Photo by Ted Soqui

I love a parade. And that is exactly what marched through the Los Angeles City Council last Wednesday. It was the Unified Charter Parade, and everyone else who was there seemed to love it too.

If the parade lacked brass bands and fire engines, it had speeches and celebrations: There was Erwin Chemerinsky at his most sagely impish and George Kieffer at his most jurisprudentially enthusiastic. This was the event, they agreed, that they’d both long feared might not happen: It was the final presentation of a feasible, turn-of-the-century city-charter proposal to the Los Angeles City Council. And it was a love feast, sort of.

“I’m sure glad I’m not diabetic,” one wag said while the effulgence of mutual sweetness wafted through the chamber. The long-disordered forces of the elected and appointed commissions had finally gathered, more or less, to wish each other well and declare their long adventure nearly over. You did get the idea — via their observably lesser zeal — that some elected commissioners still thought that the appointed commissioners and their staff may have had significantly more to do with this voluminous document than they and their staffers did.

But then again, the same elected commission had met just 60 hours earlier and had — at last, unanimously — endorsed the document, right? Yes, but as it happened, Los Angeles city foe and San Fernando Valley nationalist Paula Boland was absent that night. Unanimity surely would not have prevailed in her presence.

Then again, perhaps Boland was smart to stay away this time. The moment for secessionist head banging may have come and gone. At the last meeting Boland attended, she’d railed against the final charter, goading, at last, her fellow members to turn against her. Even the drastically soft-spoken Chemerinsky had termed her empty-brained contention that the new charter meant higher taxes as “demagoguery.” In her subsequent absence, there was the peace of consensus. So is that what we’ll have from here on out? Somniferous solidarity?

Perhaps not. There are plenty of potholes in the final stretch. Some final-draft language is sketchy and even faulty. And how many people have yet read all of this conclusive version? I, for one, have not. But everyone on the council ought to be familiar with the document by line and letter before he or she votes for it.

Or against it. At the moment, as many as three members are against the new charter on matters of obscure principle: You can only hope that the council majority will have sense enough to keep their hands off the document. And, of course, our mayor has suddenly decided he wants to be the kid who implements, and even utilizes, some of the new charter machinery himself, instead of waiting until year 2001 to see someone else do it after he leaves office.

But even if no one lets Dick Riordan tinker with it, will the mayor actually spend his own money to campaign against this charter package? Somehow, I doubt it. This charter parade is finally turning into a juggernaut. There are just three things you can do with a juggernaut: Jump on its back, get out of the way, or get run over. I think that the mayor is smart enough to realize that this thing, with its two thick, paperback volumes of still-raggedy prose, is already bigger than he is.

The Bell Tolls for Belmont

In 1905 the Russian Empire lost a pointless Far East war against Japan, revealing to Russia’s national and internal enemies that the world’s largest nation was a failure as a modern state. We all know what happened a dozen years later, the wonder being that the revolution took even that long.

Maybe it’s a long pull from the Battle of Tsushima Strait of 1905 to the Belmont Learning Center of 1999. Then again, may-be it isn’t. As was the case in Russia’s Far East campaigns, nothing has ever gone right for this project, starting with the abandonment of the old Ambassador Hotel site as an alternative, and the wasted tens of millions there. Now we’ve got a $200 million school project that can’t presently be completed, because state and local officials — according to the official report by Assemblyman Scott Wildman’s Joint Legislative Audit Committee — ignored that “serious toxic concerns existed at the site.” Everyone in a position to make a decision seems to have known from the first that the site was an old oil field. The LAUSD collectively just chose not to worry.

In his Sunday Times column, Robert A. Jones accuses the elected school board of blithely absolving everyone responsible for this catastrophe. Assuming the site must not be abandoned and cleared of recent construction, multimillion- dollar cleanup would make the Learning Center into a quarter-billion-dollar high school — soaking up funding that would have been otherwise available for up to 50 other much-needed new schools. Jones quotes Wildman as stating that this kind of monetary waste and the district’s willful bad planning will make voters wary about any increased spending for education.

The Belmont scandal probably will change the current membership of the Board of Education. It ought, radically, to change the way the LAUSD operates, from bottom to top. If that doesn’t happen, might not Belmont even fuel what many consider the entire entity’s long-overdue bust-up?

Just how did the district’s officialdom go so wrong, so repeatedly, on Belmont, to its utter public disgrace? I hope I don’t appear to be letting present Grand Street bureaucrats off the hook by saying that there are determining historical factors dating from even before the recent 13 years of lousy LAUSD decision making on this specific project.

Way back in the early 1980s, the district encountered a citizen insurrection against its then-practice of building schools on formerly residential sites. There then was a very temporary lull in the increase of student population, just as Los Angeles was undergoing its worst housing shortage since World War II. Neighborhoods were accordingly resisting any loss of housing stock to new or expanded school campuses, and, due to these properties’ rising values, condemnation of homes and apartments was getting to be very expensive indeed.

Still a bit punch-drunk from its costly 1982 teacher strike, the LAUSD administration appears to have thenceforth leaned toward the acquisition of less controversial and costly commercial sites for new school construction. This was even though experience with such locales — problems with the LAUSD’s Tweedy Elementary School in Maywood, for instance — already suggested a serious possible downside to building schools on conceivably toxic sites.

“So what,” you can imagine some not-so-long-ago LAUSD bureaucrat saying. “Putting schools on industrial sites gets those damned homeowners off our backs. And by the time 10th-graders actually start passing out in math class, I’ll be collecting my pension in Tahoe.”

We can only hope that whatever inquisition comes out of the Belmont catastrophe will bring some of those pensioners back to town, before the purview of responsibility. And accountability. And justice.

Brown Act Scoreboard

It hasn’t been a great week in Los Angeles for the Ralph M. Brown Act: that precious, if underenforced, state law against undue political secrecy.

On Thursday, for instance, Assemblyman Roderick Wright took the Memorial Coliseum Commission into a 40-minute, closed-session hearing. What was mostly discussed then was proposed state legislation that would give the state more control over the Coliseum, and obviously this was not just something which ought to have been discussed in open session, but it was of vital importance that it be so aired. After all, what was at stake was the state’s usurping a majority-local-control agency. (The county, the city and the state each now have three Coliseum Commission board seats.)

What got things into closed session was that some of the discussion bore on the prospects of getting a new NFL team for Los Angeles. This could be seen as connected to a team lease — a real estate transaction that would qualify as confidential under the Brown Act. When the discussion segued into discussion of proposed state legislation, however, it violated not only the Brown Act but, it appears, Section 7b of the California Constitution, “the proceedings of each house and committees shall be open and public,” with exceptions that certainly do not include the proposed takeover of local administrative agencies.

Wright, a peripatetic sort with a well-publicized appetite for Super Bowl action, may have forgotten that the Brown Act allows closed sessions on pending litigation, not legislation. You can understand his confusion. After all, predictably and sadly, the open-meetings act does not apply to the Assembly or Senate (although some of its provisions are in the constitution’s above-cited Section 7).

Certain county supervisors complained that day of Wright’s presumption, but they were in no real position to talk. On Tuesday, the supes voted, in closed session, to settle a quarter-million-dollar medical-malpractice suit. And then they neglected to tell anyone about the agreement for two whole days. Whoops: just having one of those five-person senior moments, folks. Sorry.

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