In the amazing debate over what to do about poor Billy the Elephant, one Council member after another got up and admitted they didn’t know what they were doing two years ago when they approved spending $40 million or so on a new pachyderm exhibit at the L.A. Zoo.
We’re talking here about the nation’s highest paid municipal officials at more than $170,000 a year with vast staffs of 20 which puts them in a class with the chairs of major congressional committees and they stand up in public and admit they don’t know what they’re doing.
If only it was about one elephant. But it’s the truth about everything they do. They don’t know, they don’t care. They take orders from unions, lobbyists and special interests and all their efforts are focused on manipulating the politics of every situation to their own advantage.
And that usually means keeping the public as ignorant as possible and as fragmented as possible because when the people actually know what’s going and unite, the council crumbles and runs for cover to avoid accountability.
Christine Pelisek in the LA Weekly puts one of a hundred issues like this under the microscope in a long and devastating dissection of how the city came to be taken over by digital billboards — an assault on our visual sense of place that is only exceeded by the foolhardy rush to trash every neighborhood with more and taller buildings as if densification will improve the quality of life for anyone other than those who profit from it.
She traces how the city won its case in courtagainst the billboard companies and how City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo worked out a settlement that allowed these scofflaws to remove some of their illegal billboards — a fraction of the 4,000 they put up without permits — in exchange for putting up nearly 1,000 giant electronic signs that flash new messages every few seconds. The council approved the deal — no questions asked — within days unanimously.
“Each new sign is capable of pulling in $735,000 in annual gross ad revenue, with a top monthly intake of $128,000 for a single heavily booked, LED display,” Pelisek reports.
?Thanks to the Council’s action, signed several days later without any challenge by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the huge billboard firms stand to reap a windfall of up to $1 billion in ad revenue each year from the 800-plus digital displays, according to L.A. Weekly calculations.
“City Hall’s take for granting this crass new form of clutter: about $100 per billboard…elected leaders paint a picture of confusion and ignorance that led to their 2006 unanimous vote to grant broad new rights to the digital-ad companies. Some City Council members, seven of whom, along with Villaraigosa, are seeking re-election March 3, say they have no recollection of why they agreed to the dramatic digital makeover of the city’s streets.”
Here’s what Councilman Tom LaBonge has to say: “I am looking at my daily calendar for that day. I don’t recall it being a lengthy discussion at all…We just took it, and obviously many of us regret it. It seems like this city has never had a successful strategy with billboards.”
And Councilman Dennis Zine: “I can’t recall back that far. When we discussed digital, I don’t think anyone had a clear idea of what it was about. It was new to me…I don’t know if any of us saw how bright they would be. It’s a whole new world. I had never seen it before, so I don’t know how we would have known what it is. I thought it would be one advertisement on the board.”
And Council President Eric Garcetti: “It was probably a mistake…It was a really bad decision…There is no massive conspiracy of billboard companies owning Council members…I don’t want to make too many excuses…you have to rely on your lawyers.”
Amnesia, ignorance, bad legal advice — but nobody is making excuses.
It isn’t just Billy or billboards. It’s the open slather policy on development with the full intent of denying a say to residents of the city that’s just like this. It’s the solar energy plan that enriches the IBEW and their own campaign coffers that was approved without examining the implications of a policy that will cost the public a fortune and slow expansion of green energy and the development of a major industry in L.A.
It’s everywhere you look. Call it incompetence, call it criminal.
The point is the same: They spent special interest money to trick the public into giving them a third term when they have forfeited their right to be our leaders. And they have locked up their re-election in March with the same dirty money — thousands of times more than their challengers can raise.
We are held captive by them even as they sell out the public interest to special interests. We can elect agents for change to City Attorney and the Controller offices. We can reject every measure they put on the ballot. We can organize and mobilize into a unified force and change the system and hold them accountable.
Or we can sit back in our apathy and defeatism and let the amnesiacs and ignoramuses and crooks decide the future of our city.
Photos by Ted Soqui in the LA Weekly.