My last political engagement of 2009 came on the second last day of year, breakfast with state Sen. Gloria Romero. The subject was educating our children by mandating that parents – all parents everywhere in California – have the power under the law to play a direct role in how schools are run.
It was a far cry from how the year began with Jack Humphreville and his Solar 8 defending themselves in court against the lawsuit the mayor engineered to get the ballot argument we signed against the Measure B solar energy fraud removed from the voter pamphlet.
The underlying issue in both education and energy policy is the same, the same one that comes up over the 1,000 pot shops, the 4,000 illegal billboards, the disastrous city planning policies and the multitude of other issues that trouble the lives of the populace.
What is the role of ordinary citizens in determining public policy in Los Angeles and across California? Is it nothing more than the occasional right to choose among meaningless choices in elections controlled by big moneyed special interests?
Gloria Romero offered her answer in the closing weeks of the year when she put her political career on the line and pulled off a dramatic victory by getting the state Senate to approve by a single vote a proposed state law that gives parents unprecedented power over the schools. The prize for California taking the lead in education reform could be as much as $1 billion for our troubled public school system from the pot of money in President Obama’s “Right to the Top” stimulus program…
She acted in defiance of one of the most powerful lobbies in Sacramento, the California Teachers Association, the umbrella organization for teacher unions that has dictated educational policies for most of this generation.
For a Democrat and Senate Majority Leader to twist arms and give courage to members of her party to back parental empowerment was an act of heroism we don’t often see from our politicians anymore.
The issue was the “parent trigger” – a measure backed by the Parent Revolution led by Ben Austin. It would allow for the takeover and even closure of failing schools when a majority of parents come together and support real change. The teacher union lobby is now throwing all its weight and money behind efforts to kill the “parent trigger” provision in the Assembly where intense negotiations have been under way for days.
Why Romero took her stand has a lot to do with where she came from and where she’s going.
She grew up on the wrong side of the tracks in Barstow where her father worked for the railroads and instilled in her the passion to do what she thinks is right. She has a nearly perfect pro-union voting record and a lifelong commitment to social justice yet she stood for the rights of parents against the power of teacher unions.
Now she is running for state Superintendent of Public Instruction and is certain to face intense opposition from the teacher union leadership fighting to preserve the status quo that has so badly served our children for so long.
She is one of my leaders of the year.
There are many others in so many walks of life, prominent people and ordinary citizens, who like Gloria Romero, have found the courage to stand up publicly for what they believe in.
I could name hundreds of people I know personally or from their work who have emerged as true leaders of this community. There are thousands of others like them unknown to me.
2009 marked a turning point in our history, I believe, the year when the people crossed over from the indignity of powerless negativity to pride in their power to get the kind of changes they want and believe will make their lives and the lives others better.
When you read through my month-by-month year in review you will see how community activists scored victories at the polls and forced our elected officials to back down on numerous issues and begin to obey the will of the people and respect the rule of law.
The collapse of the nation’s economy exposed for one and all to see just how mismanaged the affairs of our city and state and nation have been for too long because the politicians on both sides of the aisle have sold out to special interests while voters stood by passively.
It’s unbelievable that the Golden State and the city of unlimited dreams should be in such dire financial straits that dangerous criminals are being freed early from our prisons, teachers laid off and basic services slashed.
Real change rarely occurs without such catastrophes.
How we respond in such critical times determines the future and what I’m seeing is the birth of a truly democratic movement that is gaining momentum so fast that the thousand little cells of community organizations are coming together into a cohesive force that can end the cycle of failed pubic policies that have diminished our lives.
It hangs in the balance. The challenges are great. But we are entering the second decade of the 21st century and if we are not ready to create a more democratic society in which all of us are empowered and our interests and values respected, we never will be.
Those who have taken the step forward in their communities will have to redouble their efforts. Those who have watched from the sidelines will have to leap into the arena. Those in authority will have to change their minds about where their winds of power are blowing.
But it can happen. I believe that or I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing any more than all of you doing what you are to make LA a better city.
Here’s the highlights of 2009 as I have lived and written about it:
JANUARY: The nation’s economy was tanking, a black man was being
sworn in as President of the United States but in LA, the City Council
was still preoccupied with the welfare of Billy the elephant and the
citizenry was waking up to the scam called Measure B.
beat the mayor’s lawyer in court and citizen activists fanned out
across the city to community meetings to confront DWP management and
the hirelings paid by the IBEW and other special interests to sell
voters on an ill-defined and unstudied solar energy scheme. The goal
was to mandate that the DWP — which had fought against solar for a
decade — would own, install and maintain more than $3 billion in large
rooftop solar installations in the city.
The Measure B campaign heated up with business, private sector unions,
community groups, local papers lining up in opposition to the DWP
boondoggle. Jack Weiss took his lumps from just about every direction
as outsider Carmen “Nuch” Trutanich gained support in the City
Attorney’s race while Wendy Greuel easily won the Controller’s race.
And, in a startling act of hubris, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa,
interrupted his faltering re-election effort, to start campaigning for
governor of California with the promise to do to the state what he had
done to the city. The LA Weeklyxxx exposed how City Council members were
living high with spectacular salaries and perks and huge staffs to
cater to their every whim .
union boss Brian D’Arcy, drooling to get his hands on all that
ratepayer money from Measure B, sneaked out of the comfort of back
rooms and onto the public stage for a few brief moments. It was to no
avail, Measure B narrowly lost in an historic election, signaling a
shift in power in city politics that was also reflected in Weiss being
forced into a runoff against Trutanich, community activist David Vahedi
making the CD5 runoff and the mayor barely avoiding a runoff against
Walter Moore. The uncontrolled proliferation of billboards,
particularly of the digital variety, emerged as a hot-button issue that
energized community groups and put City Hall under pressure to fix what
they had broken by selling out to sign companies and lobbyists.
The public employee payola pension scandal erupted in New York and
spilled over to LA, the DWP and mayor decided to ignored the Measure B
vote and go forward as if nothing happened and plans to triple the
water runoff charge was scrapped in the face of community opposition.
The mayor sounded like a candidate for governor with a high-minded
“State of the City” speech the proposed a straw man budget and promised
to get rid of the “deadwood.” But his budget plan only half solved the
massive deficit on paper and behind the scenes he was offering the
unions a sweetheart deal for early retirements with enhanced benefits
for senior managers and staffers.
Paul Koretz won narrowly in CD5 and newcomer Tina Park pulls off an
upset victory for a Community College board seat. Trutanich whipped
Weiss for City Attorney and declared: “We took over the city…we’re
going to change the way politics is played.” LA Magazine judged the
mayor a “FAILURE” on its cover and his gubernatorial campaign is
stillborn. The Council took up the budget and got the bad news that
they have to cut salaries sharply or thousands workers and the
financial situation will get worse over the next few years. No matter,
the budget — called “fiscally responsible” by Controller-elect Greuel
– was adopted with phony cuts but not before the Council gutted
funding to Neighborhood Councils only to have to back down in the face
of a public outcry.
ambitions thwarted, the mayor reverts to form and falls in love with
another TV news anchor. The DWP belatedly imposes water conservation
measures but raises rates under its doctrine of “revenue neutrality.”
LA gets high on the World Champion Lakers while unknown number of
thousands get high on marijuana bought at the proliferating pot shops
– an issue angering many in the community. Activists seek to take the
law into their own hands with a ballot measure to cut elected
officials’ salaries in half. Councilman Jose Huizar tries to save the
Southwest Museum with a two-museum deal with the Autry National Center.
City Hall bows to the unions and cuts a deal for an Early Retirement
Incentive Program without knowing the costs.
The state, unable to pay its bills, starts issuing IOUs but an
agreement is finally reached on a budget that is as phony as the
city’s. Singer Michael Jackson dies and the Staples Center sticks the
city with the multi-million bill for public services for the funeral
extravaganza which will bring it millions in revenue from DVD sales. In
his inaugural address, the mayor ignores the city’s financial crisis by
focusing on long-term job creation, green energy and public transit
programs that won’t produce results until he’s left office. Greuel
swears she will be an independent watchdog. Trutanich outlines a broad
agenda for political change and to bring the rule of law to City Hall
and within days ignites a major controversy with Greuel, demands
Staples Center pay Jackson funeral costs and announces he is conducting
a criminal investigation of the relationship between city officials and
AEG, parent company of Staples and LA Live.
Despite its dire financial situation, the city finds tens of millions
of dollars to subsidize Cirque du Soleil making one of its homes at
Kodak Theater, a heavily-subsidized white elephant project. The mayor
takes time out from his busy agenda to South Africa, Iceland and Las
Vegas to shake up his staff. Police Chief Bratton quits abruptly. The
ERIP retirement deal blows up when Sally Choi, general manager of the
city’s largest pension fund, tells the Council it would cost taxpayers
hundreds of millions of dollars.
The Station Fire, a massive blaze in the Angeles National Forest,
destroyed dozens of homes in the Sunland-Tujunga and La
Canada-Flintridge areas and hundreds of thousands acres. DWP GM David
Nahai, aided by Deputy Mayor David Freeman, pulled out all stops to get
the Council to approve a blank check for solar energy and unlimited
rate hikes but were foiled by community opposition and blowouts of
aging water mains all over town. The Council, finally facing a reality
of the failed city budget plan, cut a new deal for early retirement of
2,400 workers with the city unions and declared it an historic
breakthrough. Councilman Bernard Parks acknowledged the city’s
financial problems are dire and accused DWP union boss D’Arcy of
blackmailing the city to get sweetheart contracts. The LA Times
revealed the mayor’s chief fund-raiser Ari Swiller outmaneuvered the
DWP for a wind farm property in Kern County and then offered to sell
the property for a huge profit to the city. Carpetbaggers Paul
Krekorian and Chris Essel — the two candidates backed by City Hall
insiders — finished first and second in the CD2 special election far
outdistancing eight community candidates.
Nahai is fired as DWP general manager but gets a golden handshake –
his full salary of $6,300 a week through the end of the year. Former
DWP head, Deputy Mayor David Freeman replaces him. The city’s spending
more than it takes in reaches the $100 million mark in less than four
months. Chief Bratton takes a parting shot, saying LA is a city that
“almost doesn’t work” and compares it unfavorably to New York and
Boston. DWP’s Freeman calls himself the true “Rate Payer Advocate” and
then approves a 3.25 percent cash payout to utility workers and raises
of 2 to 4 percent each year for four years depending on inflation.Cops
cut a deal for no raises for two years and no overtime pay. Council
backs down on 2,000 percent increase in planning appeals fees but
approves billions in new DWP spending that will require massive rate
NOVEMBER: Charlie Beck leaps over other more
experienced candidates and is named Chief of Police, raising questions
about his independence from the mayor. Italian rail car maker Ansaldo
Breda pulls out of deal to be the cornerstone of the mayor’s “green
corridor” just four months after he pulled out all stops to get MTA
approval despite the firm’s past failures. The Planning Department
quietly moves forward on a scheme to allow nearly every residential
property owner to convert single family homes into apartments or add
“granny flats” in backyards. The Council takes up City Attorney Carmen
Trutanich’s proposal to crack down on the 1,000 marijuana shops in the
city but can’t reach a decision on what to do. The CD2 runoff takes a
weird turn with DWP union boss D’Arcy throwing hundreds of thousands of
dollars behind Chris Essel, solidifying Paul Krekorian as the community
candidate. Chief Beck shakes up LAPD’s command staff, demoting
Bratton’s second-in-command Jim McDonnell and Deputy Chief Sharon Papa
while promoting close friends and allies.
Former LA pension fund board member Elliott Broidy pleads guilty in the
widening pension fund scandal. Krekorian trounces Essel and wins
election in CD2. Assistant City Administrative Officer Tom Coultas
expands on his budget warning back in May and tells the Council that
the budget problem now “is just the beginning, next year is worse.”
LAPD audit finds millions of dollars for purchases have been
mishandled. City Planners extend the public comment period for the
“granny flats” ordinance and then scrap the plan entirely in the face
of community opposition. OurLA.org names City Attorney Trutanich LA’s
Man of the Year.