The coalition that fought Measure B to a stalemate — residents, business and labor — is the coalition that can change LA.
I know it’s an alien concept, this old-fashioned idea of democracy, and has never taken hold in the entire history of LA.
But it’s an idea whose time has come. There is no other way. Runaway spending that created a billion dollar budget deficit, billboard blight, a real solar energy plan instead of Measure B and all the B.S at City Hall are just a few of the issues that must be faced immediately.
The quality of life in our city has declined and our problems have only gotten worse during a generation that began with hope with the election of Tom Bradley as mayor and the collapse of the right-wing oligarchy known as the Committee of 25.
Almost overnight, LA went from a conservative, anti-union town to a liberal, union-dominated town. Subway and rail lines got built and downtown got rebuilt but something went wrong along the way as the cost of city government soared out of control and the quality of services declined.
What we got is what I’ve ironically called a failed experiment in municipal socialism. Development without planning led to worse traffic congestion, poverty soared, neighborhoods deteriorated, gangs took control of vast sections of the city, the school system failed.
Richard Riordan rode a groundswell of discontent into the mayor’s office and brought together a new elite, a new establishment that promised to “turn LA around” by hiring more police, fixing the schools, creating good jobs.
But the civic culture that coalesced around Riordan was no match for the political forces that had gained so much power, for the demographic changes that were taking place. He turned LA around but could not really get it moving forward and so the discontent of the people once again surfaced.
Efforts at reforming the City Charter were largely taken over by public employee unions, resulting in a mashup of powerless Neighborhood Councils and blurred lines of authority between the mayor and City Council.
That’s when the San Fernando Valley rebelled and sought to secede and form its own city — the nation’s sixth largest, safest, richest and most integrated. It never stood a chance.
A new power structure had evolved, the Committee of 225, as I’ve sarcastically called it. The elite civic culture was weak, communities divided by race and class, Fortune 500 companies and major banks were gone. Power came to be held by lobbyists, consultants and influence peddlers who fed the political system with campaign cash and fed off it with contracts and sweetheart deals.
“Pay-to-play” flourished under the lackluster leadership of Mayor James Hahn and has become rationalized into a political machine under the leadership of the politically-ambitious Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
And so we are now at the turning point in the history of LA. We have become an old city with an aging infrastructure. We lack the political will to make the hard decisions needed to revive our economy, fix our schools, solve our problems.
That’s why what happened in the campaign against Measure B is so important. It was a symbol of everything wrong with our city government: Back room deals, lack of honesty and transparency, profiteering by narrow special interests without regard to the public interest.
Everyone wants clean energy in a city with the nation’s dirtiest air and dirtiest power plants but residents, business and labor came together and stood up to the machine and stopped what was nothing more than a blank check for graft and corruption.
We must build on that foundation. We must rebuild our civic culture. There can be no excuses for sitting on the sidelines any longer.
There’s a lot of work to be done. At the grassroots level, Neighborhood Councils need to talk less and act more to bring together residents and business, service clubs and churches and then join nearby NCs to form coalitions that can put real pressure on Council members.
Civic, business and labor leaders need to stop accepting crumbs from the table of power and stand up for what’s right for the city.
And Council members need to stop going along to get along and find the courage to speak the truth and refuse to approve anything they doesn’t serve the people’s interest.
Nothing but the greed of petty little people holds this machine together. It will crumble in the face of a broad-based and inclusive movement that gave everyone a seat at the table of power.
Only then will we able to find the common ground and begin to solve our problems and make LA the great city it could become.