Last Friday was a festive day at City Hall and inside City Council chambers. Native American Indians were chanting and talking about being the original people of Los Angeles. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, hosting a lunch near the Spring Street steps, proudly proclaimed he had some Indian blood in him, and two men performed a dance in the 90-degree heat.
The events also took up much of the City Council meeting, as such festivities do almost every Friday, leaving pressing issues in the background during one of only three days per week that the full council actually meets.
It was a typical day, with just 11 of the 15 council members at work, or about 73 percent of the team. Imagine the Dodgers with about six players on the field, or the Lakers with three and a half on the court.
But a November 17 legal deadline looms for the highest-paid city council in the United States: The 15 politicians must decide which municipal issues to put on the March 2011 ballot for consideration by L.A. voters.
Depending on the choices made by the City Council, those 10 to 14 ballot measures could ask Los Angeles residents to nearly double the permanent budget for the city's 73 city libraries, which Villaraigosa targeted for severe cuts this year, closing them down two days each week. Or the council might ask voters to crack down on the unpopular Department of Water and Power by giving teeth to an independent DWP watchdog. Or the council might ask voters to forever protect the city's thicket of as many as 4,000 illegal billboards — by taxing billboard ads and thus turning the illegal signs into an integral part of the city's budget.
But this year, a host of angry critics began demanding that the City Council stop behaving this way — stop rushing to approve a wish list of intricate ballot ideas that sound good on paper but are so poorly thought out that they spawn unforeseen problems.
Critics say the council members — who earn $178,789 a year, employ personal staffs of 15 to 22 people, and are provided special $100,000 accounts to spend on anything they wish — waste every Friday handing out plaques and holding ceremonial events, and spend their time on such matters as deciding which Arizona companies to exempt from their “moratorium” on doing business with Arizona.
Yet only now are they hurriedly finalizing more than a dozen complex ballot measures that they expect voters to untangle in 2011.
Former DWP Commission President Nick Patsaouras has been lobbying council members for more than a year to place before voters a measure that creates a ratepayer advocate–inspector general to act as an independent watchdog over the DWP.
“My proposal has been on their desks — god, for seven or eight months,” says Patsaouras. “It's badly, badly needed. I even threatened to get 250,000 signatures so I could put it on the ballot [without them], but that's almost impossible. I need the City Council to put it on the ballot. But they are each a fiefdom of one.”
Three council members — Eric Garcetti, who hopes to run for mayor, Dennis Zine, who hopes to run for controller, and Greig Smith — began struggling over whose vision for a DWP watchdog would prevail.
As a result, the watchdog measure, long demanded by numerous DWP critics, may be scuttled entirely.
One newspaper editorial demanded an end to City Hall's perpetually eleventh-hour ballot-measure writing, noting, “One measure almost certain to appear in March is meant to overturn a pension provision that was adopted with too little thought just 10 years ago.”
Some of the message got through to the council. In a flurry of quiet moves, several half-ready ideas have been abruptly abandoned.
The City Council was primed to put a medical marijuana tax before voters in 2011, but City Attorney Carmen Trutanich's team begged Councilwoman Janice Hahn to back off her plan.
After news coverage and blog reports questioned whether Hahn and the City Council actually understood the legal implications of the tax, the idea was yanked shortly before a scheduled hearing November 8.
William W. Carter, chief deputy of the City Attorney's Office, says L.A. and its voters dodged a bullet: “To accurately find out what someone should be paying in taxes on an illegal activity, to send people out to find out how much they were making, would cost more money than the taxes brought in,” Carter told the Weekly.
“You would have to set up an enforcement agency to find out how much people should be taxed,” he says. “People making money off of marijuana are not going to accurately tell how much they are making — that's not going to happen,” because it's illegal to profit from selling medical pot.
Hahn originally proposed exploring a weed tax in July 2009 and was backed by Zine and Rosendahl.
Hahn argues, “We need to get creative about how we raise funds. … During this dire economic crisis, we have to examine every possible source of revenue for our cash-strapped city.”
Some also argue the tax would help legitimize the medical marijuana industry in Los Angeles.
But the tax was opposed by Councilman Bernard Parks, former chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, who says, “They can't tax a sale of marijuana because it is illegal. It's that simple. It is still illegal. It just doesn't make sense to tax something that is illegal.”
That may seem a strange stance, given that more than 100 medical marijuana outlets legally operate in L.A.
But under the law, the dispensaries are considered collectives where growers of marijuana theoretically take their plants and are reimbursed for them.
Several cities have passed laws taxing medical marijuana, including San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose and Berkeley. But Carter says those city councils did so without the approval of their city attorneys.
“People want to use Oakland and San Francisco as an example, but their law enforcement agencies are looking the other way,” he says. “We are not looking the other way.”
When asked if voter approval of the failed Proposition 19 would have changed matters, Carter simply says, “Yes. But it did not pass.”
Some L.A. residents find the idea of taxing profits from medical marijuana absurd.
“I am for legal marijuana,” says Jeffrey Arzouman, who says he has smoked pot in public. “But to tax it? It's still considered illegal. Proposition 19 didn't pass. What's the next thing? They are gonna tax the crack dealers on Grape Street?”
Others say the idea came from City Hall too soon. “If they make it legal, then I am all for taxing it,” says Caryl Kim, a store owner on Third Street in L.A. “But if it's illegal, it doesn't seem fair.”
One rushed ballot measure brainchild, from Councilman Herb Wesson, would ask voters to approve a 12 percent tax on purchases of billboard ad space. The money would be sent to the city's empty General Fund. Wesson and others had hoped to bring in $24 million the first year.
But as the Weekly previously reported, antiblight activist Dennis Hathaway says that if voters approve the tax, it will have a negative unintended consequence: The money-hungry City Council will become attached to thousands of illegally erected billboards that council members have repeatedly vowed — and failed — to remove from L.A.'s cluttered skyline.
“That's the danger,” Hathaway told the Weekly. “If the City Council starts looking at billboards as revenue, it will decrease the incentive to reduce billboards.”
Beyond the issue of the extensive visual pollution, none of the massive illegal billboards has been inspected for earthquake safety.
Several days ago, the proposed billboard tax went to the City Council's Budget and Finance Committee, made up of Parks, Rosendahl, Smith, Jose Huizar and Paul Koretz.
They rejected putting Wesson's proposal on the 2011 ballot — because outdoor advertising firms such as Clear Channel Outdoor, CBS Outdoor, Regency and major advertisers and business leaders opposed it.
Another ballot measure that may or may not appear on the March ballot is intended to restore the city's devastated library system, which the Weekly wrote about in its September cover story “City of Airheads.”
How it ended up in the last-minute crush of possible ballot measures shows how voters are sometimes asked to make hard decisions that the City Council refuses to deal with — in this case, defying Antonio Villaraigosa over his library budget slashing.
The Weekly story detailed the unusually severe 2010 library cuts made by Villaraigosa and approved by the City Council, even as they maintained their own lavish staffs and funded pet projects. The article resulted in national criticism of Villaraigosa and the council.
Los Angeles is the only significant U.S. city that closes its entire library system two days each week, and the only big American city, other than Detroit, that closes its vaunted central library two days a week.
The Weekly discovered that the Garcetti-led Los Angeles City Council was the only city council, among the top U.S. cities, to fail to fight or even resist severe mayoral budget cuts to public libraries. The New York City Council, for example, fought and reversed many of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposed cuts.
In September, council members Tom LaBonge and Hahn came up with a motion to delay an unusual Villaraigosa requirement that forces the Los Angeles Public Library system to pay the DWP for the libraries' huge utility bill. The forced utility payments have drained the public library's budget.
But the LaBonge-Hahn motion never got before the City Council. It was held up by the City Council's Energy and Environment Committee — made up of chairwoman Jan Perry, Tony Cardenas, Richard Alarcon, Paul Krekorian and Koretz. “It's out of our hands,” says LaBonge spokeswoman Stephanie Mar.
Watching the library rescue motion essentially die in committee, Bernard Parks met with Los Angeles Public Library City Librarian Martin Gomez and decided to go instead directly to L.A. voters.
His idea, backed by LaBonge, would raise the City Charter–mandated funding for the public libraries to about the same level as the Department of Recreation and Parks. Since the ballot measure doesn't include new taxes, money would be shifted from other areas. Says Councilman Parks' spokesman Dennis Gleason, “It would change the City Charter and ask for better protections.”
Gleason says Garcetti helped fast-track the proposal. But time is running out, showing how dicey the last-minute crush of ballot measures is.
The language is still being written by the city attorney and is supposed to come before the council at the last possible moment: November 16.
Major players in the public library system support it, but are waiting to see the final wording. Says Librarians' Guild Vice President Verdel Flores, “We're very hopeful.”
L.A. Public Library Spokesman Peter Persic says the measure is voter-friendly because “it would not create a new tax.” If it is passed by voters next year, libraries would open six days a week citywide, and the Central Library and larger regional libraries would open daily.
Also contributing to this story were Simone Wilson and Jill Stewart.