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First & Spring: Dissent goes missing in pro-labor L.A. City Council

L.A. City Council
Los Angeles City Councilmen Paul Krekorian, left, and Mike Bonin chat before the council session on Sept. 24, 2014. The council approved a $15.37-per-hour minimum wage for workers at big hotels.
(Irfan Khan, Los Angeles Times)

If anyone on the Los Angeles City Council loves data, it’s Paul Krekorian.

The San Fernando Valley lawmaker stood up at a recent meeting and rattled off numbers from a new report on the city’s economic health. Sales tax revenue? Up 26% since 2009. Business tax revenue? Up 29%. “I love these reports,” Krekorian said. “I keep ‘em every year. I study them and really get into the weeds.”

That knack for publicly sifting through the details was absent a few weeks ago, when the council hiked the hourly minimum wage for most hotels with 150 or more rooms to $15.37. The proposal had major implications for the hospitality industry and its workers. One city-hired economist, Christopher Thornberg, said a similar wage initiative at Los Angeles International Airport had been followed by a 10% decline in hotel jobs.

Krekorian voted no. But during the council’s hourlong debate, he didn’t ask a single question. In fact, he didn’t say a word. Neither did Councilman Mitchell Englander, another opponent of the hotel measure. The council’s overall discussion of the proposal was, putting it mildly, skewed in favor of the increase.

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The meeting gave a glimpse of how debate — or the lack of it — is playing out at City Hall these days. With organized labor regularly getting its way on the council floor, even those politicians who hold dissenting views have been keeping their thoughts to themselves.

Stuart Waldman of the Valley Industry and Commerce Assn. said he was “surprised and disappointed” that Krekorian — whom he described as one of the council’s smartest members — stayed silent during the deliberations. “That’s one of the more frustrating things about this for me,” said Waldman, who opposed the hotel measure. “What’s wrong with having a discussion? What’s wrong with having debate?”

The lone exception was Councilman Bernard C. Parks. A longtime foe of organized labor and a frequent dissenter, Parks argued against the wage hike during the meeting. But with less than nine months left in office, he’ll soon be out the door.

Krekorian said in an e-mailed statement that his decision on the wage increase was based on what’s good for workers and the economy. His spokesman, Ian Thompson, said Krekorian expressed his views openly four months ago. “His vote echoed his ongoing concerns,” Thompson said.

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When the hotel wage proposal first came up at a June committee meeting, Krekorian asked questions on and off for 45 minutes. He worried that the city did not have a grasp of the number of jobs that could be lost because of the wage hike. “I like to make my decisions … based on data,” he declared at the time. The city later ordered up three reports on the topic.

On Sept. 23, Thornberg and two other consultants presented their views to the council’s economic development committee. But Krekorian did not show up for the meeting. Thompson said Krekorian was absent because he was in his district surveying the site of a scheduled DWP water pipe replacement project. That was an urgent issue, he said.

That same day, Krekorian also spent nearly 25 minutes behind closed doors with powerful Council President Herb Wesson, a major supporter of the hotel wage hike who also happens to dole out prestigious posts to council members. Thompson confirmed the two men met to discuss the wage increase but said the conversation did not influence Krekorian’s behavior.

“The council president did not ask him to vote a certain way, nor did he urge council member Krekorian to speak or refrain from speaking on the item,” Thompson said.

The hotel pay increase came before the full council the next day. Thornberg, who will receive $20,000 in public funds to provide his analysis on the hotel wage, struggled just to get inside the packed council chamber. He got in only after Waldman told a security guard outside the meeting that he was in line to speak. Once inside, Thornberg spoke for 60 seconds, not as a consultant hired to provide data, but as a member of the public. Just as he started discussing potential jobs losses, Wesson cut him off.

Krekorian and his colleagues could have offered Thornberg more time or invited him to speak at the front table, allowing council members to dig into his numbers. Instead, the public lost out on a deeper, more analytical debate, said Waldman, the Valley business rep.

Other business leaders, who are on a losing streak at City Hall right now, sounded grateful just to have Krekorian oppose the plan. Gary Toebben, who heads the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, said he didn’t need to hear a speech. “It’s their vote that really counts,” he said.

Follow @DavidZahniser on Twitter for the latest news from City Hall

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