In local government and politics, Labor Day changes everything. The issues, the players and the political dynamics remain the same, but the pace quickens and the sense of urgency becomes palpable.
Last week, City Council members came to work in sweats, if they came to work at all, and T-shirts and jeans were de rigueur around City Hall. Talk of the recall and the intrigue that surrounds it kept everyone giddy, but in a sleepy sort of way.
The dark-blue suits are back on at the Civic Center. The new City Council members are no longer new. Staffs are in place. Now elected officials who took practice runs at issues over the last couple of months and waited to gauge reaction and form alliances must put forward their proposals in earnest. They have four months to focus and to produce, before becoming distracted by the budget and campaign seasons.
At the top of the agenda is affordable housing. A campaign for laws compelling builders to reserve 10 to 20 percent of new construction as below-market-rate units is finally due to hit the council floor this month in the form of a proposed inclusive zoning ordinance.
It will be a defining issue for the council, which is made up mostly of moderate Democrats who generally seek to curry favor with an increasingly powerful labor establishment without alienating equally powerful business and development interests. Strategists who are adept at vote counting confided at the beginning of the summer that there were, so far, too few reliable votes to push through a sweeping citywide law that would reshape neighborhoods with affordable units. That left two alternatives.
The first: To minimize animosity between disparate sections of the city and to get something on the books, housing advocates could encourage lawmakers to soften the requirement. Some already have discussed allowing developers in more costly and exclusive parts of town to go ahead with their lucrative market-rate projects while building their required low-cost units elsewhere or paying a fee so someone else could do it. Others have urged a lowering of the percentage requirement for affordable units.
The second option moves the other way and is more politically intriguing. Instead of working toward unity, this line of thought goes, perhaps it is time to force the issue to a crisis and compel council members to take a stand, one way or the other, on a far-reaching affordable-housing law. Advocates of this tactic promise a very rancorous, and therefore public, debate on the need for housing. With it comes a chance to shame some lawmakers into a pro-housing stance. And, just maybe, victory on this issue and an energized council ready to take on more socially explosive issues. At times, Council Members Ed Reyes and Eric Garcetti have sounded ready to adopt this more aggressive stance, with talk of changing the social shape of L.A. neighborhoods.
But the costs, too, could be great. If a sharply divided council ultimately defeats inclusive zoning, the city could be left with little to show for the effort but 15 squabbling, ineffective elected officials. To watch where this one goes, keep an eye on master consensus builder Antonio Villaraigosa, who has argued passionately for affordable-housing mandates — but in less combative terms than have Reyes and Garcetti.
The council also will be acting this fall on the so-called Wal-Mart ordinance — a proposed law to sharply restrict the sale of groceries at big-box retail stores. This issue will take off only after the release of a report by Rodino & Associates, a firm that studies the economic development under contract with the city. This ordinance will generate some heat, especially since Wal-Mart (correctly) sees itself as being singled out, and because grocery unions (correctly) see their jobs in jeopardy from any move by huge nonunion retailers to expand into groceries. But lost amid the posturing will be the fact that the proposal, at least as it exists now, would apply only in economic-development zones. Because of that geographic restriction, the law is likely to pass.
With the focus from big labor, those two issues — affordable housing and the big-box law — were expected to steal the City Hall spotlight from the expansion of Los Angeles International Airport and other issues with consequences at least as far-reaching. But labor has become stretched a bit thin because of its fight against the unexpected Gray Davis recall attempt. It will be worth watching just how much attention the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor has to spare for local issues.
Meanwhile, an overdue report from KPMG covering the public-private fiasco known as the Entertainment Industry Development Corp. is now also supposed to make recommendations on how to deal with residents’ complaints about film crews blocking streets and shining lights into their homes. What this report says, and what the council does with it, could say more about City Hall’s attitude toward neighborhood empowerment than such recent actions as approving an official logo for neighborhood councils to use on their stationery.