Many children have played full-court basketball on Tomás O'Grady's living room hardwood floor — though the floor plan would not seem to allow for it.
O'Grady is running for City Council District 4, a gerrymandered district that stretches from the La Brea Tar Pits to North Hollywood. O'Grady's office is in the basement of the Los Feliz house he built himself, and its wood panels are recycled from a local school gym — a Craigslist find that echoes O'Grady's mantra, “Stop this ridiculous waste.”
“What if I told you I was going to cut my salary [and staff] in half?” O'Grady asks.
It's the age of the $179,000 starting salary on the L.A. City Council, higher than the wages of a U.S. congressman. City Council members defend their wages by citing a paragraph in the City Charter that hooks their salaries to the paycheck of Superior Court judges.
“So the first step is fixing that. We're just gonna have to unhook it, aren't we?” O'Grady answers.
From the farms of Ireland, O'Grady landed in the U.S. with $80 in one pocket and hardworking hands in both.
“I saved my money, I worked in a simple fashion,” O'Grady says. “I never made money by being a slick packager of deals.”
After renovating New Jersey brownstones, in 1999 O'Grady made good on a promise to his wife, Justine, and moved to L.A. They started a family and got involved in the community, and now he is treasurer of the Greater Griffith Park Neighborhood Council.
The people of L.A. are full of distrust — that's a pressing concern to him. “It's just this message that's sent to people,” O'Grady says. “Waste, waste, waste. Largess. [District 4 incumbent] Tom LaBonge floats around in a big yacht every day. … He drives a Cutlass whatever-you-call-it, the city cars. Big beast of a thing.”
The L.A. City Council is among only three big-city councils, a Pew Charitable Trust study shows, still insisting that taxpayers provide elected members with free cars (eight for each council office) — and free gas.
Then there's the odd City Hall work ethic. “I don't need you to have a ceremony to open the traffic light, OK?” O'Grady says. “We just need to expose the system for how ridiculous it is, and those council members wouldn't be 'working really hard,' as they say.”
The other thing is: “Let the neighborhood councils rise up.” He's begun to attract interest, winning the surprise endorsement of the Los Angeles Times.
Referring to annual slush funds of $90,000 that each council member spends without a vote, O'Grady points out, “The money is being doled out based on who the council person likes, and there's a word for that: It's called corruption.”
The City Council also now acts as a shadow city department, placing some people at the front of the line while others follow the rules of waiting in line for city services. O'Grady looks up to the sky as he pleads, “You cannot be in the business of delivering stop signs. That's not your job. We already pay a guy to deliver stop signs.”
O'Grady insists the City Council must save — so it can spend where it matters.
“The department of street services lost 300 positions last year,” O'Grady says. “You know how you get a pothole filled? You get a guy with a shovel. You can have suits there all day long — they are not going to fill potholes.”