Never mind that a $530 million deficit looms. Every Friday, the Los Angeles City Council engages in an uplifting exercise, spending an hour or more issuing lavish, hand-inked calligraphy scrolls that bestow commendations on everyday folk, celebrities and supporters.
“It’s a little piece of sugar,” says Westside Councilman Bill Rosendahl, a member of the Budget and Finance Committee, which must wrangle with big upcoming budget cuts.
Sugar is hard to swallow for some Los Angeles residents now getting hit with a plethora of higher local taxes and City Council-approved hikes in trash fees, water fees, electricity fees, sewer fees, parking-meter charges and car-tow charges.
Critics say the council and mayor are out of touch. As the highest-paid elected municipal body in the nation, with salaries of $178,789 — higher than those of federal judges or members of Congress — the 15-member council earns 400 percent of Los Angeles median income, an unprecedented gap between municipal servants and the public they serve. Some council members accept slightly lower salaries, as does Antonio Villaraigosa, whose $232,426 salary is more than Richard Daley’s or Michael Bloomberg’s (Villaraigosa accepts $223,186 of it).
As L.A. Weekly reported on March 3, the council enjoys perks including taxpayer-paid cars and gas, and employs an extremely costly personal staff of 320 people (the White House office staff numbers 448).
Yet the council and Villaraigosa recently cut back on such basics as city paramedic captains and library books, even as they continued to burn through a cool $1 million a year by ordering up a mountain of scrolls — 27,978 of them in the 2007-08 fiscal year alone. They are on track to repeat that feat this year. The elaborate scrolls often depict a glowing image of City Hall set among garlands and highlighted with gold inking of the sort associated with illuminated manuscripts.
For years, these same council members failed to fund even one extra billboard inspector to help the three inspectors long overwhelmed by a proliferation of thousands of controversial and illegal billboards in L.A. And $1 million per year would have greatly helped pay for the testing of rape-incident DNA evidence that has sat, untested, on LAPD shelves for years. Instead, Angelenos have paid for hand-lettered scrolls honoring Sea Otter Awareness Week, commending a film based on Nancy Drew and thanking local police dogs.
During the fiscal year so far, the mayor’s office ordered 4,215 of these “certificates.” Last year, Villaraigosa sought to trim seven employees from the Creative Services Division to save $600,000 annually, according to his office. He was rebuffed by the nation’s highest-paid City Council, who rallied like a court of stunned Rose Parade princesses facing the loss of their matching gowns.
Council President Eric Garcetti, echoing many council members, says through his press deputy, “Some recipients [of the scrolls] have told me it’s one of the most meaningful recognitions they’ve ever received.”
But Kris Vosburgh of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association says these perks, also commonly handed out by the California legislature and county supervisors, are about “buying our votes with our money.”
In this fiscal year, council member Tom La Bonge has given out 1,519 scrolls, Jose Huizar 1,386, Dennis Zine 1,298, Jan Perry 1,134, Ed Reyes 1,073 and Bernard Parks 1,067. Only three council members, perhaps less comfortable with the spectacle, have given out fewer than 500: Jack Weiss, Tony Cardenas and Greig Smith. Garcetti, as president of the council, gave out the most besides Villaraigosa: 1,926.
Of course, they don’t actually hand them directly to voters. They give some to nonvoters, including people from other states or countries. On April 3, they gave one to some Boy Scouts who won’t be voting for years. They even give them to people who don’t want them. Last Friday, Cardenas informed the crowd awaiting its proclamations, “We have some other certificates for the people who couldn’t be here.”
In truth, City Hall avoids cuts to its taxpayer-provided luxuries, no matter the reason. Two years ago, City Controller Laura Chick discovered that city departments were using public funds for bottled water. Villaraigosa ordered big reductions after Chick’s embarrassing audit; city employees responded to Villaraigosa by drinking twice as much bottled water — $184,000 worth last year, enough to hire three librarians or several grafitti-removal contract workers.
On April 12, Villaraigosa will deliver his 2009-10 budget. According to interim City Administrative Officer Ray Ciranna, “It’s ugly.” Deep in the details, the mayor hopes to cut four Creative Services spots, eight of which are occupied. Mayoral spokesman Matt Szabo says, “We are hopeful that the council would understand that this service is a luxury and not a necessity.”
But all cuts are controversial downtown, since it means reassigning city employees to jobs they don’t like, or ending a contract somebody expected to continue. One who might be affected is calligrapher Ed Fong, who has worked in Creative Services since 1983, having learned the craft from his father. As a backup, he got a biology degree from UCLA but “was fortunate enough to find a career that is my hobby, which is great,” he says.
Fong explains that, without computers, there’d be no way to keep up with the dramatically increasing demands of the council and Villaraigosa for more and more plaques and proclamations. Sometimes, he says, he has to turn out the custom-lettering at a rate of one certificate every six minutes just to keep up.
He is a fan of the calligraphy service, saying, “How do you recognize someone for what they do for the city that you can’t put a dollar amount to?” And that’s also noted by Carrie Imai, president of the Society for Calligraphy of Southern California, who says “People love to be singled out by someone in office.”
Taxpayer advocate Vosburgh has a different view: “People in government will say it’s peanuts. But there is a boxcar full of peanuts” being spent at City Hall.
On July 1, Wendy Greuel will become city controller, replacing the termed-out Laura Chick, who is being tapped by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to watch for fraud and waste as $50 billion in federal stimulus money pours into state coffers. Greuel has promised that she, like Chick, will go after waste, even slamming the $29,000 per year City Hall spends on Zen Buddhist “breathing exercises” for city Housing Department employees. Yet Greuel, with her colleagues, eagerly funded that perk in the first place.
Rosendahl says, “If it comes down to fixing the pothole or giving out a certification, I’ll fix the pothole.” Except that’s not happening. The city faces a decades-long backlog of unrepaired streets and 10,750 miles of broken sidewalks. But on March 27, Council Chambers was aflutter, as usual, with a crowd awaiting their Friday proclamations.
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The first went to Nichelle Nichols — Lieutenant Uhura on the Starship Enterprise. A bit later, Greuel perkily introduced the Southern California Mediation Association, which the council honored by proclaiming “Mediation Day” in Los Angeles.
The group represents mediators who earn more than $400 an hour providing dispute-resolution services. Greuel gave a hand-worked scroll to them for doing what they are paid, extremely well, to do.
An online list of Mediation Association members hints at why taxpayers fork over $1 million each year for proclamations that might go to a local hero, or just as easily, to power brokers and insiders. For example, the Mediation Association includes as members James Adler and Mark Ameli, who contributed campaign money to Cardenas and Villaraigosa. And Adler’s firm, the politically connected Irell & Manella, has given thousands of dollars, overall, to the campaigns of Council members Janice Hahn, Greuel, Garcetti, LaBonge, Perry, Smith and others.
“Mediation is the way to heaven, right?” Tom La Bonge grinned to the crowd. As with every Friday, after about an hour in which they did not conduct any serious city business, the council had greatly reduced its stack of proclamations. In a different room, a new round of City Hall calligraphy was already under way.