01
Fri, Mar

The LA City Council Disgraces Itself

GELFAND'S WORLD

GELFAND’S WORLD - You will be hearing and reading a lot of comments about how the City Council behaved on Friday in rejecting Jamie York's nomination to the Ethics Commission, so I don't have to explain why the action was so wrong, and such an insult to so many people. But I think I can add a little to the understanding of why the entire City Council made itself look distanced and brutish and corrupt.

Let's start by referring directly to the action of the City Council as shown by video. (Thanks to Lionel Mares for providing the excerpt.) You can see the whole 52 seconds here

Two sentences of background: The City Council elects a president who presides over Council meetings and a president pro tempore, who chairs the meeting at the discretion (or in the absence) of the council president. President pro tempore Marqueece Harris-Dawson was running the meeting at this time. An agenda item came up which involved the nomination of Jamie York to become a member of the city's Ethics Commission.

As others will tell you, Jamie York comes highly recommended, as many of us in the neighborhood councils have seen her work. She was endorsed by several neighborhood council boards, including my own. (Disclosure: I voted in favor of the endorsement.) At the City Council meeting, people spoke to the Council members in favor of her appointment. There didn't seem to be anything all that controversial about her nomination.

That's why what happened next seems so difficult to understand, if you are looking for some rational basis to explain how the City Council functions.

Try watching the video first, and then come back to these comments and see if you agree with my interpretation. We'll take things in their temporal order.

1) Dawson was reminded by the assistant that item 13 on the council's agenda (the York nomination) was up next.

2) Dawson  says, "Alright Miss Rodriguez."

3) Rodriquez: "I'd like to move to amend to uh disapprove please."

4) Dawson (instantaneously): "Excellent. I'll second that motion uh any discussion seeing none can open the roll."

5) The electronic vote is taken and tallied, and the motion passes by 14 - 0.

By my reckoning, the whole thing, from start to finish, took no more than 32 seconds. And it stunk to high heaven. Let's unpack what went on in terms of its potential to damage the reputation and standing of the City Council.

The first and most important conclusion that any normal person would draw from the video is that the fix was in. The whole process looked rigged.

How can I say that?

It's simple, really. There had been little or no objection to the nomination, at least in public, and there had been a lot of public support. There were also some credible sounding claims that York had the support of at least a couple of City Council members in advance of the vote. So why did nobody on the City Council question the motion to disapprove? Why was there no discussion?

Not one word.

Second of all, the editorial remark by Harris-Dawson ("Excellent") and his immediate second was not only unusual, it looked scripted. Now maybe the Councilman would like to claim that there was nothing untoward about his behavior, but let me ask you this: How often does Council President Paul Krekorian second a motion? How often does he get in a quick editorial remark that really comes across as a dig at the nominee?

And the timing: How often do we see an agenda item go from opening statement to completed vote in 32 seconds?

It was all too smoothly mechanical, as if everyone in the chamber was reading from the same script. The instantaneous vote to reject the nomination of a respected member of the community came from City Council members who had been lobbied by the community, had received communications from neighborhood councils, and understood full well that Jamie York would have been an asset to the Ethics Commission and to good government.

Remember also that this is a City Council with a composition that is roughly half newcomers, some of whom ran as reformers and honest brokers. So where is that bit of fairness that we have a right to expect?

Remember also that this is a City Council that has had to fill the vacancies left by four -- count them -- four previous members who were indicted on felony counts. You would think that this council would like to maintain some appearance of propriety.

That word "appearance" is important here. Let me start with an analogy. The ethics code talks about conflicts of interest -- when you have a substantive conflict of interest, you are supposed to take yourself out of the debate and the voting. But the rules go even further. You are supposed to avoid participating in debating and voting on something when there is just an appearance of a conflict of interest. the idea is that the good standing of the institution -- its reputation for integrity -- is highly important and has to be protected.

And that is why the action last Friday on agenda item 13 is so damaging to this City Council and therefore to us, the public. Whatever any one of the 14 participants may actually have been thinking, this council is forever tarred by the suspicion that it acted corruptly. That was the appearance of this vote.

You may ask, "In what particular way was it corrupt?" This is a fair question, and the answer is based on California law which establishes an overriding principle of openness. It is called the Ralph M. Brown Act, which was passed by the state legislature many years ago and is included in the state code. Basically, it says that a legislative body like the L.A. City Council cannot meet secretly, out of the public eye, to determine the outcome of any legislative act. The public business has to be carried out in public. There are only a few exceptions to this rule, and this was not one of them.

To any normal member of the public, even someone a bit trusting and naive such as myself, the City Council's action looked preplanned and already agreed upon. Otherwise, any normal politician would at least have explained to his constituents why he was taking an action that looked so contrary to public opinion.

Let me offer something of a personal perspective here. As a neighborhood council board member, I'm expected to deal with all sorts of people, even those people who don't agree with me. Part of my work involves trying to convince the City Council to act in the public interest, such as funding our emergency agencies sufficiently. It may be that I can work with City Council members, as can many other of my neighborhood council colleagues. But I would venture that a lot of my colleagues are going to find it hard to trust any of them.

To repeat: I'm a bit trusting and naive, and I like to work with people who mean what they say. But I don't think I could convince a lot of my board colleagues that this vote was straight up, that it wasn't predetermined, that the Brown Act was not violated, and that the leaders of the City Council weren't in on the fix.

I suspect that you will be reading various articles from other CityWatch authors with their own inferences as to the motives of the City Council members. I think that there are three that make some sense.

The first is that the City Council is determined to take Kenneth Mejia, the newly elected Controller, down a peg. Since Jamie York was nominated by Mejia, this was their chance. Mr. Mejia is considered to be a bit to the left of the City Council, and a potential trouble maker (trouble, as in nominating an honest activist to the Ethics Commission).

By rejecting his nomination, the Council is making a statement. Part of that statement is to express dislike of the Controller. The other obligate inference is that the City Council is telling the Controller that the council doesn't need or want anything the Controller has to offer. If there were some working relationship which involved normal legislative horse trading between the Council and the Controller, this vote would never have gone down like this. In brief, the City Council has fired the opening shot in a war with Mejia, should Mejia choose to interpret this action in the normal fashion.

The next possible influence is that the members of the City Council were expressing dislike and distain for the whole neighborhood council system. Jamie York is not the only neighborhood council participant to come up for City Council approval, but she is likely the first one to be nominated to the Ethics Commission rather than a neighborhood council related appointment such as the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners. She had strong support from neighborhood councils. This is their way of putting us in our place, and making a statement that they do not fear organized neighborhood council opposition at the ballot box.

(Parenthetically, neighborhood councils themselves cannot take positions in support or opposition to City Council candidacies, but members of the neighborhood councils can influence elections to the extent that they are recognized opinion leaders in their respective communities, and to the extent that they are members of, or create, other non-governmental organizations.)

And one final possibility. The Ethics Commission currently has 2 board members, with 3 positions currently unfilled. That means that the Commission cannot pass any motions or take any actions, as 3 votes are required, as you can see here.  So in 32 seconds of shame, the L.A. City Council has managed to keep the Ethics Commission neutered. Was that the main reason for the vote? Whatever the motive, members of the Council had to know that this would be the result.

I have shown the video (linked above) to others, and the result is amazement and wonder at how brazen it all looks. So let me ask one more question. Assuming that the members of the City Council did not confer privately (a gross violation of the Brown Act), then how did they know that they were supposed to get in line and follow the leadership so slavishly? Was it the fact that the presiding officer seconded the motion, along with his editorial statement in favor of the motion? Is there some understanding on the Council about how the wishes of the leadership are communicated? And does this signify to the rest of the Council that the winning votes have already been counted?

There are several ugly questions, and a few lessons.

One cynical lesson is that neighborhood council participants can start to ignore Brown Act violations, as they are already being ignored at the top levels in this city. Perhaps this is just a little too cynical, and some agency such as the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment will communicate that the Brown Act still holds for us lower level types.

But however the rest of us respond, the City Council has already damaged itself significantly. It would be hard to undo the damage.

Addenda

One of my fellow CityWatch authors has repeatedly argued that the City Council routinely violates state law by voting unanimously, implying that there has been collusion in those votes. I have argued that in land use issues where any one council member is acting on his own district, simple game theory is a strong inducement for other council members to vote Yes so that they will get the same courtesy regarding their own land use motions. The current case cannot be compared to those land use votes, but does tend to shed a bad light on any future City Council actions.

 On another subject, my neighborhood council has been doing emergency preparedness, including drills with hand held two-way radios. Our preparation is aimed at being able to deal locally with a large earthquake's aftermath. During the runup to the rain (and possible flooding) we decided to do another radio drill, and right there in the middle of the flood drill, we felt the 5.1 earthquake from Ojai. Got two birds with one stone there preparation-wise. 

(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected].)