By Tibby Rothman
City Hall is begging Jackson fans for alms, but upset L.A. residents face paying a king's ransom for the memorial to the King of Pop, Michael Jackson. During the hours leading up to today's globally viewed memorial, the Los Angeles Police Department and other city offices were stretched to their limits, and exploding costs for the hurriedly rushed mega-event were mounting and still unknown.
“We're still planning for this thing,” said a LAPD spokeswoman April Harding, mid-afternoon on Monday. She later contacted an L.A. Weekly editor. In the background, shouting could be heard as Chief William J. Bratton's Public Information Office tried to handle similar media calls.
A city of Los Angeles staffer who saw the activity inside an LAPD station in the San Fernando Valley yesterday described a station teaming with action — many miles and a mountain ridge away from the downtown memorial. The staffer says LAPD is on 'maximum deployment' — a costly official scenario in which reserve officers are called in, police work longer hours, and all available officers are assigned a specific area, leaving a minimum number to patrol.
The staff member refused to be named because they work for a different city department and could get in trouble for commenting. But the check to cover the MJ Memorial at Staples Center will be huge and could easily benefit AEG. How huge?
A spokesman for City Councilman Dennis Zine says Zine was told by Councilwoman Jan Perry–in whose downtown district the memorial was held–the unmet cost could reach $2.5 million. By early afternoon today, Los Angeles radio stations were speculating that figure could skyrocket to $4 million.
Now, questions will rage over the manner in which a very broke Los Angeles City Council and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa appeared powerless to stop the hurried memorial from going forward. The process that unfolded could substantially financially benefit downtown's corporate king, AEG, which owns Staples Center.
AEG and its reclusive Colorado billionaire owner, Philip Anschutz, stand to profit from over 100 hours of footage taken of Jackson in meetings, auditions and rehearsals at Staples Center in preparation for his last, never-to-be, “This is It” concert tour.
“Why should the cops and our cash-strapped city be out of pocket for over $4,000,000?” asks neighborhood council activist Jack Humphreville, in an e-mail to the Weekly. “That's just plain wrong. The half-billion dollar Jackson estate, Staples, Anschutz, and the television and internet media are making a country fortune.”
The handling of the Jackson Memorial shows that there are two sets of rules at City Hall: one for billionaires and insiders, the other for average citizens.
A typical L.A. resident who sought to hold an event that would cause massive traffic and other disruptions would be treated entirely differently, required to apply for a Los Angeles City permit that could hold them liable for policing, street closure and clean-up costs.
According to Villaraigosa's office, AEG did not even bother to file that basic permit for the MJ Memorial. We're still checking on whether this fact means that city taxpayers are legally stuck with the liabilities.
But the mayor has been unavailable, and Jan Perry has been acting mayor for the past few days, ever since Villaraigosa slipped away to attend an awards banquet in South Africa. Perry did not respond to our questions about the apparently rushed process and the never-completed paperwork that potentially leaves Angelenos holding the bag.
In a move that many local bloggers and commentators immediately assailed as bush league, city officials are now belatedly saying that private entities should reimburse taxpayers for the memorial. Perry went on national media outlets to make that case.
Then Villaraigosa's office created what many critics saw as an embarrassing Paypal click-through that urges everyday people to help pay the event's bills. Perez Hilton was inspired to photoshop the mayor with dollar signs over his eyes.
According to city employees in a position to know, because Staples Center is private property, AEG could have skirted the requirement to get a permit normally required for creating massive traffic and other disruptions. In such a case, it would be left to LAPD to assess the situation and decide whether streets needed to be closed, and what level of law enforcement was required.
Asked by the Weekly about cases where such private events force the liability onto the city, an aide to brand-new City Attorney Carmen Trutanich did not know if a private party such as AEG is in fact legally bound to defray costs. Trutanich's aide, John Franklin, said Trutanich is “studying” it.
Then this morning, Zuma Dogg tells us, in an impromptu visit to the marble-bedecked City Council Chambers, Trutanich told the 15-member Los Angeles City Council that he was looking into closing legal loopholes that could leave millions of dollars of costs on residents' shoulders.
Trutanich will report back in three days. Until then, nobody is quite sure whether closing yet another pricey loophole at Los Angeles City Hall will happen soon enough to recoup one of the costliest funerals the city has ever seen.