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Smiles on Their Faces Help Erase City Officials' Woes

Jokes and quips ease the tension as council members work on a spending plan.

May 29, 2003|Jessica Garrison and Matea Gold | Times Staff Writers

Endless meetings. Hulking budget books filled with mind-numbing columns of numbers. Report after endless, dreary, dry report. All of it punctuated by flashes of political fireworks.

Most of Los Angeles may have been happily oblivious to the ins and outs of the 60 or so hours of discussions on the city's $5.1-billion budget, even if inside the City Council chamber it often felt like the most compelling drama around. Still, you can't blame city officials if they sometimes sought diversions, especially as the meetings stretched through lunch and into the evenings on many days.

One councilman frequently surfed the Web from his desk at the dais -- often for newspaper articles about the dire financial straits of other cities.

Others tapped away on their ever-present portable e-mail devices, compiling "Top 10" lists which -- although they might never make David Letterman's cut -- were a source of hilarity to those inside City Hall.

(Reason No. 5 that the city's budget is balanced for the next five years despite shortfall projections: "Take Your Daughter to Work Day turned into a month: Free child labor boosts efficiency dramatically." The No. 2 way to raise money for the Recreation and Parks Department: "Kidnap Shamu and bring him to the port" of Los Angeles.)

"It's like being stuck in the principal's office for five days straight," Budget and Finance Committee member Eric Garcetti said of the endless hearings. "It requires a lot of concentration, and it definitely brings home why government is so difficult to understand in the first place."

Still, Garcetti said the process, in which each city department comes before the council to discuss its specific budget, offers a valuable view of how the city bureaucracy works.

"It's the one chance to have a global look at the city," he said.

Along the way, officials did their best to liven the mood, interspersing earnest discussions about the city's finances with jokes and quips.

During one meeting, a manager from the city's Bureau of Engineering reported on the poor state of the city's infrastructure.

"There are no friends of the sewer," he said mournfully.

"I do think Councilman [Jack] Weiss is starting a Friends of the Sewer group, so that may change," cracked Garcetti.

Sometimes, humor provided a release as tension built between the council and the mayor's office over warnings that Mayor James K. Hahn's budget could create a gap of as much as $280 million by June 2004. Hahn's office insisted his budget proposal was balanced, kicking off three weeks of back-and-forth that sometimes flared into accusations and angry news conferences.

Yet there was still room for humor on the subject when Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski inadvertently received a notice about a bake sale in City Hall. She joked that it was part of Hahn's new strategy to come up with additional sources of revenue.

In response, an official in the mayor's office e-mailed her to report the mayor's bake sale had raised $700.

"Only $279,999,300 more to go," the official offered wryly, a reference to the projected $280 million shortfall that the mayor's office had publicly downplayed.

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