CityWatch, Aug 26, 2011
Vol 9 Issue 68
RETHINKING LA - One of the most important City Hall survival skills is the artful dance of inertia, the ability to steer clear of any responsibility for progress while maintaining the appearance of support.
For the City Councilmembers, this skill is best demonstrated by their enthusiastic response to literally any proposal or proposition when it’s introduced. Then the Politics of Inertia takes over and departmental reports are ordered, cost impacts are studied, staffing requirements are analyzed, and eventually any good idea dies of old age in a dusty stack of council committee droppings.
For the departmental staffers, this skill requires the artful avoidance of “yes” and “no” answers, all while maintaining a flurry of activity that includes scurrying from meeting to meeting with the obligatory beleaguered look on the face and an armload of reports and charts as evidence that an important mission is underway.
Staffers typically invoke three specific tools of inertia in their commitment to avoiding progress; budget impacts, security concerns, issues of liability.
As for budget concerns, we get it. The real question is “Does City Hall get it?” The public knows that things have costs, that everything has an impact on the budget. Yet when it comes to establishing priorities and engaging in oversight and accountability, the crickets chirp. Until the public asks for something and then the first line of defense is “Well, you know, we’re in a budget crisis!”
Security is a concern to everybody but it also turns into an obstacle that is used to restrict access, not facilitate public participation. It’s easier to for the public to get into Sacramento’s Capital Building than into LA’s City Hall, as if it’s the public that should be feared. Meanwhile, the most recent murders on city property have been at the hands of city employees and the most recent acts of sabotage were city staff labor actions directed at the LADOT.
The City of LA has armed guards in charge of dispensing visitor stickers, demonstrating that the illusion of Security trumps the limits of Budget at the “Department of No!”
Liability is the last line of defense, used when all else fails as a way to avoid progress and now synonymous with the “ability to lie.” Community members advocating for progress find it hard to overcome the “liability” objection, after all, it sounds so “responsible.”
If liability was really a concern, the City of LA would stop rejecting transportation innovations requested by the public and start restricting the actions of the Mayor, the City Council, and the LAPD.
LA’s City Council just got taken to task in the California Court of Appeal for exceeding its authority, resulting in a court reversal and the Judge's opinion that “the City Council abused its discretion by failing to proceed in the manner required by law.”
The LAPD was taken to task by U.S. District Judge Dean Pregerson who ruled that the “Superheroes” on Hollywood Boulevard had a First Amendment and Fourth Amendment right to remain on the public sidewalk free from LAPD persecution.
As for the Mayor, the City Attorney failed to impress on him the danger in accepting free tickets from companies with lobbyists in City Hall or contracts with the City. While the public clearly understands the liability involved when one attends a taping of American Idol or a Spice Girls concert, the Mayor didn’t and it resulted in California's political watchdog recommending the largest combined ethics fine in the agency's history.
Pound for pound and dollar for dollar, objections of liability are typically the line of defense as City Hall defends the status quo and fights to avoid progress.
Professionals in all endeavors must contend with the limitations of budgets, with obligations to provide a safe and secure environment, and requirements to conduct business legally and responsibly so that there are no issues of liability. But at City Hall, they’re not standards for performance, they’re tools for avoiding responsibility and sidestepping progress.
The Mayor rises above the fray with a unique strategy that trumps the simple bureaucratic tools of those in City Hall’s hamster wheel, he employs the most powerful weapon of inertia, “Press Conference!”
Villaraigosa’s twist on Burnham’s “Make Big Plans!” directive is to make really big plans, plans so big that the responsibility for actually delivering on them will fall on those in the next generation.
Villaraigosa has bounced from promise to promise, assuring Angelenos that LA is the Greenest Big City, the land of Sustainable Industry, home to a million trees, and just recently he discovered the entertainment industry and now he has a plan for supporting film production!
You can’t turn a ship that isn’t moving and Villaraigosa is currently at the helm of the Capital of Inertia, a city so stuck in the quagmire of bureaucracy that even with his muscle behind a Mayoral Directive, simply implementing LA’s Bike Plan with paint on the street won’t be complete until he’s 93 years old. Of course, that’s only if it doesn’t run into budget restraints, security and safety concerns, and liability issues.
LA’s future belongs to the bold, to those who are willing to confront mediocrity and to challenge the veracity of the objections that get thrown at the feet of progress. It’s up to the public to reject false obstacles and to demand progress.
(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at: Stephen@thirdeyecreative.net.)