It was unusual, unprecedented, an historic event symbolizing City Hall’s commitment to transparency, to an open and honest public conversation on an issue of great importance: The outrageous high wages and benefits granted over the years to the Department of Water and Power workers and the outrageous rate hikes imposed on customers, even the 20 percent who get hefty discounts, even the 40 percent hit with huge bills in the summer’s broiling heat San Fernando Valley.
Every element of that sentence represents a triumph for community activists, Neighborhood Councils and everyone else who has cared enough to try to do something to make L.A. a better city despite the reign of havoc of the tyranny of a minority majority that attained near absolute power over processes and information thanks to the bottomless pit of money coming from labor-business-developer special interests that profit handsomely from the public’s business at the public’s expense.
Nothing about the “unusual, unprecedented, historic” event would have been said previously, the event wouldn’t even been held if they weren’t afraid of the people, that something just might trigger a reaction that would awaken the zombied populace to action.
Friday’s joint meeting of two key Council committees was called to discuss in public the proposed deal between the DWP and its union, IBEW Local 18, to clear the way so DWP officials, with the “Rate Payer Advocate” so evidently in tow, could come forward quickly for approval of another series of major rate hikes on top of the 52 percent imposed for electricity in the last six years.
Propagandist Supreme Paul Krekorian, as the Councilman in charge, was proud to pay homage to the “unusual,unprecedented, historic” nature of this “open and transparent” event — words that had never before spoken in such earnestness in this Temple of Democracy, as the mayor describes it.
Assisted by rising City Council star Felipe Fuentes, he led the public and his colleagues through a more than three-hour performance worthy of theatrical awards though it did drag as he went on and on through the drudgery of having each and every highly paid member of the cast of bureaucrats formerly known as public servants — the CLA, the CAO, the CEO, the RPA, the CA — swear allegiance to the story that was so well scripted and choreographed with such attention to detail. It was hard not to wonder why they never work as hard to solve the people’s problems as they do to conceal them.
They intended to leave no openings in the logic and facts presented. Cynics, skeptics and heretics were lying in wait, ready to drive enough truth through such openings to catch the ear and open the minds of a populace so obviously blind to reality, or so oblivious to reality, that they were incapable of reaction to anything one degree less the a gun in the face or a massive earthquake.
Trying to penetrate the false premises and gross omissions of fact among so many other intellectual and moral flaws that seem to be part and parcel to politics these days was meant to be so challenging that few would try and even if anyone got past the numerous layers of deceit, they would find it took so long to explain that only people who already knew the truth would pay attention.
The reason the event was structured as “unusual, unprecedented, historic” was because those people who know the truth about what is wrong have found so many chinks in the armor protecting this concrete fortress that something could go seriously wrong. After all, they have been walking a fiscal tightrope for so long and are so deeply indebted to benefactors that they would sell just anything, cut any deal or say just about anything if they could last another day in hopes of the miracle that could save them from the consequences of their failures, their betrayals of the public trust.
It was a pandering tribute to the risk they face of inflaming public passions, yet some who some who could have shown courage groveled at their feet, some critics sought nothing more than time to talk the issues to death as they have been so comfortable doing for so long and, in a brilliant masterstroke by the Master of Ceremonies Herb Wesson, they were all reduced to being a claque clapping on his cue for the very people they should be shunning.
It has been more than 20 years, through at least three major recessions and four mayors, since DWP workers went without raises — some years getting 5.9 percent more, every year getting more, leaving everyone else on the city payroll, even cops and firefighters, and employees in other utilities, green with envy.
But this was different and everybody who profits from the public’s willingness to pay high taxes and fees and endure soaring rates was delighted by what’s good about the deal: The IBEW is willing to defer its 2 percent raise due in October for four years, agree to tougher pension rules and lower salaries for new employees only and accept at least a few of the reforms on pensions that other city unions have lived with since the recession hit five years ago — but not health care, overtime or more than 600 special advantages they enjoy among so many other issues.
“It’s a start,” said one city official after another.
The same sentiment was echoed by even the most critical and passionate opponents but they all added it was not an end, not a solution to what is broken. It is after all based on nothing but the same kinds of tinkering that has perpetuated this fiscal catastrophe for five years without an end in sight unless you believe the city’s fanciful claims based on nothing but the dream that L.A. will become the greenest, cleanest, most wonderful big city in the world, the No. 1 destination for everyone with money to spend in search of the greatest time of their life and for everyone without two pennies to rub together to try to do great things and find happiness and freedom.
The fatal flaw is that the deal on the table doesn’t solve the city’s or the DWP’s problems because it is based on the city’s failed policies over years. It is based on a hope and a prayer that 30 years from now, somehow, a miracle perhaps, everything will turn out just right with public employees wages and benefits in line with the revenue streams that treat everyone fairly and with high-quality services that engender a feeling across all the divisions of being part of something greater than ourselves.
But they had to admit the deal on the table would mean less than a 2 percent reduction in water and power rate INCREASES over the next four years — a period in which ratepayers are girding for hikes of 20 or 30 or even 40 percent. It’s better but it’s nowhere near good enough.
There’s no mystery to why it’s not good enough: Once an employer takes off the table the possibility of give-backs and wage reductions and real reforms of benefits and work rules, what leverage is there? Only to give away more, never less.
And that’s why the big lie they told matters so much.
Under the law, employers and unions are required to negotiate in good faith and provide a factual rationality to their positions. But if nothing comes of the negotiations, the employer can declare an impasse and impose its “last, best and final offer” as Glendale did to the IBEW union in union after long unfruitful negotiations. The offer cut everyone’s pay 1.75 percent and it stays in effect until the conflict is resolved.
It doesn’t work that way in L.A. — or so every official involved swore on a stack of reports and studies.
All those highly paid bureaucrats who said exactly what the Council wanted to hear agreed that L.A. has such a cumbersome procedure for reaching an impasse and imposing wage and benefits conditions that a year would pass and under the city’s rules a new round of negotiations would have to start and take most of a year, meaning they could never reach the end point of imposing the “last, best and final offer.”
The two committees that met jointly were the Budget and Finance Committee — Krekorian, Englander, Koretz, Blumenfield and Bonin — and Energy and Environment — Fuentes, Blumenfield, LaBonge, Huizar and Koretz.
Could it be a coincidence that the Westsider Bonin and the Eastsider Huizar were nowhere in evidence, leaving only the six Council members from the Valley — members who with Nury Martinez carve up the Valley into demographic cohorts that dilute the representation of less than 40 percent of the city’s population by giving them nearly 50 percent of the Council members, all them beholden to special interests mainly over the hill?
It was not a mistake that this was the case. Council President Herb Wesson, driving for a rapid approval of a half-loaf deal — instead of the real deal that is sitting there for the taking — made it clear at the outset that it’s the Valley that could upset everything and that’s why he produced this spectacle.
As someone who has created a vast body of journalism relevant to what is being raised for nearly 30 years, I can say with certainty that the Valley no longer has any significance in the politics of Los Angeles. There is no leadership. There is no sense of place. There is no vehicle for the desperately needed conversation that could save the remnants of the middle class from city policies.
And that’s what makes so significant the comments made to the City Council by the Valley business community’s spokesman, Stuart Waldman, president of the Valley Industry and Commerce Association.
Neighborhood Council leaders and community activists, even the all-powerful Central City Association, all testified to the Council that the deal on the table was a start but it was not good enough. More needs to be done and more time needs to be taken.
Yet, with six Valley Council members as witnesses, all of them elected on the power of money from the outside, the Valley business community called the deal “incredible” and “a great start that really could change the face of the city … it needs to be done by Oct. 1.”
That was an important goal of this farce: Disarming the Valley.
But not so fast. There is a surprising twist that leaves an opening for people all over the city from every walk of life and every political stripe to rise above the banality of what is on the table and recognize that we are at a critical crossroads that demands we rise above the b.s. and see how our lives and fortunes are bound together.
I have hardly written anything for a long time because I have beaten the horse of LA corruption to death and have nothing further to say, convinced that calamity is a certainty and that tragically it will be the most vulnerable who suffer, not the perpetrators.
Eric Garcetti has taken a stand against this half-loaf deal and shaken up the DWP Commission with four new appointees, including Jills Banks Barad, founder and longtime head of the Valley of Neighborhood Councils, She was one of Garcetti’s appointees to the DWP board year still had the courage to testify Friday that we need a better deal.
If you will not mobilize across this city now for a chance to demand real reforms of the DWP and of every aspect of the way the city is run, when will you do it?