For the third time, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa addresses the people of Los Angeles this evening on the state of their city. This presents him with opportunity and obligation. He must make clear that he has a firm grip on two pressing matters that he has accepted as bases for evaluating his administration: the budget and gang violence.
The issues are intertwined. Villaraigosa has adopted as his own the priority his predecessors placed on increasing the number of Los Angeles Police Department officers ready to serve. The LAPD of today is larger -- and the city safer -- in part because the mayor insisted on increasing the fees that residents pay to get their trash picked up. Those higher fees aren’t earmarked for more officers, and they still don’t cover the cost of garbage collection, but the new revenue has given the mayor and the City Council the flexibility they needed to increase police hiring.
With the economy struggling, though, and projected tax revenues declining, the city has a budget gap of more than $400 million. Villaraigosa now must raise fees even further just to balance the books. Los Angeles residents, already preparing to pay much more for water and electricity after recently approved rate hikes, have every right to demand that City Hall be more efficient and accountable.
The mayor is on the spot as never before. He has taken direct control of gang programs previously scattered across the city organizational chart. The total cost comes in at about $19 million -- a tiny fraction of the investment that’s needed, and a mere sliver of the city’s budget -- but those programs now become a test case for mayoral leadership, not simply for decreasing the scourge of gang violence but for demonstrating that he can make City Hall work. Villaraigosa must, once and for all, publicly set criteria and a timeline for evaluating each of those programs. That runs against his nature: He champions many initiatives but rarely offers benchmarks for judging their success.
This time, the mayor should be prepared, in six months at most, to demonstrate which programs work and eliminate those that do not. He cannot simply present one more report expressing exasperation at the lack of accountability. He cannot, as he did after his State of the City speech a year ago when announcing the “10 most wanted,” resort to gimmickry. He must demonstrate that City Hall can be effective not just with programs within his own office, or in the LAPD, but in every city department. And he must do this while articulating clearly for wary residents where he intends to take Los Angeles development, transportation and education. As he begins the final year of his first term, Villaraigosa must demonstrate that he can deliver.