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Uh, Council, You’re on the Air

Harriet K. Bilford is an attorney in Van Nuys

I am embarrassed to admit that for the last three years or so, like a soap-opera addict, I have become somewhat obsessed with videotaping and watching the cable TV broadcast of Los Angeles City Council meetings (often referred to as the city’s “15-ring circus”).

While watching and sometimes appearing at these hearings on “L.A. CityView” (Channel 35), I have become painfully aware that:

* Many council members have little or no regard for being on time. Meetings always begin 10 to 30 or more minutes late and often have to be cut short or canceled because of lack of quorum.

* With few exceptions, members are so busy talking with each other, eating, drinking, speaking on the telephone and insulting the community “watchdogs” who appear before them that it would be impossible for them to hear what anyone has to say.

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* It really doesn’t matter whether they are listening or not because there is an unwritten policy that compels each to vote the way the councilperson of the affected district desires, a policy referred to as “ward courtesy” or, in more lay terms, “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.”

This was confirmed in a recent Times report that revealed that “only one of 989 votes . . . resulted in a defeat for the member or members who proposed them, suggesting that it is routine to give council colleagues what they want in exchange for the same.”

The obvious undue pressure placed upon council members to vote for each other was revealed to me and to anyone who watched and listened to the cable broadcast of agenda item No. 8 of the Nov. 6 City Council hearing. This was the discussion of The Barracks, a gay male sex club that had applied for a variance to operate within 500 feet of a residential neighborhood.

The public expressed an inordinate amount of shock, dismay and outrage against Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg and her council colleagues who supported the variance. This was despite the fact that the club and a predecessor club had operated illegally (albeit somewhat discreetly) in the same location for 20 years. It was also despite the fact that both an LAPD commanding officer and detective testified that The Barracks was responsible for increased crime, noise, traffic, parking problems, litter, loitering and lewd conduct in the surrounding neighborhood. It could not have been more obvious that the only reason the variance was granted was because the councilwoman of the district wanted it so.

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Through the years, I have been amazed at how indiscreet and careless council members are while partaking in side discussions during meetings. They often reveal private matters that I am certain they are unaware are being broadcast via CityView. The wrath of Goldberg on Nov. 6 couldn’t have been more transparent after Hal Bernson made it known that he opposed her position. At an earlier PLUM Committee meeting, Bernson had initially succumbed to Goldberg’s pleas by seemingly remaining “neutral” and abstaining from voting. This allowed the remaining committee members (Mike Hernandez and Cindy Miscikowski) to reach a majority in favor of the club. But on Nov. 6, the following conversation could be seen and heard over CityView:

Goldberg: “You’re going to make this a real--real thing, huh?”

Bernson: “I can’t help it.”

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Goldberg: “Yeah, right!”

Bernson: “Well, you do it your way, and I’ll do it--"

Goldberg: “Yeah, well you told me you were going to just be neutral!”

Bernson: “I couldn’t do it. I can’t do that.”

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Goldberg: “Right! Thanks, Hal.”

It makes you wonder how many private conversations and undisclosed meetings take place with council members lobbying for--and receiving--each other’s support in advance of a mandated public hearing. This is despite the fact that such conduct may violate California’s open-meeting laws and that the votes gathered often are contrary to what the members really believe to be appropriate.

*

I commend Bernson who, to Goldberg’s obvious displeasure, urged the council to deny the variance. This was not a pro- or anti-gay issue. People have the right to their own sexual orientation and preferences. This was a good- or bad-government issue. And unlike many of the newer council kids on the block, Bernson has been around long enough to, on occasion, withstand the pressure and speak his mind. (Nevertheless, it is unlikely that, for at least a few months, we will see Goldberg vote for many things Bernson supports.)

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Goldberg also is now on the outs with Mayor Richard Riordan, who on Nov. 14, in a rare use of his veto power, struck down the variance. Outraged, Goldberg said that Riordan’s approach “is not one I will quickly forget” and accused him of “political posturing” and reneging on a promise to consult with her before making his decision.

It’s time for all council members to stop playing this ridiculous charade and afford the once-honorable office to which they have been elected--and the Constitution, which they have sworn to uphold--some respect and dignity. Both, sadly, have been sorely lacking in our local government for far too long.


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