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You won; now lead

Voters stuck with the familiar on the City Council. But the status quo won't do on the budget crisis.

March 13, 2011

Los Angeles City Council members have two interrelated but separate jobs: They are supposed to take care of their districts, improving their constituents' quality of life by marshaling city services, attracting jobs and business, and keeping everyone in the loop; and they are supposed to look out for the entire city by making the policy and budget decisions to keep Los Angeles working. On Tuesday, voters elected at least five incumbents and a virtual incumbent — Mitch Englander was departing Councilman Greig Smith's chief of staff — perhaps because they thought experienced leaders would do a better job than untried newcomers.

There's no point feigning surprise. Incumbents are rarely toppled in Los Angeles. And The Times, despite more than occasional exasperation with the City Council, often endorses incumbents for reelection because challengers so seldom appear to have a clue about how they can be effective in office. But this year we backed a handful of newcomers because some of the entrenched council members, who may do a decent enough job in their districts, have so completely failed to respond to the citywide budget emergency. Voters have decided that Tom LaBonge, Tony Cardenas and Jose Huizar, whom this page did not endorse, will stay, along with Paul Krekorian and Herb J. Wesson Jr., whom we did endorse. (We also backed Bernard C. Parks, who has vigorously called for cuts to balance the budget; Parks is clinging to just over 50% of the vote in his district and is hoping to avoid a May 17 runoff.) Each of those incumbents, plus Englander and the eight council members who were not up for reelection this year, now owe it to their constituents to refocus their attention on the city's $404-million shortfall. They must reexamine their so far too-timid and too-sluggish efforts to stave off insolvency. It doesn't matter how popular a council member is in his or her district if the city goes bankrupt and has to scrap most of its services.

Too often over the last two years, some council members have acted as if they are victims of the mortgage meltdown, the recession and the city's budget shortfall rather than leaders whose job is to address those problems. They have only two answers to proposals by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to cut programs and employee costs: "Let me think about it for a few months" and "No."

But the fact is that council members must step forward now and make tough decisions. They can only truly serve their city by daring to be unpopular with employee unions. Council members can back layoffs, or they can stop bucking Villaraigosa's call for a 10% employee pay cut to save jobs.

The Times will support council members who back responsible actions to eliminate the budget gap, and will take to task those who continue to hem, haw and hope that the problem somehow goes away by itself.

Some council members will continue to object that particular actions should not be taken because they carry a cost; selling the city-owned parking garages, for example, would have eliminated subsidies for drivers who don't want to pay market rates to park, thus affecting business districts that require this form of taxpayer assistance to remain viable. But it's not enough to point out a downside. Every action now will have a downside because the easy, painless cuts already have been made. The downside of intransigence and inaction — of saying "no" to every program cut and employee furlough or layoff — is insolvency, in which case there will be no money for parking subsidies, library hours, effective public safety or anything else. A responsible City Council member must ask whether continued funding for programs and staff furthers the city's central mission. The question is not always easy to answer, but it often is. Police and fire safety, for example, are clearly at the core of the city's mission; subsidized golf courses are not.

Tuesday's ballot featured some feeble attempts to cloud the issue. For example, the council sent to the ballot Measure M, a tax on medical marijuana dispensaries, in a bid to convince their constituents and themselves that they were looking for new revenue. Voters adopted it. But the city has yet to get its act together on regulating dispensaries, and it's unlikely that Los Angeles will ever actually see much, if any, revenue from the tax. The council also gave us Measure O, a tax on oil production, which would have generated a paltry $4 million a year, if it did not drive production companies out of business. Voters rejected it. Both tax measures were council exercises in wheel-spinning.

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