The L.A. City Council Has Finally Turned Into a Backroom-Dealing Legislature

Sacramento South
Sacramento South
Greg Lilly / via Flickr

Critics of the L.A. City Council have been warning for years about the slow creep of "Sacramento" culture. Seven of the body's 15 members used to serve in the Legislature, and the concern is that they have imported the Capitol's style of backroom dealmaking.

Never was this more evident than during Wednesday's hearing on the minimum wage. The council's Economic Development Committee heard about an hour of testimony from business owners, activists and low-wage workers before recessing to a closed session. They spent the next hour literally in a back room.

When they emerged, the deal was done. Councilman Curren Price, the chair of the committee, made a motion to increase the minimum wage to $15 by 2020. Councilman Paul Krekorian offered an amendment to give a longer phase-in for small businesses. Most of the "debate" on the motion consisted of council president Herb Wesson and other members giving thanks to each other and to their staffs. The motion and the amendment — both scripted in advance — passed unanimously.

But that wasn't all. In a flourish befitting statehouses from Albany to Carson City, Price's motion contained a hidden provision. 

"In regards to paid time off," Price said from the dais, "we should develop policies that stay consistent with previous city wage policies, and it should be consistent with the city hotel minimum wage regarding service charges."

No one knew what that meant. Shortly after the meeting adjourned, Price's office issued a press release. It went into great detail about the minimum wage ordinance but contained no mention of paid time off. What Price appears to have meant is that the ordinance should include a citywide mandate for paid time off for all workers, and that mandate should be based on the city's hotel living wage ordinance. That ordinance provides as follows:

B. Time Off.
1. Compensated Time Off. A Hotel Employer shall provide at least 96 compensated hours off per year for sick leave, vacation, or personal necessity to full-time Hotel Workers to be made available at the Hotel Worker's request.

This is a big deal. A state law, which went into effect this year, provides all workers three days of sick pay. This provision would quadruple that requirement, to 12 days, within L.A. city boundaries.

The L.A. County Federation of Labor has been pushing for increased sick pay as part of the minimum wage ordinance. But no one else was talking about it. It was not studied, and it was not debated.

Krekorian at least seemed to understand what was going on during Wednesday's hearing, and to have some reservations about it.

"I would just note consistency does not mean it needs to be identical," he said. "It may or may not be exactly the same. That's a discussion the council will need to have as this moves forward."

But that was it. Krekorian did not vote against the ordinance, or try to amend the provision regarding paid time off. Nor did he even make it clear to the public that "consistency" with "previous city wage policies" meant that everyone in Los Angeles would get 12 days of paid time off. 

When that reality slowly emerged on Thursday, the business community hit the roof.

"It’s concerning that after hundreds of individuals testifying and several studies on this wide-ranging proposal, that new and significant policies are slipped in at the last minute," said Ruben Gonzalez, senior vice president of the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce.

Stuart Waldman, president of the Valley Industry and Commerce Association, said he didn't pay attention to the paid-time-off provision when he heard it come out of Price's mouth on Wednesday. Over lunch on Thursday, someone pointed it out to him.

"I was just shocked," Waldman says. "I started looking into it and realized, 'Oh my God, they're talking about 12 days of paid time off...' That is as detrimental to a small business employer as raising the minimum wage."

Mayor Eric Garcetti also has expressed reservations about the idea, saying in a statement that it needs more study.

This would be unremarkable in Sacramento, where bills are routinely rewritten at the 11th hour with no public debate. So why is it bad that the City Council is doing the same thing? After all, it seems to work for the Legislature.

For one thing, unlike the Legislature, city councils are governed by the Ralph M. Brown Act, the state's open-meetings law.

The act can be annoying for local officials. There are notification requirements. They have to hear from the public, even if it's just the same angry guy every week. A majority of any body can't have a beer together, because that's a public meeting. Discussions can be held behind closed doors only for a limited number of reasons — such as property acquisitions, pending litigation and performance reviews.

But these nuisances are the wages of democracy. The result is that most city councils — the good ones, anyway — do deliberate public policy in public. They hear from angry citizens. They have discussions. They argue. They make proposals and counter-proposals. They get mad. They hold votes without knowing the outcome beforehand.

The L.A. City Council doesn't operate that way. Of course, it has lawyers who make sure it follows the letter of the Brown Act — though even that is sometimes in doubt. (For instance, the council went into closed session on Wednesday due to the threat of litigation. From whom, members did not say. Everything they do could, in theory, lead to a lawsuit.) But they don't follow the spirit of the law. They vote together 99 percent of the time because they iron out their differences beforehand in private. That's normal in the Legislature — where, again, the Brown Act doesn't apply. It's not supposed to work that way at a city council.

In the near future, several smaller cities are expected to follow L.A.'s lead and raise their own minimum wages. Here's hoping they'll have the courage to do it in public.

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