Mending the Cracks in Los Angeles

Bill Boyarsky is a former city editor and columnist for The Times

When Los Angeles' new mayor takes over City Hall on July 1, he will enter office with greatly enhanced powers, allowing him accomplishments both big (clearing gridlock) and small (nurturing children in the arts and culture that make L.A. so distinct). Those are worthy goals at any time, but they have never been as important as right now. The city is in danger of coming apart, the victim of secession movements in the San Fernando Valley and elsewhere.

While the threat of secession gives this election great historical significance, you wouldn't guess it from the advertising-driven, made-for-television mayoral campaign, guided by public opinion polls and caution. Candidates James K. Hahn and Antonio Villaraigosa have engaged in small-picture politics, trying to appeal to the many parts of a loosely connected city. There's a wonderful irony about this: The candidates have campaigned in neighborhoods that one day might not be part of the city. If the Valley goes, can the long-neglected Harbor area be far behind? And why can't Hollywood, one of America's most famous brand names, make it as a city, just as West Hollywood is doing?

The secession drive "is intense," says USC law professor Erwin Chemerinsky, who came to that conclusion while conducting hearings as chair of the Elected Los Angeles Charter Reform Commission. "This is a force that cannot be ignored."

But the fracturing of Los Angeles is not a done deal. The elected reform commission, and another, appointed by the City Council, wrote a new city charter that was approved by voters two years ago--and it gives the mayor the tools to prevent the secession calamity. Richard Riordan put the charter to work, and now it will be up to his successor to make it felt through every level of government. The new mayor will have an opportunity to preserve the economic and political power that accompanies great size while encouraging the distinctiveness of the many neighborhoods and permitting them a voice in shaping their futures. If the mayor has the guts and skill to use his enhanced clout, everyone could benefit.

The old charter split power between the mayor and 15 City Council members, each of whom acted as a "little mayor." Department heads were as responsive to the little mayors as they were to the "big mayor." The little mayors, despite the wishes of the real mayor, could veto actions of commissions, which are in charge of city departments.

The new charter changes all that. The mayor can hire department heads and appoint commissioners, who supervise the departments, and he needs just eight votes to confirm them. What's more, he can fire those commissioners and department heads without council approval, except in the case of some major departments, such as police, where it takes 10 votes to overturn him, and that number is not easy to obtain. This huge shift of power greatly increases mayoral political strength. The mayor, not the council, controls the departments. The mayor, not the council, controls planning, zoning, park maintenance, street sweeping, pothole repair and all the other basic services that keep the city going. Adding to the impact of this City Hall revolution is that now only the mayor can speak for the city in Washington, D.C., and Sacramento and in negotiations with the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. For the first time, the mayor can truly be mayor.

This is the time to write a wish list for the new man at City Hall whose goal should be preservation, not only for city residents but also for those who live in L.A.'s orbit--people who work here, who see concerts, plays and ballgames here and whose own cities are not immune from L.A.'s problems.

Recently I spoke to a group of executives from business, government and nonprofit agencies and asked them to give me a list of priorities. "Traffic," one said. "Recognition of the crisis around the Los Angeles Police Department." "Rampart. Morale. There is a crisis of public confidence."

My own list includes all of the above and more. It reflects my experience as a reporter and columnist who covered the city for years, and now as a writer and college teacher who views City Hall as an outsider and a consumer. Herewith, my wish list for the new mayor:

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A Move arts and culture to the top of the mayoral agenda. Los Angeles is defined more by the arts than by politics. Movies, theater, clubs, music, painting and sculpture give L.A. a great chunk of its identity. The arts are among the most important ties that bind us. Yet mayors haven't paid much attention to them (although Riordan, because of his love of books and interest in literacy, has given the library a powerful boost).

The new mayor should promote the arts districts springing up around the city, without smothering them with bureaucracy. He can bring city agencies, entrepreneurs and private donors together to promote such areas as the North Hollywood arts district. This pleasantly tattered corner of the San Fernando Valley is now a Red Line subway terminus. There are more than 30 theaters, mid-size and small, there, including the El Portal Center for the Arts. The blossoming of the NoHo district, as the Universal City/North Hollywood Chamber of Commerce likes to call it, would be a mighty prize for the Valley and a small antidote to secession. The mayor could do the same for mid-Wilshire, Leimert Park, the nascent arts cluster around Sawtelle and Santa Monica boulevards, and other places where galleries, clubs, restaurants, studios, bars and bookstores are beginning to brighten the landscape.

In addition, the newly empowered mayor could negotiate with the county for a long-discussed mall, leading from the Music Center to City Hall, with shops and cafes, a gathering place, like the Mall in Washington, D.C. Put in a big bookstore and a market, where busy office workers could do their food shopping before their commute home.

By mobilizing his library and parks departments, and having them work with the school board and the privately funded Music Center, the mayor could develop a program to immerse children in the arts. "The arts are very important to the nontraditional learner," says Joanne Kozberg, president of the Music Center of Los Angeles County. "They teach self-worth and discipline. Learning music teaches discipline. Completing a mural teaches discipline. Writing teaches discipline."

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A Take the steam out of the secession movement. Give the San Fernando Valley fair representation by pushing the City Council to create Valley-only council districts. The Valley currently shares three council members with neighborhoods on the other side of the Santa Monica Mountains.

The mayor should rebuild the run-down but potentially lovely City Hall in Van Nuys, making that Civic Center a showcase, and improve services in the Valley, spending money where it is really needed. If the services were there, says Bonny Herman, president of the Valley Industry and Commerce Assn., "there would not be a reason for secession."

He can clean up Wilmington, especially that pollution-ridden area known as "The Third World." Let the distinctive community of San Pedro determine its own future; decentralize planning through the seven new area planning commissions, all of them appointed by the mayor. There's no reason why City Hall should decide whether a neighborhood will have a new mall or big-box retailer. Make sure the charter-created neighborhood councils have real influence and don't get bogged down in City Hall bureaucracy.

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A Fix the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The mayor can make four appointments on the MTA board. Put four smart, tough, honest transportation experts on the board, Mr. Mayor, and you can run the MTA. Then own up to your responsibility as the single most powerful member of the MTA board. And while you're at it, complete the Green Line train to Los Angeles International Airport so that we can step off the train at our terminal. If the city airport managers and commissioners won't go along, fire them.

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A Use your power in the MTA and control of the city transportation department to clear up gridlock on city streets. Include Caltrans in the effort and use your new lobbying authority to win a larger share of state and federal transportation dollars. Form a transportation team, with your city people working daily with MTA and Caltrans personnel in a single regional transportation control center, a streets version of mission control.

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A Appoint a police commission that has the courage to impose civilian control on the Police Department without beating up on the cops. We've got to recruit cops and keep the ones we have. Yet we cannot have more Ramparts.

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A Get to the heart of the LAX expansion problem--the airline lobbies that control the FAA and congressional committees and oppose every effort to send more flights to underused Ontario or to develop the airports in Palmdale and the Inland Empire. You are now the city's sole representative in Washington. Act like it. Get your airport commission behind this effort instead of having it pursue LAX expansion in a single-minded way, without regard to the communities around the airport. Appoint a commission that will stand up to the airlines. Remember, it's really the airlines and the FAA that control traffic.

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A Get involved in the unglamorous work of regional planning. That means making planning decisions that take into consideration the entire Southland. I know that's hard when cities like West Hollywood approve huge developments on L.A.'s borders, but it's worth a try.

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A Continue Riordan's efforts to run the Los Angeles Unified School District board through campaigning for school board candidates and jawboning.

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A Finally, and I may be the only person who feels this way, get L.A. a National Football League team without surrendering to NFL extortion. The city's not the same without one, and it's another way to bring L.A. together.

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