Pachyderms, Predictions and a Bit of R&R;

Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles City Council returns from a two-week end-of-summer break Tuesday to grapple with the serious issues and problems that typically face the nation’s second-largest city -- bad schools, bad traffic, bad planning and not enough housing.

But there are some unconventional items on the horizon as well. Our journey begins at the Los Angeles Zoo.

Question: What might be considered the “biggest” issue this fall?


Answer: Pachyderms!

On Aug. 12, to fulfill a campaign promise, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa called for a study of whether to continue housing elephants at the Los Angeles Zoo.

If the study finds that elephants should be given the heave-ho -- purportedly because it’s not humane to put them in a zoo -- the council will almost certainly be roiled.

“I support any effort to expand the elephant exhibit to include more acreage and a greater exercise area for these mammals, but I would not support eliminating elephants from our zoo,” Councilman Tom LaBonge said.

Villaraigosa doesn’t think the zoo gives the lumbering animals enough room, even though it is expanding its elephant exhibit from a quarter of an acre to two acres.

“It is not clear that this will significantly improve the living conditions of our elephants,” the mayor wrote, adding that San Francisco, Detroit and Milwaukee have all gotten rid of elephants in recent years.

City documents show that the zoo is already $20.5-million short for new projects, including the planned “pachyderm forest.” Axing the elephants would save about $3.9 million.

But LaBonge and other council members argue that the only chance most of their constituents will ever have to see a live elephant is at the zoo.

Q: Should anyone planning a wild bachelor party be concerned that the council may again consider a ban on lap dancing? Should the groom move up his wedding date?

A: The groom probably has time.

Councilman Tony Cardenas introduced a motion in July calling for a ban after his staff found an intolerable number of used condoms in neighborhoods near clubs in his San Fernando Valley district.

The council did a bump-and-grind with a lap dance ban in 2003, first passing rules that would have effectively ended the practice and then repealing the ban after strip club owners threatened to put the issue on a citywide ballot.

Cardenas said that the council would be on solid legal ground if it implemented a ban. But the real problem is that his colleagues have no appetite for such a public battle over such a tawdry issue.

Steven Afriat, the lobbyist who represents about 10 club owners, said any ban would result in his going to the voters with a citywide initiative to rewrite the city’s entire adult entertainment code.

“I really think the council ought to find something else to do,” Afriat said.

Q: There will be an election to fill the council seat left vacant when Villaraigosa won the mayor’s post. So is Villaraigosa-backed candidate Jose Huizar going to plaster Nick Pacheco in the 14th Council District race?

A: In City Hall, the conventional wisdom holds that Huizar is a shoo-in because he: a) is endorsed by the mayor and b) will raise a heap of money.

But, a couple of things to consider:

Huizar may have a race on his hands, because he’s on the Los Angeles Unified School District board -- which has suffered through a steady stream of bad news. For example, when board member Julie Korenstein ran for council in 2003, she lost by 22 percentage points to Greig Smith in the 12th District in the northern San Fernando Valley.

In the 10 ZIP Codes that make up most of the 14th District -- ZIP Codes and district boundaries don’t exactly match -- Huizar has raised $15,200 to Pacheco’s $23,975 through June 30, according to the city Ethics Commission.

Although Huizar is far ahead in overall fund-raising -- $160,897 to $79,734 -- the numbers suggest that Pacheco may be faring better among the people who actually vote. Of course, this could change when new fundraising numbers are reported at the end of September.

On the other hand, don’t discount the Pacheco factor, political watchers say. At the beginning of his campaign, he sent one rookie City Hall reporter a letter neatly summarizing all the alleged scandals he was involved in during his stint as a council member from 1999 to 2003. The idea was to refute the scandals before they arose again.

Q: Since we’re talking about schools, how’s that big commission faring -- the one that the council created in the spring to study the governance of L.A. Unified at a cost of $500,000?

A: Twelve of the 30 commission members have attended all four meetings since the group first convened in early July, according to the city clerk.

Attendance aside, the commission has spent much of its time learning the ins and outs of the school district, from its finances to previous efforts at reform.

Q: How is the new mayor getting along with his former colleagues on the council?

A: Fine, so far. But remember that six of them endorsed incumbent James K. Hahn in the mayoral race and that Wendy Greuel declined to take sides.

One reason that Villaraigosa is running to events all over town is because he believes that Hahn wasn’t visible enough. Another is that he’s trying to visit all the council districts before the council gets hold of his proposed budget next spring.

Q: How do council members feel about term limits?

A: They despise them -- and they may be ready to do something about it.

Councilwoman Jan Perry said that she’s been discussing the issue and that she believes there’s merit to the idea of allowing council members three four-year terms instead of two.

“People don’t feel that term limits have been successful in achieving results that have been expected,” said Perry, whose chief complaint is that council members are too often looking for their next job and aren’t taking the time to gain expertise on issues and see projects through.

In July, for example, Alex Padilla announced that he was running for state Senate -- four weeks after being sworn into his second full council term. There are near-constant rumors about other jobs that council members may be seeking.

The council can’t change the law but could put the matter in front of city voters.

Q: Did any council members go anywhere interesting on their summer vacations?

A: Eric Garcetti, who earlier this year visited the Arctic Circle for Earth Day, went to Yerevan in Armenia to try to establish a sister city relationship with Los Angeles.

And Dennis Zine rode his Harley-Davidson to an annual motorcycle rally in Sturgis, S.D., which this year attracted more than 500,000 people.

Q: Wait. Don’t people behave badly at motorcycle rallies?

A: The South Dakota Highway Patrol reported 338 arrests at the rally this year, many for DUI or drug infractions.

To hear Zine tell it, Sturgis was nothing but wholesome family fun -- he even rode there with his adult son.

“People have an image of motorcycle riders as hoodlums,” Zine said. “But there were young and old folks, policemen, firemen. You don’t get the hoodlums anymore. I even met with the mayor of Sturgis and one of his council members. They’re really nice folks -- they had a VIP area.”