To change the L.A. City Council
In approaching next month’s city elections, we have considered our endorsements with certain concerns in mind: Los Angeles is in bad shape, facing budget shortfalls of historic proportions. Some of those troubles are the result of a weak economy, but others are the result of poor decisions by city leaders — to reject needed revenue, to dole out excessive raises and pension benefits, and to seek to avoid accountability for those actions. As a consequence, we’re in search of change.
That said, not all leaders are equally culpable, and we don’t want to reject all incumbents out of frustration. Change for the sake of change could mean shifting power from those who have not handled it especially well to others ill-equipped to handle it at all.
Where, then, does that leave us? Where viable candidates offer intriguing alternatives to incumbents, we’re in favor of a change: thus Rudy Martinez in District 14. Where incumbents have stood against the failings of City Hall, we’re backing them: thus Bernard C. Parks in District 8. Where a new sensibility on the council would freshen its thinking, we’re for it: thus Mitch Englander in District 12. And where an incumbent has impressed us with his intelligence and independence, we’ll back him: thus Paul Krekorian in District 2.
That leaves three contested seats on the March 8 ballot.
Tom LaBonge represents the council’s 4th District. He is one of City Hall’s most recognizable figures, a fixture since the days of Mayor Tom Bradley. A legendary “pothole politician,” LaBonge is attentive to his constituents and dedicated to solving their problems. His record on the deeper issues of city government, however, is thin; he votes the conventional line on the budget — meaning that, along with many of his colleagues, he has allowed a humane instinct to protect employees to delay reckoning with the fiscal crisis. The council’s inability to recast the size and duties of government represents a failure of imagination.
Typical is LaBonge’s handling of city libraries: Like other council members, he accepted Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s tough but necessary cut in their funding; now he supports a ballot measure to protect them from people like himself. Likable and hardworking, yes, but LaBonge is part of a larger failure, and thus can hardly be considered part of the solution to the present crisis.
Vying to succeed him are candidates who show promise but come with drawbacks. Stephen Box has valuable experience with the city’s neighborhood council system, but he’s so immersed in the minutiae of city government that it’s hard to understand what his larger vision consists of. Tomas O’Grady, meanwhile, is energetic and likable, but his proposals for the budget — cutting the salaries and budgets of council members, making selective cuts elsewhere — are more symbolic than meaningful. Nevertheless, O’Grady’s background in business, devotion to environmental issues and hard work as an activist in L.A. Unified schools make him the most appealing alternative to LaBonge. The Times endorses O’Grady.
Some of the same is true in District 6, where incumbent Tony Cardenas is facing three challengers. Cardenas, like Parks, has occasionally shown independence from the labor interests that dominate City Hall. He is a vigorous advocate for his constituents in their pursuit of city business, and his zealousness has won him both friends and critics. But he’s emblematic of a status quo that has not produced much to brag about. As a member of the Legislature, he chaired the Assembly’s budget committee, and since coming to the council he has, with Parks, raised some of the right concerns about city spending. In the end, however, he’s talked bigger than he’s walked. Take, for instance, the fierce debate over whether to sell city parking structures. Cardenas defied the mayor on that idea — one that we supported — but then, when the final vote was tallied, he was absent.
Where Parks has incurred labor’s wrath by challenging pay hikes and pension increases, Cardenas has been more cautious. No wonder labor has poured its money into defeating Parks but not Cardenas.
He faces three challengers for his seat, but only one gives much hope. Rich Goodman is 27 and would be, by a big stretch, the youngest member of the council he seeks to join. He does not have much in the way of practical experience, but he is earnest and well versed in some of the larger issues before the city. He grasps the nuances of public safety funding, for instance, and he has a background in economics that would serve him well. Goodman is a long shot, but those with long memories will recall that a young Zev Yaroslavsky made his way into L.A. politics this way a few decades back. The Times endorses Goodman in the 6th District.
Finally, there is District 10, where Herb Wesson Jr. is the incumbent. Wesson, like Cardenas, represents a type of council member who has emerged in the era of term limits. He served in the Legislature, including a stint as speaker, then rotated back to Los Angeles when term limits forced him from his seat. Wesson, a former chief of staff to Councilman Nate Holden and to L.A. County Supervisor Yvonne Burke, is well liked by his colleagues and considered a consensus-builder in a famously fractious council.
In the spirit of experimentation and in recognition of the depth of the problems at City Hall, we’d be open to supporting a challenger to Wesson, but the varied field has not produced a strong contender. Austin Dragon, a businessman with education experience, is the most impressive and correctly identifies some of City Hall’s troubles, but he says he will address them through the cliche of attacking “waste, fraud and abuse.” Luis Montoya, whose family runs a Christmas tree lot in the district, promises to cut his council salary by 20% and to look for waste. Chris Brown is a businessman who says he’ll cut his salary in half and reconnect residents to their government. Althea Rae Shaw, a former civilian employee of the Los Angeles police and sheriff’s departments, focuses on community safety while blaming violence on elected officials who encourage “sanctuary cities.” (Los Angeles isn’t one, and never has been.) Andrew Kim is a lawyer with some commendable public service to his credit, but his platform is more bromides than serious proposals. Those public-spirited citizens deserve appreciation for their participation. But The Times sticks with Wesson.
This is a rough period for Los Angeles government. It will require independence, clear thinking and a willingness to discard failed methods. These candidates offer a chance for change.
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