Redevelopment Is Dead, But Don't Start Singing That Song

Which Is Worse

The hoopla over the state Supreme Court's decision to let redevelopment die comes loaded with the smash-and-burn rhetoric common to government bashing everywhere. We're all in the mood to break something -- anything -- with "government" stenciled on its side. And since hardly any Californians understood what redevelopment was (or could be), redevelopment agencies have been made a convenient something to blow up real good.

When the huffing and puffing dies down, we may discover that it wasn't altogether a good idea to let Governor Brown slay the Wicked Witch of redevelopment. (Among the worried is former Ventura Mayor Bill Fulton, who was a persistent critic of redevelopment's flaws. The Times hopes that we can just all get along.)

And let's pass over the many ironies in the governor's adroit use of redevelopment authority when he was the mayor of Oakland. Or the greater irony in the Legislature's execution of 400 units of local government (because that benefits the state) while pardoning the phantom city of Vernon (because that benefits certain state legislators).

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The fight between the state and cities has always been framed in terms of money: city-run redevelopment agencies have the money and the state wanted it (largely to backfill the state's burdensome obligations to counties and schools following Proposition 13).

That equation (along with some "pious baloney") was uppermost in Governor Brown's acknowledgement of his victory. The court's decision, Brown said, "validates a key component of the state budget and guarantees more than a billion dollars of ongoing funding for schools and public safety."

The Supreme Court justices made the same dollars-and-cents connection, but with greater historical accuracy.

In sorting out the reasons for killing redevelopment, the justices pointed out that 1978's Proposition 13 created "a zero-sum game in which . . . cities, counties, special districts, and school districts . . . have to compete . . . for their slices of a greatly shrunken pie. Proposition 13 created a kind of shell game among local government agencies for property tax funds. The only way to obtain more funds was to take them from another agency."

The justices swept aside that shell game but then went much further than they needed to. They declared that -- in money and in politics -- the state will always win whenever the state and local governments face off.

Announcing the imperium of the state was their only logical choice, given the law. The only decision possible under the state constitution. And a decision that the justices should never have been asked to make.

The League of California Cities and the the state redevelopment association were utterly wrong-headed to try this issue when a compromise was already state law. And it made no sense for them to base their defense of local autonomy on the paper-thin protections in Proposition 1A and Proposition 22, which were intended to keep the state's hands off local government revenues.

Now the veil of illusion has been swept aside. State sovereignty is revealed to be absolute over the institutions of civic life and the elected officials who represent local governments. The willfulness of the state can only be restrained by the greater sovereignty of the electorate through constitutional initiative (a process increasingly corrupted by corporate manipulation).

The justices cleared the field of ambiguity. At the end of the day -- in any fight over how we govern ourselves and make our communities -- it's just us and the state.

I would have preferred dealing with the Wicked Witch.

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 on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

The image on this page was taken by flickr user Joe Penniston. It is used under a Creative Commons License.

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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