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Municipal Whiplash

RULING? What court ruling?

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa started the new year by putting plenty of miles between himself and the politically disastrous court decision handed down last month by Superior Court Judge Dzintra Janavs, who shit-canned his bid for power over the Los Angeles Unified School District as a violation of not just the state Constitution but also the City Charter, the legal document that says who does what at L.A. City Hall.

“Our New Year’s resolution in 2007 is to make violent street gangs public enemy No. 1,” said the mayor, standing next to Police Chief William Bratton.

The dramatic shift in emphasis was, to say the least, a bit jarring. The mayor had been doing about 90 miles an hour on education issues, spending the first 18 months of his administration talking about test scores, dropout rates, a longer school day and the need to put the mayor in charge of at least three high schools — maybe the whole district.

After such an intense push on public education, Villaraigosa’s decision to make 2007 the year of gangs left many at City Hall suffering a form of municipal whiplash. Villaraigosa rarely broached the topic of crime between June and December, lavishing time on education-oriented town-hall meetings, school-reform photo ops and last-minute lobbying trips to Sacramento, where he twisted a few arms to get lawmakers to sign off on a legally problematic L.A. Unified bill.

But then, last month’s ruling delivered a not-too-subtle message to the Villaraigosa camp: If the California Supreme Court sides with Janavs on appeal, the mayor could have precious little to show for his foray into public education. And with statistics showing a disturbing surge in gang crime — increasing by 42 percent in the San Fernando Valley alone — Villaraigosa just might have decided it was time to pay attention to some duties actually assigned to him in the City Charter.

You know, public safety and stuff.

In a 15-day period, Villaraigosa held five different press events focusing on public safety. But by then, some community activists had already begun grumbling that the mayor had lost focus on his municipal portfolio. One group of African-American leaders, alarmed by last month’s allegedly racially motivated killing of a 14-year-old Harbor Gateway girl, complained that the mayor had gone missing in action.

“He took on the LAUSD and the whole school board, trying to take over the district and make it the centerpiece of his administration,” said Najee Ali, who staged a press conference Friday in Leimert Park to chastise the mayor for his absence. “[Villaraigosa] became so engaged with that battle that he lost focus on other issues in L.A. that have been critical, and the racially motivated gang violence is the best example.”

Hours after Ali’s protest, Villaraigosa’s press shop put out a news release saying the mayor would be in Harbor Gateway the very next day to march with anxious African-American families. But that was only the latest stop in his public-safety publicity blitz. Villaraigosa showed up with Bratton on January 2 at the LAPD’s Central Division downtown to talk about crime reduction in 2006. Six days later, the mayor posed in front of 67 newly hired officers at the Police Academy, promising signing bonuses of $5,000 and $10,000 to ensure that his hiring plan does not fall apart.

Despite the flurry of safety initiatives, Villaraigosa made sure to press ahead with the other pieces of his public school campaign, publicly introducing two of his candidates in the upcoming March 6 school-board race — county administrator Yolie Flores Aguilar on the Eastside and prosecutor Tamar Galatzan in the San Fernando Valley.

The mayor is banking on his slate of school-board candidates to win board seats and then help him reach some form of legal settlement with district officials to preserve his ability to run three low-performing high schools — his major education initiative. An ideal campus for him to oversee might be Grant High School in the East Valley, where two 16-year-olds were shot the very week Galatzan and Aguilar picked up the mayor’s backing.

In a nifty piece of stage management, the mayor introduced Galatzan outside Birmingham High School, the site of a deadly shooting last year. A 16-year-old boy was killed in a gunfight right across the street in September. The gunplay occurred 40 minutes after school let out, forcing school football players to hit the ground during team practice.

With so much anxiety over public schools and gang violence, here’s a modest proposal: If elected, Villaraigosa’s school-board candidates will certainly vote to permit Villaraigosa to go beyond his municipal duties and take over three high schools. So in exchange, Villaraigosa should allow his newly elected school board to take over three LAPD stations in the Valley, where homicides shot up nearly 18 percent in 2006 and restaurant-takeover robberies by masked men have terrified diners.

Civil rights advocate Connie Rice presented a 138-page report this week on the city’s gang crisis, telling council members that they will need to work with other government agencies if they want to tackle the problem effectively. Rice’s report did a funny thing, mentioning city government and L.A. Unified over and over again, as though she thought they too should be working as a team — as equals, not with one seeking to strip the other’s power.

On the day of Rice’s presentation, Villaraigosa staffers handed schools Superintendent David L. Brewer III the mayor’s plan for fixing L.A. Unified with little advance notice — just four hours before the mayor went before a televised audience to unveil it. School-board member David Tokofsky, a critic of the mayor’s school initiative, fared even worse, having to lobby the Mayor’s Office behind the scenes just to get a seat at the Villaraigosa unveiling event.

When Villaraigosa has focused on public-safety issues, he has reaped success only dreamed of by his predecessor, former Mayor James Hahn, a man truly obsessed with public safety but politically inept. Unlike Hahn, Villaraigosa won approval of a five-year plan to hire 1,000 police officers, persuading the council to hike monthly trash fees from $11 to $28 by 2011. Where Hahn had sought a sales-tax hike, Villaraigosa deftly found a way to hit up homeowners and renters in buildings with fewer than five units.

For now, however, a majority of those extra officers are a concept for the future. Roughly half of the police hiring sought by Villaraigosa won’t occur until after his likely re-election. But then, Villaraigosa — always the master of marketing — has a tendency to speak in the present progressive tense, as in “We’re planting 1 million trees” or “We’re hiring 1,000 officers.”

As he appeared with Villaraigosa, Bratton was all too willing to call the hiring plan what it was: an incremental plan that won’t boost his department significantly for years. Standing in the LAPD’s Central Station, Bratton told his officers they shouldn’t expect reinforcements to provide much help in 2007 — a comment that somewhat undermined the mayor’s upbeat pitch.

Since his election, Villaraigosa has always been one to criticize L.A. Unified for making only incremental gains in its test scores, which rose gradually over six years under former Superintendent Roy Romer, especially in the elementary grades.

Yet Bratton too has been the master of steady, incremental progress — the type that adds up to solid double-digit gains over a four-year stretch. Villaraigosa endorsed Bratton’s leadership wholeheartedly two weeks ago, saying the chief deserves a second five-year term. Romer, on the other hand, is back in Colorado, making incremental progress on his John Deere power mower.