [on March 3]. If you could expedite it in 2008, why didn’t you expedite it in 2004?”
Last year, a Van Nuys community activist named Maria asked her councilman, Cardenas, how to fight crime in Van Nuys. “He said we have a wonderful program called Adopt-a-Basket,” she dryly recalls. Residents “adopt” a trash can and empty it as needed; the city provides the basket. In recounting Cardenas’ kiss-off response, Maria asked L.A. Weekly not to use her full name because she’s worried about local criminals.
Thanks to the council’s system of handing favors to residents and groups who act as their cheerleaders, many residents won’t publicly criticize a Los Angeles City Council member. To do so might mean not getting “expedited” attention. Council members spend taxpayer money to crow about these favors, oblivious to the fact that when 15 politicians decide who gets what, they badly distort the city’s ability to deliver municipal services without favoritism.
Along with Greuel, Cardenas and Rosendahl, one of the worst back-patters is José Huizar, whose Eastside Council District 14 has the largest illegal immigration population, and desperate problems.
Alvin Parra, who was once Huizar’s field director and ran an unsuccessful race to topple his boss, recalls how Huizar decided to distribute 10,000 free, energy-efficient light bulbs from the Department of Water and Power. In fact, the “free” bulbs were financed by Angelenos. Cardenas’ office passed out the bulbs using community organizers — and of course called the press to take credit for it.
Huizar, who tools around in a taxpayer-financed Toyota Highlander hybrid that costs $40,000-plus, got media coverage painting him as a “green” councilman. But behind the scenes, when Huizar saw the wrappings covering the light bulbs, Parra says, he ripped into his staff. Why? The packaging didn’t say “Compliments of José Huizar” or have his picture on it.
Huizar is viewed by some of his colleagues as the laziest council member, and his personal schedule obtained by the Weekly bears out such sentiment: It is filled with empty blocks of time, light weekends and workdays that sometimes end at 4 p.m. Huizar sits on the powerful Planning & Land Use Management Committee, or PLUM, where Los Angeles residents go to beg its three sitting council members to tone down multimillion-dollar projects.
Huizar says, “My passion is my job.” But his former field director Parra says that when it came to debriefing Huizar on key issues, “he didn’t want to be bothered.” Today, Huizar has a huge staff — averaging 27 people, who cost taxpayers a cool $1.48 million last year.
Despite the City Council’s massive support system of about 320 personal staffers — by comparison, the White House office staff is about 448 — it can be a strain to name this council’s accomplishments. Trying to list its top achievements in 2008 — a year of national catharsis and, locally, of growing resistance to Villaraigosa’s and the council’s embrace of billboards, density and congestion — Council President Garcetti touts a “green building” ordinance; a tinkering with the city’s recycling law; and the “anti-gang” Summer Lights program, in which city parks kept the lights on after dark. “I have no doubt we have saved lives this summer,” he says.
“At the end of the day, what do they do” to justify salaries that dwarf those of other city council members in the U.S.? asks Matthew J. Parlow, a Chapman University professor of law who has written extensively on Los Angeles governance. “They start with a breakfast with somebody who wants to do something in their district, or meet with a group in their district, then they go to meetings at City Hall, and they end the day with more meetings with constituents, then home. ... I cannot fathom that the Los Angeles City Council puts in 64 percent more hours for the great differential in pay” over New York City Council salaries.
At 400 percent of L.A. household income, the city council’s $178,789 salaries instead appear to feed a double-standard approach in which what is good for residents is not, generally, good for the 15 at City Hall.
Garcetti lives on a peaceful, little-known street on a hillside in a rapidly gentrifying area of Echo Park. His sleek 1950s home has been renovated to perfection — so much so that Dwell magazine wrote that the Daniel Dworsky–designed house “is now a study in openness, simplicity and light.”
To the right of the amply-sized home, with its long, curving driveway and its spacious lot, is a large garden, where Garcetti and his wife, Amy Wakeland, grow vegetables for dinner. Nearby, steps lead up a hill and to Elysian Park, where Garcetti, whose neighbors describe him as “nice” and “busy,” hikes. When he returns from the park, Garcetti sees an awesome 180-degree view of the Valley, Hollywood sign, Griffith Observatory and Century City — even the Pacific Ocean, 18 miles away.
Garcetti, like most of the council, has dramatically different plans for how other Angelenos should live. In his district, encompassing much of Hollywood and trendy Silver Lake, high-density projects loom, ultrabright digital billboards have appeared without public notice, and parking is growing scarce. Historians have yet to take note, but classic views of the Hollywood sign and Hollywood Hills are being permanently obstructed by sky-scraping construction that Garcetti bills as “smart growth.”
“We all need to sacrifice a little in order to gain a lot,” Garcetti told a radio show, summing up his philosophy.
Doug Haines, of La Mirada Avenue Neighborhood Association of Hollywood, which has several times sued the City Council over land-use issues, says East Hollywood is “a dumping ground for all of the problems of Hollywood. And if you go to Garcetti’s home, it’s like you’re back in the country. I don’t see any high-density projects going up there.”
Many of the 15 council members live a privileged life that forgoes the sacrifices they expect from the residents they represent. The City Council and Villaraigosa — the nation’s highest-paid mayor — have raised sewage- and solid-waste fees, parking ticket fees and towing charges, golf fees and electricity rates.
The City Council recently dramatically hiked parking-meter fees at 40,000-plus meters citywide, from 25 cents to $1 per hour or more. Greuel, the council’s chipper Transportation Committee chairwoman, offered a let-them-eat-cake view of the boost, saying the 400 percent meter price hike would stop motorists from looking for cheap parking — since there wouldn’t be any. In truth, the jacked-up prices were instituted because the council and Villaraigosa have a massive budget deficit, yet Greuel wanted to play it as a boon for shops because “more people will come into their businesses.”
The hikes set off havoc, including in North Hollywood’s theater district. Mike Rademaekers, co-owner of the Secret Rose Theatre, says there was little agreement over the meter hikes when, on February 18, he found an official notice on his theater door — stating that consensus had been reached. Theater-goers handled the sudden hikes by leaving midshow, getting in their cars, driving around, then reparking. After an intense outcry, LaBonge, who represents the area, cut the meter hikes on weekdays.
Not one of the 15 council members must pay L.A.’s new parking costs. Rosendahl’s aides say City Council members are exempt from feeding parking meters. Similarly, the council instituted an extra car-towing surcharge of $100, now slapped on anyone unlucky enough to park illegally in a tow zone, to narrow the budget deficit. Yet City Council members, with their special license plates on their free cars, can’t be towed in Los Angeles – unless they block a fire hydrant.
Eastside Councilman Ed Reyes says he tries to reach out to the common people, and his recent daily schedule obtained by the Weekly seems to bear that out. He does spend less time with lobbyists and corporate chiefs than many of his colleagues. Yet Reyes carries a big ethnic chip on his shoulder, noted even by other Latino politicians. He isn’t below justifying unpopular City Hall plans — he’s a proponent of “sign districts” that would allow intense billboard proliferation, for example — as a way of evening-up the score with more livable areas of Los Angeles.
Reyes lives on Mount Washington overlooking a woodsy ravine. As with all but a few council members, his quiet, protected street is not even remotely in danger of being slated for digital billboards, apartment towers or other City Hall schemes. Westside activist David Ewing recalls how Reyes last fall supported billionaire Philip Anschutz’s idea of turning Staples Center into a giant billboard. Reyes made the dubious claim that the advertising income for the city treasury somehow translated into help for the Eastside’s poor. Ewing was bothered by how Reyes tried to “make it a class issue,” with his guilt-riddled spin that “Essentially, we must just not care about people in his district.”
Then there’s Councilman Bernard Parks, infamous for ignoring people who take time off work to travel to City Hall to testify. Parks is one of only a few council members who at least reads the fat reports before voting — but he ignores testimony to do it. At one packed meeting of the Personnel Committee on January 27, Parks was so completely devoted to his Blackberry that Animal Services volunteer Judi Stein walked up to a Weekly reporter, described Parks’ antics as “offensive,” and declared, “This is a man that gets paid to do this!”
In November 2007, the curious editors at the well-read Web site LAist.com undertook a project, asking these rarified City Council members “to provide a list of the official neighborhoods in their district and a map that could easily identify them,” as explained on the site by Zach Behrens, editor of LAist.com. “Simple enough, right?” Behrens wrote. “No.”
Most council members ignored the Web site’s request. In a humorous gaffe, one of Jan Perry’s big personal staff of 26 people sent Behrens an e-mail meant for Perry. It informed the councilwoman: “I have a fairly comprehensive map of South Los Angeles that I drew at your request three years ago, but you never saw.” Only Greuel and the Valley’s Dennis Zine correctly named the neighborhoods they represent.
That Council District 9’s Perry never reviewed the map is not, perhaps, surprising. She represents skyscraper-dotted downtown and lives a lush life far removed from the bulk of the people she works for, many who live in tattered, working-class South L.A. The luxury building in which she bought her condo for $320,000 in 2003 comes complete with a concierge-security guard in an opulent first-floor lobby and is only a stone’s throw from the Frank Gehry–designed Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Perry’s condo is also adjacent to the long-delayed $3.1 billion Grand Avenue luxury hotel and shopping development. Although Perry has a direct and personal financial interest in seeing Grand Avenue built — that interest being the increased value of her own condo building — it bothers no one in City Hall that she serves on the Grand Avenue Authority, the watchdog group supposedly assuring that millions of dollars in public subsidies flowing to Grand Avenue are protected.
Most taxpayers would probably be upset to learn that Perry enthusiastically pushed to use $30 million in voter-approved bonds from California’s 2006 Affordable Housing Trust Fund — not to house the poor or battered women, as voters intended, but to create an architecturally snooty “Civic Park” just down the block from Perry’s condo.
Perry could undoubtedly use the Housing Trust Fund subsidy to prop up her condo value since her life is a financial train wreck. She had a 2008 IRS lien against her for $67,099 and has taken out two big loans in recent years.
County records show Perry finally paid off her lien — one of many she has faced — last August. Her lawyer ex-husband has previously taken the blame . But she also borrows heavily — including an unusual 2003 loan for $45,000 at 5 percent interest from wealthy Malibu real estate broker Chris Cortazzo, and $72,500 from a credit union in 2007, according to the L.A. County Recorder.
Then there’s City Councilman Richard Alarcon, whose home in Panorama City is, by any measure, a dump — the kind of place that might set off an inspection. A chainlink fence surrounds an unkempt pair of attached bungalows on a big, long-neglected lot strewn with plastic buckets and set off by a gleaming Winnebago. Alarcon insists he lives at the scary-looking pad. Down the block, though, a man named Alvaro and his son Johnny, who repair and sell used bikes, say that they rarely see vehicles going in or out of Alarcon’s dilapidated property.
Alarcon, who, like Huizar, drives a Toyota Highlander hybrid worth more than $40,000, comes across as a well-dressed, polite politician. A veteran of the Sacramento Legislature, Alarcon is viewed by some of his council colleagues as the most privately vicious, publicly phony, council member. Recently, he bragged that he’s such a shoo-in for re-election that he isn’t bothering to raise campaign money.
Zuma Dogg, a brash community activist who spends hours at City Hall each week — and is pursuing a highly improbable run for mayor on March 3 — sees Alarcon off-camera, in the small hearing rooms where the council’s real power unfolds. At those “committee meetings,” consisting of three council members who oversee subareas like transportation, land-use, and public safety, the activist says, “It’s not right the way Alarcon treats people” — lecturing stunned members of the public, or pointing his finger at baffled business owners.
The council’s double standards for itself, its frequent hypocrisy and its continual self-congratulations for performing “services” and official favors that subvert municipal processes, all lead urban-policy expert Siegel to sum up what’s probably driving it: “They’re too much in business for themselves.”
Two huge reform waves have taken aim at the City Council. The first, in 1990, was a major rewriting of the city’s constitution — the City Charter — that created the City Ethics Commission and promised a new day. When that bunch of “reforms” didn’t lead to better governing, growing fury toward City Hall morphed into the years-long Valley secession movement, which then spawned a second cathartic rewriting of the City Charter in 1999.
Naive reformers from those two efforts were convinced that by giving the city council much higher pay (see sidebar, “How the L.A. City Council Got Those Huge $178,789 Salaries”) and a thick set of ethics rules, L.A. would get a professional body, the envy of other cities. That was not to be, even though, in 2003, the Los Angeles Times cooed hopefully in its news pages that this “City Council is a much younger, better-behaved and bouncier version of its former self.”
As their pay rocketed upward in this decade, council members started to bemoan the fact that they had only eight years due to term limits, which were forced on them during a movement begun by former mayor Richard Riordan. The City Council members claimed they’d be far more “effective” if they could stay 12 years, not eight. In cash terms, another four years meant roughly $1 million for each council member. In 2006, Garcetti led the charge, and the council quickly joined him in mounting a bizarrely non-transparent, widely decried, five-day rush job to put Measure R on the ballot, which “only a graduate of the Evelyn Woods Reading Dynamics” could keep up with, recalls Greg Nelson, a former city department head.
Backed by its allies, David Nichols from the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce and Liz White from the League of Women Voters, the council publicly vowed that a brand-new bunch of ethics reforms in Measure R — the third batch in 16 years — would finally clamp down on undue lobbyist influence. In turn, the council would get four extra years to tackle the big issues once and for all.
Measure R passed in 2006. It is widely viewed as a major failure and has illuminated the questionable role and flagging reputation of the city’s once-independent League of Women Voters. Lobbyists are still the most respected voters in L.A. — and the big citywide issues are still on the back burner. “None of the [Measure R] reforms were worth a damn,” says Bill Boyarsky, an Ethics Commission member at that time, who also closely watched the two previous efforts to reform City Hall as a Los Angeles Times editor and reporter.
Not long after Measure R became law, the council got big raises. In fact, the council and Villaraigosa get a raise — automatically — if California state workers get a raise, or if Superior Court judges get a raise. The frequent raises have spiked the already-highest-in-the-nation council pay to near $179,000. A few council members were so embarrassed that they gave their last raises to charity or diverted them to city spending, as did Villaraigosa, who accepts $223,186 of his $232,426.
That’s not good enough for Hollywood community activist Chris Shabel, who asks: “Why don’t they take a pay cut like everyone else?” In fact, Dennis Zine a few days ago called for a 10 percent City Council pay cut, but the rest of the council often ignores his frequent pleas to cut spending.
“There’s a get-along, go-along culture in City Hall,” Boyarsky says. That culture may also explain why City Council members tolerate the goofing-off antics and time-wasting publicity grabs of their colleagues. Through a California Public Records Act request, the Weekly obtained the work schedules of every council member between October 1 and January 14. The calendars show that the new era described by L.A. Times reporters in 2003 never took hold.
The schedule for Greig Smith, one of only three fiscal watchdogs on the City Council, who represents District 12 in the Valley, is filled with “excused” absences or early leaves. Attending three council meetings per week — one of the few constitutionally required duties — is a bit much for Smith, who is often at the Los Angeles Police Department, where he’s a reservist at the “cold case” division. Out of 11 excuses in a three-and-a-half-month period, seven of them involve leaving a City Council meeting early so he could play cop.
LaBonge, of Council District 4 representing Hollywood, Los Feliz and the Valley, an ebullient guy who tosses around a football on his daily predawn hike up Mount Hollywood, is seen by his colleagues as spending a decent amount of time with his constituents, including work on weekends. But, even as the council was faced last fall with ugly debates over what services to cut and what fees to triple, LaBonge often had sports on his mind.
On Thursday, October 9, his scheduler penciled in the Dodgers away game on Fox. He attended numerous “flag football” games involving L.A.’s public schools, and scheduled two USC football games as part of his work calendar. On Thursday, December 11, the same day newspapers reported that UCLA economists expected a “worsening” recession for most of 2009, LaBonge was busy holding a press conference with Parks and Hahn — to publicize a city section football championship coming up on December 13.
The calendar for Cardenas, of Council District 6, shows him involved in staff briefings and meetings regarding a major issue: gang intervention. But he likes to hit the links during work hours, and a Daily News article last year sought to assure readers that Cardenas “would never discuss policy matters over a golf game.”
On Monday, October 6, Cardenas attended the 22nd Consular Corps Golf Invitational until 3:30 p.m.; on Thursday, October 30, his scheduler wrote that a driving range is open “for your use” between 7 a.m. and 8:30 a.m., and right after that, California State Senator Alex Padillo joined him for a game — until 1 p.m. A few days later, he headed to the Bay Area for the daylong “Shot Gun Start Cal Women’s Golf: Mixed Fourball Shamble.” And on Friday, November 14, Cardenas had time for the Project Living Hope Golf Tournament.
Maria, the community activist in Van Nuys, wonders about his whereabouts. “(Cardenas) never comes to (neighborhood) meetings,” she says. “I think he’s afraid. He shows up to these orchestrated events, where he has a lot of handlers with him.”
Other council members are addicted not to taking on key urban troubles, but to a luncheon/dinner awards circuit at which they promote themselves and angle for press. They frequently insist that their after-hours work focuses on solving the tremendous problems facing the city. In fact, it’s photo-op politics, as honed by Villaraigosa, whom the Weekly recently found spends just 11 percent of his time on city business.
Between October 1 and January 14, the glitz-addicted Jan Perry spoke at an opening for the swank Seven Grand, the latest hip offering by nightlife impresario Cedd Moses; attended a fancy reception for fashionista Barbara Fields; spoke at the “Community Celebration in Little Tokyo” and got in a plug for herself at the Universal Soul Circus as its “guest ringmaster.”
Like most of them, 10th District City Councilman Herb Wesson holds some meetings with everyday residents. But Wesson, who describes the City Council as the “most pure form of government,” gives a lot of face time to consultants, luxury developers and prolific political contributors. In fact, Wesson is viewed by several of his colleagues as a charming seat-warmer who, like Alarcon and Cardenas, brought back from Sacramento every known bad habit involving cozying up to lobbyists. Wesson was a forgettable Speaker of the Assembly, and still does not make much of an impact.
Meeting recently with Wesson were David Pourbaba, who builds luxury high-rise residential projects in Nevada, Arizona, Texas and California; multimillionaire Zenith Insurance honcho Stanley Zax, a political operator (Leon Panetta just left Zenith’s board to head the CIA) who showered politicians nationwide with $96,700 in 2008 alone; and lobbyist Ken Spiker, a longtime go-between for huge billboard companies, who snatched a meeting with Wesson to talk about his client Mike Mead’s interest in a city contract involving the Official Police Garage.
The schedule for Zine, who actually gets high marks from some council colleagues for being dedicated to his council job, even though he has fought the council’s taxes, surcharges and the payout to prankster Tennie Pierce, shows that he loves to chat up the press. Between October 1 and January 14, Zine was busy expanding his “Z” brand, which includes little “Z team” lapel pins that he and his staff wear. A former LAPD motorcycle cop, Zine scheduled more than 25 press calls and events about his widely mocked anti-paparazzi motion and about Special Order 40, which restricts police from asking a person’s immigration status. He was frequently on the radio shows of Kevin James of KRLA and Doug McIntyre of KABC.
Garcetti, who as council president has the power to reward or punish the others by giving and taking away choice committee jobs, regularly leaves L.A. to train as a reservist in the U.S. Navy — a little-known fact — driving to San Diego for a weekend each month. Garcetti is far more forthcoming and transparent than many of his colleagues. But he’s another one who pursues photo ops. His recent schedule shows a live phone interview at KNBC, a cocktail reception for the new Hollywood Palladium, and a visit to the “Historic Filipinotown Patrol Lighting Ceremony.” On Monday, October 6, Garcetti was busy with an East Hollywood “tree planting,” a “ribbon-cutting ceremony” at Helen Bernstein High School, a “Boyle Heights walk with the Los Angeles Times,” and an evening “drop” into the “Green Dot Ball.”
Although the council members cherish these sorts of activities, they serve to highlight the city council’s many failures. “I believe they are working very hard at making it look like they are accomplishing something,” says Valley community activist David Hernandez, yet another City Council watchdog running for mayor on March 3. “But there is a difference between activity and accomplishment.”
One of the ways the council creates the appearance, if not the actuality, of accomplishment, is by spreading around pots of money from a thing called the General City Purposes Fund — a perfectly legal, $100,000 slush fund that is essentially a wide-open gift card handed annually to each council member.
For years, good-government advocates have complained about this perk, but according to Nelson, who is a former Department of Neighborhood Empowerment general manager who also served as chief of staff to maverick City Councilman Joel Wachs, the questionable fund has instead been quietly “institutionalized.”
“I would be very, very surprised if other major City Councils have those $100,000 gift cards,” says law professor Parlow, the expert on L.A. governance. Multiplied by 15, he notes, the slush fund costs taxpayers “$1.5 million right there, with no strings attached. There have been many, many attempts to take that money away from the L.A. City Council, but it always makes it back into the budget. Only a very, very, very small number of L.A. residents know the council has this money — taxpayer money — and I don’t think many L.A. residents would be happy to learn it. But it is very hard to hold such a legislative body accountable.”
In almost every case, the 15 give enough of that public cash to worthy or worthy-seeming groups that a loud caterwaul goes up whenever someone suggests the slush fund should be dissolved to stop council members from pursuing its other main use: bankrolling their personal cheering sections.
For example, Perry gave $1,000 in taxpayer funds to United Way; Reyes, of Council District 1, sent $1,000 to the Los Angeles Bicycle Coalition; Garcetti wrote a $7,500 check to the Armenian Relief Society; Zine contributed $500 to the United Peace Officers Against Crime summer camp for at-risk youth.
It sounds nice, at least if you agree taxpayers should subsidize those groups. But Zine also sent $5,000 to the Valley Cultural Center, much of it earmarked for the annual July 4 Dennis P. Zine party, where 50,000 people attended “free” fireworks and concerts—and the “Z” brand got another jolt of publicity.
Huizar spent his $100,000 gift card as if he were creating support in anticipation of a run for an Eastside congressional seat — a job the largely unknown councilman is known to lust after. Huizar sent $15,000 to Arte Calidad Cultural Institute; $4,306, $3,500, $500, and $1,860 to the Barrio Action Youth & Family Center; $5,000 to the Center for Education and Immigration Services; $5,000 to the El Sereno Bicentennial Committee, and $3,780 to Roosevelt High School cheerleaders.
For Martha Cisneros, a Boyle Heights resident for nearly 50 years, it’s all of a piece. She says Huizar openly favors legal and illegal immigrants over U.S.-born Latinos like herself. “He is out of touch with a certain element of the community, the ones who speak English and the ones who were born here.”
Cardenas uses a different pot of taxpayer money, his $5,000 petty cash fund, as something of a campaign tool. More than 30 entries show Cardenas buying supplies for various events — “candles” for a “Veterans Day Vigil” or “zip ties” for a “Fill the Boot” press conference. At many, Cardenas provides fliers touting “Councilman Tony Cardenas” in impossible-to-miss typeface that at times is far larger than the event itself. When constituents want to talk about serious business, says James Cordaro, a former member of the Van Nuys Neighborhood Council, they often get the runaround. Cardaro has a nickname for Cardenas: “Phony Tony.”
Rosendahl defends the $100,000 slush funds by saying the handouts are “important for the community.” City documents show that he diverted $84,686.82 to his staff costs. “Without the staff to interact with our constituents we can’t provide services that people deserve,” he insists.
Under a little-discussed “use it or lose it” clause, several council members are diverting the money to “staff salaries” merely to park it in that category — then quietly divert it back for later use, says Mitch Englander, an aide to Grieg Smith. Englander candidly says that official fiscal year 2007-2008 documents, which show that Smith used $44,223 to pay for “staff salaries,” illustrate the hide-the-slush-fund practice: Smith moved the money to “staff salaries” for a time, but only so he wouldn’t lose it. Garcetti also transferred $12,317.29 to “staff salaries” but didn’t actually spend it. His aide Julie Wong says it’s common to do so, then move the cash back into their open-ended account — to hand out as before, or to supplement their big office budgets.
Although Englander and Wong were very upfront, some council members don’t appreciate the media shining a light on their practices, including very basic questions about their salaries and large personal staffs. Janice Hahn, viewed by some of her colleagues as poor with numbers and very slow to grasp fiscal realities, claimed not to know her budget for her staff, telling the Weekly “around $1 million” — then failed to provide a figure after promising to do so. Her press aide, Olivia Kelly, also refused to provide the cost of Hahn’s staff salaries, implying that Janice Hahn didn’t have time for irrelevant questions and referring the Weekly to the city clerk. In fact, Hahn has a personal staff of 19 to 24 people, costing taxpayers $1.32 million — ranking Hahn’s as the third most-expensive staff, after Huizar’s at $1.47 million and Weiss’ at $1.33 million.
“What exactly are they doing for us?” activist Doug Haines asks. “They can’t balance the budget, and they’re raising all of these fees.” He says it’s an “explicit no” that taxpayers are getting bang for their buck.
Five days before the remarkable Elephant Day at City Hall, council President Garcetti sits at the podium and greets the public at 10:10 a.m. It’s “Proclamation Friday” — supposedly the third of three official council meeting days each week. But Fridays in fact are lazy days where little is accomplished and some council members don’t bother to show.
This day, Garcetti lacks a quorum (he needs 10 of 15), so he kills time. But Huizar, Parks, Reyes, Smith and Wesson never show.
A city staffer rolls in a cart stacked 2 feet high — not with policy papers on solar energy, which the council still does not grasp; or studies on how to finally fund sidewalk repairs; or a way out of selling city land at the worst prices in years — but instead, elaborate, framed proclamations in honor of this or that constituent, city worker or local business. In today’s case, a proclamation goes to the Arleta High School football team for winning a championship.
After a voting quorum finally shows up, Garcetti motions to Cardenas, who will present the fancy document to the team. But Cardenas can’t find his prepared remarks, prompting staffers to search high and low. Cardenas, after all, can’t appear live on Channel 35, which broadcasts council meetings, and sound like a fool.
The remarks are finally located, and Cardenas stands at a podium with the football team surrounding him. “The message here,” says Cardenas to the cameras, “is to never give up on our young people.”
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In the public gallery, Zuma Dogg, who has attended scores of City Council meetings, shakes his head. “They’ll sit here for two hours and give awards — and then they’ll lose a quorum for real business.” Just as he offers that complaint, Zuma Dogg looks up at a big attendance board behind Garcetti, which shows which council members are present and which are not. Among those present are the seven members who face a March 3 election that will be more like a coronation. Zuma Dogg starts to count.
“We don’t have a quorum!” he yells out — out of order in the august chambers, in fact. “Can you believe that? We don’t have quorum!”
It’s January 23, and newspapers around the country have recently written that Los Angeles faces a record deficit of more than $300 million as of July 1, a blink of time from now. But the City Council can’t keep it together for the Friday meeting. One of the three days a week for council members to do business is kaput, and it’s not even one o’clock in the afternoon.
Contact Patrick Range McDonald at firstname.lastname@example.org.