A Candidate Primer: How the City of LA Really Works

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MAILANDER’S LA-Comes now the City of Los Angeles's Neighborhood Council election cycle, which to me is shaping up to be quite the unseemly, unlawful, and unconstitutional fiasco.   

But I would like to do my part for it anyway.  So while you are busy prepping your crib notes as candidates and puzzling about how to appeal to voters, and while you prospective voters are wondering how to evaluate muzzled candidates, whom are guided to not even so much as say something negative about another candidate according to Grayce Liu's Candidate Guideline No. 7 (and in shocking defiance of the First Amendment), I would like to explain to candidates and voters alike a few things about how the City of LA really works, and what you need to know to be a successful candidate. 

My own first litmus regarding whether or not a candidate for office might be qualified to serve is to learn whether or not the candidate even knows who his or her peers might be. At minimum, I think it essential to holding any office in the City, from City Council to Neighborhood Council, to know the names of all fifteen City Councilmembers, and also the Controller, the City Attorney, and of course the Mayor. And hopefully a little about what kind of things each one of these eighteen elected officials generally stand for.  

People who are new to civic politics and suddenly come to learn something about it especially tend to underestimate the scope and power of a City Councilmember's office--with which as a Neighborhood Council member they will be most obliged to work.

The stats alone often come as a surprise: each and every Council district, including yours, is roughly the size in population of Buffalo, New York or Newark, New Jersey. And each is in geographical terms roughly the size of Miami, Florida. Each City Councilmember is in fact like a Mayor in many other major American cities--and has probably spent more than the mayors in all but a handful of American cities to get elected.

Each Council office has a media person (as do many City departments), a planning deputy, other deputies, and a chief of staff. The deputies generally serve as surrogate Councilmembers. And don't be fooled: talking to one is as good as talking to the Councilmember--if it's not, that person isn't going to last too long.

To some Neighborhood Council folks, deputies may occasionally appear to be duplicitous types with little real power, not appearing to know what the Councilmember wants or to do.  But this is typically a good cop/bad cop act performed with the full endorsement of the Councilmember.  In truth deputies are loyal to their bosses to a fault and can easily declaim or predict how a Councilmember might feel about a given issue.  They can be expected to be as the stakes are high for them professionally. Some even go on to become Councilmembers themselves--Tom LaBonge and Mitch O'Farrell are cases in point.  

The Councilmembers are not only important because they vote on ordinances that become law and vote on how to spend your money--which they do, of course, to a profligate degree, which is why you would like to serve on your Neighborhood Council, I'm sure.  But the Councilmembers are also important because they sit on City committees.

These committees deal with specific areas of civil services and civic life.  They are mostly important because the way something becomes created or even becomes law in the City more often than not is it is typically first introduced in a Committee for review. This Committee then hears public testimony and makes recommendations to City Council, which may bring the matter to a vote, voting up or down or amending what it has received from a committee.

Also you know that In the City of LA as in other cities, there are mayoral-appointed Commissions that sort of oversee every Department. The top commissions are important; many also are not very important.  Most commissions generally do not truly oversee the day-to-day operations of any Department in any way but cosmetically. But some are indeed important because they often approve (or make recommendations to Council or to a committee) on Department contracts.  They are also asked to sit in judgment on some Department business. They too can advise Council with sets of recommendations on matters that come before them.   

So you can see why the Mayor (or other City officials, who may also be entitled to commission appointments) will often want to appoint people they can count on.  Thus, these commissions are often packed with friends of the Mayor or other figures that get to appoint them, or appointments that are very politically driven.

Commissions get interesting because things can go bad especially for the Mayor should he make the kind of experimental appointment that may be right for the City and may not. Traditionally, mayors have liked to mix it up a little on their commission appointments, hopefully for optimal results--they may find a great civic figure who has a new kind of vision for the city, as Metropolitan Museum of Art director Thomas Hoving surprisingly provided New York City's parks in the '60's.

For what it's worth, more recently in our City, others have been far more willing to be experimental than our present Mayor has demonstrated himself to be. I remember when Controller Laura Chick appointed a former Times writer, Bill Boyarsky, to the City's ethics commission. Boyarsky ultimately said that he failed to bring ethics to City Hall and was treated like a crazy uncle at the bar mitzvah by his commission peers.  It is not uncommon for a writer who has dealt with the City for a long time to be treated like that.

Only one of these civic commissions is paid--the Public Works Commission, which doth bestride the narrow civic world like a colossus. The contracts with which they work are colossal, anyway, which is why these commissioners are paid, fairly handsomely: $130,000 a year. This is the Commission that former mayoral candidate Kevin James is on--who was sort of a surprise appointment but not a thunderously so one. He should indeed do a decent job; he has the capacity to do the kind of occasionally forensic accounting necessary to examine the labyrinthine paper trails that typically lead to some big Public Works contract. And he will indeed also likely remain grateful to the Mayor for the appointment, at least until the next political path presents itself.

People involved with Neighborhood Councils also typically know the name of Jill Banks Barad, who has been involved with Neighborhood Councils for many years and whom Garcetti appointed to the DWP commission. I think the jury is very much out with her, but she typically has appealed to the people involved in Neighborhood Council politics, anyway.  

If you're running for a  Neighborhood Council board, it helps in every way--in service, and certainly in pulling your own votes--to know the people presently on that Neighborhood Council on which you are aspiring to serve. You can already see how incumbency even at this level is an advantage!

Finally, you need to know a little about the General Managers of City departments.

When I interview candidates for any City office at all, I often ask a question that typically comes as a surprise. "Everyone criticizes the way the City runs," I say, "But is there anyone who you think is doing a good job?"

Answering this question really separates the women from the girls. There are actually some people who run for City Council who can't name a single City department general manager excepting one even by the time they sit down with me for an interview. And if they can't, at minimum, they will invariably say, "Chief Beck."

Now, Chief Beck may indeed be doing a good job. But I know if they say Chief Beck and nobody else they are out of their depth on this question. Conversely, someone who really knows the City of LA and has for years, like, say, Mitch Englander, has already been dealing with General Managers and Commissioners and in meetings with them for a decade before running for office. So I wasn't surprised when he picked an obscure one--"Pouria Abbassi" he instantly said, the head of the Convention Center.

The City of LA has a lot of Departments, and I don't even know how many there are without looking it up (when I worked for the City, twenty years ago, there were 37--I have just looked it up and there are now 43 "departments and bureaus"). No, you don't really need to know who the director of "El Pueblo" is or how much the Zoo spends each year. But you should probably know the names of a small handful of Department general managers--or at least the names of some of the Departments!--and especially any that might have a special relationship to or presence in your own neighborhood.  

Regarding your candidacy, you will undoubtedly be invited to some kind of event that is under the aegis of your Neighborhood Council that introduces you to a community as a candidate.  These events are almost completely worthless to your candidacy--very few votes are actually up for grabs at them.  The truth is that in Neighborhood Council elections, if you can figure out how to get about 10-15 votes every day between the time you declare your intentions to run and election day, you will win easily. Candidates are best off speaking at Rotaries, garden clubs, &c, and making a five minute presentation, and smiling, and asking for votes, and getting the promised votes out on election day.  

Because turnout in these elections is so small, you are working more as a missionary than you are looking for converts.  

And boy does EmpowerLA need missionaries.  A few years ago, when the beleaguered, bedraggled Department went by yet another name, it debated whether or not it should de-certify Neighborhood Councils that could not fetch a vote total that in aggregate exceeded one percent of their neighborhood's aggregate population.  It was determined that this would de-certify too many Neighborhood Councils, so the idea was scrapped.  Whether or not a body that fetches less than one percent of a community's interest can truly be said to "represent" that community remains a question.  The truth is that nearly every high school student body president in LA gets far more votes than any Neighborhood Council board member does.

Anyway, this is all a little bit of the way the City works, and we haven't even gotten into how you might help a neighbor to get the City to fix a pothole or install a new streetlight at a dangerous corner. Just also know that the hope of the top names in City government--or the game of these top names--remains to throw as much actual civic work as possible onto Neighborhood Councils, while giving them as little real authority as possible.   

And between now and your election day, we all need to hope that someone figures out how election officials are going to determine exactly who can vote for you and who can't.

 

(Joseph Mailander is a writer, an LA observer and a contributor to CityWatch. He is also the author of Days Change at Night: LA's Decade of Decline, 2003-2013. Mailander blogs here.) 

 

-cw

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CityWatch

 

Vol 12 Issue 13

 

Pub: Feb 14, 2014

 

 

 

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