In the 1990s, public discontent over the failures of the schools and city government became the focus of LA’s political conflicts.
It manifested in South LA with people rioting in the streets over police brutality and City Hall’s neglect and in the San Fernando Valley with people demanding breakup of LAUSD and the city into manageable units that would give them a greater say over public policy.
Richard Riordan rode this discontent into the mayor’s office with his promise to “turn LA around,” a promise that went largely unfulfilled because of the resistance to change by the network of special interests that held power tightly for themselves.
Instead of heeding the public outcry, the power structure tinkered on the edges, dividing and conquering the populace without really reforming the institutions and sharing power with the people.
It took the Rampart scandal and federal takeover to reform the LAPD but neglect of the city’s poorest areas is still as pervasive as ever.
LAUSD responded by creating local mini-districts but failed to bring parents or teachers into a dynamic dialogue. Incremental improvements in test scores were achieved but dropout rates remained high and credibility of the district low.
District officials paid less attention to educational reform than to their massive construction program and the result was the chaotic breakup of the district by a thousand cuts: Charter schools, the mayor’s takeover of 22 schools and soon the “parent trigger” will cut the number of students in classrooms by the LAUSD bureaucracy from nearly 800,000 to barely half that.
The evolution of city politics has been far more tortured.
Reform of the City Charter that put most of the authority of the City Council was seized on as a way to head off secession movements in the Valley, Hollywood and San Pedro.
What came out of a process that was largely under the control of the same special interests that had long controlled City Hall was a mishmash of changes that shifted authority of department managers to the mayor while allowing Council members to continue to run their districts as fiefdoms.
Secession movements were crushed by massive spending by developers, unions, contractors and the vast network of political operatives but discontent only grew, fed by revelations of pay-to-play corruption and deepening perceptions that City Hall was inefficient and indifferent to the concerns of residents and businesses.
Today, with the city in perpetual financial crisis and slashing key services, the credibility of the mayor, Council and key agencies like the DWP and CRA are at an all-time low.
Dismantling of the planning process and massive subsidies to luxury projects have fueled controversies all over the city as community groups become increasingly organized to fight for their interests.
The response, as always, is for those who have a share of power to close ranks and resist calls for change, for a devolution of power to the neighborhoods.
It is a futile exercise. City Hall cannot fix what is broken because its huge budget deficits are forcing ever deeper cuts in public services, far more severe than what we have seen to date.
City Hall is impotent. It lacks the political will to confront its overspending head-on so it is in a downward spiral even as anger out in the community is growing.
There is nothing mysterious about any of this.
The LAPD is the only success story but it wasn’t city leaders who fixed it. It took the federal courts to impose stringent controls that took the political leadership out of the equation and allow professional police executives to restore competence and credibility to the department.
Bringing order out of chaos in the schools and the rest of city government will not be so easy.
It will take real leadership that is now totally lacking.
Funding cuts and union opposition to reforms likely will continue fragmenting LAUSD for years to come.
City Hall is different. Sooner or later, there will have to be a new deal with the unions and the public. The only question is how much damage will have been done before that moment comes.