Ron Kaye: It isn't utopia, but it's far from dystopia

Once long ago, during my year as an old-fashioned rewrite-man at the National Enquirer, the demonic man who owned and ran the tabloid as if it and its journalists were a figment of his over-active imagination sent a reporter around the world in search of utopia.

Every week, the reporter would send in a dispatch doing his best to make the case that a forgotten village in the Himalayas or a pristine beach in the South Pacific, or an overlooked outpost at the headwaters of the Amazon, or a village in the south of France, was the most perfect place on Earth.

He was on the road for more than a year, but the response was always the same: a long series of unanswerable questions shattered each and every place he claimed was utopia. Finally, they brought the guy home and summarily fired him for having failed in his mission.

Having spent a million or two of the boss' money for the time of his life, he didn't complain at all.

The moral of the story is simple: There is no utopia, no ideal society outside the pages of fiction and film where apocalyptic visions of dystopias — not utopias — have become a dime a dozen, many of them using Los Angeles as the setting for the exploration of humanity's dark fantasy future

The irony is hard to miss in that the vision of L.A. as a sun-kissed paradise that brought so many of us here only to find a city that is becoming more dark than light, a city of ostentatious beauty and vast stretches of grim grittiness, of endless expressions of enormous wealth surrounded by a churning sea of poverty and decay.

I spent 30 years here as a newspaperman doing what I could to tell the stories and the stories behind the stories of a city that was becoming increasingly dysfunctional, its infrastructure aging, its public services declining, its civic and political leadership paying lip service to the needs and values of ordinary folks while mostly serving themselves and their narrow interests.

When I got old and no longer had a newspaper as my outlet to sound the alarm in blazing headlines and fiery editorials, I blogged about what I saw, and then I got a call offering me the chance to write a Sunday column about Glendale and its neighboring communities.

That was two years ago last week. It has been an eye-opening experience that has helped me to understand better the suburb-envy so many people I meet in middle-class L.A. communities have, why the “it-is-time-to-get-out-of-town” sentiment is reaching a crescendo.

Los Angeles elections come up in March, and the likelihood is that three reprocessed city elected officials will hold down the mayor, controller and city attorney posts and the City Council will be made up of eight state legislators, five City Hall staffers and two ex-cops without a single ordinary citizen or anyone with real experience in the private-sector holding office.

These are the highest-paid municipal officials in America, earning $180,000, plus free cars, pensions and staffs of 18 to 20 with huge personal slush funds supplied by donors and taxpayers. Public service to them has become selfish service; the public story is a fiction that has little or nothing to do with what is really going on in back rooms.

Contrast that with the part-time citizen-elected officials in Glendale, Burbank and other suburban communities where the professionals are the city managers and the bureaucrats — not the politicians.

We're not talking about utopian communities, but cities that work by solving problems and muddling through tough times. They are run by part-time citizen politicians who cost a tiny fraction of L.A.'s professional pols and are closely tied to the civic and business communities, high and mighty power brokers representing nearly 300,000 people each.

In the big city, bureaucrats can only whisper the truth under their breath when no one's looking because they have been so politicized they are at risk of losing their jobs if they utter even a single word that is out of step.

It's very different in the tri-city area, where I've found nearly every official I've spoken to is open and forthcoming, and they actually seem to want their bosses — the public — to understand what they are trying to do and why.

The result is they have made real progress in balancing their budgets in these tough economic times, even winning substantial concessions from employee unions, while L.A. is being sucked down by fiscal quicksand toward bankruptcy, even as it faces tens of billions of dollars in costs to repair the broken streets and sidewalks and the unfunded employee pensions and healthcare costs.

In Glendale, people get upset about a 3% rate increase and the transfer of electricity revenue to the General Fund. In L.A., they hiked the electricity revenue transfer from 5% to 8% and are increasing utility rates three times faster than Glendale, yet the voices of the few are drowned out by the power of the political machine.

No, your cities are not utopias. But they sure look good to this old San Fernando Valley resident and a lot of other L.A. residents.

There are a lot of problems that would be solved better and faster if you got more involved and paid better attention, especially with city elections coming in April.


RON KAYE can be reached at Share your thoughts and stories with him.

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