When the Los Angeles City Council meets on July 1, it will do so without two of its most iconic members, both of whom are termed out after more than 12 years in office: its unofficial historian and unintended comic relief, Tom LaBonge, and the perennial fly in its ointment, Bernard Parks.
Parks has a funny story about LaBonge, which he related to us last week:
“I remember my first couple years. Poor Tom Labonge, I sat next to him for a while. He made me so nervous I couldn’t sit there. He looked at me one day and says, 'I … I … I don’t know if you know this, but I don’t pay a lot of attention to these policy issues.' I said, 'No shit! I didn’t know that, Tom.'
“Then something would be coming up, he’d run up and [say], 'Eric [Garcetti], how should I vote?'
“That’s the stuff that goes on.'”
Parks has worked for the City of Los Angeles for more than 50 years. A beat cop who rose all the way to chief of police before being ignominiously fired by Mayor James Hahn, Parks ran for City Council in 2003 and won easily. He quickly established himself as a voice of fiscal prudence, and in doing so became the public employee unions' least favorite public official.
The unions helped defeat Parks in his race against Mark Ridley-Thomas for L.A. County Supervisor, but could never quite oust him from City Council, though they came close in 2011. (Parks also lost a 2005 bid for mayor against Hahn, Bob Hertzberg and Antonio Villaraigosa; the latter won.)
Parks, a budget expert in part thanks to his years as chief presiding over LAPD's budget, was appointed chairman of the council's powerful budget committee during his first year in office. He held that position for nearly 10 years — until Herb Wesson became City Council president in 2012.
“One day there was this rumor that Herb’s gonna be council president,” recalls the councilman's chief of staff and son, Bernard Parks Jr., affectionately known as “B-two.” “We thought it was a joke. We started laughing.”
He adds of Wesson: “You’re talking about a guy, for his first term on council, you didn’t know he was there. Never said anything, never knew where he stood.”
“And he never stayed for the whole meeting,” says Parks Sr., who continues:
“[Herb Wesson] asked me to vote for him and I said I wouldn’t. And he says, 'Well. I want you to know, a lot of people want to be on the budget committee.' I said, 'Give it to them! I am not gonna vote for you for a committee assignment.' Because I didn’t think he would be the best person for the job.”
Parks soon lost his prized committee assignment. And later in the year, when it came time to redraw L.A. City Council voting district lines to conform to the new 2010 U.S. Census population count of Los Angeles, Parks' district was stripped of higher-income neighborhoods like Leimert Park and Baldwin Hills in a process that was largely controlled by Wesson.
Ever since, Parks has been the odd man out on the City Council, a stoic, soft-spoken yet strident critic of Wesson and the rest of his majority vote. His power had certainly diminished; “L.A. Councilman Bernard Parks finds himself in political wilderness,” read a 2014 L.A. Times headline. Parks bristles at the suggestion that he's been marginalized.
“I don’t think anyone can marginalize you. You get to vote. You get to make motions. The fact that you’re not on a committee doesn’t mean you can’t comment or make your points known. So he may think he’s marginalizing you because he goes around and speaks to everyone else except you. Well, I’m not really interested in his conversation.”
Wesson's ascension to the presidency has marked the rise of the fun-loving City Council, known for pet adoption Fridays and “crazy sock day” and all manner of back-slapping. Parks never really went along with those shenanigans.
“Just recently on the budget, we had two hours of discussion on a budget of $8 billion. Yet we spend more time than that on bringing in Mary Sue and saying thank you for running a nonprofit. And the pet adoption.
“That’s what they enjoy. They enjoy calling each other by their nickames, and so and so. And then when it gets down to substantive issues, there’s just silence.”
In general, Parks says, most of the City Council members simply do not take their jobs seriously.
“If you hear some of the comments around the horseshoe, you'd be amazed. People are voting and then ask their staff, 'What did I just do?' This happens routinely.
“When I was here for my first year, I went up to a council member and I said, 'Are you gonna vote for the $98 million contract that’s on the agenda today?' and he looked at me and said, '$98 million, what’s that? I’m not gonna vote for anything that large.' Then we sit down, and he’s having a quiet meeting with some union officials behind the pole, and he comes back and says, 'Uh … I have a different view.'
Under Wesson, Parks says that there is more and more discussion behind closed doors, away from the public eye.
“The way policy is developed now, it’s more cliques and more private conversations. Because some very complicated and important issues come before the council and not one person has a question. So your perception is, they must have discussed it elsewhere. … The impression is that someone’s already discussed it off-camera and people have been told what to do.”
Parks has clashed repeatedly with the unions over the years. As police chief, he angered the police union by firing more cops with discipline problems than any of his predecessors. He's defended Walmart and Fresh & Easy, both of whom hire non-union employees. Today, he blames the city's current fiscal problems on its fealty to labor unions and its unwillingness to hire independent contractors, people who aren't full-time city employees.
“There’s an aversion in this city to ever consider outside contracting. It’s almost as though it’s a mortal sin. [The council] just cannot bring themselves to see how it would benefit the city to take that overhead off your budget.
“The unions are the ones that put this process in the charter, that basically says you must prove definitively there is no ability to get city employees to do a job before you can go to a contract. This is something that is just strangling the city. That’s the kind of stuff I’m most disappointed in. The 4.2 million people that pay $8.5 billion in taxes and fees often are put behind the 40,000 city employees, 85 percent of whom don’t live in the city.”
Love him or hate him, there's no other city councilman saying the things that Park is saying.
The closest is Councilman Mitchell Englander, a moderate Republican, and he intends to run for Los Angeles County Supervisor next year. What will happen to the council without Bernie to kick them around a bit?
He predicts his colleagues are heading for a fall:
“We’re on a slippery slope. And generally, in my judgment, what happens when you’re on a slippery slope with all the wheeling and dealing, what brings it to an abrupt halt is some corruption activity that then makes people think, 'Whoa, we’ve gone too far.'
“There’s just too much of 'like thinking,' [they] don’t want to allow contrary thought. We want to make it look unanimous, because their belief, and this is a sacramental belief, is that if we all stick together, nobody gets harmed. In fact, [Daryl] Gates used to say, 'You either hang together or you’ll hang separately.' There’s a herd mentality – we protect each other if we all stick together.
“If you get too loose and you start wheeling and dealing, it’s very easy to say, 'Well, everybody’s doing it!'
“Well, not everybody.”