Every two years, Los Angeles City Hall is consumed by a ritual that is one part playground choose-up and one part palace intrigue.
It is that time again: time for handing out the committee assignments that can determine whether a City Council member's next 24 months are full of glory or tedium.
The legislators' fates are in the hands of the wily longtime council president, John Ferraro, who is expected to announce his decisions today.
Although Ferraro denies using his committee assignment prerogative to reward allies and punish enemies, he admits to a certain pragmatism. "Anybody who mistreats their friends to benefit their enemies is not practicing good politics," he said. "You don't get reelected to the presidency that way."
All of which adds up to an anxious atmosphere around City Hall these days.
"Everybody is a little bit edgy until the assignments are made," said Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, who once went "purple with anger" fuming about one of her assignments.
And Ferraro is not above flexing his committee-assignment muscle to bend council members to his will. With a twinkle in his eye, Ferraro recently warned his quarreling colleagues not to challenge one of his unilateral rulings because he was still working on their committee assignments.
It was enough to silence opposition.
Savvy council members are well-versed in the hierarchy of committee posts.
If a council member wants to make his reputation on police issues, he can get a leg up as chairman of the Public Safety Committee. If his district is poor, the chairmanship of the Housing and Community Redevelopment Committee, where grant fund allocations are negotiated, may be the ticket.
Council members who want a light committee load--and there are some--won't want to sit on the Planning and Land Use Management Committee, infamous for its long hearings on neighborhood zoning disputes.
There's always a long line to be chair of the powerful Budget and Finance Committee--master not only of the purse strings but also ex-officio member of little-known panels that negotiate with the city unions and control council members' travel perks.
Ferraro, who has been elected to five consecutive terms as president since 1987, said in a recent interview that he tries to balance the committees on the basis of ethnicity and gender and the interests and talents of lawmakers. "It's not an easy task when you realize all the criteria I deal with," Ferraro said.
In its barest form, the task is this: the council has 15 members and 15 committees; each member chairs one committee and sits on three panels.
"Making the committee assignments is perhaps the president's most important way of exerting leadership," said lobbyist Art Snyder, a shrewd City Hall observer and former lawmaker.
If past is prologue, politics will also play a role in the assignments. Those who supported Ferraro's reelection last month as council president can generally expect better assignments than those who backed Councilman Marvin Braude's ill-fated bid to oust Ferraro.
While denying that he follows the iron rule of spoils politics in shaping his committee decisions, Ferraro contends other presidents have. Ferraro claims ex-councilwoman Pat Russell punished him in 1983, when she was elected president, because of his key role in dramatically thwarting her bid for the top post two years earlier. "She put Braude and [Ernani] Bernardi and me on two committees that were pretty bad," he said. (At that time, Braude and Bernardi were Ferraro allies.)
This time around, City Hall insiders fully expect Braude, the unsuccessful coup-maker, to lose his coveted chairmanship of the police committee to Councilwoman Laura Chick, a Ferraro loyalist.
There is also a widespread belief that Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, Braude's strategist in the abortive coup, may get short shrift. "There's a lot of talk that the big guy [Ferraro] is going to paddle me," Ridley-Thomas said recently. "He hasn't said that himself however. But you take a risk [trying to unseat a sitting president]."
Ridley-Thomas, waxing philosophic, says the committee emphasis may be misplaced. "What I am able to do for the 8th District [his South Central-based bailiwick] will happen irrespective of what committees I sit on," he said. "At the end of the day, we all have one vote and what counts is how you leverage it. Besides, John Ferraro is reasonable enough. I think the president is aware of my talents and what's good for the city and he will put people on committees that will be for the good of the whole process."
Still, Ridley-Thomas acknowledges that the committee assignments issue "is the talk of the council right now."
As well it should be, particularly now that the chairs of the committees are gaining new power and responsibility.
Mayor Richard Riordan has initiated a system in which the chairs of council committees will participate in the annual performance reviews of general managers whose departments now routinely report to their panels.