The mayor’s first road-show appearance selling his hypothetical $7 billion city budget took me around the corner Thursday afternoon to Providence Tarzana Medical Center where I kibbitzed with leaders of VICA and the United Chambers waiting for the inevitably late Antonio to arrive.
Suddenly, as the program began with introductions, someone grabbed me from behind in a chokehold. I didn’t have to turn around to know it was Antonio.
It’s a funny relationship we have. I’m probably his harshest critic and yet I like him a lot and we’ve had some long serious chats over the years, though not lately.
“Antonio is a great guy with great potential,” a prominent Valley business leader told me before the event. “It’s tragic for the city that he’s done so little with it.”
That’s how I feel. And that sense of the disconnect between the man himself and his actions as a political leader only strengthened as I watched him in action wooing a crowd that doesn’t share his political views and sees the community they love in jeopardy, the city they love getting worse,
The screen in the front of the auditorium proclaimed “Keep LA Working,” a sign said “Saving Jobs, Maintaining Services,” another showed rows of city workers in four scenarios for how their jobs can be saved with furloughs, deferring raises, additional pension contributions, one less paid hour of work a week.
The mayor smiled and turned on the charm, looked straight into the faces of people in the front, danced through his routine of how terrible the economy is and how no mayor in modern LA history ever was prepared to lay off so many workers, ready to make such tough decisions.
He’s a pro-union guy, no one can question that, he said, but payroll costs have to be reduced 10 percent and the unions are going to have to make concessions or else. The only other way out is early retirements — getting rid of the deadwood was a phrase he avoided repeating.
“We don’t have the money, so let’s figure it out together,” Phil Willon of the Times quoted the mayor as saying in an article only published online like so many these days.
It all seemed so logical, so reasonable, so fair. We’re partners in this crisis. He’s listening to us. He respects our values and interests. He understands the problem is government costs more than we can afford and is fixing it.
Hardly a mention of fees, rates and taxes going up or that he’s expanding social welfare programs. Or that deferrals and furloughs aren’t permanent reductions in costs or that early retirement has the same impact on services as layoffs, only worse because it wipes out a generation of experienced managers without regard to the value of their labor.
Willon noted wryly that “he received a much warmer reception than he did in the March election” when the mayor actually ran second in the Northwest Valley and failed to get a majority in the Southwest Valley.
It was the same earlier in the afternoon when he met with 20 or so Valley Neighborhood Council leaders at the home of Al Abrams, Tarzana NC leader and a mayoral appointee to the Board of Neighborhood Empowerment, to listen to their concerns and pitch his budget.
“We have a budget deficit that’s historical and unprecedented, and I believe there’s a way out,” Kevin Modesti in the Daily News quoted the mayor as telling the group.
What a performance, good if not great to be sure, from a super-salesman.
But what is he selling?
Is he proposing a solution to the catastrophic city pension crisis that will require taxpayers to pay 80 cents into pensions for every dollar of police and fire payroll in five years and more than 50 cents for every dollar of payroll for all other city workers? Is he surgically getting rid of programs that we can’t afford or don’t work or the real “deadwood” in the city workforce and getting back to basics?
Or are the real problems being deferred to another year as he did in the current budget and the one before?
That is what is wrong with smooth-talking and glibly gliding over the truth. It all sounds so good in the moment of seduction but it isn’t necessarily love the next morning that you awaken to.
Next week, Councilman Bernard Parks will start budget hearings and attack the mayor’s plan to keep on adding more cops even as other services deteriorate.
He’ll prevail to a degree and free the mayor from his unshakable commitment to the symbolic 10,000 cops promise but the City Council will go along for the ride and we’ll sell off parking revenue that will make things worse in the future and make the pension crisis worse with early retirements.
It will all fall apart within months and the $530 million deficit today will become a $700 million deficit as unemployment goes from 12.5% to 14 or 15 percent and revenue shrinks even farther.
The day is coming when even the mayor won’t be able to talk his way out of the troubles facing the city.
It doesn’t take a butcher with a “meat cleaver” to achieve this as the mayor described it. It takes a surgeon carefully eliminating what is not working or is unaffordable. And it requires depolicizing the bureaucracy and the commission system so that policies come forth that provide for the common good with common sense.
Most of all, it takes a commitment to make the people of the city true partners involved in the process, respected for their differences in values and needs and empowered and informed to fully participate in finding solutions.
If the mayor wants to be governor, he needs to be a great mayor first. That’s his job.
Ron Kaye is the former editor of the Los Angeles Daily News where he spent 23 years helping to make the newspaper the voice of the San Fernando Valley and fighting for a city government that serves the people and not special interests. Twice in recent years, Los Angeles Magazine listed Kaye among the city’s most influential people, specifically in the area of politics. Kaye has been variously described in the media as the “accidental anarchist,” “the Patrick Henry of the San Fernando Valley” and a “passionate populist.” He is now committed to carrying on his crusade for a greater Los Angeles as an ordinary citizen.
Republished with permission from Ron Kaye L.A.