City of L.A.

Where’s the Transparency? – L.A. Confidential

By Jim Smith

When City Controller Candidate Cary Brazeman expressed shock that the city of Los Angeles was corrupt, I was reminded of the scene in the film, Casablanca, when Inspector Renault discovers gambling at Rick’s as he is handed his winnings. Brazeman was irritated about the city’s Ethics Commission changing the election rules in mid-campaign. In fact, “ethics” is about as foreign to city government as “planning” is to the Dept. of Planning.

When I asked Brazeman if he didn’t know L.A. was corrupt, he responded: “Well, I liked to think it couldn’t get any dirtier … but was proven wrong!” His reaction is not uncommon. Many of us in Venice have had those moments when we thought it couldn’t get any dirtier, only to be confronted with more corruption.

Corruption takes many forms in the city of the angels. It can be the old-fashion kind when money is transferred from a businessman to a city official. This is called a campaign contribution in Los Angeles, where most of the city council is beholden to developers. Corruption also can be rigged elections as in the Venice annexation election of 1925. Corruption caused the dismantling the Red Cars, the most extensive mass transit system in the country at the behest of the oil and auto companies. Corruption can also take the form of changing the rules in mid-stream, as Brazeman points out. Or, in suddenly deciding a city street is actually a park in order to brutalize homeless people. It’s no wonder that a popular film exposing city corruption in mid-century was called L.A. Confidential – the opposite of transparency.

I would argue that lack of transparency in government is an example of corruption. Transparency means openness, communications and accountability. Where is the transparency in Los Angeles? The city regime is about as transparent as the governments of Syria and North Korea.

Readers may wonder how the city of Los Angeles can be compared with these boogeymen of the evening news? Aren’t they corrupt dictatorships (the term is nearly redundant)? If you really think Los Angeles is a transparent democracy, you haven’t been paying attention. It has some of the trappings of democracy. You can attend city council meetings, where whatever you say will be ignored. You can attend neighborhood council meetings, which have all the power of a mock legislature in a middle school. The only difference is that a number of uniformed, armed men and women will probably not be lining the back wall at the middle school exercise.

Here are a few examples of the shocking lack of transparency as it affects Venice:

• Not once since he was elected has our Councilmember, Bill Rosendahl, issued an accounting of the Venice Surplus Property Fund. The Fund, which includes money from the sale of city owned property in Venice, is supposed to be used only in Venice. There has been no report on how much has been collected, how much has been spent, what projects it has been spent on, or any other particulars. Our previous councilmember, Cindy Miscikowski, who was imposed on Venice by the city council without an election, routinely consulted with the Grass Roots Venice Neighborhood Council on expenditures. In neither case, however, was a Venice community body trusted to make spending decisions.

•  The Big Wheel – that 200 foot tall Ferris Wheel – will be installed on the beach whether residents want it or not. Meetings between the Great City Attractions and the city, including the Councilmember’s office, the Recreation and Parks Dept. and the L.A. Visitors Bureau have been taking place without a word to those of us who will have to put up with more traffic, noise and pollution. If it had not been for the Beachhead breaking the story back in September, we probably wouldn’t have known about it until it was erected.

• The current City Attorney, Carmen “Nuch” Trutanich, a fine example of today’s political animal, has ruled that our busiest street, Ocean Front Walk, is, in fact, a park. Transparency? No. There has been no documentation given to surprised Venetians to back up this astonishing opinion. We await “Nuch’s” pronouncement on the existence of UFOs.

• Many streets in Venice now bear large signs that prohibit so-called oversized vehicles, including many that rarely saw an RV. Our Councilmember said that the signs would only be posted if two-thirds of the residents signed a petition in favor of having them. We’ll never know if such petitions exist since they are not open for inspection. Meanwhile, owners of RVs have traded them in for camper vans that are not “oversized.”

• Let’s follow the money that’s collected in Venice. Except we can’t. Do you know how much money the city extracts from Venice? Do you know how much money is spent here by the city? You won’t find answers to these questions from city officials. Even though, in the computer age it would be a relatively simple program that could give us the answer, if they wanted us to know. Of course, the last thing that will ever become is transparent.

This is not an indictment of Rosendahl or Trutanich or any of the other good people who are officials of Los Angeles. They are simply caught up in a corrupt institution. In fact, Los Angeles is just too big to be good. The opportunities for mischief are everywhere, and usually no one is watching. L.A. is also too big to succeed. The average resident or group of residents doesn’t have a chance of effecting change in this megalopolis. In the immortal words of County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, “The average person walking into City Hall is behind the eight ball before he ever gets to the first step.”

There are probably other cities that are ruled in a dictatorial fashion like L.A. But most are run by shared governance. Greater London is made up of scores of communities the size of Venice or Mar Vista that have local councils with real power. New York City, of course, is divided into five boroughs. It has a city council made up of 51 representatives, of which 18 are women. Los Angeles, on the other hand, has only 15 councilmembers, all men except one. New York City’s Council is also much more diverse but members do not receive the broad array of perks that are enjoyed by L.A. councilmembers. The interplay and bargaining between the Mayor, Borough Presidents and the large city council usually ensures that most groups and communities in NYC will have some representation, in contrast to the system of wealth and privilege that is practiced in Los Angeles.

It may sound like a broken record to say that the best solution for Venice would be to restore its cityhood. The much smaller size of Venice would force transparency in a way that we will never see in Los Angeles. In Venice, we would know where the city councilmembers live. We would see them in the grocery store, local restaurants or walking their dog. Meetings of vital importance to our community would no longer take place 20 miles away. Until Venetians start organizing to get out of the cesspool that is Los Angeles, we’ll just be some of the chumps they laugh about down at City Hall.