Los Angeles, the city -- not L.A. the megalopolis or the culture or the state of mind, but Los Angeles, the incorporated municipality -- seems perpetually unable to figure out what it is, what it should be and where it is going. Civic boosters clamor for a place on the world stage and call for sweeping programs to enhance its glamour. What, after all, is the point of being such a large city if its clout and spotlight can't be put to use to make a positive mark on history? Yet many residents, especially those who have spent most of their lives here, often want simply to be left alone, and want their government to keep them safe and hold wrenching change at bay without raising their costs of living. What's the point, after all, of moving here and investing in a home if the quality of life and the opportunities are going to be no different than they were in the crowded, expensive cities they left?
Those who aspire to civic greatness and those who aspire to backyard barbecues have this in common: They seem perpetually disappointed in Los Angeles. Each blames the other for the wrong vision, but the source of their discontent is probably something more prosaic. Los Angeles, the municipality, is poorly managed.
Over the coming weeks, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the City Council will begin grappling with ideas to keep ahead of a lingering $400-million structural deficit. Already tossed about for months have been ideas such as jettisoning the zoo, the convention center and parking garages. By all means, if it makes sense for the city to let them go, it should.
But the mayor and the council shouldn't mistake hacking off city departments for a long-term strategic plan for management and growth. It is such a plan -- a workable one, not just a stump speech -- that Los Angeles lacks. We need a road map for the future for land use, for spending, for the city's workforce and for finances. We need to make backup plans (if we can't afford recreation programs, for example, who can provide them?) and to ask hard questions (what happens if we simply eliminate recreation programs?).
Such strategizing doesn't come naturally to most politicians, and there's no shame in that, as long as they recognize their shortcomings and call for support. There is expertise in-house, if only city management -- the elected officials -- would listen. If not, maybe before contracting out the parking meters, they ought to contract out for some long-term thinking.
Our leaders do understand priorities. Villaraigosa has put public safety first, and contrary to any expectation, it has been his most stunning success. That forms the groundwork both for residents who want to be left in peace and dreamers who want to achieve civic greatness. If he (and the council) can get on with the more mundane, but urgent, matter of managing City Hall, perhaps he can again focus on the aspirations and excitement that made voters turn to him in the first place.