How the System Works

This isn't about a skateboard park in Watts or a football stadium downtown. Both have supporters and critics and their reasons good and bad. It isn't about the merits of these proposals or their cost - less than $400,000 for the skateboard park; about $1.3 billion for the football stadium.

It is about the system operating at both these levels - relatively small and very, very big - that serves interests, not neighborhoods; that embraces power and its exercise, not obligations and their burdens; and that premises every decision on its tactical advantage, not on responsibilities or values.

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A skateboard park on city-owned land at the foot of the Watts Towers has been quietly controversial since 2009, when the project was first proposed by Councilwoman (now Congresswoman) Janice Hahn, whose district included the towers. Construction funding was promised by the Annenberg Foundation, skateboard entrepreneur Tony Hawk, and others. There were early questions about the appropriateness of a skateboard park next to a world famous artwork, of possible damage to the always threatened towers themselves, and questions of turf, too. The towers are owned by the state, leased to the city to maintain and operate, and part of a shared management agreement with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

For unexplained reasons - and reasons are never explained under the rules of the system - the city council acted quickly in recent days to exempt the skateboard park from a detailed environmental review and sent the proposal - without a single dissenting vote - to the recreation commission for design approval and the city council for acceptance of the donors' money. Under the city hall system, neither the commission nor the council will ever question the wisdom of the project.

That lack of a dissenting vote is diagnostic of the system's malignancy. Councilmembers almost never disturb the deals being made by their colleagues. In effect, within the compass of a member's district, each councilmember is sovereign. Very good ideas and very bad ones are equally exempt from the council's review.

A skateboard park next to the Watts Towers may be a good idea or a bad one, but we may never know. And we won't ever be invited to consider the idea's merits or have our questions - even innocent ones - answered.

An NFL stadium downtown has been controversial since it was proposed in 2010. The project received so much pushback - including an unusual degree of councilmember dissent - that Mayor Villaraigosa empanelled a committee of stadium "cheerleaders" to shepherd the threatened proposal to safety. The committee includes one early dissenter, Councilman Bill Rosendahl, as the committee's vice chair.

Under the state's "open meeting" law, the committee process is a kind of fan dance. The meetings take place in public, but the apparatus of a formal meeting is dispensed with. Agendas aren't posted in advance. Staff reports are typically oral, not written. Everything is much more informal, easier to manage. That's because the stadium review committee isn't a "standing committee" of the city council. It's an "ad hoc" committee.

The city hall system benefits from the ad hoc committee process (which is completely legal), because it permits the mayor's office and Councilwoman Jan Perry - in whose district the stadium will be built - to maintain the appearance of public accountability and "due diligence" while they craft a deal with the stadium's developer.

Council Members Bill Rosendahl, Eric Garcetti, and Paul Krekorian raised a question recently, not about the stadium deal but about the semi-transparent committee process. Their question sent a tremble through the system. The councilmembers suggested that ad hoc committees follow the same open meeting rules as regular meetings of standing committees and the city council.

Rosendahl took the further step of putting his suggestion in the form of a motion to the city council. The result was predictable panic on the part of his council colleagues.

Greg Nelson (at CityWatch) and Bill Boyarsky (at LA Observed) saw the fight as one more example of the system serving itself. According to Nelson:

Rosendahl's motion simply called for ad hoc committees to follow the same laws about notification and openness that apply by standing committees. As soon as the city council began discussing the motion, the wheels fell off the transparency wagon. It was clear that this wasn't a discussion about (open meetings), but about a council member who has dared to ask questions about the proposed football stadium, and who has attempted to make public the backroom discussions and hidden reports around which the negotiations have been framed.
Most appropriate is the old Japanese proverb that "The nail that sticks out gets hammered down." And hammer on Rosendahl is what some of them did. It was a demonstration of the collective power of the city council. Any member who dares to stray from plans that place the interests of the council members . . . over the interests of the public find themselves being attacked publicly and privately.

The system's big deals (stadium) and small deals (skateboard park) are alike in veiling the give-and-take of negotiations, in deferring to councilmember vanity and absolutism, and in divesting Angeleños of any real stake in the outcomes.

The city hall system - unaccountable, secretive, imperious - serves many ends, virtuous as well as evil. It survives by corrupting the relationship between those who govern and those who elect them. The system depends on a perverse assumption: that citizens are best served as passive consumers of municipal services.

The city hall system is old - almost exactly 100 years old - and wily. And there is, as yet, no term limit for its oppressive rule.

D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles every Monday and Friday at 2 p.m. on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

The image on this page makes use of public domain photographs.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles," among other books about the social history of Southern California. He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times ...
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