Photo by Ted Soqui
Fear is a strange passion that strikes from the sky, from the wind, from the air in the room. All sensible thought goes out of the mind. You’re consumed with a vision of an atom bomb or disease as you walk across the street and get run over by a trailer truck.
—Jimmy Breslin, Newsday, October 14, 2001
The Los Angeles City Council has now finally talked its way through its panicked realization that its members are mortal. The overall process took more than a week. The discourse concluded, for the nonce, last Friday. This was when the members, unable to agree on exactly what to do from that point on, deadlocked on proposed security-measure packages that had just been rushed through committee hearings and closed session. (On Tuesday, the council tentatively passed the measure calling for the hiring of 40 additional security officers.)
Considering the council’s overall state of mind, perhaps that was just as well.
Our local government’s panic phase began not, as one might expect, immediately after the September 11 disaster, but with the onset of U.S. bombings this month. That’s when some council members finally grasped the idea (or, in the view of some, manifested the absurdity) that they might become a target. This comprehension was not, unfortunately, accompanied by the body’s deepest thinking.
In one way, of course, the immediate outcome was impressive. I mean, when was the last time you saw the city solons make a proposal one day and beheld it accomplished the next? That’s how long it took city staffers to respond to their leaders’ October 10 lambasting, which contained what I took to be some threats of firing by resident clown and Councilman Nate Holden. These were leveled against those hapless General Services employees who said it could take six weeks to get new metal detectors up and running. There was also some just plain bad attitude.
“I think security here is a joke. No one checks anything when they walk in the main entrance,” orated Councilwoman Janice Hahn. “We have barricades outside on the street, but our security inside the building is pathetic.” There had been better security at the temporary council chamber in City Hall East before the city government’s June move back into the renovated building. Indeed, for around a year or so, there was a metal-detector gate outside the temporary meeting room. But no one — least of all the council members — had previously seemed to miss this apparatus.
Hahn to the contrary, however, there had been plenty of recent security activity. But its purpose appeared to have been to protect the entire City Hall population, not just the council. The aforementioned street barricades, as it happened, had gone up right after President Bush announced the Afghan bombings. After that, no one could drive a vehicle past City Hall on Main Street without showing city ID. To get into City Hall itself, you were compelled to show a pass or sign in for one. But this was not enough for Councilwoman Hahn and her colleagues, who, for ä all I know, may have feared the hostile attentions of an intifada wing of the Valley secessionists.
More likely, this was the kind of fear that, with the far more substantial cause of an anthrax threat, has also afflicted the nation’s Capitol. Had the council wanted a sane example of upgraded local-government building security, it could have hiked uphill to the county’s Hall of Administration, where the Board of Supervisors had somehow managed to deal with enhanced protection needs in an appropriately phlegmatic and unhysterical way. County officials apparently understood that their building’s primary purpose is to serve a large public that, wisely, eschews board meetings but comes downtown to deal with taxation, real estate and other public-service functions. Just like most of those who go to City Hall. In any case, the county has stationed extra security people to check visitors at its half-dozen entrances on four different levels, but the only metal detector in service remained at the boardroom entrance.
But the City Council ordained the closing of all City Hall entrances and exits save the one on Main Street — one of the building’s least commodious. And there, just 18 hours after the big showdown in council, everyone going into City Hall — messengers pushing hand trucks stacked with boxes of paperwork, engineers carrying armloads of blueprints, lawyers with bulging briefcases — got to stand in line before the freshly planted detectors. At least 10 security people were on hand when I went through, presumably in case the entire legal profession, say, tried an end run around the gate.
So the council has momentarily proved, against all precedent, that it can act quickly and decisively. At least when it thinks its own safety is at stake. (In last Friday’s discussions, Hahn seemed a little defensive at the idea that the council had been mainly interested in covering its own ass: “People have thanked me,” she said, for the overnight security miracle.) Otherwise it behaved more typically. For instance, presented with a proposed ordinance to outlaw public urination and defecation, the council postponed the matter six months for further study. That’s definitely a study I want to read.
The Least Heard
It’s something we’ve all done as kids. You say something over and over — it doesn’t matter what. The word banana, the phrase Emancipation Proclamation. And it rapidly becomes boring, absurd and ultimately funny. The same thing is often true of repeated public comment — no matter how true — in the meetings of governing bodies.
For instance, for nearly two years now, the 70,400 home health-care workers of Los Angeles County have been asking for a raise. They deserve it. They even thought they had it. You read about it here, you read about it there. The raise at issue — a tiny one of 39 cents from the current $6.75 an hour — was offered early last year by the state. As it happens, Sacramento has paid a similar small increase. The three-bits remainder is supposed to come from this county. But L.A. County is the only county in the state not to pony up on this. The SEIU Local 434-B members come downtown, say the same thing, over and over. They demonstrate. But they’ve been ignored for so long that it is getting hard for anyone to hear them when they speak.
Now there are plenty of people in this town — including skilled blue-collar workers — who would not even notice a raise of 39 cents an hour, which comes out to about $15 in a 40-hour working week. Of course, 95 percent of the local health-care workers don’t work that many hours. But that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t appreciate the tiny dollop of extra money. There’s a simple reason why these people aren’t getting their extra pittance: The county, which this week had to balance an increasingly tough budget, complete with proposed curtailment of library services, thinks that it can get away with not paying it. “It’s gross negligence,” says 434-B head Tyrone Freeman, who says that if, as he expects, the board denies the raise this year, he will start an initiative to order the raise.
But there are even stronger reasons why the caregivers ought to be getting their raise. As health-care worker Molly Longley put it, “[Why] we should be compensated a little bit more is [because] we are giving the people we care for the dignity of remaining in their homes, being their own bosses . . . to not have to be in an institution, which, obviously, does cost the taxpayers more money.” But the extra institutionalizing costs go to the state. The Scrooge-ish savings go to our Hall of Administration. And the two entities simply are not communicating in a way that makes it possible to sort this one out sensibly.
Longley was one of about 30 members of SEIU Local 434-B who Tuesday afternoon spoke the simple truth to a Board of Supervisors, who’d just been through a long day’s meeting, and a few of the rest of us, who all realized that, with the final budget revisions due to be approved within a week, the good guys were going to lose again.