DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - Over the past four months, Los Angeles political observers have glimpsed one of the most curious spectacles in years. It’s been a saga of smart people, ideas that resemble flaming arrows and a raft of denial. It’s been a tale of battering-ram tactics, bruised egos and some pointed power plays.
It sounds like an episode of “The Good Wife,” except that it’s playing out in City Hall and, instead of starring Julianna Margulies, Archie Panjabi and Michael J. Fox, the leads are Austin Beutner, Mickey Kantor and Herb Wesson. Hey, we can’t win ’em all.
It concerns the Los Angeles 2020 Commission, a 12-member panel that has refused to operate in the milquetoast manner of most appointed blue-ribbon groups. Normally these bodies, tapped by the political elite, write a report that generates some pleasant lip service and then winds up on a shelf. The unwritten rule is don’t bite the hand of the powerful.
That rule has been ignored by the commission, which instead sniffed the hand and then chomped down hard, possibly snapping off a digit or two. If its pair of reports wind up on a shelf, it won’t be for lack of effort.
The 2020 Commission appeared before the full City Council last week, where the reception was, not surprisingly, fairly cool. Still, the most interesting part of the story is what got the members there.
The 2020 Commission began last year when council President Wesson asked top lawyer and former U.S. Commerce Secretary Mickey Kantor to assemble a group to look into what ails Los Angeles. I still don’t know what Wesson hoped would come from this and whether it was a power hedge against incoming Mayor Eric Garcetti — wait, it’s Wesson, so of course it was a power move — but Kantor ended up co-chairing the group with businessman and former First Deputy Mayor Austin Beutner.
They assembled some big names including ex-Gov. Gray Davis, business figures such as David Fleming and labor leaders including the Police Protective League’s Tyler Izen and DWP union chief Brian D’Arcy.
The 2020 Commission’s opening salvo was the biggest surprise since Rocky Balboa landed a haymaker that floored Apollo Creed at the start of their first fight. The opening line to its January report, “A Time for Truth,” stated, “Los Angeles is barely treading water while the rest of the world is moving forward.” That was about as nice as it got. The report bludgeoned the city, at one point declaring, “Los Angeles suffers from a crisis in leadership and direction.”
In response, the elected class pretty much decided they didn’t want to play the 2020 panel’s reindeer games. “A Time for Truth” was effectively ignored.
The panel then seems to have recalculated. It dropped the scorched Earth tone and went the suggestive route in the follow-up “A Time for Action.” Wesson attended the April 9 Downtown release of the study, which, what a coincidence, came the day before Mayor Eric Garcetti delivered his first State of the City address.
Garcetti’s office avoided the report as if it were a one-man musical starring Donald Sterling. Though Wesson said hearings would take place, for weeks it appeared as if the council too would ignore the prescription of 13 ways to improve civic life and boost job growth.
The media and public response were mixed. Some slammed “A Time for Action,” calling it too thin and saying it left out solutions to things like paralyzing gridlock. Several observers questioned the ties between members of the panel and its suggestions. Everyone had a field day battering the involvement of D’Arcy, who, oy vey, continues to refuse to detail how the DWP spent $40 million allocated to two mysterious institutes.
Others applauded suggestions such as creating a city Office of Transparency and Accountability that would provide the media and the citizenry information on the budget and other matters. They urged quick movement on the panel’s support of changing the dates of city elections, bemoaning the 23% turnout in last May’s mayoral runoff.
In late April, the 2020 team displayed a willingness to bare its claws again. At a Downtown luncheon hosted by the organization Town Hall-Los Angeles, Beutner and Fleming pondered whether L.A. is on the path to becoming the next Detroit. “Is our community better served by the status quo than by change?” Beutner asked, before touching on one of his main points — the goal with “A Time for Action” is to ignite a legitimate conversation.
At the end of the session, I asked Fleming if Wesson’s office had scheduled the promised hearings.
“It’s been radio silence,” he said.
Then, suddenly, a week later, the 2020 team appeared before the council. They brought along some big guns, with County Federation of Labor leader Maria Elena Durazo and L.A. Area Chamber head Gary Toebben opening the proceedings by expressing their support for the report.
Kantor and Beutner went the conciliatory route. “This report isn’t perfect. We don’t pretend that it is,” Kantor stated.
Beutner stuck to a few key points, hitting the election date change and calling for regional cooperation in tourism, saying that L.A., Beverly Hills, Santa Monica and other communities will see more dollars if they work together to woo international visitors. He pushed for the accountability office, saying a similar body exists in New York, Chicago and other locations.
Then the electeds took over, and one after another, delivered speeches that went a) Thank you, b) I like idea x, and c) But, one thing I have a problem with is…. It was reminiscent of the scene in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure when Pee-Wee talks with Simone inside the giant dinosaur, and she wants to travel but life gets in the way. Then Pee-Wee proclaims, “Everyone I know has a big but.”
It was the same thing: The council reps said they liked the 2020 report in general, but everyone had a big but.
Mike Bonin questioned the proposal to change the election dates, theorizing that if a mayoral ballot coincides with the federal election cycle, there will be more, not less, influence from special interests. Bob Blumenfield had similar election concerns, and he and Bonin both also doubted that an accountability office is needed when more data is coming online and Los Angeles has a Chief Legislative Analyst and a City Administrative Officer. Mitch Englander wondered if the study took into account some recent City Hall advances. Curren Price spun off with questions on economic development and public-private partnerships. José Huizar asked if you can get fries with that (joking!).
Beutner and Kantor effectively and politely parried each thrust, and by the end it was apparent that, in a room of smart people, the smartest ones were sitting at the speaker’s table, and not around the council horseshoe.
Then, there was Councilman Paul Koretz. He started off by agreeing with the need to regionalize tourism. Then he revealed his “but,” saying he “vehemently” disagreed with suggestions regarding retirement payouts.
To be fair, it’s confusing stuff, but Beutner, who made a fortune on Wall Street (he became a partner at top-notch investment firm the Blackstone Group when he was 29), noted that retirement costs have gone from consuming 3% to 20% of the city’s budget. He explained how assets respond in changing economic markets and suggested that the council seek advice from folks like investment guru Bill Gross.
“We’re asking you to broaden the spectrum of experts you talk to,” he said.
At that point Koretz shook his head back and forth, his expression somewhere between incredulous and sad. He looked like a kid whose kitten had just been taken away.
Will the 2020 Commission make a difference? Who knows? Though Wesson said some of the topics should be picked up in council committees, that’s historically a place where matters can be seriously discussed, or simply sent to wither.
Afterwards I asked Beutner if he saw any indication that the conversation about change he has asked for will continue.
“We’ll see. The proof’s in the doing,” he said.
Soon Fleming chimed in.
“We’d rather not have it become a dust collector as others things have in the past.”
© Los Angeles Downtown News 2014