L.A.'s mellow response to 2020 Commission's crisis warning

ColumnCommentaryOpinionElectionsPoliticsHerb WessonJan Perry
What has L.A. done with a report proposing solutions to its big problems? Not much
When a blue-ribbon commission speaks, Los Angeles leaders shrug

In April, the Los Angeles 2020 Commission presented a stack of recommendations that its members unanimously agreed were essential to overcome the city's "crisis in leadership and direction" and restore growth and stability. The group, convened in early 2013 by City Council President Herb Wesson, was led by lawyer Mickey Kantor, and its diverse and powerful membership included local labor leaders, businessmen and former Gov. Gray Davis.

The two reports the group ultimately issued — one laying out problems, the other solutions — sounded an alarm. Without action, the commission warned, Los Angeles risked "becoming a city in decline." And yet inaction is precisely what the reports have generated; if anything, city leaders seem more baffled than motivated by the commission's work.

The commission's list of suggestions included the creation of a city Office of Transparency and a new oversight body for the Department of Water and Power. It called for a merger of the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports and for realignment of the city's election schedule so that votes coincide with the presidential and gubernatorial cycles instead of being held in off-years. It proposed updating the city's community plans to guide development and establishing a Commission for Retirement Security to examine the city's pension liabilities.

With few exceptions, none of those proposals is being treated seriously at City Hall.

The commission is partly to blame because it made suggestions that would cause upheaval without solving problems. The proposed port merger, for instance, was presented as a way of increasing shipping traffic, but it's hard to see how a port monopoly would be better than competition for stimulating business. And aligning city elections with the presidential cycle would almost certainly increase turnout, but it also would mean that local campaigns would be waged in the shadow of bigger-ticket races — more voters, in other words, but less attention.

Moreover, some officials were struck by the tonal disconnect between the group's two reports.

The first, released in December, described a city in which 40% of the population lives in "what only can be called misery," "strangled by traffic" and hamstrung by a "failing" school system.

The second presented a set of recommendations that seemed too mild to fully address such serious problems, leaving some city leaders mystified. Misery seems unlikely to be eradicated by an Office of Transparency.

Still, the reports were a serious effort by a noteworthy group to generate new ideas, and they deserved at least a full discussion. Instead, they've been filed away, without much more than a polite nod. When he and his colleagues delivered the second report in April, commission co-chairman Austin Beutner suggested that the City Council consider each recommendation and give it "a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down." That hasn't happened, and it's not about to. Beutner's trying to be patient.

"Change is hard," he said in an interview. "We recognize that."

Beutner tends to frame the choices facing Los Angeles as black or white, as either favoring the commission's recommendations or the status quo. "As far as these topics go, do you like the status quo?" he asked.

That's a trap, of course. Who wants to defend traffic or job loss, much less misery?

Wesson, however, seems quite content with the city's progress. Citing the city government's ongoing efforts in areas such as pension reform and DWP oversight, he recently said, with his typical cheery bravado, that the 2020 report "shows we're moving in the right direction."

Rare is the person who could interpret a report that opens with a description of the city's failed leadership as an endorsement of that leadership. Beutner declined to respond.

In fairness, there has been a bit of movement, at least conceptually, on a few of the commission's recommendations. Wesson points to the new Economic and Workforce Development Department (led by former Councilwoman Jan Perry), as an example of how the city is honing the kind of economic development strategies advocated by the commission, and he notes that another citizens panel has backed shifting the city's election cycle.

As for Mayor Eric Garcetti, he too has been fairly lukewarm about the commission's work. He agrees with its emphasis on jobs and economic development but points to progress in those areas since he took office a year ago. He's open to greater cooperation between the ports, though he's skeptical of merging them. And he's critical of the commission for failing to recognize the work already being done to lure new business to Los Angeles.

The report, he said Friday, "has had impact, but not huge impact."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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ColumnCommentaryOpinionElectionsPoliticsHerb WessonJan Perry
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