I can’t tell you exactly how many hours dribbled away in the process, but it was too many. There was a two-hour committee meeting early this month, and then another committee meeting that was shorter because almost no one attended. Then there was the 90-minute council-meeting debate and passage on Tuesday last week, through which I sat dumbfounded, missing scarcely one precious word.
Councilwoman Ruth Galanter blamed it all on the new charter. Councilman Nate Holden said it would foment ”hatred.“ Councilman Hal Bernson wondered if the proposal at hand would be ”conducive of good relations among the council [members].“ Councilman Joel Wachs boasted that he might have been afflicted by the measure for his past indiscretions regarding closed-session debates.
These members‘ words had been pretty much the same each time around. Meaning that the Los Angeles City Council wasted — in this month alone so far — close to five hours of its precious time debating in depth, and then passing, a measure which had no realistic effect on anyone. Even themselves, who were supposed to be most affected.
Yes, folks, this was the infamous City Council censureship motion. The Los Angeles City Council now can censure members who stray from ”high standards.“ Not that they couldn’t do so earlier — why, they actually did so just 24 years ago: two members at once, in fact. (More on that later.) Much effort has recently gone into the censureship matter, nevertheless. The odd, net result is that it is now harder to censure a council member than it ever has been before. There are two reasons for this not-necessarily-intended outcome. One of them is City Councilman Mike Hernandez. The other is City Councilman Mike Feuer.
Hernandez, whom I like to think of as a quite decent fellow with occasional impulse-control problems, started it all three years ago when he managed to get nailed on a dark, downtown street corner buying a little cocaine. Now, as it happened, the council then had (so far as we know) one other coke-snorting member, Richard Alatorre. But Alatorre had not yet managed to get caught. So much of the council (Alatorre, wisely and charitably, abstained) poured their seething-hot dudgeon upon the hapless Hernandez. As did the Los Angeles Times and assorted, lesser publications, when they demanded his immediate resignation. Soon this dudgeon level rose to the point where Feuer (with his associate, Laura Chick) felt they could float upon it a raft of new penalties for councilpersonic misbehavior — ranging from expulsion down to a sort of all-around deep-set frown.
But then, as if by magic, the dudgeon drained away. Feuer‘s motion ran into a detail of critics as various as this columnist and Councilman Nate Holden (who, in his rather sexist way, termed Feuer and Chick a couple of ”Westside Ku Klux Klansmen“) before it vanished into the bottomless, unechoing depths of the council’s own Rules and Elections Committee, never to be seen again (R&E being one of those caverns into which far more footprints go than emerge).
So then Feuer took his proposals to the two charter commissions. Remember them? The commissions‘ members were watching the national impeachment debate when not conducting their own excruciating colloquies. The elected charter-reform commissioners devoted weeks of their own discourse to Feuer’s proposal while Congress discussed whether to impeach or, for that matter, censure our president.
The result? Feuer‘s proposal made it into the charter, shorn of all his tougher provisions. While they were at it, the charter mavens also did an incredible thing; under the previous statute, a council could censure one of its members by an 8-out-of-15 vote. Although the censure process hadn’t been applied since 1976, the charter folk thought that was far too often; so now it takes 10 votes.
In other words, poor Feuer, who for two years had been seeking to make official council disapproval of a member more of a hazard, ended up making it less of one. After all, if the council could have found the eight votes under the old rules, it would surely have censured Hernandez. But if those votes weren‘t there, back in 1997, just imagine how much harder it would have been to get 10 votes for the same purpose. In other words, if you didn’t like the idea of censure very much, the new system was an improvement.
If not, not. In any case, the council last week passed it 12-2, with the two no votes cast by Bernson, who‘s run afoul of the Ethics Commission on his officeholder account, and Holden, notorious for billing the city for his defense attorney in sundry sex-harassment suits.
Which made no difference whatsoever; the debate and vote were a sham. We Angelenos already voted for the charter. That election brought the new rule into effect (as of later this year). The new censure rule would therefore be law even if the council had voted 12-2 against it. So why, in a month in which Acting Assistant Attorney General Bill Lan Lee and his Department of Justice cohorts were hitting town in force, while the mayor’s staff kept silent on the matter of their arrival in order not to spoil Dick Riordan‘s birthday party, were our council members spending more time debating a nugatory measure over which they had no control? Instead of, perhaps, the state of the Los Angeles police force?
My downtown colleague Robert Greene of the Met News says it all has to do with the politicians’ face-saving tendency. He notes that the council‘s charter-mirroring ordinance also includes some additional council-censure details abstracted from, of all places, the statutes of the city of Moreno Valley. Cooling-off periods, for instance. But Greene also points out that the original attempt by certain members to grant the council the powers really to lean on its errant members was twice tossed on the trash heap — lastly by the charter mavens, first by the silent council majority itself.
This has not been an easy year for our council, of course. First, there was the charter enactment, which few council members had supported and which many in hindsight so regret. Then there was the council president himself throttling discussion of the Rampart scandal, just when it looked as if the council might have something useful to say. So it’s unsurprising to see the panel taking interest in matters many others might consider delusory. With last week‘s vote on censure, they perhaps can convince a 12-vote majority of themselves that they are still masters of their own fate.
If not, currently, the city’s.
But what does being censured by one‘s peers really mean if you happen to be an elected official? It’s supposed to mean that you are, in your colleagues‘ eyes, an egregious scoundrel, more or less. But in effect, it also amounts to a negative popularity contest. Take the last two censure victims, for instance.
In 1976, Councilmen Art Snyder and Zev Yaroslavsky walked out of a council meeting, intentionally breaking quorum and denying a vote on a matter the others considered of prime importance (something to do with public works, as I recall). Yaroslavsky, at that point a scamp of a freshman member, had just begun to climb the greasy pole to respect and power in local politics. Snyder — for all his virtues as a service provider to his district — was official council bad boy. The censure was an impulsive action by their very angry counterparts, and had no effect on either man’s career. But had two highly regarded then-members — say John Ferraro and Marvin Braude — walked out, I believe that no censure vote would have been taken.
Power, however, is the best censure-proofing, and absolute power censure-proofs absolutely. Zev and Art were, at that time, fairly weak members. (If anything, their censure encouraged them to get stronger.) Almighty Councilman Richard Alatorre, on the other hand, subsequently got caught taking coke as a result of a hearing regarding his parental fitness. He almost scammed a huge MTA contract for the sake of a free roof on his house. His antics cost the city millions. And he did dozens of furtive council deals that only the members know about and which most would willingly forget.
But even in his last weeks in office, the word censure was never mentioned in connection with Alatorre. No one would have dared.