The scene was the City Council Chamber on Thursday where Griffith Park booster Tom LaBonge held court over a critical moment in the debate over the future of Billy, the elephant with the head-nodding tic, and others of his kind at the L.A. Zoo.
His colleagues, Councilmen Tony Cardenas and Richard Alarcon, had come up with a bizarre plan to halt construction midstream of the new $40 million elephant exhibit and buy 100 acres in the Valley for a sanctuary for elephants in the wide open spaces of the Valley.
It was a crowd-pleasing idea for many who think the giant pachyderms shouldn’t be cooped up in a zoo even if the care deeply about preserving the park – and idiotic to those who think Griffith Park is more endangered than elephants would be in their carefully-designed new home.
Then, out of nowhere, Committee Chairman LaBonge asked how many golfers were in the room. Noticing only one he announced, “I want to take the golf course and give it to the zoo.”
Or maybe he said: “I would like to take the golf course to create an elephant sanctuary at the Zoo in Griffith Park.”
Or “I would like to take land from the golf course to create an elephant sanctuary at the Zoo in Griffith Park.”
Or maybe what he said, as he insists, was this: “Ideally, I would take the golf course to create an elephant sanctuary at the Zoo in Griffith Park.”
It’s hard to know exactly what he said because the little snippet of meeting that lasted for hours is missing from audio podcast on the city website.
That was suspicious enough but nothing compared to the sinister motives imputed to LaBonge who, like everyone in City Hall, arouses suspicion in almost everything he says and does. In LaBonge’s case, the suspicion runs deep because of his propensity to ham it up and make statements that suggest he’d like to see Griffith Park become a major tourist attraction instead of an urban wilderness with a few public facilities.
“I was surprised that GLAZA (zoo supporters) members applauded the concept. They were not concerned about evicting a segment of Griffith Park recreationists who have been established for nearly a century (golfers) and– just as important — demolishing habitat that the Park’s wild animals depend on for survival,” recalled one participant.
“I thought he was serious. I was surprised that he came out in public and said so.”
Through emails and text messages and phone calls, LaBonge’s remark created an uproar in activist circles. He says he never intended for his remark to be taken seriously and would never do anything to detract from the experience of golfing in the park or the freedom of coyotes and deer to run freely across the many acres of fairways and greens.
A lot of people don’t believe him. They think he wants to seek all kinds of developments in the park, to see it become a kind of Disneyland rather than the wonderland it is.
I’m revisiting this event because it’s indicative on one of the fundamental problems in the civic and political culture of Los Angeles.
Large numbers of people don’t trust City Hall. Too many back room deals, too much special interest influence, too little transparency and concern for the welfare of the city and its residents and businesses.
Personally, I talked to LaBonge and believe he didn’t really mean he wants to take part of Harding Golf Course, one of my favorites, for the zoo.
But I understand the public’s skepticism. The mistrust of City Hall runs to deep and for good reason. Everything our elected officials and bureaucrats say and do is looked at darkly by large numbers of people, especially those who follow what goes on closely.
And worse than that, it’s clear that they don’t think it matters. They think that the millions they raise from special interests will allow them to remain in power forever and forever to be able to use massive advertising campaigns to get approval for whatever they want.
Thousands of people across the city have worked for years to try to change things but with no success. Their belief is that things are getting worse.
I agree with them. I wish I had a magic wand and could get just one of our city officials to find the courage to stand up for openness and honesty, for respect for the community and their values even when they are in a minority.
President-elect Barack Obama talks of these things, of change and hope. I’m certain nearly every one of our elected officials voted for him. Too bad they don’t emulate him.