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An L.A. activist has had enough of politics as usual

STEVE LOPEZ

February 18, 2009|STEVE LOPEZ

Budgets would be passed on time when he was in charge, candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger promised during his run for governor. But only a fool could have believed him.

This is California, the incorrigible state, where chaos and calamity are built into the game, and all promises turn up empty. And so the layoff notices were readied for thousands of state employees this week as we teetered at the abyss, certain that even with a budget agreement, there'll be sudden drop-offs ahead.

Meanwhile, here in Los Angeles, the largest homestead in the ungovernable state, we're less than two weeks away from a mayoral election no one is aware of.

Go ahead. Name one person who's running against the mayor whose name you can't pronounce.

OK, I'll help. The most well-known of Antonio Villaraigosa's nine challengers is attorney Walter Moore. You'd get to see Moore in action, for better or worse, except that Villaraigosa refuses to debate him or anyone else.

Why?

Because Villaraigosa's reelection has been preordained. And that, as a matter of fact, is the very reason I'm in Hancock Park on a blustery afternoon, talking to someone who's got big problems with the anointing that passes for electioneering in Los Angeles.

Attorney Jane Usher was once anointed herself, named to the Planning Commission in 2005 by none other than Villaraigosa. But once there, she found herself frequently at odds with the mayor and City Council. By December of last year, she couldn't take any more and quit before her four-year term was complete.

"City Hall is too comfy with a spirit of lawlessness that jeopardizes transparency and open government," Usher said.

Strong words, but hard to dispute.

Usher's biggest gripes?

We'd need days to get through them all, she said, but they include:

The way the mayor rushed the solar panel measure onto the ballot despite questions about cost and feasibility, and against a backdrop of support from a labor union whose support Villaraigosa might find helpful in a future run for governor.

The mayor's stony silence and City Council's towering ineptitude on the scandalous proliferation of digital billboards and supergraphics, those tacky vinyl coverings that are draped across buildings and, in some cases, make exits unusable.

And the routine granting of land-use exceptions to well-connected developers over the objections of exasperated homeowners concerned that, yet again, the city had no plan for traffic relief.

Enough already, Usher thought. It's time to recruit some new players, which is why she's backing city attorney candidate Carmen Trutanich over the mayor's candidate, Councilman Jack Weiss. Usher said she decided to go with Trutanich because Weiss is often deaf to constituent concerns on major developments and hideously over-sized houses that dwarf surrounding homes, and she doesn't think too highly of his work on billboards, either.

I suggested that Weiss had been slightly less asleep-at-the-switch than other council members on billboards, even if he did vote for the disastrous deal drafted by City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo. But that didn't fly with Usher. "How is it that I was able to know at the time that this was a horrible deal?" she asked.

Good question. The deal, among other things, handed the industry the right to convert several hundred billboards into digital distractions that throw off enough heat to melt the Sierra snow pack.

"L.A. has positioned itself as a sitting duck for the billboard industry," Usher said.

Sitting duck, or laughingstock?

Given all these issues, Usher said she thought it was important to support a candidate for city attorney who's not on Team Antonio. Add Councilwoman Wendy Greuel to the mix as the likely new city controller, she said, and there's no system of checks and balances in place because three key public officials -- Villaraigosa, Weiss and Greuel -- would be allies.

"This is an anointment rather than a contest," Usher said.

She wouldn't tell me whether she's voting for Villaraigosa, but she did say the city could benefit from a mayoral debate, and she thinks Villaraigosa would be a stronger leader if he were more open to those who challenge his policies rather than bob their heads agreeably.

That would be nice, and so would a sudden outbreak of courage and leadership in Sacramento, but this is California.

On a more optimistic note, when I asked Usher what she intends to do next with her life, she smiled.

She's hoping to form a nonprofit community group that would insist on a fair shake at City Hall for people who don't make campaign contributions. They would ask questions, demand answers and rush the gates as needed.

OK, fine. And then would you be willing to move to Sacramento?

--

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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