Tue, May

Inside of the Rhodes Scholar Head of LA’s New Mayor


LA POLITICS - Last Thursday Eric Garcetti completed his series of 7 post-election town hall forums. Described as the mayor-elect's "listening tour," the events invited members of the public to share their thoughts on 3 topics -- how to make City Hall work, the economy, and neighborhoods.  More about that later, including some of the more telling public comments, but first a few words about the new mayor himself.           

At the conclusion of the public event, CityWatch and the local newspaper Random Lengths News were granted interviews with Garcetti. One of the first ways that a new mayor makes his mark is in the appointments he makes to commissions and to the city's staff. There are, even now, a lot of rumors floating around about those who are looking for city jobs and commission seats, and other rumors about who might be expected to get them. Garcetti responded to the question by stating that the rumors are false.

The process of finding and choosing those all-important people is starting, but decisions have yet to be made. The exception, Garcetti explained, is in the appointment of his own senior staff, which, he made clear, is his personal prerogative.           

For the remainder of city jobs and appointments, there will be a process which will include reviews of the departmental General Managers. In addition, there will be evaluations of job seekers and commission applicants. Importantly, Garcetti explained that there will be a vetting process which will invite public input.


James Preston Allen, the publisher of Random Lengths News, asked a clarifying question which is of perennial interest in the harbor area. Does this mean that the members of the Harbor Commission will or will not be asked to resign as of July 1? The answer is no -- the process of filling a new board will take time and apparently won't be rushed. We can expect new Harbor Commissioners, but that process is a little down the list of things to get done.


Garcetti explained that even old friends of his will be subjected to the vetting process, implying that a personal relationship is not an automatic path to a high paying job.


Over the years, political analysts have pointed out that Garcetti has his own style of management that involves listening politely to all sides and looking for a workable compromise. This has, often enough, resulted in criticism, particularly when you talk to Hollywood area residents who oppose the new Millennium project. But it also seems to have pleased enough voters to reelect him to the City Council, enough City Council members to make him President of the City Council, and a substantial majority of city voters who have now elected him mayor.


One CityWatch writer called attention to an attempt by the new mayor-elect to lower expectations. This view is consistent with some of Garcetti's public remarks at the forum. He spoke of the need to do the essential tasks that local governments are supposed to do, like paving streets, even as he avoided making grandiose commitments and unlikely promises.


Perhaps this is more a matter of tone than anything else. In this regard, I think we ought to consider more carefully Eric Garcetti's background and education, because it is arguably a clue to what Eric Garcetti is.


He is described as someone who grew up in the Valley, and then went off to college. This is the part that is truly understated when trying to evaluate the man and predict how he will govern. Garcetti attended Columbia University, in New York City. It is not only one of the more exceptional and prestigious centers of learning in the entire world, it is also one of the most difficult places to win admission. You might argue that Eric Garcetti had some kind of advantage considering his family background, but that would not really do justice to what came next. Garcetti not only finished Columbia, he did well enough to be considered as a Rhodes Scholar candidate. That by itself says a lot. Then he won that competition, and did further studies at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar.


Here is where that Ivy League and Oxford background becomes pertinent. Among the upper level of universities, there is a culture that often fails to be understood by outsiders, even those in the profession of journalism. Let me try to explain as best I can. Among the tenured faculty at such institutions, there exists freedom of expression that is hard to find in other places. The hallowed principle is the freedom to think, to express, and to write, without having to follow artificial rules. Obviously there are limits, but less so than other colleges that are subject to funding by state legislatures.


This principle creates a heady attitude of independence -- you might call it freedom of thought --  within the faculty, and it flows down to the student body by a kind of osmosis. But academic freedom has a couple of important corollaries that are also often a little opaque to the outsider. The first is that the professors and the students are expected to be serious in their studies and their research, in the sense of exploring the important rather than the trivial. There is another aspect of that academic culture that allows not only for novel ideas, but for free and open criticism of those ideas by your peers. You won't get far in trying to sell an illogical argument, even at the dormitory lunch table, among your classmates.


And these principles are inextricably linked to one final, overriding principle. It is not enough to be inventive or even revolutionary. You have to be honest. That concept of honesty goes beyond the mere prohibition against telling fibs. It extends to the whole concept of intellectual honesty. You are expected to be able to come up with ideas and to support them with facts and logic, but it is ultimately unthinkable to do so in an intellectually dishonest way.


Yes, there are exceptions, but the powerful tide of critical evaluation rolls over the fakers and the inept.


This whole academic style and culture is reflected in Garcetti's sober approach to making political promises. It can be called lowered expectations, but it might just as easily be called an honest approach to a nearly unsolvable collection of problems.


I am going to offer a little speculation about how his upbringing has affected the Garcetti style. If you come from this sort of academic milieu and choose to enter a life of politics, you will inevitably have to deal with people who come from completely different backgrounds.


To some, lying is as much a way of life as breakfast, and you will have to deal with them at one time or another. Others are more or less well meaning, but not of superlative intellectual caliber. If you are the President of the City Council, you might have to deal with one or two on a daily basis.


That, perhaps, explains the Garcetti style that has been remarked upon. There is an inner tension over dealing with people who are not at the level of your former professors and classmates, but the realities of politics require that you deal with them as political equals. Garcetti seems to have solved this conundrum by self restraint -- listen politely and carefully, and don't pick fights that you can avoid.


Is this true? I don't know, because I was not invited to attend private meetings among members of the City Council, and I'm not a mind reader. But I knew a lot of sharp students from Harvard, MIT, and Columbia, and I think I can see how the northeastern elite level of training would have its effect.


There is one more corollary to these academic arguments which may be even more important. At that level, no matter how sharp you are, there is always someone smarter, someone more educated, someone better able to solve the nonlinear differential equation or discourse knowledgably on the Civil War. It is a profoundly sobering realization. In short, those who are among the brightest and most effective are put to the test early on, and out of this they learn something about their own limits.


Does any of this speculation fit Eric Garcetti? What I can say after interviewing him is that he manages to say intelligent things without coming across as an egotist. There is a strong intelligence behind the successful politician mask. Maybe he is just a terrific actor, but it's just as likely that some of that earlier educational experience is affecting his conduct as Mayor of Los Angeles.


Audience comments and suggestions


Thursday's forum began by dividing the audience among a dozen separate groups. Those of us in each group were invited to offer our ideas on the aforementioned neighborhoods, the economy, and how to make city hall work. I will mention one of the more popular positions, and then one or two suggestions of my own.


In my group of about a dozen people, the first remarks were in regard to the inability of Los Angeles to process building permits and cut through red tape in a timely way. There was a pretty strong feeling among everyone present that the city is unfriendly to business and needs to wake up to its problem. It's curious that even among labor activists and traditional liberals, this was recognized as an issue. Apparently there is little split between business conservatives and liberals on this, but somehow the problem doesn't go away.


One of the participants, a successful developer who is steering a giant new project, suggested that what is required is speed. "Say yes or say no, but decide." The man on the other side of me made a similar remark about not leaving applicants hanging. Creating a "one stop shop" for processing permitting applications was a popular idea.


Another comment that some of us have heard before was that the elected officials should stop using the term "city family" to refer to the city's employees. This was something of a conservative trope during the last electoral season, but it too seems to be accepted by members of the public when it is explained to them. We would like our elected officials to understand that the city family is all of us, and not just the group who collect salaries from those who pay taxes.


We had a brief discussion about how to make City Hall work. On the little square piece of paper I was handed, I wrote that Garcetti should veto any and all salary increases for DWP employees (or other city staff) that the City Council passes.


In the little time that was left for discussion, I pointed out that whether we like it or not, members of the City Council are trapped in a system where they have to go to wealthy interest groups for campaign financing. Most of them are beholden to municipal labor unions to some extent, and we might reasonably expect that they will find some murky compromise that ends up raising salaries and reducing the financial health of the city government. That's reality, as depressing as it sounds, but a new mayor can intercept those salary increases. To do so would instantly win Garcetti the enmity of the municipal workers' unions, but it would also instantly make him a folk hero. It's what real mayors are supposed to do.


During the recent primary season, candidates for mayor such as Jan Perry admitted their regret over voting for large salary increases in 2007. In presenting his final budget as mayor, Villaraigosa admitted his regret about signing those same increases. Garcetti of course shares in the collective responsibility, but as mayor he will have a chance to repair some of the damage. That's because the mayor can armor himself against union retaliation simply because he has lots more coverage in the press and on television than he did as a City Councilman. A brave act early in his first term would gain him lots of friendly publicity and with it, public support.


And let's face it, we're only asking our new Mayor to do what any parent has to learn how to do, which is to say "No." We've been waiting a while to have a grownup running the city. We'll soon find out whether we have one.


(Bob Gelfand is cofounder of the Coastal San Pedro Neighborhood Council, former chair of the Los Angeles Neighborhood Council Coalition, and writes on culture and politics for City Watch. He can be reached at [email protected])





Vol 11 Issue 51

Pub: June 25, 2013

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