What would Bob Ronka do?
That's the question that Los Angeles City Council members ought to ask themselves this week before they authorize Mayor Eric Garcetti to move forward with a bid to host the 2024 Summer Olympic Games.
In the late 1970s, Ronka led a band of fiscally conservative council members who forced Olympics officials to give the city a waiver from liability for any cost overruns for the 1984 Games. It was the first and last time the International Olympic Committee agreed to such an arrangement, and still was one of the most financially successful Summer Games ever. Even 30 years later, Angelenos continue to feel warm and fuzzy about the Olympics. A poll conducted by the mayor's office last year found 77% support hosting the Games in 2024.
Public enthusiasm should not dissuade council members from fully vetting every Olympics-related proposal, starting with the so-called Joinder Agreement set for Friday. Even with so much Olympics-ready infrastructure, holding the Games here would be an enormous financial undertaking. There's a potential for tremendous financial benefits for the city and region, but there's also the possibility of giant liabilities.
In short, this is no time for blind boosterism. It's a time for measured excitement, along with pointed questions and caution about the tradition of making the city the ultimate guarantor for any cost overruns. This is not an academic concern; in fact, every Olympic Games over the last 50 years has had cost overruns. Montreal incurred $1.5 billion in debt when it hosted the Games in 1976; the public just finished paying it off in 2006. The prospect of ending up with a huge bill to be paid by city taxpayers is what prompted Boston's mayor to drop his city's bid for the 2024 Games last month, giving L.A. its second chance at making a play.
At the moment, L.A. has some leverage in the negotiations because it is the only U.S. city prepared to bid. Why should council members bother to take advantage of that? Well, in addition to their responsibility to constituents, the wrong step now could come back in nine years to haunt them. A majority of the current council members could still be on the council in 2024, while the mayor will be long gone. He will get the credit for bringing the Games to L.A. But guess who will get blamed for any missteps?
Council President Herb Wesson has made the right moves so far, pressing the mayor to release the financial information submitted to the U.S. Olympic Committee. Those documents were released Tuesday. Wesson should keep up the pressure for full disclosure before any vote, seek greater involvement for the council as the process unfolds and ensure that there is adequate protection for the city treasury, whether through a waiver or some other method.
In short, he needs to channel past council skeptics. WWBRD?