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Hizzoner the mentor

As much as he would like to, L.A.'s mayor can't adopt every juvenile delinquent as his personal project.

March 03, 2007

ANYONE STRUGGLING to understand the challenges and failures of Los Angeles in 2007 need look no further than the Tale of the Santee Tagger. It goes something like this:

Students are harassed as they walk the two blocks from a bus stop to the Santee Education Complex. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa responds by putting a new stop closer to the school, then stages a media event to tout the accomplishment. A student marks the occasion by vandalizing the bus, with the mayor, the school superintendent and news photographers aboard. In Chapter 2, the mayor squeezes another media event out of the incident by offering (quite publicly) to mentor the teenager. The school district tells the mayor he has to submit to a lengthy background check -- a fact he twists into further justification for seeking more power over the district.

A year's worth of study on Los Angeles could hardly be more enlightening than this single story. The catalog of failures here is nearly endless, but the most glaring problem is with governmental institutions. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority dropped passengers too far from an L.A. Unified school, and Los Angeles police failed to keep children safe in between. The agencies simply couldn't solve the problem -- until students went to the superintendent, who went to the mayor, who went to the MTA and finally got the new stop.

This is Villaraigosa at his best: crossing bureaucratic lines to get something done, even when it's something as small as moving a bus stop. But the kid scrawling on the mayor's bus is an ambassador of street contempt, demanding an audience with government officials. Graffiti and other vandalism are more evident in Los Angeles than they have been in years, and although they are a problem less serious than the state of education or gang crime, they mock any half-hearted attempt to cure the city's ills.

That brings us to Villaraigosa at his worst, as exemplified by his response to the tagging by 15-year-old "Zoner." A mayor cannot, and should not, personally mentor every tagger, troubled youth, gang member, failing student, fleeing business, accident victim, felled tree or newly gouged pothole. He apparently can, but should not, turn every petty crime into a publicity stunt. Somewhere between the power-brokering style of governing and personal-mentorship approach lies the dull but fundamental task of ensuring that massive governmental bureaucracies work smart, efficiently and with all due speed to make life more livable for everyone in the city.

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