What does governing Los Angeles mean?

This (as quoted in Sunday's Daily News) is the least of it:

In the last three years, we have had to cut more than $1billion in services," Villaraigosa said. We reduced the work force by 3,500 people out of 14,000 in the civilian general fund work force. We have police officers and firefighters who have lost their overtime and are taking furlough days. Other cities are closing down police and fire stations and eliminating library service completely. We have cut it back to five days a week. When I first took office we opened new libraries and expanded hours to unprecedented levels. Now we have to cut back.

Governing Los Angeles isn't this, either (also in the Daily News):

Villaraigosa was at first reluctant, but then campaigned hard for Measure R, the half-cent sales tax measure that won approval from more than two-thirds of voters in 2008. "It is pretty amazing it was approved," Tom Hogan-Esch, director of the Center for Southern California Studies at California State University, Northridge. "And, what he's doing with the 30-10 proposal is really thinking outside of the box. It may go down as his greatest accomplishment." The 30-10 plan is Villaraigosa's concept to have the federal government advance $30 billion over the next 10 years to pay for the promised programs in Measure R, including the mayor's much vaunted Subway to the Sea.

If budgeting and big projects were the same as governing, Los Angeles would require the same figurehead mayors it had for most of the 20th century - a presentable mayor for the cutting of ribbons while government technocrats toiled at city hall and shadowy committees at the California Club and Jonathan Club met to imagine a city.

That kind of governance has taken decades to die . . . it's still dying in the Department of Water and Power and in a few other redoubts. And there's no one left - except Eli Broad - who can imagine Los Angeles as something more than a machine for generating deals. Deals for the musical chairs of city council politics, deals for lobbyists and contractors, deals for unions and developers.

The city's voters - with considerable optimism and faith - imagined a different form of governance in 1999 with the adoption of city charter reforms. The evolution of the civic DNA of Los Angeles was transforming but incomplete. Other, harder choices about the distribution of power were put off to another time. Progress needed both wisdom and will to continue.

I said then, as I did the other day in response to a question from Warren Olney on Which Way L.A., that the area planning councils in the reform charter, the system of neighborhood councils, the change in the relationship of the mayor to the department heads and the city council should drive a new kind of civic life in Los Angeles.

It's nearly 11 years later, and what has become of Angeleños optimism? What are they to believe now?

Mayor Villaraigosa hasn't yet internalized what refiguring the civic life of Los Angeles means. He's not leading that transformation or embraced that transformation in ways that makes any sense to me. As a consequence of not knowing how governance works in L.A. now, the mayor doesn't seem to be governing.

But deals are being made. The political chairs are regularly re-arranged for the term-limited. The ribbons still get cut.

The image on this page was taken by Flickr user Washington State Dept of Transportation. It is used under a Creative Commons License.

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