Every two years, Los Angeles City Hall is consumed by a ritual that is one part playground choose-up and one part palace intrigue.
It is that time again: time for handing out the committee assignments that can determine whether a City Council member’s next 24 months are full of glory or tedium.
The legislators’ fates are in the hands of the wily longtime council president, John Ferraro, who is expected to announce his decisions today.
Although Ferraro denies using his committee assignment prerogative to reward allies and punish enemies, he admits to a certain pragmatism. “Anybody who mistreats their friends to benefit their enemies is not practicing good politics,” he said. “You don’t get reelected to the presidency that way.”
All of which adds up to an anxious atmosphere around City Hall these days.
“Everybody is a little bit edgy until the assignments are made,” said Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, who once went “purple with anger” fuming about one of her assignments.
And Ferraro is not above flexing his committee-assignment muscle to bend council members to his will. With a twinkle in his eye, Ferraro recently warned his quarreling colleagues not to challenge one of his unilateral rulings because he was still working on their committee assignments.
It was enough to silence opposition.
Savvy council members are well-versed in the hierarchy of committee posts.
If a council member wants to make his reputation on police issues, he can get a leg up as chairman of the Public Safety Committee. If his district is poor, the chairmanship of the Housing and Community Redevelopment Committee, where grant fund allocations are negotiated, may be the ticket.
Council members who want a light committee load--and there are some--won’t want to sit on the Planning and Land Use Management Committee, infamous for its long hearings on neighborhood zoning disputes.
There’s always a long line to be chair of the powerful Budget and Finance Committee--master not only of the purse strings but also ex-officio member of little-known panels that negotiate with the city unions and control council members’ travel perks.
Ferraro, who has been elected to five consecutive terms as president since 1987, said in a recent interview that he tries to balance the committees on the basis of ethnicity and gender and the interests and talents of lawmakers. “It’s not an easy task when you realize all the criteria I deal with,” Ferraro said.
In its barest form, the task is this: the council has 15 members and 15 committees; each member chairs one committee and sits on three panels.
“Making the committee assignments is perhaps the president’s most important way of exerting leadership,” said lobbyist Art Snyder, a shrewd City Hall observer and former lawmaker.
If past is prologue, politics will also play a role in the assignments. Those who supported Ferraro’s reelection last month as council president can generally expect better assignments than those who backed Councilman Marvin Braude’s ill-fated bid to oust Ferraro.
While denying that he follows the iron rule of spoils politics in shaping his committee decisions, Ferraro contends other presidents have. Ferraro claims ex-councilwoman Pat Russell punished him in 1983, when she was elected president, because of his key role in dramatically thwarting her bid for the top post two years earlier. “She put Braude and [Ernani] Bernardi and me on two committees that were pretty bad,” he said. (At that time, Braude and Bernardi were Ferraro allies.)
This time around, City Hall insiders fully expect Braude, the unsuccessful coup-maker, to lose his coveted chairmanship of the police committee to Councilwoman Laura Chick, a Ferraro loyalist.
There is also a widespread belief that Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, Braude’s strategist in the abortive coup, may get short shrift. “There’s a lot of talk that the big guy [Ferraro] is going to paddle me,” Ridley-Thomas said recently. “He hasn’t said that himself however. But you take a risk [trying to unseat a sitting president].”
Ridley-Thomas, waxing philosophic, says the committee emphasis may be misplaced. “What I am able to do for the 8th District [his South Central-based bailiwick] will happen irrespective of what committees I sit on,” he said. “At the end of the day, we all have one vote and what counts is how you leverage it. Besides, John Ferraro is reasonable enough. I think the president is aware of my talents and what’s good for the city and he will put people on committees that will be for the good of the whole process.”
Still, Ridley-Thomas acknowledges that the committee assignments issue “is the talk of the council right now.”
As well it should be, particularly now that the chairs of the committees are gaining new power and responsibility.
Mayor Richard Riordan has initiated a system in which the chairs of council committees will participate in the annual performance reviews of general managers whose departments now routinely report to their panels.
Thus, for example, the chair of the council’s police committee will have a say in the review of the fire and police chiefs and the heads of the departments of animal regulation and building and safety.
Committee chairmanships of so-called “juice committees"--widely recognized as the budget, planning and police panels--are the most coveted positions. This year, the chairmen of the budget and planning committees--Richard Alatorre and Hal Bernson, respectively--are expected to keep their jobs.
The chairs not only are in a position to shape legislative matters that come before their committees but also, like traffic cops, control the flow of legislation before their panels.
Former councilman Snyder, a masterful parliamentarian, used one of his committee chairmanships to virtually single-handedly block a company from winning a cable TV franchise by bottling up its proposal in his committee. Currently, Ridley-Thomas is credited with using his chairmanship of the Housing and Community Redevelopment Committee to hold up a Riordan plan to radically reorganize the city agencies that report to his committee.
Former councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, now a county supervisor, used his long chairmanship of the budget committee (reportedly won initially because of his allegiance to Russell and retained later because he agreed to accept Ferraro’s presidency) to advance an ambitious agenda.
During the late 1980s, as he was eyeing the possibility of running against then-mayor Tom Bradley, Yaroslavksy used this committee as a powerful platform for poking holes in Bradley’s budgets and advancing his own plans for beefing up the LAPD.
During boom real estate times, the planning committee was believed to give its members great access to building industry campaign contributions. Still, the downside is the long hours members must put in listening to hard-fought zoning controversies. “When I got assigned to planning for a second time, I was so mad,” Galanter recalled. When the next round of assignments came down, Galanter went to Ferraro and pleaded. ‘I told him he owed me one, and he put me on budget.’ ”
With so much at stake, outsiders try to influence the assignment process, too. “We’ve had communications with city officials about the assignments,” said Dennis Zine, a director of the Police Protective League, the police union.
“We are concerned with who sits on the committees, particularly the Public Safety Committee, that directly affect our members,” Zine said. “We don’t find unanimous support on the City Council for our issues, so it absolutely makes a difference to us who sits on these committees.”
Zine refused to say what specific committee assignment agenda the league has been pursuing in recent days.
Ferraro acknowledges that outsiders do weigh in. “We’ve gotten suggestions from others, outside City Hall,” he said recently. “I’m not going to say who. But I’m not afraid to listen to suggestions [from outside sources]. But ultimately I’ve got to make the decision and decide what’s best.”
Meanwhile, council members were biting their nails and watching for signs of what will befall them in the committee assignment reshuffle.
“Everybody is kind of watching everybody else to see who looks happy or sad--if it’s a sign they know something about their assignments,” said one council member, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “There’s more than the normal level of distrust and paranoia. There are certain assignments I’m counting on, but I won’t know for sure until the fat lady sings.”