Deciding when a politician has an off day

Times Staff Writer

Several readers wrote to complain that there wasn’t quite enough “A” in last week’s Q&A.;

Their beef: They wanted to know who was paying for Los Angeles City Council President Eric Garcetti and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to travel outside California and stump for presidential candidates. Garcetti is backing Sen. Barack Obama while Villaraigosa is pushing Sen. Hillary Clinton.

With that in mind, we’ll turn over our first question to Richard Pridham of Downey, who asks . . .

Did you look into whether they were off the job on their time, or was their out-of-state work done at taxpayers’ expense?


Garcetti’s office said he paid for his trip to Iowa out of his own pocket. As for the mayor, his spokesman said the Clinton campaign paid the expenses of Villaraigosa and the press aide he took with him to Iowa and New Hampshire.

The time issue is trickier. Elected officials in L.A. -- and many other governments -- do not accrue vacation or sick time. The theory is that elected officials are always on the clock and that it’s up to them to take vacation at their discretion, according to the city clerk’s office. In Garcetti’s case, the council was in recess when he went to Iowa.

Public officials are not required to announce that they’re taking time off. So, the task of determining whether days off qualify as work or vacation is pretty much left up to the public and the media, for better or worse.

For example, I wrote last year about Councilman Tom LaBonge’s extensive travels abroad. But I neglected to report that his colleague Dennis Zine went to a South Dakota motorcycle rally, a Port of L.A. trip to Japan and a vacation to Italy -- all while the council was in session.

Villaraigosa tackled the time-away issue at Thursday’s roads and mass transit summit, when he said he’s worked as hard as any politician in recent years to advance the city’s transportation priorities.

“I’m not making it up,” the mayor said, adding: “So why is Villaraigosa schlepping in New Hampshire and Iowa? I know that the mayor of Los Angeles has to have a relationship with someone in the White House that will actually invest in cities again [and] invest in public transportation.”


What has Clinton said recently about mass transit?

In a Nov. 5 speech, she promised to increase federal funding for mass transit by $1.5 billion a year.

Fun fact: The mayor says the subway to the sea will cost $7 billion.

Why else might Garcetti or Villaraigosa be campaigning for someone else?

Perhaps because it’s nice to have friends in high places who have a long list of campaign donors who may want to help you one day.

Through Sept. 30, the latest numbers available, Clinton had raised $89 million for her campaign and Obama $79.4 million, according to the Federal Election Commission.

What does the “S” stand for in Proposition S, the $243-million phone tax on the Feb. 5 ballot?

Some political backers want voters to think it stands for “safety” because they’ve loaded their campaign mailers with photos of firefighters and police officers.

It could stand for SEIU, the Service Employees International Union, which has poured $250,000 into the campaign -- just weeks after City Hall gave members a hefty pay raise.


In reality, the City Council voted to make it S, although never explaining why.

Who’s going to vote for this tax?

The brain trust in charge of the Prop. S campaign thinks it will fare well among black voters, Latinos, Democrats and Republican women.

Campaign mailers submitted to the city Ethics Commission were accompanied by a cover letter stating that four fliers were each tailored to appeal to one of the groups. Proposition S political consultant Steve Barkan said the letter should have stated that the campaign is also targeting Republican men.

Each of the mailers has the same front, with pictures of firefighters and 911 operators dutifully taking calls. But things look different on the final page. The mailer to Republicans featured the smiling mug of former Mayor Richard Riordan -- Get it? He’s a Republican! -- and a photo of Police Chief William J. Bratton.

The version for Latinos is written partly in Spanish and has a picture of Villaraigosa, L.A.’s top Latino pol, as he chats up -- surprise! -- a police officer. Black voters received images of a half dozen politicians, including African American council members Bernard Parks, Jan Perry and Herb Wesson.

And Democrats? They got large photos of Bratton and Fire Chief Douglas Barry. Bo-ring!

Is the Department of Water and Power controlling the weather?

You decide.

With the city’s water situation looking dire, a monster storm earlier this month hit the Sierra Nevada, which usually provides about half the city’s water supply. But DWP officials say the snowpack is still only one-third of where it needs to be on April 1.

The question that has been nagging us for months: If the snow doesn’t fly between now and then, at what point will the city get truly, madly, deeply serious about conservation?


So, what kind of notes does someone find on his desk after three years covering the L.A. City Council?

You find quotes that should have been in the paper long ago, such as the time last month when Councilman Bill Rosendahl was waiting for a news conference to begin and the sun suddenly came out.

“That must mean the mayor is here,” Rosendahl said. Sincerely.

Or, you find notes about strange conversations in council chambers, such as the time Councilman Jack Weiss and LaBonge argued over the relative merits of clowns and parades. “I’m for clowns,” said LaBonge, who also stood up for parades. Weiss had issues with both.

Why such a reflective mood?

I’ve been given my release from City Hall in order to write about one of the great issues of our time: traffic. So, this will be the last column on local government, but I’ll soon be returning to this space on Mondays with items that will attempt to explain -- or rant -- about your daily commute.

Yes, we’ll still catch up with politicians occasionally. After all, you don’t go to the zoo and not visit the monkey house. It’s important to know what they’re doing to improve your commute, sensibly plan the region and build mass transit that’s hopefully faster than a tortoise with a limp.

But I need your ideas. What’s working on the roads and what’s not? If you have a thought or opinion or question, send it.


See you soon and thanks for reading. And now that I think of it, I never got around to writing about the time in 2005 I watched Villaraigosa valiantly try to buy a ticket on the Gold Line. But that’s a story for another day.

Times staff writer David Zahniser contributed to this report.